René Prieto-Body of Writing_ Figuring Desire in Spanish American Literature -Duke University Press Books (2000)

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Body of writing

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Body of writing


Figuring desire in Spanish American literature

René Prieto

Duke University Press Durham and London 2000

∫ 2000 Duke University Press All rights reserved Printed in the United States of America on acid-free paper $ Typeset in Adobe Caslon by Keystone Typesetting, Inc. Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data appear on the last printed page of this book.

To Leps

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Contents i

Acknowledgments ix Introduction 1 1 Julio Cortázar’s perpetual exile 17 2 More than meets the I: Guillermo Cabrera Infante’s La Habana para un Infante difunto 75 3 The excremental vision of Gabriel García Márquez 101 4 The degraded body in the work of Severo Sarduy 135 5 Rewriting the body: renewal through language in the work of Rosario Castellanos 173 6 The body of pleasure in Tununa Mercado’s Canon de alcoba 213

Conclusion 240 Notes 255 Bibliography 275 Index 285

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Acknowledgments i

Barthes used to say reading needed to be an obsessive activity. By that he meant it was preferable to become intimate with a handful of classics—to read them again and again—instead of trying to keep up with all the novelties. I want to thank him and my fellow students from his seminar at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes for impressing upon me the need to blur the boundary between reading and compulsion. Something astonishing takes place after reading the same book many times: one begins to think in tune with the author, which is another way of saying from the perspective of another. If reading is an adventure, rereading is the return journey to the birthplace of the text. Several friends traveled with me on such a journey by o√ering useful suggestions while Body of Writing took shape. Among them, I wish to express my gratitude to Roberto González Echevarría and Gustavo Pérez-Firmat for their many valuable recommendations. I would also like to thank Aníbal González Pérez and the Caribbean Literature Series at the University of Texas, Austin, for inviting me to read the very paper on La Habana para un Infante difunto that became the starting point for this book. Like an inkblot on the page, Body of Writing spread in unexpected directions during the many wonderful discussions that took place in and after a graduate class on Indigenismo I taught at Emory University in 1994. My thanks go to all my students in that class, as well as to Carlos Alonso and Karen Stolley for inviting me to Emory. Body of Writing would not have been completed without Jared Loewenstein, Ibero-American bibliographer at the University of Virginia, who made available the remarkable collection of rare and unpublished

Spanish American manuscripts at Alderman Library; François Wahl, whose illuminating insights on Severo Sarduy helped me hone my own readings; and my friend John Bertolini, whose spellbinding takes on Alfred Hitchcock gave me a better grasp on the relationship between the uncanny and the artistic imagination. Body of Writing came to life in an unspoiled, rural haven in Virginia. Without the constant friendship and encouragement of Bruce and Mariana Bell, Alletta Bredin-Bell, Becky Hibbard, Kim Radcli√e, Hiromi, Hugo, Martin, Vita, and all the fortunate inhabitants of Southern Cross Farm, it would not shine with the same light. My loyal friends Catherine Borovski, Carolyn Bullard and Vern Berry, Philippe Delamare and Danielle Dupont, Dorothy Friedlander, Lorine and David Gibson, Helen Johnson, Jean Rembert, Cheryl and Kevin Vogel, and Bonnie Wheeler and Jeremy Adams have kept that light from going out since I arrived in Dallas, while Southern Methodist University has showered me with unstinting support. My debt to Sue Sturgeon and Rosemary Sánchez can never be repaid; without their help I would have had neither the time nor the focus to finish this book. Finally, I wish to thank Cambridge University Press, the Society of Spanish and Spanish-American Studies of the University of Colorado, and the editors of World Literature Today for publishing my work and allowing me to use the material in this book. The articles and book chapters, none of which is mentioned in the notes, are the following: ‘‘The Body as Political Instrument: Communication in No One Writes to the Colonel,’’ in Gabriel García Márquez: New Readings (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), 33–44; ‘‘A Womb with a View: Sex and the Movies in La Habana para un infante difunto,’’ World Literature Today 61, no. 4 (1987): 584–89; ‘‘The Little Man on the Mirror: Reflections on Maitreya and Colibrí,’’ in Between the Self and the Void: Essays in Honor of Severo Sarduy, ed. Alicia Rivero-Potter (Boulder, Colo.: Society of Spanish and Spanish-American Studies, University of Colorado Press, 1998); ‘‘Cortázar’s Closet,’’ in Julio Cortázar: New Readings, ed. Carlos Alonso (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998). And now, when all are thanked but one, in the special place that openings and closings always warrant, I thank Martine for her devotion, her presence of mind and of spirit, always a guiding inspiration.

x Acknowledgments

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Introduction i

Years ago, in a shrewd and puzzling sentence that has been much bandied about, Roland Barthes advanced that literary texts had human form and were always a figure, an anagram, of our erotic body (Pleasure of the Text, 8). As Barthes saw it, writing is both a physical and mental process because the intellectual exercise it requires concerns itself with dramatizing behavior and behavior is naturally expressed through the body. Shadowing forth how characters follow a given trajectory brings with it a consideration of the body even when such figuration is an entelechy. This entelechy must not be seen as a total abstraction, however, because the body is dramatized through the imagination which is shaped, in turn, by personal experience, by what Peter Brooks terms ‘‘the complex conscious desires and interdictions that shape humans’ conditions of themselves as desiring creatures’’ (Body Work, 6). The desires and interdictions Brooks refers to are the sequel to experiences—such as birth—shared by everyone. Shared, these experiences also vary in terms of our perception and recollection of them. In other words, the ingredients shaping our selves as thinking, feeling individuals are comparable, but the resulting image we have of the world di√ers according to how experience is perceived. Recast in writing, these perceptions result in unique projections. Because writing is the brainchild of the imagination and each imagination is di√erent, the world each writer conceives is as unique as the characters that inhabit it. This is why the hand of Lautréamont or of Julio Cortázar should be as readily recognizable as that of El Greco or of Fernando Botero. Curiously, although we often speak of a hand when studying painting,

we seldom do in discussing literature. We have a clear mental image of what a Blue Period Picasso or a José Clemente Orozco portrait looks like but little idea of the prototypes cast by Henri Beyle or Mario Vargas Llosa. This is because character in the plastic arts is visually defined in terms of mass, outline, and color whereas in literature it is conceived in terms of behavior. Behavior can be as constant and recognizable as color but not as readily apparent because it shows up quilted onto a story line. What I mean to say is that the body in fiction tends to be camouflaged by the action and our primary response is to the latter, to the statements which, in the words of Stanley Fish, ‘‘simply refer or simply report’’ (SelfConsuming Artifacts, 6). As Fish takes pains to pursue, although a great deal goes on in the production and comprehension of these statements, ‘‘most of it is going on so close up, at such a basic ‘preconscious’ level of experience, that we tend to overlook it’’ (8). The most obvious thing we overlook is the most important: the hallmark of an author’s style. Without having recourse to blanket labels such as ‘‘surrealist’’ or ‘‘magical realist’’ can anyone sum up what typifies the work of Julio Cortázar or of Gabriel García Márquez? Above and beyond the interest these writers have in assimilating and disseminating specific literary trends, can it be said what characterizes their feeling for words and defines their respective uniqueness? Like minefields, plots of fiction are full of buried surprises. Littering the landscape of each page, these surprises are the trace an author leaves behind, the clues that allow entry into his or her personal labyrinth. These contextual clues play as large a role in literary characterization as line and color do in painting. In fact, we need to recognize that characters in literature are not conceived so much in terms of their physical features as of their relationship to a setting, and that this setting translates an author’s conscious and unconscious longings. This is why, in studying literature, personal revelations need to be sought not in the mien of characters but in their conduct. We must also explore how the minefield conducts itself because the setting or context reveals at least as much about the concerns of an author as any character in the fiction. Created as a projection of the writer’s desires and interdictions, it is a body exposed to view and frequently ignored by eyes that focus on character, action, and chronology. But if we say that works of literature are unique because they are projections of the person who writes them, don’t we need to


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explore their overall physiognomy, which is to say the topography of the fiction? Instead of focusing so much on what is being said at the anecdotal level, shouldn’t we also be concerned with the trace of themselves writers leave behind? Shouldn’t literary study be just as much an analysis of surfaces as of character? Shouldn’t it be conceived as an exploration of the clues that litter each page? After all, as Carlo Ginzburg points out, knowing is ‘‘the experience of deciphering traces’’ (‘‘Clues,’’ 166). Some might fear that tracking clues and deciphering traces could take us back to the kind of arid exercise that pushed structuralism to its death. But let us remember that the wick of structuralism snu√ed itself out by giving more prevalence to the formulas that fit texts than to the texts themselves. What I am suggesting is not that we have recourse to formulas but that we consider the uniqueness of a textual source—the ‘‘traces’’ an author leaves behind, imprints of his or her own persona, the writing body that becomes the body of writing. Traveling back to the sources that left the imprint on the page, we need to understand how fiction makes the body signify while fleshing out in the process, itself a body whose symptoms are dramatized fears and longings cast into settings, characters, and action. It is this dramatization—this secondary and allegorical level of storytelling—that is the subject of this book. My contention is that, if works of fiction are anagrams of the body, then the author’s intention can be recovered by analyzing the topography of texts. In the field of English and American studies this type of analysis has resulted in trendsetting works such as Diane Price Herndl’s Invalid Women: Figuring Feminine Illness in American Fiction and Culture, 1840– 1940, a book in which the penchant in American culture to lionize feminine illness is brought to the limelight. Herndl’s work on illness grows out of her interest in role casting, role-playing, and, necessarily, in the body. This interest directs her to the wellspring of writing, to the source from which the word itself issues forth. As Roberto González Echevarría’s towering Myth and Archive has demonstrated, it is impossible to study words of any sort without considering the question of origins. How, if this is the case, could we not take the body into account when we read? How could we deny that its portrayal is a fantasy informed by selfperception and personal longing, a projection distinguishing one work of



literature from another? Isn’t it evident that the primal source of writing is also the first object of literature, a truism that makes the spring from which all fiction flows both opaque and transparent? This book also grows out of that reflection and aims to make the opaque lose ground to the transparent by looking intently at the wellspring of writing. Often disregarded, sources are the logical starting point if we engage in the unveiling of truth which, says Barthes, all narratives represent. Truth is sought in literature by journeying both forward and backward. Traveling forward, authors seek to fulfill fantasies in imaginary scenarios where their innermost wishes are acted out by traveling backward to the infantile sources for those very wishes. Motivated by a wish for fulfillment, writing dramatizes a desire which, as Brooks suggests, is ultimately the desire for a body ‘‘that may substitute for the body, the mother’s, the lost object of infantile bliss—the body that the child grown up always seeks to recreate’’ (Body Work, 24). Since writing fiction is directly connected with fulfillment, it follows that characterization is contingent upon the way authors see or, rather, wish to see themselves. This means not only that heroes and heroines will be lanky or plump as a response to an ideal but that the context portrayed is, in and of itself, the terrain where unconscious wishes are acted out. Accordingly, setting and point of view need to be approached as determining factors when exploring the roots of representation. It is here at least as much as in characters’ conduct and mien that we will find the specific bodily markings which, Brooks argues, largely concern the modern narrative (Body Work, 26). Perhaps the specific markings that make the body recognizable are more visible in modern literature because today, more than ever, authors are using the novel as a vehicle to project their wishes and anxieties. It is as if, taking their cue from psychoanalysis, contemporary writers were using fiction as a vehicle to launder dirty linen. Keeping, nonetheless, some sense of modesty, these authors seldom emphasize the soil marks on the laundry or even the laundry itself, for that matter. Instead they present a symbolic dramatization which alludes to the source that breathes life into the fantasy. If we determine someday that all literary works dramatize situations related to the life of their authors, we will have to acknowledge the impossibility of divorcing the element of confession from the act of writing, a fact that would explain why literary creation has been viewed as 4

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therapy. Making acutely personal disclosures can often bring a sense of relief, but what if, compulsive about the need to confess, a writer felt inhibited at the same time by the very nature of the confession? Inhibited to the point of unconsciously disempowering him- or herself to recognize the essence of the secret that, unavowed, would continue to fester in silence? Inhibited to a degree that he or she would craftily transform that secret and send it to the printer disguised so perversely that even its own creator would not be able to recognize it? Can the kind of writing that masks its sources provide an author with a sense of relief ? Can such writing be a liberating experience, or will the buried secret act as a perpetual irritant goading a writer onward to search for his or her source of inspiration? Few have pondered this process as painstakingly or gotten higher artistic dividends out of exposing their traumas in public than Julio Cortázar, which is why I chose to start my own inquiry into the portrayal of the body with a look at his underhanded short stories. I say ‘‘underhanded’’ because plots as ambiguous and manipulative as Cortázar’s are rare. They are ambiguous not only because they portray multiple alternatives but because the anecdotal level systematically masks another in which the author’s personal obsessions are revealed through symbols. Cortázar’s work is particularly striking because, although revealing, he always covers his tracks. To reveal his obsessions, he doesn’t flaunt them; never blatant about portraying what ailed him, he kept his body under wraps. This is why his revelations have little to do with skin and bone. The truth is that he dwelled more on tectonics than on anatomy, apparently more curious about the body’s relationship to its environment than about flesh and blood (of which, when all is said and done, he was rather frightened). For this reason, he avoided close-ups that might bring him too close to the skin of revelation, and shied away from fractures and tears that would suggest a disjointed organism mirroring, much too closely, his personal response to the harrowing separation his characters dramatize with such persistence. This does not mean he was not drawn to images of fragmentation and loss. However, like a man who enjoys moving his foot over the edge of a precipice while firmly refusing to look down, he cunningly refrained from making obvious allusions to what he dreaded and, at the same time, most sought to fantasize about. Thus he always made a point of studying not the body per se but rather the body as it related to the space around it. Introduction


That space turned out to be sinister and menacing because the characters in Cortázar’s stories usually react to circumstances that confine and oppress them, and these circumstances are typically a construct of the mind, a figment of their own imaginations. Imagined though they may be, these flights of fancy are in no way insubstantial, however. They dramatize a very real source of anxiety alluded to indirectly by means of an object or idea substituting for another in order to suggest a likeness between them. Cortázar was well aware of why he wrote, even if he mystified the sources from which his figurative scenarios sprang. At least in this regard, he has been a role model for a whole generation of critics who, with few exceptions, have tended to misconstrue the more recondite level of his figurative scenarios. Since my aim is to investigate how the body writes itself into Spanish American literature, it seems appropriate to turn to the work of a man who dedicated his life to both exposing and camouflaging his own. The first chapter of this book will concern itself, therefore, with images that haunted Cortázar through most of his adult life, images that have been studied by others but always as separate notions (or figuras as Cortázar liked to call them). My intention is to demonstrate how these figuras relate to one another and translate a very specific obsession, one that turns out to be the seedbed of Cortázar’s fiction. I will show that the stories included in Bestiario (1951), Final del juego (1956), Las armas secretas (1959), Todos los fuegos el fuego (1966), and Octaedro (1974) are as much a confession as Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s great classic and how, unless we cease to disregard their indiscreet and most revealing level, we will be unable to assess the extent of Cortázar’s originality. What Cortázar wrote is so extraordinarily intimate that he enveloped it in a smokescreen. For this reason his particular brand of disclosure is a perverse game, a blind man’s blu√ in which he and each player are blindfolded. Since in his early stories he tended to turn his back on realism and, consequently, on the tradition that makes the visual the master relation to the world, it is not surprising that he placed emphasis on darkness and shut eyes. Despite this emphasis, he was nonetheless adamant about setting down on paper his obsessive preoccupation because it was only through writing that he could fulfill his wish. All indications show that, at least on a conscious level, he was extraordinarily embarrassed about that wish, however. Cortázar’s quandary was best summed up in the comparison between the typewriter and the camera described in his masterful ‘‘Las babas del diablo’’ (‘‘Blow-Up’’) (from Las armas se6

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cretas). In that story we learn how the machine that writes cannot be trusted any more than the machine that sees; both ‘‘ooze with mendacity’’ because the human element interprets their message (Blow-Up and Other Stories, 114). For Roberto Michel, the writer, photographer, and occasional narrator of this story, the eye cannot be relied on because the brain intervenes and tells its own story about what it sees. If the instinct for looking is closely related to the instinct for knowledge, both Michel and Cortázar had a predicament that can be summed up in one question: what happens when we are forced to look at something repellent? In answer to this question, most of Cortázar’s characters shut their eyes. Consequently, his stories construct themselves on a model of frustration in which the desire to know is always at war with the wish not to find out. I felt I needed to follow the study of Cortázar’s shut-eyed pursuit of knowledge with a look at a second confession, but this time, as a contrast, one predicated on seeing. For this reason, I chose the ultimate model of what Toril Moi refers to as an epistemophilic project: Guillermo Cabrera Infante’s remarkable La Habana para un Infante difunto (1971) (Infante’s Inferno [1984]). The first-person narrator of this frolicking caste study, a self-designated scopophiliac, spends most of his time picking up women in movie theaters and endowing the act of seeing with erotic overtones. Describing bodies as objects of both knowing and desire, his chronicle is like Leporello’s catalogue of Don Giovanni’s conquests, with one exception. Instead of falling into a hellish maw like Don Giovanni, Cabrera Infante’s perpetually lovelorn hero brings about the ultimate synthesis of knowing and desire when, in a fantasy likened to Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth, he literally crawls into a woman’s womb. His wishful thinking humorously translates the original fantasy of the origins in which, following Lacan’s formula, the subject is ‘‘present as a pure gaze before its own conception or, more precisely, at the very act of its own ˇ zek, For They Know Not, 197). conception’’ (Ziˇ I was surprised to discover that, despite appearances to the contrary, Cabrera Infante’s wide-eyed pursuit of knowledge has a lot in common with Cortázar’s cloistered universe. The main di√erence is that the protagonists in the work of one never stop staring whereas those in the work of the other cannot bear to look. Be that as it may, the aim of both is to unveil truth, but truth, like Medusa’s head, is fraught with danger. Symbol of knowledge and inextricably linked with things sexual, the eye is the signpost of learning, but knowledge is always painful, as we discover, for Introduction


instance, in Georges Bataille’s Histoire de l’oeil when the eyeball of the butchered priest ends up in Simone’s vagina or, when, in Infante’s Inferno, the hero realizes that recollections of his mother are often coupled with sharp, cutting objects. Writers pursue their quest for fulfillment despite the pain that attends any search for the truth. That pain is typically obscured, however, because readers become sidetracked by the surface of literature. Minimizing the role of sublimation, we take the skin of stories at face value, forgetting, all too often, that characters and actions convey meaning on one level while alluding to the author’s personal ordeal on another. Perhaps, in years hence, all literature will be shown to be a dramatized confession, a show-and-tell in which blatant revelations are only contingent upon the amount of rouge with which a story is daubed. A sense of accomplishment o√sets this pain for the writer but it doesn’t make the act of creation any less stressful. After all, as Erich Neumann assures us, the kind of transformation writing requires is also the means to get rid of daunting anxiety that could readily turn a career into a ‘‘veritable calvary’’ (Art and the Creative Unconscious, 83). Cabrera Infante’s calvary is also the pleasure he cannot do without, which is why, like Cortázar, he must write it down. One could argue that in the epilogue to Infante’s Inferno we come face to face not only with the narrator’s unconscious wish to reenter the womb but also with his greatest longing: to become analogous with the phallus and father of himself, which is to say, master of knowledge. Acting on that longing is not exclusive to the epilogue but defines all of Infante’s Inferno, described by Cabrera Infante as a book about books whose covers, like lips, enfold the matrix of knowledge embodied by the female genitals. Akin to the compulsion of writing the very book which contains the story of one’s origins, the longing to reenter the womb is not delivered naked as a straightforward biography but clothed in the trappings of fiction and cast as a catalogue of conquests, a mechanism that distances the message of primal longing from the reader. So many women show their faces in Cabrera Infante’s compulsively long chronicle because, ultimately, they are all evanescent reenactments of the one the hero lost, remembrances of wombs past which, identified to the mother, are unattainable by definition or, rather, by association. Accordingly, the narrator declares at one point that for him a perfect woman is one ‘‘he can see but not touch,’’ like the fleeting shadows on the silver screen (262). 8

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After looking at projections of the body—first, by an author who camouflages his sources, and then by one who flaunts them—I set out to explore the work of a third for whom writing is a political rather than a biographical undertaking. I was drawn to the fiction of Gabriel García Márquez because both in terms of exploring knowledge and portraying the body he begins where Cabrera Infante leaves o√. Instead of focusing on one part of the body, he travels from one pole to the other in order to portray the relationship between the rational and the animal sides that the eye and the bowels represent. Retracing García Márquez’s journey in my third chapter, I explore the link between No One Writes to the Colonel (1961) and his often misunderstood Love in the Time of Cholera (1985). Writing works of fiction that can be read on one level as metaphors of the erotic body, García Márquez links the hero of his pellucid novella with dependency and an inability to find release. Portraying the colonel’s body as a behavioral blueprint, the Colombian author invites readers to reflect on the dangers of withholding and passivity in what turns out to be a panegyric for action that culminates in the hero’s physiological and psychological release. Almost thirty years after the publication of his best-selling novella, and after illustrating the balancing e√ects of life and death in One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967), García Márquez returns to the subject of human commitment in the profoundly moving Love in the Time of Cholera. Self-absorbed and unable to find release, the hero of this work resembles the colonel in No One Writes. Steadfast in his habits like the colonel, Florentino Ariza is a man who evolves, someone whose struggle to reach beyond his own limitations gives sense to his life. As in No One Writes, and again using the hero’s anatomy as an atlas, emphasis in Love in the Time of Cholera shifts from one pole of the body to the other. García Márquez begins by linking visual perception with idealization, and showing how idealization is a deterrent to enlightenment. It isn’t until the older and wiser Florentino has a thoroughly cleansing intestinal explosion that he opens his eyes to the world and sees the woman he loves as she is, for the first time. Translated into the terms of the story, his release from self-absorption allows him to accept Fermina Daza not as a crowned goddess but as a sensuous woman with shortcomings and limitations. Making Dante’s ‘‘Amor é conoscenza’’ a maxim for our troubled times, García Márquez reveals the limits of relationships based purely on impressions and personal needs. The crumbling, chaotic world he portrays Introduction


must find its lost balance by not letting one part of the body cheat on another, by not allowing our tendency to embroider interfere with life. The key to a more harmonious universe will be found, he suggests, when we accept each other without embellishing what we see—or, in other words, when we allow the eye to become master of the house. Refusing to accept things as they are characterizes Severo Sarduy’s painfully funny novels, subject of my fourth chapter and watershed of this book. Sarduy made the point I am making with every word he wrote and maintained that writing was all about scabs and scars, ‘‘an archaeology of the skin’’ laden with clues (El Cristo de la rue Jacob, 7). Old scabs on the body tell and retell the story of their origin; old scars on the psyche show up as black stitches on the white page, a mnemonic device dramatized as characters and seemingly anodyne events which are actually of momentous importance: like scratches on the skin, they picture ‘‘the incident that etched them into the surface’’ (El Cristo, 7). It was typically discerning of Sarduy to speak not just of writing on the body but to choose the metaphor of the scar to designate recorded memories. After all, the characters he portrays are always defiled. The picture he paints is dramatically di√erent from Cabrera Infante’s and García Márquez’s. The desiring body in their work feels inspirited; it yearns and evolves through yearning, seldom seeking to bring about its own destruction. In Sarduy’s work, on the other hand, the body changes shape, tears itself up, and lashes out against the world. Pain, torture, and defilement suggest a process of deterioration that goes against the grain of the usual literary portrait. Most authors conceive of writing as a process of accretion where characters add layers of consistency and definition as they develop an identity. To chisel his characters, Sarduy proceeds more like Giacometti than like Rodin, however. He whittles away at his embattled heroes, creating in order to tear apart. Tortured and defiled, his beleaguered protagonists evolve through a process of abrasion and subtraction: Cobra is hung from the ceiling until his body starts oozing blood; Totem cuts o√ his tongue; Pup rips the ears o√ a little girl (Cobra, 108– 09, 170, 97). Physical degradation remained an ingredient of Sarduy’s fictional portrayals until the end of his life, but did the withered bodies in his work always spring from the same sources, one wonders? Were they informed— in his two last novels, at least—by the disease that ended up killing him? Why are his festive stories overrun with foul stenches and bone splinters, 10

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splattered marrow, and curdling blood? Why was he so obsessed with portraying the organism as wrecked and the world as abject? Does the self-destructiveness present in Rosario Castellanos’s Oficio de tinieblas (1962) have the same sources as the balefulness in Sarduy? Must the humiliation and pain she portrays be read from a di√erent perspective because it was written by a woman? It is clear why Cobra is unable to accept himself and tampers with his body, but why does one of the main protagonists of Oficio cripple herself ? Pendant to the powerful Catalina Díaz Puiljá, the invalid, pampered Idolina startles everyone when she suddenly starts to walk. By the time Oficio de tinieblas comes to an end, however, Idolina is back in bed although no demonstrable disease mechanisms account for her paralysis. Her face is to the wall and she doesn’t even seem to be listening to her nursemaid’s account of the Tzotzil Indians’ disastrous defeat. Based on the havoc wreaked on the Indians at the end of Oficio de tinieblas, the message of the novel rings clear: there is no hope for the weak. Is Castellanos suggesting that women fall into this category? All intimations of female independence and power are seemingly squelched by the time we reach the end of the novel, as active history is turned into a passive account of events. Is Castellanos bowing to conventional novelistic canons in her contrasting portrayals of weak, su√ering women and misbehaving strong ones who end up being punished for their ‘‘sins’’? In fact, as we shall see in my fifth chapter, she appears not so much to conform to the male-defined genre of the novel as to turn that genre to her own psychic needs. If Castellanos wrote to satisfy the demands of patriarchal disciplinary power, her novels could take their place in that power structure, and she would therefore not have to turn herself into an artistic object. She could rebel and react to exploitation using a system of representation that portrayed the very system she sought to criticize. Ever since the nineteenth century, Spanish American women authors have participated in and refined a male-defined genre. However, since the publication of María Luisa Bombal’s revolutionary La última niebla (1935) (House of Mist [1947]), the portraiture of sweet heroines typical of patriarchal culture has been counterbalanced by what Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar describe as a madwoman in the attic: a repressed, angry voice that acts as counterfoil to ‘‘the angel in the house’’ (Madwoman, 17). Is this angry voice the same one we hear in Oficio de tinieblas, or is Idolina’s and Catalina’s rage di√erent from the passive resistance featured Introduction


by Latin American women authors writing after Bombal? If resistance is featured in Oficio we also need to ask ourselves how Castellanos tempered the personal insecurities that come through so strongly in her recently published letters to her ex-husband (Cartas a Ricardo, 1994). Unlike Cortázar, Cabrera Infante, and Sarduy, was she writing portraits that were not projections of her own anxieties and insu≈ciencies? Did she, like García Márquez, envisage her own writing as a social project designed to alter what she felt was an unfair situation? But if this is the case, why did she disarm both Catalina and Idolina at the end of Oficio? Doesn’t Idolina’s reversion to invalidism suggest that Oficio is a panegyric to female passivity and not a work of protest? In the penultimate chapter of this book I examine these questions before concluding with a look at Tununa Mercado’s celebration of female autonomy in Canon de alcoba (1989), a novel in which sex roles and the female body are portrayed in a wholly unprecedented way. Taking to heart Virginia Woolf ’s suggestion that women must kill the ‘‘angel in the house’’ before they can write, Mercado is determined to examine, assimilate, and transcend the extreme images of angel and monster that male authors have generated for her (Woolf, ‘‘Professions for Women,’’ 236– 38). In literature written by women these images are frequently subverted by what Gilbert and Gubar describe as a ‘‘dark double’’ that serves to channel the rage of women compelled to adopt images generated by male authors in order to sell their books (Madwoman, xi). The first thing that strikes readers of Mercado is the conspicuous absence of angry monsters in her work. Instead, what we find in Canon de alcoba is the joyous celebration of women who take pleasure in their bodies without using or abusing anyone else. Besides vacating anger from its pages, Mercado modifies the patriarchal novel by casting the women in Canon de alcoba as spectators and subjects of the action whereas the men are portrayed as the objects of women’s contemplation. In her writing, male characters continue to hold the coveted emblem of power, but women appropriate power both by means of the eye and of the pen. The phallus in Canon is a tool for woman’s enjoyment, and the text takes pleasure in depersonalizing male characters: sexual organs are described as the focal point of nameless bodies whose identity is never revealed. Men in Canon de alcoba make no demands or impositions; they have a place and only the symbolic power that their sex organ emblematizes. Authored by women (both the writer and the female voyeurs portrayed in 12

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the episodes composing the book), they are simply cast as organs of pleasure. Another di√erence between Mercado’s fantasies and those of every other author studied in this book is this: because her narrative point of view is not generated by the need to attach to a perpetually fleeting object, no sense of loss is ever portrayed. Loss of the love object is typically compounded with ‘‘the masculine fear of the loss of the attribute,’’ which, according to Hélène Cixous, informs the male libidinal economy (La jeune née, 147). This is why Canon de alcoba may well be the first true example of feminine writing as Cixous defines it. This kind of writing is crucially related to Derrida’s analysis of writing as di√érance. For Cixous, feminine texts are texts that ‘‘work on the di√erence,’’ as she once put it, works that strive in the direction of di√erence, struggle to undermine the dominant phallogocentric logic, split open the closure of the binary opposition, and revel in the pleasures of open-ended textuality (Interview with van Rossum-Guyon, 480). However, Cixous is adamant that even the term écriture féminine, or ‘‘feminine writing,’’ is abhorrent to her, since terms like ‘‘masculine’’ and ‘‘feminine’’ imprison us within a binary logic, within ‘‘the classical vision of sexual opposition between men and women’’ (Conley, Hélène Cixous, 129). She has therefore chosen to speak either of a ‘‘writing said to be feminine’’ (or masculine) or, more recently, ‘‘of a decipherable libidinal femininity which can be read in writing produced by a male or female’’ (129). It is not, apparently, the empirical sex of the author that matters, but the kind of writing at stake. She thus warns against the dangers of confusing the sex of the author with the sex of the writing he or she produces (‘‘Castration or Decapitation?’’ 52). I made every e√ort to heed Cixous’s warning when I began writing this book. I soon discovered, however, that no matter how much a given male author identified or seemed to identify with modalities of the feminine, his logic was ultimately phallogocentric and intrinsically di√erent from that of women writers whose fiction is the only place where écriture as Cixous defines it can be found. For instance, some refer to Severo Sarduy’s writing as feminine and, while it is true that many of his male characters aspire to be women or, more exactly, to have female attributes, one soon discovers that femininity in Sarduy is not a token of his identification with the opposite sex but the means to mock it. What lurks behind the transvestites he portrays with such insistence is not love but Introduction


anger, and his writing is not a modality of the feminine but the means to parody an object scorned. Needless to say, Sarduy’s scorn is not gratuitous; it has its sources in the personal history he spent his life unraveling. Like every other writer in this book, he envisaged writing as a quest for truth, a quest to be undertaken by working his way backwards. Reading the scars on his body, he told the story of his life by dramatizing the places that hurt. For him as for every other author studied here, writing became a sort of geography lesson mapped out on skin and bone and shared through writing. Because writing fiction is inseparable from the notion of quest for knowledge, I let this notion guide me in choosing the authors for this book. My hope was to end up with a group of men and women who approached and handled this theme in a unique way. I began with Julio Cortázar because of his uncanny ability to simultaneously reveal and camouflage his own search. Cabrera Infante was a logical second choice because instead of masking his secrets he exposes to view each and every skeleton in the closet. The choice of García Márquez was a natural contrast to the first two; his metaphors of the body have a political dimension that is simply not present in the work of Cabrera Infante or of Cortázar. The pain and disease he describes is social in contrast to the personal anguish in the work of Severo Sarduy. Unlike Cortázar and Cabrera Infante, whose characters channel the painful ordeal of revelation seeking to rescue the body through writing, Sarduy’s heroes wallow in pain. Although one author celebrates the body and the other decries its limitations, both García Márquez and Sarduy write works of protest that revolt against restrictions imposed by society and culture. This feature links their work to the writing of South American feminists rebelling against the extreme images male authors have generated for them. Rosario Castellanos endows her heroines with the power to lead, making the invalid walk again only to mysteriously remove both abilities at the conclusion of her stirring Oficio de tinieblas. One of her characters, an Indian unable to conceive, molds with her own hands the gods that inspire her people to revolt and becomes for a time the surrogate mother of a renewed breed. Struck by seemingly divine inspiration and speaking in tongues, she drops to the ground muttering utterances that, as it turns out, can only be interpreted by Tzotzil priests, who are all male. In the character of the Indian Catalina Díaz Puiljá, Castellanos dramatizes what, ten years after the publication of Oficios and referring to 14

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other sources, Julia Kristeva defined as semiotic writing (Polylogue, 18). By 1977 Kristeva believed that feminine writing as such could not exist because in order to be communicable it would have to be symbolic and fall, therefore, under the rubric of the phallic domain (‘‘Questions à Julia Kristeva,’’ 23). As she predicted, when feminine writing shows its face in Spanish America it appears not as a di√erent modality of language but couched from a totally new perspective in Tununa Mercado’s Canon de alcoba. My own study comes to a close with a look at her work, a window opened to a new field of view. Whether new or old, the angles of vision studied here emanate from and flow through the body, emphatically portrayed in each work I study. Vehicles through which personal truths are revealed, bodies in Cortázar, Cabrera Infante, García Márquez, Sarduy, Castellanos, and Mercado strike di√erent poses: some joyous, others pained, angered, or victorious. All have one thing in common, however: engaged in a process to endure, they search for knowledge in personal projections that are always revealing about the sources of fiction. It is true that the work of other writers might have been just as revealing; doubtless I could have made di√erent choices. In fact, the subject of this book has no natural limits and any choice on my part must appear somewhat arbitrary. I cannot even claim that my examples are representative. They have served me well, nonetheless, to make the point that fiction is a show-and-tell in which the telling is largely about what the body wishes for itself. What I hope is that this book will demonstrate the validity of looking at the primal sources informing the crust of fiction, alternately shaping and deforming the surface of the page.



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1 Julio Cortázar’s perpetual exile i

Como los eléatas, como San Agustín, Novalis presintió que el mundo de adentro es la ruta inevitable para llegar de verdad al mundo exterior y descubrir que los dos serán uno solo cuando la alquimia de ese viaje de un hombre nuevo. —Julio Cortázar, quoted by Fernando Ainsa

What makes Julio Cortázar’s short stories perplexing and disturbing at the same time? Why is it we grasp the gist of his plots but feel befuddled by the outcome of his stories, as if taking the train but letting slip its destination? Bewildered by characters who vomit rabbits, and tigers that prowl around country estates, are we conscious, when reading ‘‘Letter to a Young Lady in Paris’’ or ‘‘Bestiario,’’ of not getting to the heart of the dramas this resourceful author portrayed throughout his life? Intuitive to the core, Cortázar seldom knew what would show up in his notepad; ‘‘Bestiary’’ and Hopscotch were composed in one fell swoop, for instance, as if internally dictated (Vargas Llosa, A Writer’s Reality, 46). Cortázar wasn’t just intuitive; he was downright possessed. From the time he started publishing, he felt the personal obsessions that haunted him stemmed ‘‘neither from a conscious nor a rational plane’’ but rather, ‘‘from down under . . . from within’’ (Prego, La Fascinación de las Palabras, 40, 38). The demands made by these obsessions were so peremptory that he felt he needed writing as much as writing needed him as a vehicle to express itself. It was a form of cleansing or, as he once told Omar Prego, a kind of ‘‘self-therapy’’ (182). However, since according to Cortázar poets are ‘‘ ‘possessed’ by the magnetic forces of the collective unconscious and . . . manifest in [their] writings ‘archetypal themes and figures,’ ’’ he

could connect with readers directly while engaging in self-therapy (Ana Hernández del Castillo, Keats, Poe, and the Shaping of Cortázar’s Mythopoesis, 4). This is why we can find his cryptic scenarios disturbing even when we are not fully conscious of their portent. Their portent was, from the start, a private matter. By that I mean that if, by his own avowal, his writing was made up of obsessions stemming from within, the essence of Cortázar’s art was, plain and simple, personal experience transformed into fiction. This is far from apparent because the biographical elements that inform his work are not at all transcriptions of daily events (as they are for, let us say, the Mario Vargas Llosa who writes Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter), but are drawn from a part of himself that was well cloistered. The concealed elements were then recast into cunning scenarios that screened the sources that inspired them. The anecdotal level of his stories is so captivating, in fact, that few readers become aware of that other, highly private level without which, as we shall see, it is impossible to understand his work. Fortunately, like Theseus entering the labyrinth, Cortázar left a thread that can be followed to the wellspring from which his stories flow, although, because he wrote to exorcise the monsters that haunted him, the ‘‘wellspring’’ was more akin to a festering pool of anxiety than to a clear fountain. Cortázar manifested this anxiety through a small number of obsessive images or motifs that he labeled figuras. It is through these figuras—hands, tunnels, dark holes, breathing disorders, and a handful of animals—that we can penetrate to the primary level from which Cortázar’s stories issued. The network of figuras in any given story is so complex and mesmerizing, however, that we frequently fail to reach the embedded content that Cortázar has so artfully masked. We know he pictured dark tunnels and breathing disorders, for instance, but we don’t know why. In fact, so far we don’t even understand how the figuras dovetail into one another to create a symphony of perfectly orchestrated parts. Cortázar’s master plan remains enigmatic because, to borrow his own words, the ‘‘point of contact in which every discordant element can finally become visible as a spoke in a wheel’’ is still unfathomed (Libro de Manuel, 8). Into the labyrinth Cortázar gave us the thread leading into his personal labyrinth in a groundbreaking interview with Evelyn Picón Garfield. ‘‘Hands have al18

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ways been an obsession of mine,’’ he told Picón in 1973, ‘‘already in the first pages I ever wrote hands play an extremely important part. I was very young when I wrote that piece I later included in Ultimo Round, I think it’s called ‘Estación de la mano’ ’’ (it is actually in La vuelta al día en ochenta mundos) (Picón, Cortázar por Cortázar, 110). ‘‘Estación de la mano’’ (‘‘Station of the Hand’’) is the story of a man who sees a hand fly through his window one day. After befriending the hand he begins to fear it until, sensing it is no longer trusted, the hand flies away, never to return. ‘‘Station of the Hand’’ was the first of many stories in which Cortázar’s morbid obsession with hands and gloves was showcased. This obsession was no laughing matter. Cortázar confessed to Picón that whenever he was alone in a house and there was a pair of gloves sitting on a table, he could never go to sleep until he had planted a heavy object on top of them because he had the impression that ‘‘something was going to come and fill them’’ (Cortázar por Cortázar, 110–11). Startled by such bewildering disclosures, Picón urged Cortázar to elaborate. ‘‘Are you referring to hands’’? She prodded, until he finally admitted: ‘‘Yes, hands; it must be linked to a trauma from my childhood, some macabre story of strangulation’’ (111). Mention of strangulation in connection with disembodied hands reminded Cortázar of a film that deeply impressed him, The Hands of Orlac. As he explained to Picón, the hero of this film is a concert pianist who has to have his hands amputated after a train accident. Fortunately, he has a good friend who is a surgeon and can transplant the hands of a man who has just been sent to the guillotine. Neither doctor nor patient knows, however, that the guillotined man was a notorious strangler. The one who finds out—in the most horrific of ways—is the pianist’s girlfriend. While he is kissing her one day, the pianist’s hands take on a life of their own and begin wringing her neck. Continuing his line of thought at that point in the interview, Cortázar links the film’s action to his own writing: ‘‘there’s something that really grabs me in this story of a man with murderous hands,’’ he told Picón, ‘‘just remember all the hands that whiz to and fro in my books’’ (Cortázar por Cortázar, 111). Tight squeeze Cortázar was not exaggerating when he spoke of hands whizzing to and fro in his work. Let’s take the example of ‘‘No se culpe a nadie’’ Cortázar’s perpetual exile


(‘‘Don’t Blame Anyone’’), one of the most bewildering dressing scenarios in the history of fiction. Hurriedly putting on a sweater to be on time for a date, the ill-starred protagonist gets stuck in what is probably the wrong opening and begins to su√ocate under the clinging pressure of the wool over his nose and mouth. Mounting anxiety leads to utter confusion; the half-smothered hero continues to struggle in a futile e√ort to pull the sweater down over his head, but only succeeds in getting deeper and deeper into the engulfing wool. Short of breath, unable to see, and with his head stuck into the narrow tunnel of the sleeve, he tosses, swerves, and comes out only to be attacked by his own right hand. Drawing back into the protective embrace of the sweater, blinded and disoriented once more, he falls out of a twelfth-story window (at least this is what we are given to understand, although Cortázar pointedly avoids using the verb to fall ). What we read in the last sentence is that the man ‘‘redresses himself ’’ after cowering back into the sweater in order to ‘‘reach at last someplace with neither hand nor sweater, someplace where there is only fragrant air to envelop him, and accompany him, and caress him, and twelve stories’’ (Relatos, 289). In her article on the ambivalence of the hand in Cortázar’s fiction, Malva Filer explains how their belligerence in ‘‘No se culpe a nadie’’ is another instance of the schizoid condition present in ‘‘Station of the Hand,’’ and wonders ‘‘what kind of inner conflict could be represented by this nightmare of having a part of the character’s own body attack and destroy him’’ (131). Filer suggests that the man with the blue pullover may have been su√ering from the restrictions of a very conventional lifestyle, and the split between the hand and the body could be ‘‘a rebellion against that part of the self that had submitted to the tyranny of domestic and social duties’’ (131). Filer may be right; a sort of inner rebellion could be the cause of the accident. But why restrict ourselves to speculations when concrete clues regarding the story’s meaning are so liberally strewn across its pages? It is these clues that need to be considered in order to get to the bottom of what Filer calls the ‘‘inner conflict . . . represented by this nightmare’’ (131). Filer highlights one of these clues herself when describing how the protagonist’s head ‘‘emerges from the asphyxiating pullover, only to face five black nails striking against his eyes, and pushing him into death’’ (131). Like ‘‘Dg’’ in ‘‘Station of the Hand,’’ the right hand in this story behaves of its own accord; it pinches the narrator’s thigh, and then 20 Body of writing

‘‘scratches him . . . through the layers of clothing’’ (288–89). The ensuing struggle, which, anatomically speaking, splits the protagonist in two, is conspicuously linked with a sense of claustrophobia and di≈culties in breathing. After the protagonist feels ‘‘as if his face were flushed,’’ the blue wool ‘‘clings . . . with an almost irritating pressure to his nose and mouth, it stifles him more than he could have imagined, forcing him to take deep breaths’’ until, finally, ‘‘the blue envelops the wet mouth, the nostrils . . . and all that fills him with anxiety’’ (285–86). Later in the action, the sweater gets so firmly adhered to his face, that when his right hand ‘‘pulls upward he feels a pain as if his ears were being yanked o√ . . .’’ (287–88). A lot of ink has flowed on the subjects of confinement and alienation in ‘‘Don’t Blame Anyone’’; not enough has been written about the more dubious business of entrances and exits. The first point to make here is that in spite of the countless di≈culties the stifling sweater brings with it, the hero does manage to emerge from his woolly prison and feels, if only for a moment, ‘‘the cold air on his eyebrows and forehead’’ (289). Absurdly, it seems, ‘‘he refuses to open his eyes although he knows he has come out, that cold substance, that delight is the outside air and he doesn’t want to open his eyes and . . . let himself live in a cold and di√erent realm, the world outside the sweater . . .’’ (289). The outside air may well be a delight but, as Cortázar makes amply evident, not the sort of delight the protagonist wishes to recognize. In fact, as he sees it, the world outside the sweater’s warm embrace is ‘‘cold and di√erent,’’ which is no doubt why his own body turns against an imminent exit and cowers back into the beckoning blue folds (his left hand attacks him while the right one pulls back the sweater over his neck, letting the ‘‘blue drool’’—la baba azul—‘‘envelop his face once again’’ [289, my emphasis]). It is at that moment, in an e√ort to arrive somewhere ‘‘where there is only a fragrant air to envelop him, and accompany him . . . ,’’ that he falls prey to the abyss of the open window (289). The ending of this story is perplexing and hypnotic at the same time. Cortázar induces a state of high anxiety in his readers without clarifying a single thing about his hero’s behavior. For a start, what brings on the man’s stifling anguish? Is it being engulfed by the sweater, or being forced to leave behind its tightening grip? If getting out of the su√ocating embrace is the man’s goal, why does he return to the very space he struggled to leave behind? By attacking him and pulling the sweater over Cortázar’s perpetual exile


his neck, doesn’t it seem as if his own hand were compelling him to return? But if his body is choosing to return to the confinement of the sweater, did he dread confinement in the first place? Have we correctly interpreted what the hero dreads and what he yearns for? Might there be a connection between the confining body and the beckoning maw, between the dark enveloping folds, and the hero’s fall into the abyss? Fur fear Instead of answering these questions, Cortázar went on playing cat and mouse with his readers. The same ambivalent longing for confining spaces and stifling darkness we find in ‘‘Don’t Blame Anyone’’ resurfaces in his masterful ‘‘Cuello de gatito negro’’ (‘‘Throat of a Black Kitten’’) eighteen years later. As Lucho—the hero of this story—makes love to a woman he has just met in the Paris Metro, the lighted bedside lamp falls to the floor with a thundering crash; the crash causes the woman to sit ‘‘bolt upright, terrified, refusing to succumb to darkness’’ (Octaedro, 159). After making love, however, the couple’s terror is temporarily abated as they lay within the ‘‘great womb of night’’ (161). Enveloped in total darkness where one is ‘‘clumsy like an infant,’’ Lucho blindly searches for matches (161). On his hands and knees, letting his hands do the work his eyes are unable to carry out, he soon senses it was ‘‘even darker, it smelled of time and seclusion’’ (162). At this point, Dina makes a lunge for Lucho’s sexual organs and ‘‘the jerk on his genitals made him scream more out of fear than out of pain’’ (162). Trying to avoid her next attack, he drags himself away from the sound of her voice while doing his best to control ‘‘an asphyxiating hiccup that went on and on’’ (163). Adroitly, Cortázar adds to the pervasive sense of confinement by eliminating paragraphing altogether from the beginning of the aborted castration scene until the end of the story, a practice he follows in ‘‘Don’t Blame Anyone’’ as well. Visually speaking, the pages of both stories read as a solid textual mass that has no breaks, no visual breathing space of any kind. Despite the encroaching darkness, confinement, and pain, there is a way out of the seemingly threatening world portrayed in ‘‘Don’t Blame Anyone,’’ and ‘‘Throat of a Black Kitten’’ however. In the latter story, the window that had been featured in the sweater saga has become a door that Lucho succeeds in reaching after skirting countless obstacles. He opens it to face ‘‘a frozen air that blended with the blood covering his 22 Body of writing

lips’’ (163). As he emerges naked into the light, Lucho feels so cold and forlorn that he is ready to turn around and go back inside, repeatedly begging Dina, ‘‘Open up . . . open up, it’s already light out’’ (164). But it is to no avail; he is out, and must stay out. Sitting on the steps, ‘‘removing the blood from his mouth and eyes,’’ he thinks to himself, ‘‘she probably passed out from the blow,’’ adding regretfully, she ‘‘won’t open up, always the same, its cold, its cold’’ (164). Naked and smeared with blood as the story concludes, Lucho goes on pleading with Dina to open up and let him back in because, ‘‘if you open up,’’ he assures her, ‘‘we could find the way out, you saw how everything was going so well, just a matter of turning the light on and continuing to search, both of us together’’ (164). Readers of this story cannot fail to be struck by Lucho’s fateful generalization: ‘‘always the same, it’s cold, it’s cold.’’ Why always, one wonders? Has Lucho been thrown out, naked and shivering, from so many apartments? Even more surprising, why, as in ‘‘Don’t Blame Anyone,’’ is exiting associated with pain and death, and not with release? Why is darkness deemed desirable and breathing hindered in both stories? Above all, how does one explain the protagonists’ struggle to return to a threatening environment? Why such determination to go back inside after getting hurt? It could be, of course, that ‘‘Don’t Blame Anyone,’’ and ‘‘Throat of a Black Kitten’’ are nothing more than the tale of a poor wretch who falls out of a window, and of a more fortunate counterpart who ends up barely slipping away with his tail between his legs. Such cursory readings pose at least one problem for the critic, however: they fail to explain why the stories work. That is, reading only the more explicit anecdotal level does not make clear why the encroaching space portrayed by Cortázar is so profoundly anguish-producing. One can understand why the bite of a vampire or the imminent arrival of an oversized ape would frighten readers, but it is not readily evident why the personal panic button is set o√ with such vehemence when we read both Cortázar’s depiction of a man who almost su√ocates while putting on a sweater, and the misadventures of another who ends up naked and covered with blood begging to be allowed back into a woman’s room. Our first reaction may be to feel we don’t understand the underlying message of these stories because this message is so personal; we know, after all, that Cortázar spent his life insisting that his stories were a tool for self-analysis. No matter how personal literature is or purports to be, Cortázar’s perpetual exile


however, we know the mirror it holds up to life is far from exclusive. Above and beyond the biographical allusions they contain, the concerns expressed in ‘‘Throat of a Black Kitten’’ and ‘‘Don’t Blame Anyone’’ are, as Cortázar assures us, dramatizations of ‘‘archetypal themes and figures’’ (quoted in Hernández del Castillo, 4). Is it then archetypes to which readers react so strongly in these stories? We may approach the answer to this question by considering one of Cortázar’s most captivating tales, the now-classic ‘‘La noche boca arriba’’ (‘‘The Night Face Up’’). Although it shares the narrative underpinnings present in ‘‘Don’t Blame Anyone’’ and ‘‘Throat of a Black Kitten,’’ in ‘‘The Night Face Up’’ Cortázar goes much further in terms of making available to the reader the latent content that animates all three stories. Through the tunnel Cortázar has trumped many readers with the suggestion that the sacrifice scenario of his cunning ‘‘The Night Face Up’’ should be taken as reality, while the story of the man who rides ‘‘through the strange avenues of an astonishing city . . . on an enormous metal insect that whirred away between his legs’’—is the actual ‘‘marvelous dream’’ (Relatos, 82). It must have been a perpetual source of merriment for him to watch critics splitting hairs to decide which of the two interwoven tales was ‘‘reality’’ while completely missing the point, blind to the issues dramatized in this extraordinarily deceptive story. After all, what does it matter which of the two narrative planes is ‘‘real’’ when we know they are both fiction? Isn’t the perversely ambiguous resolution—a playful eenie meenie about reality and dream—the last hurdle that must be negotiated before one can grasp the sense of the story? Shouldn’t our most important concern be to discover what the story suggests, not whether the Moteca dreams up the man riding the ‘‘metal insect,’’ or the motorcyclist dreams up the Moteca? Following such false leads only takes us further from the truth that Cortázar has so artfully screened. Instead, to give some coherence to the web of symbols with which he mines his narrative field, we need to take him at his word when he tells Prego that ‘‘a good many of [his] stories have grown out of dreams,’’ and to look at ‘‘The Night Face Up’’ as we would a nightmare (La fascinación de las palabras, 182). This double-barreled adventure about an injured motorcyclist who has 24 Body of writing

a recurrent dream featuring a Moteca warrior on the verge of being sacrificed is rife with references to narrow passageways, darkness, stifled breathing, tunnels, blood, and the dread of venturing away from enfolding spaces. These references appear in the section dealing with the Moteca warrior, and in the parallel story about the motorcycle rider taken to the hospital after an accident. Allusions to long narrow spaces are the first and most enduring feature of the story, starting with references to ‘‘the middle of the long hotel hallway,’’ and to the light of the sun as it filters down ‘‘amidst the tall downtown buildings’’ (Relatos, 72). Confining space becomes even more pervasive as the story unfolds; when the Moteca warrior is brought from the temple’s dungeon to be sacrificed, for instance, he slips through a ‘‘passage’’ that ‘‘was never going to end,’’ a ‘‘corridor with . . . dripping walls’’ that is insistently mentioned until the story reaches its bloody climax (80). As in ‘‘Don’t Blame Anyone,’’ and ‘‘Throat of a Black Kitten,’’ darkness plays an important role in ‘‘The Night Face Up.’’ While the Moteca was ‘‘coming out of the black pit,’’ he was surrounded by ‘‘an absolute darkness,’’ and ‘‘his fingers closed again on a black emptiness’’ while the passageway ‘‘went on endlessly . . .’’ until it ‘‘. . . rose, opening like a mouth of shadow’’ (79, 81). As the story comes to an end, the prisoner is forced through that ‘‘mouth’’ by ‘‘hot hands, hard as bronze’’ which lift him, face up, and jerk him ‘‘down the passageway’’ toward an open ‘‘double door’’ (80). Unwilling to open his eyes, like the hapless hero of ‘‘Don’t Blame Anyone’’ (‘‘useless to open his eyes and look around in every direction; he was surrounded by an absolute darkness’’), the Moteca tries to find the amulet around his neck only to discover ‘‘that it had been yanked o√ ’’ (80, 79). He then hears ‘‘a yell, a hoarse yell that rocked o√ the walls . . .’’ followed by ‘‘. . . another yell, ending in a moan’’ (79). The reader soon learns that ‘‘it was he who was screaming in the darkness, he was screaming because he was alive, his whole body with that cry fended o√ what was coming, the inevitable end’’ (79). Abruptly, at that point in the story, the protagonist shifts identities and comes out ‘‘into the hospital night, to the . . . soft shadow wrapping him round’’ where he lets out another scream and ‘‘. . . pants, looking for some relief for his lungs’’ (81). The Moteca’s ordeal is far from being over even at that point, and the longing to reenter the threatening space—the same longing that we saw in the two stories we looked at earlier—is reenacted by means of a recurrent dream which keeps putting the victim back in the Cortázar’s perpetual exile


tunnel, ceaselessly repeating the ‘‘endless passageway’’ as if it were one of the sequences filmed by Morel in Bioy Casares’s famous story. Brought forth with an insistence that is hard to ignore, the narrow passageway never seems to change while, in contrast, the Moteca’s behavior evolves dramatically. Earlier in the action he ‘‘could barely open his mouth’’ or ‘‘his eyes,’’ but as he begins to exit from the dark passageway, ‘‘shiny with the blood dripping o√ it . . . his eyes . . . opened and closed in an attempt to cross over to the other side’’ (79, 81). Once he opens his eyes he can smell ‘‘death in the air,’’ and see ‘‘the blood-soaked figure of the sacrificing priest coming toward him with the stone knife in his hand,’’ as if exposing the outside to view brought him closer to death (82). In and of themselves, the closed eyes and darkness can give us no inkling of Cortázar’s intentions. But when we see how these two recurrent motifs relate to each other within the context of the stories we have looked at, we recognize that he portrays them in total contrast to light and open eyes, which, as it turns out, have a negative connotation in his scheme. In fact, Cortázar depicts confining spaces (tight sweaters, hospital wards, dark rooms, and even dungeons) as safe, whereas the outside, light-filled air he pictures as objectionable, so frightening that just thinking about it has an adverse e√ect on his characters’ breathing (Lucho has ‘‘an asphyxiating hiccup,’’ the Moteca ‘‘pants,’’ and the man in the blue sweater begins to su√ocate under the clinging pressure of the wool).∞ Last, and most important, death or despair in these three stories seems to occur to characters who are forced to exit from dark, engulfing spaces such as the path known only to the Motecas, the blue sweater, the bowels of the pyramid, or Dina’s room. Viewed as an ensemble, these idiosyncratic features allow us to speak of an eccentric conception, of a coded message meticulously crafted. Filled with uncanny revelations and startling shifts of time and place, this coded message is nonetheless anchored in reality. For instance, the e√ects of the anesthetic administered to the motorcyclist in ‘‘The Night Face Up’’ (e√ects that include gasping for breath, claustrophobia, and nightmares) are exactly those of narcotic sleep and match the reactions of patients traumatized by birth anxiety (Rank, Trauma of Birth, 56–57). Therefore, if one of the things that Cortázar is describing in ‘‘The Night Face Up’’ is the state of dread caused by anesthesia, and we are told that this dread rekindles primal trauma, we can establish that what he por26 Body of writing

trays—consciously or not—is the psychical complex connected with leaving behind the most reassuring of places. Even if, for the time being, one cannot agree with my contention, it would be di≈cult to deny that Cortázar is systematically linking being ousted from a protective space with stifling dread, and implying that sailing forth through a dark hole ‘‘shiny with the blood dripping o√ it’’ (in ‘‘The Night Face Up’’) is tantamount to finding oneself naked and smeared with blood after being thrown out of a woman’s private domain (in ‘‘Throat of a Black Kitten’’) (Relatos, 79). Regardless of how the stories’ endings are interpreted, there is no doubt that leaving the tunnel in ‘‘The Night Face Up,’’ and the wooly prison in ‘‘Don’t Blame Anyone’’ leads to death. The dread that coming out into the light inspires is such that the motorcyclist wakes up each time the tension increases, and finds himself in the warm reassurance of the hospital ward (this dread is also present in ‘‘Don’t Blame Anyone,’’ whose pathetic hero refuses ‘‘to open his eyes, and . . . let himself live in a cold and di√erent realm, the world outside the sweater . . .’’ Relatos, 289). At the conclusion of both stories, after long delaying their respective dislodgement, the heroes exit to their deaths, denying with their emergence, it would seem, everything I have been suggesting about the nature of their wishes. After all, am I not arguing that these stories dramatize a longing to stay safely within? Then, why isn’t this longing fulfilled in the fiction? Why do ‘‘Don’t Blame Anyone,’’ and ‘‘The Night Face Up’’ culminate with dying? What, in short, was Cortázar saying about spaces that are protective in all appearances, but threatening at the same time? Paradoxical though it seems, the wish to stay in a shielded place does not have to exclude death from its program. If we believe Otto Rank, the thought of death is connected from the start with a strong sense of pleasure because death is perceived by the unconscious as a return to the womb (Trauma of Birth, 24). What is being portrayed in all the stories we have looked at thus far is not the unconscious and, at the same time, impossible wish of staying within a safe harbor, but the longing to return to a space and time before we were cast o√ from that harbor. This is why all three stories culminate with the fulfillment of a death wish: defenestration in ‘‘Don’t Blame Anyone,’’ sacrifice in ‘‘The Night Face Up,’’ and castration in ‘‘Throat of a Black Kitten’’ (24).≤ The uncanny adventures of a Moteca warrior and a motorcyclist, of a couple who meet in the Paris Metro, and of a man who falls out a window are simply Cortázar’s excuse Cortázar’s perpetual exile


to detail the experience of being cast out from dark surroundings that are simultaneously threatening and gratifying, and of a≈rming, in and through fiction, the havoc birth wreaks in our lives. The desire to return to the womb is a terrifying thought because it brings together an innocent nostalgia for prenatal existence and a forbidden and therefore guilty yearning for reunion with the mother.≥ It is this guilt that is behind the metaphorical transformation of the womb into a pyramid’s dark dungeon ending in a ‘‘double door,’’ of the womb into the warm enveloping folds of a sweater and, most obviously, into the private room of a woman whose head is framed in black fur (Relatos, 80). Featured in the story’s title, Dina’s black fur collar (misleadingly translated as ‘‘throat’’ in the title of the English translation)∂ is like the snakes around Medusa’s head: both allude to the female genitals. But, as we know from Freud’s unforgettable reading of Oedipus, the Medusa’s head evokes at the same time a terror of castration which is very much an element of Cortázar’s story (lest we forget, Dina makes a lunge for Lucho’s sexual organs, pulls his penis, and makes him ‘‘scream more out of fear than out of pain,’’ Octaedro, 62). Fusing with the mother is just what the resolution of the Oedipal complex teaches us cannot be done. Portraying the wish to return where it is taboo brings with it, therefore, a fear that is characteristically coupled with punishment. In other words, voicing in fiction a yearning to return where it is forbidden sets o√ a tremendous psychic controversy that Cortázar translates into an ambiguous sanctuary that is welcoming as well as threatening, a shelter that is desirable and repulsive, inviting and frightening at the same time. It is by refraining from explicitly unveiling the incestuous content that Cortázar injects uncanniness into all three stories, moreover. Readers recognize the appeal of the dark, sheltering spaces described in ‘‘Don’t Blame Anyone,’’ ‘‘Throat of a Black Kitten,’’ and ‘‘The Night Face Up’’ while identifying with the fear each plot contextualizes within these spaces. Made familiar through description, the blue sweater, Dina’s room, and the bowels of the pyramid become frightening and unfamiliar by means, we think, of their association with death. In fact, dark passageways and the ‘‘outside air’’ are preternaturally strange in these stories because of their latent association with a forbidden longing to be reunited with the mother’s body. The repressed nature of this association allows us to glean how, for Cortázar, the level of the histoire is only an excuse to divert the expression of instinctual desires from their primitive form. The seedbed 28 Body of writing

of his design is actually found at the level of the récit, and the stories we have studied take on their full meaning only when viewed from the perspective of primal trauma. It is from this perspective—and this perspective alone—that the significance of key motifs in his stories becomes clear. From this perspective we can understand why the protagonists of the three stories are enfolded in darkness and have their eyes closed, why they are covered with blood or with a bluish ‘‘scum,’’ why they travel through tunnels with dripping walls, why they scream and gasp for air, why they are doomed once an ‘‘amulet’’ is yanked from their body, why they feel themselves pulled upward or outward, and, most of all, why they don’t want to remain in the ‘‘frozen air’’ after they are ousted from dark surroundings (‘‘Throat of a Black Kitten,’’ 63). Outside is death or a state akin to death, a cold place where fear reigns, as Lucho complains when he begs his fur-clad companion to let him back in. Once we understand the horror that being outside connotes in Cortázar’s writing, we can no longer misconstrue his metaphorical allusions to enclosed spaces such as the shelter where ‘‘rosy little bodies’’ with tiny human hands float in a watery paradise (‘‘Axolotl,’’ Relatos, 422–23).∑ What I am saying is that a number of his early stories were crafted as an attempt to heal a wound that could not heal; unable to fill ‘‘the void, the nothingness, [which] had lasted an eternity,’’ the character in ‘‘The Night Face Up’’ voices a universal concern, in fact (78). The only remedy against that void and, simultaneously, the means to both reveal and hide the incestuous content that fueled the stories in the first place was to write. Fiction is the vehicle that allows Cortázar’s characters to get back—if only momentarily—into the place they long for. The beast in the jungle The game of hide-and-seek inherent in ‘‘Don’t Blame Anyone,’’ ‘‘Throat of a Black Kitten,’’ and ‘‘The Night Face Up’’ is perversely played without giving the reader a clear understanding of the source that generates it. Ambiguous and simultaneous feelings of danger and safety are conveyed in the portrayal of shuttered places, of tunnels, and of coming out into the world, but we are not meant to grasp the imbedded source of the characters’ fear even though it inspires our own. For Freud ‘‘the first danger’’ was birth, which he connected with all subsequent Cortázar’s perpetual exile


feelings of dread, arguing that such feelings were inextricable from a sense of ‘‘separation from the mother’’ (Problem of Anxiety, 94). In other words, dread brought on by the original separation can be relieved by means of symbolic substitutions. This, in a nutshell, became one of Cortázar’s favorite methods for provoking a state of anxiety in his readers. Instead of depicting severance and estrangement outright, Cortázar relates the misgivings they inspire to phobias. When we examine them in detail, we cannot fail to notice that the phobias he portrays bring to mind the prenatal condition (fear of light, of unprotected, outside spaces, of cold air), without explicitly depicting it. This kind of substitution plays yet another role: repeatedly returning his characters to the protective folds of a sweater or to a dark hospital ward after terrifying them with glimpses of ‘‘the outside air’’ has a calming, therapeutic e√ect because these reiterated returns suggested that safety is within reach. At the same time, because returning to safe harbors is such a leitmotif in his stories, when he finally dislodges his characters and has them fall out a window, or cast o√ a dark room, naked and covered in blood, or pulled by strong hands beyond the ‘‘mouth of shadow,’’ the resulting horror is supreme: feelings of safety, the stories suggest, are at best an illusion, a fiction that can be maintained only within the parameters of that other fiction, the one Cortázar is writing. Although always disguised, the wellspring of horror in Cortázar’s stories is not necessarily as elusive as it appears in the three stories we have been discussing. In a number of his well-known allegories of sexual discovery he alludes to the maternal body in more explicit terms, even if he almost always replaces it with a substitute. Substituting is tantamount to hiding, another way of saying that, in Cortázar’s stories, the mother’s body and the longing it inspires tend to be repressed; in fact, to generalize, we could say that the sublimation showcased in his work always turns out to be a repression of what is too familiar, a pronouncement that takes us back to Freud. In his essay on ‘‘The Uncanny,’’ Freud argues that if the female genitals appear uncanny (unheimlich) to the male, it is because they are in fact, too familiar, too heimisch: they are, after all, his first home, or Heimat. If we take as our point of departure Freud’s remark that the un of unheimlich is the mark of repression of what is too familiar, we could say that in Cortázar the un shields an attachment whose presence is masked behind defensive camouflage which, although startling at first, is perfectly logical 30 Body of writing

in terms of psychoanalytic theory. For instance, besides tunnels, darkness, and the dread of being engulfed, many of Cortázar’s family dramas involve animals. ‘‘Bestiario,’’ to look no further, is a typical example of the kind of show-and-tell where these motifs are brought together. In this story the sinister presence of an incongruous tiger roaming around an otherwise conventional summer villa is totally puzzling as long as we accept the verisimilitude dictated by the otherwise realistic scenario. The wild beast is an obscure and almost constant threat to the Funes household, but we have no idea how it enters the house or why it has free range to roam at will. The tiger is not the only mystery in the story; family relationships are far from clear although we know that two of the grownups—Rema and Nene (‘‘the Kid’’ in the English translation)—are siblings, while Luis, the third, is in all likelihood their elder brother. We also know that Luis has a son named Nino, and that, in order for the boy to have some company, the family has invited a young girl named Isabel to be his playmate for the summer. Isabel feels a strong attachment and admiration for Rema, the youngest of the Funes. She remembers ‘‘Rema’s soft hands,’’ and longs ‘‘to feel them on (her) head forever, a caress like death almost’’ (Relatos, 21–22). Magnetically drawn to the young woman, Isabel loses no time in detecting a puzzling tug-of-war between Rema and the Kid but her age and limited experience prevent her from fully grasping its sense. In consequence—since the narrative point of view is hers—the relation of events is often shrouded by Isabel’s seemingly meandering thoughts on subjects that appear to be unrelated to the family drama unfolding before her but are, as it turns out, dramatizations of what she is seeking to understand. Soon after her arrival, Isabel watches Rema take a cup of co√ee out to the Kid, who ‘‘made a mistake taking the cup so clumsily that he squeezed Rema’s fingers while trying to get it’’ (26–27). Rema pulls her hand back, ‘‘and the Kid was barely able to keep the cup from falling and laughed at the tangle’’ (27). What becomes apparent, soon after, is that neither is the Kid clumsy when he takes the cup, nor is he laughing at the tangle. The sequel to this episode showcases Isabel’s apparently unrelated thoughts about an ant-farm she is putting together with Nino, her young playmate. The girl specifically addresses the issue of aggression between the red ants and the black ants sandwiched between the glass, and is enraptured with the possibility of watching them wage war against each other ‘‘from outside the glass, all very safe’’ (27). Might she not be, Cortázar’s perpetual exile


in fact, sensing the tension between the Kid and Rema, and projecting their aggressive behavior onto the ants? Is she not relieved to be personally uninvolved in their drama and—for the time being, at least—a passive observer or, as she herself puts it, feeling ‘‘all very safe’’ behind the glass? (27). The reader soon discovers that ‘‘it gave Isabel immense pleasure to think that the ants came and went without fear of any tiger’’ (27). Because ‘‘she liked to rehearse the real world in the one of glass,’’ moreover, the ant-farm becomes the site of all her projections (27). For example, once when she sees Rema’s apron reflected in the glass, Isabel notices that one of her raised hands looked ‘‘as if it were inside the ant-farm’’ (28). One thought leads to another, and ‘‘suddenly she thought about the same hand o√ering a cup of co√ee to the Kid but now there were ants running along her fingers, ants instead of the cup and the Kid’s hand squeezing the fingertips’’ (28). Her immediate reaction to this self-generated minidrama is to order Rema to ‘‘take [her] hand out’’ of the reflection (28). Startled by the urgency in the girl’s voice, Rema asks, ‘‘My hand?’’ only to hear Isabel explain that ‘‘the reflection was scaring the ants’’ (28). Apparently as a non sequitur but, actually, very much on the track that links ants with aggression, aggression with the Kid, and the Kid with Rema’s hand (specifically in reference to the co√ee cup episode), Isabel asks Rema at that point: ‘‘Is the Kid angry with you, Rema?’’ but this time Rema doesn’t answer (28). Instead, the answer comes through the diorama that the young girl watches and interprets on the glass of the antfarm: ‘‘it looked to Isabel as though the ants were really scared this time . . .’’ (28). The contrast made evident in this sentence between this time, and earlier (when Isabel had told Rema to take her hand out because the reflection was scaring the ants) suggests that the scared ants— the first time around, at least—were a projection of Rema’s feelings as perceived by Isabel. Whatever is happening between the siblings (something that is never openly stated in the story) is being acted out—dramatized, as it were—by the hands that swiftly pull away from each other when they touch, and by the ants who run away as though they ‘‘were really scared’’ (28). Rema’s hand, which is ‘‘like death,’’ is threatened by another hand in the story, as the Kid’s foul desire stands in the way of Isabel’s own wish to be loved and cherished by her role model. In other words, the Kid is the obstacle to Isabel’s own fulfillment, the rival she must defeat in Cortázar’s 32

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extraordinary transformation of the Oedipal scenario. Sensing the hostility, aggression, and even the sexual tension between brother and sister, Isabel reenacts on the reflecting glass of the ant-farm the coming together of the Kid’s and Rema’s hands during the co√ee cup episode. In order to do so, she temporarily superimposes the hands onto the tunneled landscape dug out by the ants, which is to say, she brings hands and tunnels together until she blocks out the Kid’s ‘‘squeezing hand’’ to imagine, instead, ‘‘ants running along Rema’s fingertips’’ (28). The squeezing hand is a threatening hand, and Isabel senses that it upsets Rema. Somewhere within herself she also realizes the Kid is angry because Rema pulls away from his touch. But why, she wonders, does Rema flee down the hall ‘‘as if she were escaping something’’ (although, here again, this is her own reading of the events that have taken place) (28). When she watches Rema flee, Isabel feels frightened of her own question; hers is ‘‘a dull fear [that] made no sense,’’ although, perhaps, she wonders, ‘‘it wasn’t the question but seeing Rema run o√ that way, or the once-more-clear empty glass where the galleries emptied out and twisted like twitching fingers inside the soil’’ that make her anxious (28–29). At this point, the reader begins to get both a sense of what makes Rema flee, and of what upsets the girl who identifies with her, and feels danger even without fully grasping its source. What Rema is escaping from is so terrifying that the still-innocent Isabel cannot put it into words. Instead, taking the place of the author, she dramatizes it, giving it the shape of an infantile-determined scenario of fulfillment in which ants (animals that burrow) and tigers (vicious carnivores) are revealingly paired o√. As in dreams, narrative motifs in Cortázar’s story appear under di√erent guises; glass—so important in the episode of the reflected hand—turns up again when the window of the Kid’s study is shattered by a ball thrown by the children. Reacting with typical ill humor, the Kid looks out and curses the children; shaking like a leaf, Nino stands by Isabel until his uncle leaves. Later in the day, the children are playing checkers and Nino wins. Rema praises him, and Nino feels so happy that he puts his arms around her waist and ‘‘kissed her on the nose and eyes, the two of them laughing’’ (30). But, as in the scene of the co√ee cup on the glass of the ant-farm, the Kid shatters this picture of family bliss by bursting in, grabbing Nino, saying something about the ball breaking his window, and hitting him mercilessly, back and forth, across the face. Cortázar’s perpetual exile


The siblings’ body language in this scene of punishment and retribution is particularly revealing. The Kid, we are told, ‘‘looked at Rema while he hit (Nino), he seemed furious with Rema and she defied him with her eyes . . . until Rema intruded herself in front of Nino and the Kid laughed, his face almost touching Rema’s’’ (30–31). That night at dinner, when Isabel stares at the Kid, ‘‘she could see his teeth, barely revealed, glittering,’’ and back in her room, when she looks at the ant-farm by the light of the night-lamp, she is frightened to discover that the insects ‘‘were working away inside . . . as though they had not yet lost their hope of getting out’’ (31). From this point onward, fear lurks everywhere. The children cannot play outside one day because the tiger has been sighted. Another day they can’t use the dining room, or Luis’s study. Isabel notices that the Kid carries a revolver, and sometimes a walking stick with a silver handle. Rema cries at night, and Luis asks what is bothering her. Isabel is unable to hear Rema’s answer, but Luis’s voice rings clear when he replies: ‘‘He’s a bastard, a miserable bastard . . .’’ (33). The pieces of the puzzle begin to fit together although—in keeping with the premise that Isabel is too young to put what she sees into words—nothing is explicitly stated. What is clear is that the young guest senses a cruel presence stalking about the house. She feels protective toward Rema, and wants to help her. Typically, she projects her feelings onto the animal world, and one night she begins toying with the idea of cutting o√ the head of a praying mantis she and Nino have caught. When, with typical curtness and, out of the blue, the Kid remarks, ‘‘What a goddamned night,’’ Isabel dreams of giving the insect ‘‘a good snip with the scissors, to see what would happen’’ (34). Goodnight kisses temporarily allay her murderous thoughts, however, and when she watches Rema kissing Luis, Isabel casually notes that ‘‘she’d never seen Rema kissing the Kid or a praying mantis that was so green’’ (35). If Rema were to kiss the Kid she would overstep the boundaries of the forbidden that are set up in the story. Her unwillingness to overstep those boundaries is analogous to Isabel’s inability to give a name to actions which, after all, never seem to go beyond an unrequited lust. Isabel’s inability to voice what Cortázar himself does not put into words is also a device that translates the author’s personal dilemma: calling incest by name would make it tangible and diminish the story’s uncanniness. As


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the act is never committed, the word incest is never uttered in ‘‘Bestiario.’’ Only intention and desire are suggested, but always camouflaged behind symbols, and acted out by children. Isabel’s personal turmoil reaches a crescendo one evening when she walks past the Kid’s room and he asks her to go ‘‘tell Rema to make [him] a nice cold lemonade and bring it to [him] in his study’’ (35). Although she can’t understand why the Kid has to ask her to relay the message, Isabel goes back to the dining room to tell the older girl, and is immediately conscious of Rema’s reluctance to fulfill the request; in fact, after an initial hesitation, Rema asks Isabel to wait until the lemonade is ready, and take it to the Kid herself. When Isabel begins to object (‘‘he said for you . . . ,’’ she exclaims without finishing her sentence), Rema replies with an unrebuttable monosyllable. Silently, Isabel obeys, sits down, and begins to think of her love for Rema until the latter interrupts her with a green pitcher full of ice and lemons, and instructions to ‘‘take it to him.’’ Isabel cannot fail noting that when she hands her the pitcher, ‘‘Rema seemed to tremble,’’ and that ‘‘she turned her back on the table so that she (Isabel) shouldn’t see her eyes’’ (36). She is also aware that the Kid’s reactions are not as camouflaged as Rema’s. When Isabel enters his study with the lemonade, he exclaims angrily, ‘‘She was supposed to bring it to me. You, I told you to go up to your room’’ (36). Recalling this outburst in the relative peace of her bedroom, Isabel recognizes that the pitcher was ‘‘as green as the praying mantis’’ (36). The following day the family drama reaches its climax. Isabel claims that the tiger is in the Kid’s study. After making this announcement, she makes a point of leaving the room where the family is gathered together to walk along with anyone who steps out in order to prevent her hosts from inadvertently walking into the room where the tiger actually hides. However, when the Kid lets it be known that he ’s going to the library (where the tiger really is), Isabel makes no attempt to go with him. That she knows the tiger’s whereabouts and has premeditated the Kid’s destruction is made clear when ‘‘she didn’t move at the Kid’s first scream’’ (38). The whole family runs to the scene of the accident but Isabel ‘‘was still standing . . . as if she did not hear the Kid’s new choked cry.’’ She does not move, in fact, until Rema ‘‘made her raise her head to look at her, to stand looking at her for an eternity, broken by her ferocious sob

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into Rema’s skirt, quieting her with a soft squeeze of her fingers and a murmuring against her ear, a stuttering as of gratitude, as of unnamable acquiescence’’ (39). ‘‘Bestiario’’ is a masterpiece of intrigue through indirection. Key words are never spelled out in the story, and yet Cortázar succeeds in giving the reader a profound feeling of uneasiness. What is most remarkable about his skill is that he mesmerizes us without ever revealing what has really happened, as, for instance, when he neglects to explain what Isabel has done to deserve Rema’s conclusive ‘‘stuttering as of gratitude.’’ Typically, reality in ‘‘Bestiario’’ is presented as something enigmatic, something requiring an inquest into its nature before the story’s message can be fully understood. Barring such an inquest would leave us merely able to react to the pervasive eerieness without allowing us to appreciate the complexity of Cortázar’s two-tiered scenario. On the explicit level of the story we are led to believe ( judging from Rema’s reaction as perceived by Isabel) that the latter succeeds in removing the unnamed threat that has been making the older woman anxious. But what can we make of the ants and, more puzzling still, of the tiger who roams freely around the country villa? So too, why is Rema associated with the insects via the reflection on the glass of the ant-farm? Why would Isabel wish to do away with the Kid? And, last but not least, is he the miserable bastard that Luis is talking about? Some of these questions have answers, others do not. We will never know, for instance, if the Kid is the miserable bastard, although we are certainly meant to believe that he is, and the whole story is laid out so that we do. One other thing is certain: the scenario of ‘‘Bestiario’’ becomes much clearer when we examine it in the light of our earlier discussion on primal anxiety. It is highly significant that this story should bring together the two types of fetish animals that weave their way into Cortázar’s fiction: large carnivores and small burrowers. Otto Rank’s fascinating work on phobias sheds light on Cortázar’s choice. Because creeping creatures such as insects, rats, and frogs can disappear into small holes, they translate for the unconscious, Rank believes, ‘‘the wish to return into the maternal hiding place as completely accomplished’’ (Trauma of Birth, 14). ‘‘The feeling of dread which clings to them,’’ he concludes, ‘‘arises because they materialize one’s own tendency, namely to go back into the mother’’ (14).∏ It is this dread that explains Isabel’s otherwise unaccountable ‘‘dull fear’’ when Rema runs o√ 36

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and leaves her staring at the ‘‘once-more-clear empty glass where the galleries emptied out and twisted like twitching fingers inside the soil’’ (Relatos, 28–29). The emptied out tunnels, the gaping ant holes that stare at the girl from within the ant-farm materialize her dread of being abandoned by Rema and, conversely, her wish to be bonded with her. Rank’s observations also help us understand why Isabel is so frightened to discover that the ants had been working during the night, and that if they were working so hard, it was because, ‘‘they had not yet lost their hope of getting out’’ (31). At this point in the story, it becomes clear that the ants emblematize the opposite of Isabel’s own wish: they want to get out, whereas she wants to get in. But something—a major obstacle—stands in her way. The nature of the obstacle barring Isabel’s way could be described as a variant of the refrain ‘‘Who’s afraid of the big bad wolf ?’’ In ‘‘Bestiario,’’ however, although we know who is afraid of the tiger, we don’t know why. To find out, we need to understand how the unconscious perceives maneating animals. According to Freud, ‘‘beasts of prey provide a rationalization of the wish—through the desire to be eaten—to get back into the mother’s animal womb’’ (Problem of Anxiety, 75). Like Isabel, children are afraid of confronting the virtual means of fulfilling their fantasy, but this fear cannot prevent them from continuing to hope for an always tantalizing reunion with the mother and, therefore, from activating this desire by means of symbols such as tigers and wolves which dramatize the fantasy of return on a consciously acceptable level (acceptable because being eaten by a wild beast masks the incestuous desire implied in the wish to be contained). In addition, fantasizing about being swallowed brings with it thoughts of death which are themselves connected, as we have seen, with ‘‘a strong sense of pleasure associated with the return to the mother’s womb’’ (Rank, Trauma of Birth, 24).π We begin to understand why, in ‘‘Bestiario,’’ Isabel expresses a wish to die whenever she thinks of Rema (she wants ‘‘to throw herself at Rema’s feet, to let Rema pick her up in her arms . . . to die looking at her,’’ Relatos, 35–36) and, most particularly, when she imagines being touched by Rema’s hands which ‘‘made you want to cry and feel them on your head forever, a caress like death’’ (22). Hands and the attention Isabel pays to them bring us face to face with one of Cortázar’s favorite motifs. Being touched by the hands of the Cortázar’s perpetual exile


woman one loves—not only in ‘‘Bestiario,’’ but also in ‘‘Nurse Cora,’’ and in ‘‘Unreasonable Hours,’’ as we will see—is one of the ways yearning is assuaged in scenarios camouflaging longing for reunion with the mother figure, as if contact with these extremities soothed pain and restored balance. The pain, as we already know, was the consequence of being ousted from enveloping surroundings like those depicted in ‘‘The Night Face Up.’’ Cortázar spent a good part of his life exploring that pain in fiction and, most particularly, attempting to find ways to resolve or alleviate it. Perhaps he liked The Hands of Orlac because he identified with the surgeon who stitches a new pair of hands onto his friend’s mutilated wrists. Perhaps he, too, thought of himself as someone who could put back what had been removed, heal in some way the pain that separation entails. It must have been a frustrating project, but he never gave up trying. Hence his stories are rife with clues, long threads by which his heroes and heroines could symbolically return to the cloistered labyrinth they had been forced to leave behind. Freud connects the uncanniness of dismembered limbs—a severed head, or a hand cut o√ at the wrist—with the castration complex (‘‘The Uncanny’’). So it is not surprising that ‘‘Bestiario’’ comes to a head—not at the conclusion but rather when Isabel, in bed after a particularly harrowing day, finally understands that the Kid is dangerous, capable of beating little boys and of frightening Rema—once the Kid reveals his ‘‘glittering teeth.’’ At that point, she dreams that her mother and aunt were ‘‘pulling on gloves of phosphorescent yellow’’ (30). The gloves take on a decidedly phallic characteristic when they transform themselves into ‘‘mauve-colored caps that twirled and twirled round their heads’’ (30). As she stares at the gloves, she thinks of the ant-farm which ‘‘was there and could not be seen,’’ whereas the yellow gloves ‘‘were not there but she could see them’’ (31). It is impossible not to recognize that Isabel’s dream transcribes the Oedipal scenario by featuring, first, a child’s fear of a threatening competitor who vies for the a√ection of the woman she loves; second, an emphasis on the competitor’s cutting instrument (i.e., the glittering teeth); third, a triangle—involving Rema, the Kid, and Isabel—that mimics the geometry of desire characteristic of the Oedipal scenario; and fourth, a pair of cut-o√ appendages—the gloves—whose yellow phosphorescence sets them o√ as distinctly separate from the bodies that wear them in this allegory of dismemberment. 38

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In Isabel’s dream the dismembered gloves emblematic of authority (worn by the mother and aunt, who are the heads of her family) are associated with the Kid (30). As the girl looks at the gloves, she realizes that they prevent her access to the world of tunnels which the ant-farm represents; because of them, in fact, the ant-farm and its tunnels are ‘‘there and could not be seen’’ (31). The tunnels are suggestive of the womb, and evoke the mother, embodied by Rema. The clash between gloves and tunnels in Isabel’s dream alludes, therefore, to the rivalry over Rema’s a√ection that pits the young girl against the Kid. Isabel is aware of a threatening presence that prevents her from becoming the full recipient of Rema’s a√ection. The unnamed threat represented by the phallic gloves is like the tiger: they are both presences that ‘‘were not there but she could see them’’ (31). Isabel’s dream also yokes together the womblike tunnels with the resolution of the Oedipus complex (alluded to in the phallic, disembodied hands) in a perfect echo of the most searing trauma of infancy. It is because castration does take place that the infant comes to grasp its intrinsic separation from the body of the mother, that it understands and accepts—to use the language of ‘‘Bestiario’’—that it will no longer be able to ‘‘see the tunnels.’’ After all, birth (the first time the organism feels itself cut o√ from its source) is inextricably linked with the resolution of the Oedipus complex because the infant feels, both times, that he has been dispossessed of something that was an extension of himself (the mother). Typically, the infant accepts the law of the father and his hegemony over the mother. Isabel is no typical infant, however. Through her, as we shall see, Cortázar sets out to reverse the outcome of the Oedipal confrontation. But before we can fully consider the outcome of this confrontation and of the story, we need to have a fuller grasp of the complex symbolism through which this rivalry is portrayed. Let us consider a second explanation for Cortázar’s choice of animals. ‘‘Being bitten by a horse, or eaten by a wolf,’’ Freud explains, ‘‘is in each case a distortion of and substitute for another content, that of being castrated by the father’’ (Problem of Anxiety, 32). ‘‘The adult male,’’ he writes, ‘‘admired but also feared, still belongs in the same category with large animals, which one envies for many things but against which one has also been warned because they can be dangerous’’ (32). In ‘‘Bestiario’’ the Kid is obviously analogous to the tiger, although he is certainly not the tiger, as at least one critic has suggested.∫ The tiger embodies the Cortázar’s perpetual exile


threat that the Kid elicits, and fear of it involves a definite anxious expectation. But the anxiety that the Kid elicits has been displaced onto the tiger. ‘‘If a little boy, in love with his mother, were to betray fear of his father,’’ Freud writes, ‘‘we should have no right to ascribe a neurosis, a phobia to him. That which makes this a√ective reaction into a neurosis is singly and solely the substituting of the (animal) for the father’’ (32). Isabel’s fear of the tiger in ‘‘Bestiario’’ is a textbook case of animal phobia because she substitutes an external perceptual danger (the wild beast) for an internal perceptual one (the Kid). ‘‘Such a process has the advantage,’’ according to Freud, ‘‘that from an external danger protection may be gained through flight and the avoidance of the perception of it, whereas against a danger from within, flight is to no avail’’ (62). Unquestionably, the tiger exists in Isabel’s imagination as the dreaded embodiment of something she does not understand. The Kid is the source of a danger she perceives instinctually, but she cannot fear him consciously because the danger he represents is not at first an external, perceptual one. So she foists her fear onto a substitute. The tiger lives in her mind, but Cortázar makes clear that its presence is merely symbolic— a stand-in for someone else—by portraying it exclusively through Isabel’s point of view as a disembodied presence that is never described. Hence the text doesn’t ever say that the tiger ‘‘eats’’ the Kid. We are simply told that the Kid screams, that the whole family rushes out of the room, and that Luis bangs at the door of the library as the Kid’s moan is heard inside. The telltale verb to eat is conspicuous in its absence, never used because the whole scenario is a dramatization of a wish fulfilled, not of an accident described within a realistic context. There is no doubt, on the other hand, that in his perversely subtle way, Cortázar associates the tiger and the Kid with each other. As Isabel stares at the latter during the evening meal, we are told, ‘‘she could see his teeth, barely revealed, glittering’’ (Relatos, 31). Cortázar never states that the tiger represents the Kid or his incestuous inclination, but then again, he doesn’t need to. The problem that is being portrayed in this story is the issue of rivalry, and, more specifically, of rivalry over the love of a woman. All the characters in ‘‘Bestiario’’ vie for Rema’s a√ection, but at the conclusion only one—Isabel—is the recipient of that a√ection. We need to understand how Isabel gets rid of her rival, but it should be emphasized that although this story extemporizes the desire to be reunited with the maternal body, the desire is not Isabel’s alone. Herein lies 40 Body of writing

the uniqueness of Cortázar’s conception: in the fantasies that unravel in his psychological dramas, characters are acting out universal concerns.Ω This is why it would be a grievous mistake to approach a highly symbolic story like ‘‘Bestiario’’ from a realistic perspective, or to constrain its meaning by saying that we cannot attempt to explain what the tiger represents because that would entail ‘‘suggesting answers that the story refuses to provide’’ (Alasraki, En busca del unicornio, 176). Answers are provided in the story, but they are part of the latent content. Alasraki is right that we cannot say ‘‘The Kid is the tiger,’’ but this does not mean that we cannot, and should not, examine the clues that Cortázar obligingly leaves behind. Without understanding these clues, we can only aspire to get the sense of the story, not its meaning; we can realize that some sort of incestuous triangle is being portrayed, but we would be missing out on what Cortázar is saying about the nature of desire. Desire is, very clearly, what fuels ‘‘Bestiario.’’ Isabel longs for Rema’s love, and the Kid pants after it, trampling down anything that gets in his way. Melanie Klein explains in Contributions to Psychoanalysis how ‘‘the anxiety felt in animal phobias is an e√ective reaction on the part of the ego to danger. The danger which is being signalled in this way,’’ she adds, ‘‘is the danger of castration’’ (or, metaphorically speaking, in our story, of losing forever sight of the tunnels), and the anxiety itself ‘‘di√ers in no respect from the realistic anxiety which the ego normally feels in situations of danger, except that its content remains unconscious and only becomes conscious in the form of distortion’’ (135), a distortion which, in ‘‘Bestiario,’’ takes the form of a tiger. We also know from Klein ‘‘that the father’s penis is an anxiety object par excellence and is equated with dangerous weapons of various kinds and with animals which poison and devour’’ (136). The tiger in ‘‘Bestiario’’ patently emblematizes the fear of being devoured, and devouring is a propensity the child ascribes to the father until, at the resolution of the Oedipal phase, it can acknowledge and internalize the father’s authority and recognize its own detachment from the maternal body, coveted up to that point.∞≠ But what if Oedipal trauma were not overcome? What if neither the authority of the father nor the separation from the maternal body it betokens were internalized? Is it not possible that the glaring absence of father figures in Cortázar’s fiction was his way of doing away with authority? His own family drama (he told Luis Harss, ‘‘my father left home when I was very young and he Cortázar’s perpetual exile


did nothing for us’’ [Harss, Los Neustros, 262]) was translated as a pervasive absence of fathers in his work,∞∞ an absence that came hand in hand with a drastic revision of the role played by both mothers and children. Erasing the father meant the role of the mother was enhanced. This did not mean she was more physically present but, rather, that the nostalgia caused by her absence was ubiquitous, a response to Cortázar’s own declaration to the e√ect that, from the time he was a child, ‘‘his misfortune, and greatest joy was not accepting things as they stood,’’ and that ‘‘in the word mother began for [him] a mysterious itinerary that sometimes could be sorted out, while others drove [him] straight into the shoals’’ (quoted in Prego, 26–27). I don’t think I am stretching a point when I suggest that ‘‘the nostalgia for the primordial womb’’ which Cortázar alludes to in ‘‘Lugar llamado Kinsberg’’ (‘‘A Place Named Kindberg,’’ from Octaedro, 116) was the genesis of his fiction. That ‘‘other shore’’ Cortázar was always hoping to reach—what he labeled the Complejo de la Arcadia—was his own coded way of declaring a strong attachment, one that was very possibly resolved by acting it out, not through therapy, but through literature.∞≤ I wouldn’t want to be misunderstood when I say that an unresolved sexual attachment informs Cortázar’s early writing, however. By sexual readers must not construe genital but, rather, as Peter Brooks makes clear, ‘‘the complex conscious desires and interdictions that shape humans’ conceptions of themselves as desiring creatures’’ (Body Work, 6). For the author of ‘‘Bestiario,’’ learning about himself always meant grasping the sense of his own traumatic experiences, experiences su≈ciently universal that all readers can identify with the anxiety they set into motion. Cortázar spent his life dramatizing what his body remembered by means of seemingly unrelated scenarios; when we take a close look at these scenarios, we see that each portrays part of the puzzle. The stifled breathing, the longing to return, the dark tunnels, and the tiger are bits and pieces which, to paraphrase Brooks, mirror Cortázar’s conception of himself as a desiring creature. This is why we need to look at each of his stories as if it were a dream formulated through symbols. The tiger in ‘‘Bestiario’’ may not be the Kid, it is true, but it is clear that it betokens aggression, and is feared in the same way the Kid is feared. Both are threats, and the goal of the protagonist is to eliminate threats. The Kid wants Rema, and Isabel is ready to fight him. Her covert hostility even explains why Cortázar es42 Body of writing

tablishes a tacit link between the irritable, possessive Kid and the ‘‘enormous praying mantis’’ that flies into the dining room (Relatos, 34). In itself, the choice of the praying mantis is far from gratuitous because, as is widely known, the perpetually hungry female of the species eats the male after copulating. In an analogous situation, Isabel will have the Kid torn to pieces, she will get rid of him in a scenario that strongly suggests the classical Oedipal fantasy of a child who succeeds in eliminating the dreaded father. After looking at the way the story unfolds, we could say that there are two paths, two clusters of meaning portrayed in ‘‘Bestiario.’’ For the sake of clarity, we might refer to them as the ant path and the tiger path. The first extemporizes the desire to reenter the mother’s body, while the second brings into play the fear of castration that hinders the fulfillment of the first. Both paths come together when Isabel stares into the revealing surface of the ant-farm and sees Rema’s hand superimposed on the tunnels. The reflected hand immediately recalls how the Kid’s own extremity attempted to grab it when Rema brought him co√ee. At that moment, prompted by Isabel, Rema removes her reflected hand from the glass and the Kid is symbolically stripped of the object he covets, as he will later be stripped of Rema herself. In other words, Isabel rescues Rema in a premonitory scene that paves the way for the ending when she will play hell with the Kid. Once the Kid is gone, Isabel ends up as sole recipient of Rema’s coveted extremity as the older girl ‘‘runs her hand over her hair quieting her with a soft squeeze of her fingers’’ (Relatos, 39). Removing both the Kid’s and Rema’s hands from the reflecting glass, Isabel succeeds in erasing the Kid from the picture and, more importantly, in getting an unobstructed view of the tunnels. Not only does she rid herself of the symbolic instrument denoting her rival’s power, she also lays bare the beckoning corridors that betoken the maternal body. ‘‘Bestiario’’ delineates the ultimate fantasy, therefore: the possibility of returning home, of going back to the tunnel. The story is important in Cortázar’s career because it teaches him to rewrite the primal scenario to suit his own aims. From this point onward, his stories will portray not just the horror of separation that we see in ‘‘Don’t Blame Anyone,’’ ‘‘Throat of a Black Kitten,’’ and ‘‘The Night Face Up,’’ but a recast version of the Oedipal scenario. In this new version the traditional winner will get retribution instead of reward, and the habitual loser—the child—will be handed the best piece of the pie. Even when the child is Cortázar’s perpetual exile


not shown to be a winner, many of the stories Cortázar writes during this phase of his career are designed as healing devices by portraying, as we shall see, a recognition of loss and an acceptance of defeat. Cutting o√ the little tree In spite of their di√erent conclusions, both ‘‘Bestiario,’’ and a spellbinding riddle entitled ‘‘Los venenos’’ (‘‘Poison’’) have a great deal in common. For a start, both hinge on rivalries that bring on a desire for revenge and both showcase tunnels. The rivalries are brought to life by three characters and a supporting cast but, as soon becomes apparent, Cortázar introduces a note of humor through exaggeration in the conflict that he portrays in ‘‘Poison.’’ As the story opens, the male members of a middle-class Argentine family are getting ready to flush out every ant tunnel in the backyard of an otherwise quiet house with an alarming-looking engine that spits out smoke through a long ‘‘metal tube (flexible like the body of a worm)’’ and ends in a spout (Relatos, 154). The white smoke that blows out of the spout is highly poisonous, which is why we are told that turning on and using the engine is man’s work reserved for the young boy who narrates the story, and for his uncle Carlos (156). As for the women in the family (mother, grandmother, and sister), they need to ‘‘sit down and watch’’ while Uncle Carlos loads the ominous black engine, and sticks the spout into the holes (156). As the smoke begins to flow out of the tunnels, the boy busies himself plugging up even more holes, struck with wonder that ‘‘all that smoke was underground trying to come out’’ (156). The thrust of ‘‘Poison’’ seems to change after the men put away their frightful contraption and the whole preoccupation with killing ants is relegated to the background. The narrator’s aunt and her children come to visit one Sunday, and Hugo, one of his young cousins, is invited to stay for a week because he is feeling spent and needs to take the sun. Hugo brings along a prized possession: a beautiful peacock feather ‘‘with a blue and violet eye’’ the like of which the narrator has never seen (157). Hugo doesn’t let the narrator’s sister touch the precious object, but he does let the narrator because he knows ‘‘how to hold it from the shaft’’ (157). After Hugo’s arrival, the men don’t turn on the ant-killing engine for a whole week, which pleases the narrator, because then Hugo ‘‘would not butt his nose in, since he was one of those guys who knows it all and 44 Body of writing

opens doors to look inside things’’ (158). The narrator’s sister is not as hesitant about Hugo, however, and soon declares a crush on the boy; her brother is furious and ready to rat on her, hoping their mother will ‘‘slap her a couple’’ (158). Soon their little di√erences blow over, and the three cousins are having a wonderful time along with a pretty neighbor named Lila, of whom the narrator is particularly fond. He is so fond of her, in fact, that ‘‘whenever Lila came [he and she] used to go down to the back garden and lie under the fruit trees’’ (159). Face down on the ground, he enjoys the warm aroma of damp soil and mulling over things in general. ‘‘Now that he had seen what ant tunnels were all about,’’ he begins to feel more experienced. The next time he and Lila lie on their favorite spot he reflects, like Isabel in ‘‘Bestiario,’’ ‘‘on all the tunnels that were everywhere and that no one could see’’ (160). One day when all the children run to meet Uncle Carlos returning from work, Lila falls and scrapes her knee. Both Hugo and the narrator want to take care of her but Hugo loses out and is pushed away. As the narrator rubs her wound with alcohol, he is amazed to see ‘‘how brave Lila was, and how she stares at Hugo without crying or lowering her eyes’’ (162). In the scene that follows, the narrator is lost in contemplation of Hugo’s peacock feather, which he has cautiously taken out from its hiding place. The more he looks at it, ‘‘the more he thinks about weird things . . . until, finally, he has to put it back because he would have stolen it from Hugo, and that just couldn’t be,’’ even if he is convinced that ‘‘there was no feather more beautiful than that one’’ (162). The following day, a Friday, the narrator impulsively decides to dig out his little jasmine tree, ‘‘the best thing he owned,’’ and give it to Lila (163). He plants it in the middle of her own private garden, ‘‘just where she liked it,’’ and together they sprinkle it with water (164). Hugo has to return to Buenos Aires on Saturday, but his cousin is not sorry to see him go because Uncle Carlos has decided to turn on the ant-killing contraption on Sunday, and it’s much better if the two of them do it alone, ‘‘just to make sure that Hugo wouldn’t go and get himself poisoned, or something like that’’ (164). The time comes for Hugo to leave and the narrator’s sister spends the afternoon moping around the house, drawing hearts pierced with arrows. The narrator is so exasperated with her that he has to leave the room ‘‘so that (he) wouldn’t have to smack her a couple, or go and tell mom’’ (165). His sister is not the only girl who starts behaving strangely; Lila refuses to stay around until Hugo is picked up Cortázar’s perpetual exile


and runs o√ without saying goodbye. The narrator, on the other hand, is elated that things are back to normal; to be sure, he feels a bit lonely after his cousin returns to Buenos Aires, ‘‘but what an advantage it was to feel that everything was (his) once more’’ (165). Little does he suspect what lies ahead. The following day, while the engine is turned on and smoke begins to come out of the ground alongside Lila’s jasmine tree, he has his first painful revelation: he discovers that she, too, has a peacock feather as a page marker, one ‘‘that is so identical to Hugo’s that it seemed to come from the same peacock’’ (168). He tells himself that ‘‘it couldn’t be Hugo’s’’ but, when asked, Lila admits that Hugo had given it to her before leaving. At that point, the narrator, who had been trying to cut o√ an ant tunnel before the poison could reach the sapling, throws down the shovel and gets ready to head home. But not before he takes advantage of ‘‘the smoke . . . rising right by the jasmine tree, the poison getting all mixed up with the roots’’ to load the machine with more poison, so that ‘‘the smoke would invade all the ant tunnels and kill all the ants, not leaving a single one alive in the garden’’ (169). Clearly, jealous because he has been thrown over, he reacts by poisoning all the ants in the yard, a holocaust that has as its consequence the ultimate destruction of all tunnels. Furthermore, in order to eliminate the ants and empty out the tunnels, he sacrifices his own little tree. Cortázar’s symbols have never been as readily accessible as they are in this story; nevertheless, we are not immediately aware of how much ‘‘Poison’’ has in common with ‘‘Bestiario.’’ What we first notice on comparing the two stories is that conflict is expressed in terms of a triangle and that the Oedipal scenario is given a distorted expression in both. By distorted I mean that, in ‘‘Poison,’’ Cortázar displaces sexual desire from an absent mother to a young neighbor, while in ‘‘Bestiario’’ a girl, and not a boy, is the rival of the adult male figure. The actual expression of the anxiety is also distorted: cousins in one story, casual acquaintances in the other—not father and son—vie against one another for a woman’s a√ection. In other words, the object of anxiety in these stories is masked. Masked, perhaps, but, in ‘‘Poison’’ at least, not fundamentally altered; in this story the basic conflict is clearly—albeit symbolically—depicted: two boys want the same girl. One of them has a remarkable peacock feather; the other does not. The girl picks the boy with the beautiful feather, and the angry loser poisons his little tree. In ‘‘Early Stages of the Oedipus Conflict,’’ Freud describes an early 46 Body of writing

stage of development which is governed by the child’s aggression against his mother’s body, and in which his predominant wish is to rob her body of its contents and ultimately to destroy it. Freud explains how the child’s oral sucking and oral biting provide him with the idea that he can get possession of the mother’s breast by sucking and scooping it out. First directed toward the breast, this desire soon extends to the inside of her body. Melanie Klein picks up where Freud leaves o√ to explain that ‘‘at its period of maximal strength the child’s sadism is centered around coitus between his parents. The death wishes he feels against them during the primal scene or in his primal fantasies are associated with sadistic fantasies which are extraordinarily rich in content and which involve the sadistic destruction of his parents. . . . The fantasies contain such ideas as that the penis, incorporated into the mother, turns into a dangerous animal or into weapons loaded with explosive substances ’’ (Contributions to Psychoanalysis, 132, my emphasis).∞≥ It is not easy to be a loser, but this is the bitter pill that every child must swallow in order to evolve beyond the Oedipal conflict. Fantasizing possession of the mother’s body at an early stage of its development, the infant needs to recognize and accept the authority of the father, the other male in the love triangle. Before such acceptance can take place, feelings of hatred are directed against both parents who, as the child sees it, deprive him of the body he loves. Once the child understands that the mother’s body is his to hold but not to have, he detaches himself from it— if all goes well—and accepts the authority of the father. This universal scenario is the very thing Cortázar dramatizes in ‘‘Poison.’’ After giving his favorite little tree to Lila and watching her prefer Hugo’s magnificent feather (so magnificent, we remember, that even he wants it for himself ), the boy is jealous and angry. His reaction is dramatically di√erent from Isabel’s in ‘‘Bestiario,’’ however. Isabel got the Kid’s hand out of the reflection on the glass to ‘‘save’’ Rema and get a full view of the tunnels that she was unable to see because Rema’s reflected hand on the glass obstructed her vision. In contrast, the narrator of ‘‘Poison’’ destroys the tunnels and even ‘‘the best thing he owns.’’ Symbolically speaking, his destruction is not wanton, however; it translates his recognition of loss to a rival endowed with a more magnificent feather and, in this sense, portrays an integration of castration. In Klein’s view, the aggression addressed to the mother’s body—the flooding and poisoning in our story—have their origin in oral-sadistic Cortázar’s perpetual exile


attacks upon her breast which are reinforced by the child’s original hatred of his father’s penis ‘‘as he imagines it to exist inside her body’’ (129). ‘‘These attacks,’’ she writes, ‘‘are centered upon that object and culminate in its destruction’’; in fact, she continues, ‘‘the child’s hatred is soon directed to the inside of the mother’s body, which thus becomes at once the target of every highly intensified and e√ective instrument of sadism. In early analysis these anal-sadistic destructive desires of the small child constantly alternate with desires to destroy its mother’s body by devouring and wetting it’’ (129). In ‘‘Poison’’ the desire to destroy is patently represented in the young boy’s wish to kill all the ants, which is to say, to get rid of all the tunnels which, as in ‘‘Bestiario,’’ emblematize the maternal body. But above and beyond the wish to destroy, it is impossible not to discern the calming therapeutic e√ect—as well as the conspicuous psychological evolution— this conclusion betokens. Cortázar begins by portraying primal trauma as a sheer and unavoidable horror in ‘‘The Night Face Up,’’ and ‘‘Don’t Blame Anyone,’’ stories where no remedy is o√ered, nothing that shows a way to evolve from the anguish depicted.∞∂ Concurrent with his portrayals of birth trauma as an unavoidable horror, he depicts a chimera in ‘‘Bestiario.’’ Based on the exclusive possession of the maternal body, this chimera is hard to sustain much beyond the conclusion because of its inherent unfulfillability. In contrast, the separation from the mother disavowed in ‘‘Bestiario’’ is dealt with head-on and accepted in ‘‘Poison,’’ a story in which the young hero acknowledges he cannot have the maternal body as his exclusive possession and accepts castration, symbolically portrayed as the destruction of his own little tree. As can be determined from the dramatic shifts in the outcome of the stories discussed thus far, Cortázar’s scenarios evolve toward a resolution of primal anxiety. If we consider that analysts commonly view therapy as a way to bring about a belated accomplishment of the incomplete mastery of birth trauma, and feel their job ‘‘is to sever the primal fixation on the mother,’’ we must go along with Cortázar’s claim that his own writing was, literally, a form of therapy (Rank, Trauma, 9). He began this therapy by delineating the fear of separation, and followed stories that are camouflaged birth dramas with others in which the rival for the mother’s love is either erased from the picture (‘‘Bestiario’’) or acknowledged (‘‘Poison’’). Despite the ambiguities in these scenarios, the nostalgia for dark, cloistered spaces and the revisions of the Oedipal scenario 48

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they so frequently portray stem from the same source: the incurable regret that results from primal severance. Far-fetched though this idea may seem, readers of this extraordinarily inventive author must never forget that, in what was to him the ever-fascinating subject of estrangement from the ‘‘forsaken paradise,’’ Cortázar defined ‘‘the Arcadia complex’’ as ‘‘the return to the great womb’’ (quoted in Ainsa, 437). If this initial separation was, in fact, the source for many of the scenarios he published between 1951 and 1974 in Bestiario, Final del juego, Las armas secretas, Todos los fuegos el fuego, and Octaedro, it also makes sense to let the notion of the great womb lead us to the focal point upon which so much of Cortázar’s early fiction converges: the mother herself. Mommy dearest Three of Cortázar’s early stories—‘‘La salud de los enfermos’’ (‘‘The Health of the Sick’’), ‘‘La señorita Cora,’’ (‘‘Nurse Cora’’), and ‘‘Cartas de mamá’’ (‘‘Letters from Mother’’)—contain the most fully developed portraits of mothers he ever drew. Revealingly, all of them revolve around sickness and death, and each mother—featured rather unsympathetically—is manipulative and, some more subtly than others, dictatorial. Loved without a doubt, mothers are also resented. It is this resentment that floats to the surface of the stories like some shameful scum that cannot be scrubbed away. We first spot it, shame-faced, in Luis’s frequent complaints about his mother in ‘‘Letters from Mother.’’ In Paris, Luis has carved a comfortable life for himself and his wife and resents the arrival of envelopes from Buenos Aires that drag him back to the past until his ‘‘hard earned freedom, that new life . . . stops making any sense’’ (Relatos, 214). At the same time, he is so riddled with guilt that he needs to answer his mother immediately; it is his way of ‘‘closing the door,’’ of mending the torn curtain that flaps between them (214). Life could be surprisingly easy in Paris, Luis woefully laments, ‘‘then a letter from mama would arrive’’ (219). Luis’s ambivalent feelings about his mother are mirrored by those of Pablo, the pathetic hero of ‘‘Nurse Cora.’’ The boy cringes at his mother’s imprudent upbraiding of a young nurse at the clinic, and strives to elude her embarrassing remarks (‘‘he’s already fifteen,’’ the mother cruelly observes about her son, ‘‘but one would hardly believe it, he’s always stuck to Cortázar’s perpetual exile


me, although now that he’s begun to wear long pants he tries to look like a grown man,’’ Relatos, 170). Eventually, Pablo is compelled to recognize that his parents ‘‘bother him,’’ that he doesn’t feel at ease until they are ‘‘gone,’’ and that ‘‘they always say what they shouldn’t’’ (189). Exasperation at one’s parents is absent from ‘‘The Health of the Sick,’’ at least on the explicit level. But can the reader ignore the note of acrimony implicit in the conclusion to this powerful parable on the exercise of control? What can be said about a mother who reduces the grown-up members of her family to lying in order to preserve her own health and the stability of her personal world? Isn’t hers the ultimate perversion: to turn her children into slaves while, bedridden and overindulged, she rules over the entire household? As brothers and sisters, sons and daughters do their utmost to prevent her from having an emotional shock that could worsen her high blood pressure and diabetes, she sits in state, cooling herself down with the breeze raised by their commotion—commotion because, in order to conceal from her the death of two of her children, they fabricate letters, forge signatures, stage phone calls, have baskets of fruit delivered under false pretenses, and even manage to contrive a diplomatic incident in Brazil. The family—with one exception—lives in a fantasy world. Ironically, the exception is the mother herself, fully aware that everyone else denies death on her account. While she grasps the truth and moves on with her life, her children are hoodwinked. Having lived so long in a world of appearances created for her sake, they end up behaving in line with their own lies: ‘‘Feigning to laugh, they all end up laughing for real’’ (Relatos, 117). Most importantly, even after their mother thanks them for having lied to her so well throughout the years, they continue deluding themselves. After she dies and one last letter arrives from Alejandro—the dead brother kept alive to make mother happy—Rosa, one of the sisters, catches herself thinking that as she read the letter she had been pondering ‘‘how they would break the news of mother’s death to Alejandro’’ (132). Fostering lies is but one of the ways in which mothers in these stories promote infantile behavior. When in ‘‘The Health of the Sick’’ Carlos chides his mother and calls her ‘‘silly mommy,’’ Cortázar makes obvious that the immature behavior is his—and his brothers’ and sisters’—rather than the reigning mother’s (127). Equally childish is Luis’s irrational fear of his apparently meek and lonely old mother in ‘‘Letters from Mother.’’ In this story the mother’s perverse control of Luis is such that she literally 50 Body of writing

resuscitates his dead brother in order to haunt him and make clear to him that Laura, his wife, does not love him. The mother’s revenge is complete when—like the characters in ‘‘The Health of the Sick’’—Luis and Laura begin speaking of a dead relative as if he were alive, substantiating the potential for cruelty which mothers in Cortázar are capable of wielding. No one can deny, of course, that cruelty in ‘‘Letters from Mother’’ is, most particularly, Luis’s specialty. He is the one who steals his brother’s girlfriend; he is the one who runs o√ to Paris two months after his brother Nico’s death; he is the one who abandons his mother in Buenos Aires. But Luis certainly gets his due when his mother begins writing letters in which she refers to Nico as if he were alive. Did she just get his name mixed up with someone else’s, or has she gone crazy? Luis wonders. The question hangs in midair until, in her next letter, the mother tells Laura and Luis that Nico is coming to Paris. Neither one believes her on a rational plane, but the truth is that Nico is very much alive in the guilty conscience of the couple, both of whom turn up at the train station on the day of Nico’s scheduled arrival. The mother’s scheme—or should we call it her revenge?—is brought to fruition with cold-blooded deftness.∞∑ Luis and Laura are shown the chasm that lies between them, the emptiness of their lives, the pointless outcome of their crime. Back in Buenos Aires, their guilty love was likely responsible for accelerating Nico’s death, just as the mother’s brutal project, brought to fruition in Paris, is crucial in showing them the death inherent in their marriage. But what does such calculating, hard-hearted behavior between a mother and son articulate about Cortázar’s notion of kinship? And why does the issue of sibling rivalry enter into his matriarchal scenarios with such insistence? What sort of account was Luis really trying to settle with a dead brother he could not disparage enough, disdain enough, hate enough? Why such fury when he refers to him as a ‘‘weak and inane incubus,’’ a ‘‘pathetic flunky who evolved from boyfriend to brother in law,’’ a ‘‘feeble pushover’’ with hair slicked back and ‘‘corny rayon ties’’ (222, 221, 226)? It is clear that Luis and Nico were rivals but was Laura truly the object of their rivalry, or was she a substitute—like Lila in ‘‘Poison’’ or Rema in ‘‘Bestiario’’—screening someone else? ‘‘Letters from Mother’’ is told from the perspective of the son who was second-best in the eyes of his mother. Only such preference would explain Luis’s profound bitterness vis-à-vis Nico, his unconscious wish to Cortázar’s perpetual exile


hasten his brother’s death and take away the woman he loved. The scenario of this story is comparable to that of ‘‘Poison’’ in that the heroes of both are victims of rejection seeking vengeance against women who have preferred other men. Both the rivals and the women are substitutes for the traditional actors in the Oedipal triangle, which is the actual wellspring of these stories. However, Cortázar, always a cunning manipulator, has done everything to cloud this wellspring. In ‘‘Poison’’ the rivalry portrayed is between cousins; in ‘‘Letters from Mother’’ it is between brothers. The loved object in one story is a neighbor; in the other, it is the brother’s girlfriend. It is undeniable, nonetheless, that anger against women and the wish to punish rivals as well as love objects that occasioned the rivalry fuel both stories. Cortázar chose not to portray the recipients of this anger en toutes lettres, but camouflaging them doesn’t mean he didn’t leave behind a number of traces that allude to the original content of the dramas. For instance, the rivals in both stories are next of kin; the women show preference for one man over another; and, punishment is meted out in both tales. Camouflage also gave Cortázar great freedom. Without looking any further, it let him get away with murder: in ‘‘Letters from Mother’’ Nico gets such an emotional whiplash from Luis’s ruthless revenge (i.e. taking Laura away from him) that his death is accelerated. In spite of the blatant aggression that typifies them, ‘‘Poison’’ and ‘‘Letters from Mother’’ provide revisions of the Oedipal scenario meant to soothe the wound that never heals. Cortázar depicts heroes who succeed in ridding themselves of their rivals although, no matter how many rivals are removed from the picture, or how often mothers are indirectly punished, it is the latter who end up having the last word in his stories. For instance, in ‘‘Letters from Mother’’ the mother shows her surviving son that, although he may think he got rid of his brother, Nico is actually very much inside Laura’s mind. As ‘‘Letters from Mother’’ shows, Luis’s victory quickly turns to dust suggesting that, where Cortázar was concerned, mothers were inherently cruel. What the calculating, hardhearted behavior they exhibit in his stories articulates is that he was not ready to forgive them for treating their sons as second best. What was Cortázar the writer to do after suggesting that a mother always had the upper hand in deciding her preferences? Was there a way in which he could rewrite this scenario of dominance and control and punish a mother for her disloyalty? Could he create a female character 52 Body of writing

who was like a mother but not a mother, someone who preferred the love of another man but ended up recognizing her mistake? This, in a nutshell, became the blueprint for ‘‘Nurse Cora,’’ the fourth of Cortázar’s transformations of the Oedipal scenario (after Los reyes, ‘‘Bestiario,’’ and ‘‘Poison’’). Like ‘‘Letters from Mother,’’ ‘‘Nurse Cora’’ opens with a rivalry that soon erupts like a forest fire and cannot be contained. We are struck from the start that hatred should flare up with such intensity between a mother and a young nurse she has only just met. Why, without even knowing her, does the mother say about Nurse Cora, ‘‘all one has to do is take one look at her to know what she’s all about: vamp airs, tight apron, a sassy girl who behaves as if she were the director of the clinic’’? (Relatos, 170–71). Boiling over with anger, the mother cannot wait to complain to the head doctor ‘‘so that he will put that conceited, snot-nosed girl in her place’’ (171). Cora is no less vehement about the mother; she refers to her as ‘‘a parrot in Sunday dress,’’ and a ‘‘stupid old bitch’’ (175, 183). In Cortázar’s twisted scenarios, domineering mothers use their children as pawns (‘‘The Health of the Sick’’), and hurt them when they thwart their expectations (‘‘Letters from Mother’’). Attempts are made to maintain children in an infantile state (‘‘The Health of the Sick,’’ ‘‘Nurse Cora’’), and rivalry appears under di√erent guises, always expressed with great vehemence (‘‘Letters from Mother,’’ ‘‘Nurse Cora’’). Most significantly, the feeling expressed toward the mother in all of these stories is anger rather than love. The question we need to address before going any further, therefore, is what does this anger stem from? When explicitly portraying relationships between mothers and sons, Cortázar treaded gingerly. As we have already begun to see, he adopted a variety of disguises and revealed—partially at best—feelings that are voiced much more readily in symbolic scenarios in which the traumatic sources for the stories have been sublimated (‘‘The Night Face Up’’ or ‘‘Bestiario,’’ for example). His portrayals of women seem to have been conditioned by what he unconsciously perceived as the inadequate love mothers provided, since they prefer someone else to the son or daughter who is typically cast as narrator of the stories. This might explain why his depiction of filial a√ection is heavily seasoned with resentment. Manifestly, resentment carries over to his descriptions of women in general, but to assume from this—as does Ana Hernández del Castillo—that Cortázar was a ‘‘violent misogynist’’ is to stretch the point (22). Cortázar’s perpetual exile


I agree with Ana Hernández that feelings of anger inform many of his portrayals of the opposite sex. But it would be more accurate to say that he resented, rather than hated, women. Hernández comes closer to fathoming Cortázar’s idiosyncratic attitude when she speaks of his ‘‘propensity to perceive the Feminine under the guise of Terrible Mother’’; terrible because she failed to give the child who had originally doted on her what he most longed for (27).∞∏ It is likely (whether consciously or not is immaterial) that Cortázar blamed his own mother for a traumatic separation that seems not to have been resolved for many years. Burdened by guilt regarding this unresolved longing, he dealt with it indirectly, that is, through writing. Particularly burdensome were the ambiguous feelings he had to sort out. Striving for the annihilation of spatial boundaries between him and the loved object, Cortázar was well aware of the impossibility of his quest on a rational plane. Eventually, the project of seeking to bring about erotic contact with the first love object was repressed but not forgotten. Sensing at an unconscious level that mothers in general had with someone else the kind of erotic bond he wished for himself brought with it a traumatic severance. It reactivated the primal anxiety of birth, and made the writer harbor feelings of resentment against both parents, absent or not.∞π This is why, in his symbolic scenarios, he made a point of both destroying rivals (the Kid in ‘‘Bestiario,’’ and Nico in ‘‘Letters from Mother,’’ for example), and omitting paternal figures. ‘‘Father’’ became the absent word, seldom uttered in his fiction. The mother’s lot was altogether di√erent. Her presence is felt everywhere in Cortázar’s scenarios although, as I have already indicated, motherhood per se is seldom explicitly dealt with. The hostility he felt against mother figures—one that is conspicuous in his stories—was transformed in one of two ways.∞∫ Either it was repressed by being transformed into its opposite (a longing for a mother surrogate such as Nurse Cora), or it showed up as a negative energy inspiring attitudes of rejection and spite vis-à-vis many of his female characters (Delia Mañara in ‘‘Circe’’ and Hélene in 62: Modelo para armar, are examples). In stories in which hostility was repressed and transformed into its opposite (typically those in which castration anxiety was portrayed), Cortázar directed the aggression not against the mother but, usually, against a young boy with whom he strongly identified).∞Ω In other words, he did away with the child to punish the mother. This 54 Body of writing

explains why many of his male heroes—one thinks immediately of Pablito in ‘‘Nurse Cora’’—are victims who die young. Cortázar punishes both the character whom he symbolically substitutes for himself and the unrelenting object of desire, the mother, who prefers the other man to the hero. This is exactly the scenario that is played out in ‘‘Letters from Mother.’’ The rivalry between Luis and that ‘‘feeble pushover’’ Nico is really a vendetta Italian style in which the hero begins by believing he has fulfilled the ultimate Oedipal fantasy and destroyed his rival (literally destroyed him: from the beginning Nico is portrayed as dead), but is ultimately made to understand—by the mother, no less—that he has been deluding himself, that the man he tried to destroy is still present and victorious, to boot. As Cortázar portrayed her, the ‘‘Terrible Mother’’ was a blight: aloof, ungiving, manipulative, and crafty—the Rastignac in the family closet. Leery of her, he began turning away from mothers in general and created substitutes that allowed him to carry out his fantasies. Rema in ‘‘Bestiario’’ is one such idealized substitute, and Nurse Cora is an even more explicit prototype of Cortázar’s ideal: a kindly woman who can both love and heal. Like the Romantic poets he so admired, Cortázar conceived of women as angels or demons. In the idealized world he depicted, and for reasons I intend to explore, those who fell into the first group were typically unattainable, and so angelic that he often dressed them in white. A heal at heart ‘‘Nurse Cora’’ is the most obvious example of Cortázar’s good mother/ bad mother dichotomy and a story crucial for understanding the sources for his scenarios of rivalry. In it he records both his ambivalent feelings about nurturing women and the reasons for his resentment. Typically, the conflict due to ambivalence is displaced from the person who causes it onto another character who acts as a substitute—in this instance, a pretty young nurse who ends up taking the mother’s place after the latter is conveniently removed from the scene. The story begins when Pablo, an adolescent, is admitted to a clinic to have his appendix removed. Against her wishes, his mother is not allowed to spend the night at the clinic. Significantly, that decision is made by a young nurse named Cora, and signals the beginning of an intense rivalry between the women. The mother is enraged to be asked to leave, Cortázar’s perpetual exile


particularly when her son assures her he is ‘‘already old enough to sleep alone at night’’ (Relatos, 171). From this point onward, the mother is ousted from the boy’s private space while Cora takes her place with a very revised maternal agenda foisted upon her: she will be both Pablo’s caretaker and his lady love. Cora’s relationship with Pablo begins on a bad note, however. Probably resenting the angry exchange she has had with Pablo’s mother, the nurse remains aloof from the boy. Worse, she treats him as a child, using the familiar tú form to address him, or taking his candy away, and thinking of him as ‘‘a mama’s boy’’ (174). Astutely sizing up her behavior, Pablo concludes, ‘‘I bet she was angry about what went on with mama and she is now taking it out on me’’ (172). In spite of the nurse’s initial chilliness, the boy is emotionally stung, however; he blushes with each of Cora’s words, and no matter how much he ‘‘wanted to stay angry with her, he just couldn’t’’ (172). When Pablo’s mother arrives the following morning, she immediately reacts like a forsaken woman. ‘‘That’s the way kids are,’’ she bitterly reflects, ‘‘they give you so much work at home and afterwards they sleep their heads o√, even if they are far from their mama who has not closed an eye all night long, poor thing’’ (173). When the doctor comes in to examine Pablo, the mother steps outside ‘‘because he was already a grown boy’’ (173). After returning to the room, she stares at him, melodramatically, ‘‘as if it were the end of the world,’’ but he promptly reassures her before sending her o√: ‘‘Leave without another thought, I am just fine and I need nothing’’ (173–74). The scene that follows is one of mutual scrutiny, a taunting and barely disguised show-and-tell: Pablo asks the morning nurse to tell him the name of the young woman in the evening shift (i.e., Nurse Cora), and later that day Cora comes in and asks Pablo to take his temperature using a rectal thermometer. In a pendant scene, Cora asks Pablo what his name is while she shaves his pubic hair; she does not miss the opportunity to let him know (using terms that recall the mother’s earlier words), ‘‘that he’s already a grown boy’’ (Ya sos un chico crecidito, 176). Despite her ironic remarks, she is struck by Pablo. This attraction is revealed to the reader in no uncertain terms, although Cora disavows it until the end of the story. She emphatically maintains she ‘‘was still irked by something about him that maybe he had gotten from his mother’’ but shows her hand when she recognizes ‘‘it even bothered me that he should be so cute and so well put 56 Body of writing

together for his age, a snot-nosed kid who probably thought he was a grown man already and might even dare to make a pass at me the first chance he got’’ (176). The parrying scene that follows Pablo and Cora’s exchange of credentials foreshadows the famous fig tree exchange between Mabel and Pancho in Manuel Puig’s Heartbreak Tango. Pablito begins by asking the nurse, ‘‘your name is Cora, isn’t it?’’ while she tauntingly rejoins, ‘‘Miss Cora’’ (177). Shrewd beyond his years, the boy recognizes that ‘‘she had said it just to punish him,’’ and that earlier on, when she had told him he ‘‘was already a grown boy’’ she had been making fun of him (176). Pablo may be astute, but he is only half right. Cora is punishing him, but she is ultimately caught in her own web as far as the playful taunting is concerned. Pablo is angry at himself for blushing, for crying when he ‘‘most needed to stay calm to tell her what he thought’’—that he wanted to be on more intimate terms and address her by her first name (177). Instead, he gets flustered when she comes back to pick up the shaving soap, and ‘‘kind of to calm him down, (she) ran her hand down his cheek’’ (178). Again he asks, at that point, ‘‘I can call you Cora, can’t I’’? Again she answers, ‘‘Miss Cora,’’ with an emphasis on the particle (178). At this point, Pablo has a first access of fury: ‘‘I felt like hitting her,’’ he claims, ‘‘or like jumping out of bed and shoving her out of the room, or like . . .’’ (178). Pablo’s anger is exacerbated when Cora shows up to give him an enema. From this point, they begin a game of retribution and reparation the nature of which is evident to both of them. As she stares at his naked bottom defiled by the rectal injection, Cora tells herself, ‘‘on the one hand I thought it was pretty funny to be looking at my young admirer’s little fanny but then, I would feel a little sorry for him; it was really as if I were punishing him’’ (180). In the overall scheme of things Cora is, of course, punishing Pablo. Instead of sexually gratifying him she pricks him with a needle, shaves his genital area, and, worst of all, fondles him while staying aloof. Intensified by his frustration, Pablo’s rage turns into fantasy. As he sobs into his pillow, he thinks to himself, ‘‘boy, did I cry while I cursed her and stuck a knife in her chest five, ten times . . . cursing her in time with the blows while I enjoyed her su√ering and her pleading with me to forgive her’’ (181). The next scene opens after Pablito’s appendix has been removed. The operation has not gone as expected, and his condition is worsening. Cora Cortázar’s perpetual exile


holds his hand and thinks to herself, ‘‘poor guy, he grabs my hand as if he were drowning,’’ and suddenly realizes, ‘‘he must think I am his mother, they all think that’’ (181). Cora is happy to assume her new role and— addressing Pablito with the formal usted for the first time—she encourages him, ‘‘yes my child [m’hijito], here I am, complain all you like’’ (182). She also takes advantage of his sleep to admire him: ‘‘. . . you think I am your mother. You are very cute, you know . . .’’ (182). At this point, a new and very important character enters the picture: Cora’s boyfriend, Marcial, one of the anesthesiologists at the clinic. Taking advantage of her night shift, Marcial comes into Pablo’s room and begins kissing Cora in spite of her resistance. He leaves as Pablo begins to regain consciousness, but soon the reader learns that the boy was keenly aware of what took place while everyone thought he was asleep. The scenes that follow portray Pablo’s jealousy and distinctly echo the primal scene when the child sees or imagines his parents having sex. Like that child, Pablito feels that the loved woman he has been pining for prefers a rival’s love. Furious, the boy rejects Cora, urging her not to stay in his room but ‘‘to go with him [Marcial] and kiss him in the hallway’’ (195). Sandwiched between the episodes in which Pablito and Nurse Cora’s innermost fears and longings are laid out, a couple of nesting pigeons coo to each other under the eaves of the clinic courtyard. Half-asleep, Pablito hears them, immediately recognizing they make him sad (195). He complains to the morning nurse, but she shrugs and answers that ‘‘many other people had already complained about the pigeons, but the director didn’t want them shooed away’’ (192). The cooing pigeons become a leitmotif in the story, their presence suggesting the love tryst from which the boy is excluded (they can love each other while he cannot be with the girl he likes). Later, dreaming after his final operation, Pablito addresses his mother: ‘‘You see mom, there they go again, it’s those pigeons cooing . . . I don’t know why they don’t get rid of them, let them fly away to another tree’’ (195). But fly away is exactly what they will not do; like Cora and Marcial, like mom and dad, the love-happy birds are a perpetual reminder of the painful exclusion the boy must learn to bear. As mating pigeons bring to mind Cora and Marcial, the nurse makes Pablo think of his mother. More than once, as he awakens from his slumber, the boy recognizes ‘‘that . . . [he] was confusing [Cora] with mama’’ (184, 196). One day he begins to wonder why Cora stays in his room all the time. He stares at her hair when she is not looking and 58

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thinks to himself, ‘‘she is so young, to think that today I took her for mother, it’s incredible’’ (184). Of course, it is anything but incredible. In fact, the whole point of the story is not merely to ‘‘take’’ Cora for mother but, actually, to replace one for the other in an astutely conceived scenario that permits a full-fledged dramatization of the triangular situation. Loath to portray a scene of incest outright, Cortázar dreams up a mother substitute, and a rival to the boy who vies for her a√ection. As in ‘‘Poison,’’ Cortázar substitutes the primal scenario for a more socially acceptable love triangle in ‘‘Nurse Cora.’’ His aims in the stories are quite di√erent, however. In the ant-poisoning saga he dramatized the boy’s recognition of his rival’s superiority; in the nurse’s tale he chose to stage the anger felt vis-à-vis the love object for preferring a rival. Pendants to each other, one stages resolution while the other highlights conflict. Before he could portray anger, Cortázar needed to portray love, however, and perhaps even more than love, sexual attraction. But sexual attraction is hardly an appropriate response to a mother figure, and Cortázar had done everything in his power to assimilate Cora into one. Ambivalence enters into the picture at this point: Pablo likes Cora and repeatedly takes her for his mother. However, as his language and attitude show, he pines for her in a way that is anything but filial. He repeatedly startles her as, for instance, when he thunders, ‘‘You wouldn’t treat me this way if we had met in di√erent circumstances’’ (191). Dumbfounded at the inappropriateness of his reproach, she confesses to Marcial, ‘‘I almost had to burst out laughing, it was so utterly ridiculous for him to say something like that’’ (191). Claiming that she almost burst out laughing is clearly a defense mechanism for Cora; the truth is that her feelings mirror those of the pining adolescent. For instance, when her boyfriend is sent upstairs to tell Pablito that he needs to have another operation, Cora wishes ‘‘that Marcial would get out’’ and leave her alone with the boy (194), and when Marcial tells her he has requested a transfer so she will no longer have to care for the now dying Pablito, Cora thinks to herself—with a highly ambiguous choice of words—‘‘I’m going to stay with him tonight and every night’’ (195). One of the most interesting features of this story is the shifting point of view that makes readers privy to Pablo’s and Cora’s private thoughts. We learn not only of their attraction for each other but also that both are blind to the exact nature of Cora’s feelings. She finds Pablito cute and Cortázar’s perpetual exile


mature for his age but never admits to herself why she is always finding excuses to touch him, why he brings tears to her eyes, or why she doesn’t want to leave his bedside. Cora represses her feelings and, more often than not, transforms them into their opposite; she is curt with Pablo, and not at all reluctant to humiliate him. What the boy sees of his favorite nurse, therefore, is either a mask of e≈cient and detached concern or forthright aggression. Aware of Cora’s actions but also of her thoughts, the reader knows di√erently. Pablo imagines himself slighted in favor of Marcial. This misperceived rejection sets o√ his own feelings of resentment and summons his need to punish Cora. Such ambivalent combination of love and hatred is typical of the Oedipal phase. Recognizing the mother’s choice of the father as partner, the infant begins to harbor feelings of hostility against both parents. However, this feeling is just as soon repressed by a process of transformation; ‘‘in place of aggression against the father,’’ Freud writes, ‘‘there appears the father’s aggression—retaliation—against the individual itself ’’ (Problem of Anxiety, 35–36). Cortázar translates this aggression in the scene where Pablito literally dies at the hands of Marcial (whose very name suggests the belligerent disposition that characterizes the older male figure in the Oedipal tragedy).≤≠ His death is not merely self-destructive; it is also a strike against Cora. In other words, if she won’t give him signs of special recognition, he will erase himself from the picture. At this point, however, we need to think not in terms of Pablito’s death wish (a presupposition we are not free to make from the scant bits and pieces the story provides) but rather of Cortázar’s death sentence for Pablito. We know Cortázar felt a particularly close kinship with the hero/victim of this story; in fact, he admitted to Evelyn Picón that ‘‘Nurse Cora’’ made him su√er a lot because he ‘‘identified closely with the character of the young boy’’ (Cortázar por Cortázar, 69). What personal feelings could he have been venting, one wonders, in this thinly disguised Oedipal scenario?≤∞ Was he suggesting that the mother’s desire for the son is present although unacknowledgeable to herself ? Couldn’t he also have been expressing the wish to punish the mother for preferring a rival male to her own flesh and blood? But if punishing mother was one of the goals of the story, why cast Cora as a nurse? Modifications that writers make in classic scenarios are always determined by inner objections that Freud refers to as psychic censorship. 60 Body of writing

Cortázar’s transformations of the Oedipal triangle are no exception. In the case of portraying incestuous a√ection, for instance, only the notion of an impossible love finds a way into his work. Because his personal feelings are being repressed, the mother herself appears, but only briefly. Instead, a nurse is substituted, someone who, like a mother, presides over the ritual of life and the nurturing process. The functional kinship between mothers and nurses grows out of Cortázar’s longstanding fascination with the relationship between a female doctor and a male patient, a bond he described to Picón as ‘‘a curious mixture of pain and care’’ (69). Actually, the image of the healer, of the comforting figure who takes care of ailing bodies, is always portrayed as a female in Cortázar’s work, even if he had to resort to a surrealistic sleight of hand to bring about a sex change (for instance, in ‘‘Examples of How to Be Afraid’’ the narrator describes how the trousers of the male doctor ‘‘are pulled up to just above the knees and he’s wearing women’s stockings,’’ 9). Once we recognize that a nurse can be a substitute for the mother in Cortázar’s scenarios, we need to return to the more pressing issue of his death wish for Pablito, but not before highlighting the particular nature of his first and most enduring allegiance. Whether her role is assumed by a substitute or not, in Cortázar’s stories mothers and their alter egos are always cast with hostility. Portraying them as shrewd manipulators in ‘‘Letters from Mother,’’ as cold bitches in ‘‘Nurse Cora’’ and ‘‘Verano’’ (‘‘Summer’’), or as deceiving weathercocks in ‘‘Blow Up,’’ Cortázar substantiates an unwillingness to accept their betrayal: they prefer, not the hero, but someone else (Hugo instead of the narrator in ‘‘Poison’’; Nico and not Luis in ‘‘Letters from Mother’’; an older man instead of Aníbal in ‘‘Deshoras’’ [‘‘Unreasonable Hours’’]). Taking the side of the underdog, Cortázar revises the Oedipal scenario in ‘‘Nurse Cora’’ so that the nurse who substitutes for the mother as caretaker and object of desire not only recognizes the hero’s longing but reciprocates it. This is why, on the last page of the story, the nurse finally agrees to give in to Pablito’s entreaties, and lets him call her by her first name (plainly, the gist of the name game played by both characters throughout the story is to have Cora drop the barrier of decorum and grant the adolescent the preamble, at least, of the intimacy he has been hankering after). Following the second operation, when Cora’s capitulation begins, the boy refuses to look at her. In complete contrast to his behavior as well as her own at the beginning of the story, Cora snuggles up to him and Cortázar’s perpetual exile


smiles. ‘‘Call me Cora,’’ she pleads, ‘‘say to me: yes, Cora’’ (196). When the boy refuses, calling her ‘‘Miss Cora’’ and shutting his eyes, she begs, ‘‘No, Pablo, no,’’ kissing him ‘‘very close to the mouth,’’ and promising him the exclusive rights he’s been vying for all along: ‘‘I am going to be Cora for you, and only for you’’ (196, my emphasis). Significantly, Pablo’s response is to vomit. Cora retreats in haste, but her face is splattered. Far from giving up, she bends forward and whispers in Pablo’s ear that she is there to take care of him, urging him to vomit all he wants. Now it is Pablo’s turn to reject, on the one hand, and Cortázar’s turn to punish, on the other. Pablito’s response to Cora’s wish for intimacy is to retort, ‘‘I would like to have my mother here’’ (196). Undaunted, the nurse runs her hand through the boy’s hair, fixes his blankets, and, before conceding to his request, pleads one last time, ‘‘Please Pablito. Please, darling’’ (196). At that point, the room takes on a dark silence. Hurriedly, Cora walks toward the bed and bends over to kiss the boy, but it’s already too late. ‘‘He smelled cold,’’ she mutters to herself while stealing away to avoid crying in front of him, ‘‘for his sake’’ (196).≤≤ Pablo’s death wish comes true all too literally. Earlier in the story he thought he ‘‘wanted to be dead, to be dead and to have (Cora) run her hand down his face while she cried’’ (186). Cortázar fulfills Pablito’s wish by killing him o√ in a conclusion that brings to mind Otto Rank’s fiat regarding the link between thoughts of death and the wish to return to the womb (Trauma of Birth, 24). Portraying Pablito’s death achieves two ends, moreover: it acts as a revenge against the surrogate mother (giving her a just return for her earlier refusal), and it actualizes the wish to become reunited with the love object, to return to Arcadia. If Pablito ‘‘wanted to be dead,’’ it is because only in death can he obtain the physical contact he yearns for (‘‘to have [Cora] run her hand down his face’’). And why only in death? Because if Cora is actually a stand-in for the mother, as I argue, the nature of Pablito’s wish—to have a physical intimacy with her—is the very epitome of what is forbidden. What Cortázar sets out to do throughout these stories, in other words, is to circumvent, perhaps even capsize, one of the primordial proscriptions of Western civilization. My sister, my love To touch upon incest without explicitly portraying it became one of Cortázar’s expedients during the period when he wrote ‘‘House Taken 62 Body of writing

Over.’’ At this time in his career, and again in order to secure the forbidden paradise that a repossession of the mother implied, he relied on substitutes or stand-ins who allowed him to portray close relationships and sexual attraction conjointly while skirting a taboo. The di√erence with ‘‘House Taken Over’’ was that the substitutes in question were not just symbolic allusions to blood relatives but kin to each other. In view of Cortázar’s capitalization on doubles and seem-alikes, it is surprising that critics studying the role of incest in his work have taken these substitutions at face value and neglected to see, in the portrait of Nurse Cora, of Lila in ‘‘Poison,’’ and, particularly, of the unmarried sister in ‘‘House Taken Over’’ the artifice of masks shielding from view a much more censored form of longing. In these stories Cortázar taunts the reader by revealing the nature of a secret passion while, at the same time, artfully concealing it. All three are a way of stroking the surface of truth while replacing the real object of desire with a less shameful one. Of the three, ‘‘House Taken Over’’ contains the most important piece of the puzzle Cortázar revealed over a thirty-two-year period (from the publication of Bestiario in 1951 to that of Deshoras in 1983) because it shows how the intolerably forbidden feeling drawing an infant to his mother can be redirected to a sibling. Like so many of his plots, this one culminates with the sense of anguish at being cast out from familiar surroundings, which is the essence of ‘‘The Night Face Up.’’ However, Cortázar introduces an antidote to both anguish and loneliness in ‘‘House Taken Over’’: not just one hero but a pair, and furthermore, a pair tethered together by a bond that nothing can sever. There is a second critical di√erence between the Moteca’s saga in ‘‘The Night Face Up’’ and the siblings’ ejection into the outside world. In the former, Cortázar had attempted to counter the gradually overpowering sense of estrangement by portraying his protagonist back in the warm embrace of the hospital ward even as he kept exiting through the tunnel. After delaying the exit as long as possible, the hero was forced, nonetheless, into the horror of the world outside. From that moment onward, one of the thematic dilemmas facing Cortázar was how to deal with the feelings of severance that being ousted provoked. Immediately after sacrificing his Moteca hero, he began to look for a substitute for the warm security felt within, outside, in the cold and lonely world beyond the double doors that seal the womblike darkness of the pyramid in ‘‘The Night Face Up.’’ Cortázar’s perpetual exile


The mother herself could not be that substitute because the feelings she inspired were the very ones Cortázar wished to conceal. Besides, she was the primary love object but also a traitor, someone who—as Cortázar depicted her—could be both selfish (‘‘The Health of the Sick’’), and cruel (‘‘Letters from Mother’’). Substitutes for mothers, such as Rema and Nurse Cora, were successful in evoking feelings of longing that were rewarded in the stories in spite of their inherent unsuitability. However, these characters were not su≈ciently connected to the hero to really suggest that loving them was something forbidden, a response Cortázar designed as a source for fanning uneasiness in his readers. And so, in writing ‘‘House Taken Over,’’ he sought to create a character who would be physically close to the hero—like Rema, Lila, and Cora—someone who would even share the hero’s existential loneliness, and also be linked to him by an indissoluble bond. The brother and sister in ‘‘House Taken Over’’ live like ‘‘an old married couple,’’ in the words of one critic, until the day when a mysterious and undefined presence invades the back rooms of their comfortable home (Planells, Cortázar, 63). Fleeing the invasion, they bolt a connecting door and move to the front rooms, leaving behind many of their favorite possessions. As the story comes to an end, the alien presence invades the front part of the house, forcing the couple out on the street. Locking the door behind them, the brother drops the key in the gutter, knowing that they can never return. A number of Cortázar’s favorite themes are brought together in this restrained masterpiece. The most obvious, pivotal to our understanding, is that of being evicted from shelter. The shelter in this instance is a roomy house, as comfortable as an old, baggy sweater. The brother and sister who share this space are perfectly happy in it but must leave, dislodged by forces beyond their control. The aftermath of their mysterious extrusion is that they have no one but each other to temper the encroaching loneliness. Dispossessed from the space they once shared, they will provide for each other the kind of reassurance their comfortable house once bestowed. The reader’s first question is, of course, why must the siblings leave a space where they are so comfortably settled? We wonder about the mysterious, invading forces, which—like the powerful arms that take hold of the Moteca warrior in ‘‘The Night Face Up’’—are beyond the protagonists’ control. A number of narrative elements in the Moteca’s saga justi64 Body of writing

fied our likening the pyramid where he is tied to the womb. A similar analogy can be made in ‘‘House Taken Over.’’ We know from Otto Rank that the house in general and rooms in particular are likened to the womb in the unconscious (The Incest Theme, 364).≤≥ Given this, and Cortázar’s penchant for symbols, it seems evident that, as well as the unavoidable pain of leaving the first comfortable space, what is being portrayed in ‘‘House Taken Over’’ is the siblings’ codependence. And this codependence translates one of the most common sequels to Oedipal trauma: the substitution of the sister for the mother in the a√ections of the displaced son. Because of her particular relationship to the father, the mother—at first worshipped as the emblem of the pure female ideal—comes to be seen as unworthy of this status in the eyes of her son. Oedipal rejection recapitulates and brings to the fore the unhealed wounds of primal trauma, moreover. At the resolution of the Oedipal complex the infant comes to understand the dominance of the father and, as at birth, feels cast aside. This painful realization, as well as his profound attraction for the mother, quickly fall victim to repression and—essential to our understanding of ‘‘House Taken Over’’—the impulses associated with the mother but rejected by the individual are then associated with the siblings, automatically present as substitutes. In other words, ‘‘House Taken Over’’ enacts the expulsion that pairs o√ the siblings and also allows a substitution—namely, that of the sister for the house, symbolic of the maternal body—to take place. As usual, Cortázar proceeds step by step in his portrayal of divided loyalties, not showing his full hand in a single story. ‘‘House Taken Over’’ does not touch upon desire or attempt to elaborate how the sister is a substitute. It simply portrays the displacement of a√ect from mother to sister in symbolic terms, and leaves the more detailed account of sibling love to another, less-known of Cortázar’s parables on the theme of incest, ‘‘Deshoras’’ (‘‘Unreasonable Hours’’). In this story Cortázar assembles all the ingredients of the Oedipal drama but shu∆es around characters and their roles to mask the forbidden content of the fantasy. Typically for his plots, the protagonists are adolescents: a narrator named Aníbal, and Doro, his best friend. The boys are on such close terms that Aníbal is described as ‘‘Doro’s other half ’’ although, as becomes evident, the focus of their interests is different, and the device of homologating one boy to the other is simply a Cortázar’s perpetual exile


sleight of hand to portray incestuous feelings by means of an intermediary (Deshoras, 107). Another feature worth noting is that although both Aníbal and Doro have mothers, Cortázar makes a point of undermining their importance and minimizing their role. Doro’s is an invalid about whom he ‘‘never used to speak,’’ and when Aníbal’s makes a rare appearance, the boy thinks to himself that he would much prefer having Doro’s sister take care of him (107). Following the scheme laid out in ‘‘House Taken Over,’’ Cortázar casts the sister in ‘‘Unreasonable Hours’’ in the role of mother and, making sure no one will miss the full intent of this substitution, characterizes her with an unforgettable oxymoron: Doro’s older sister Sara, he writes, is ‘‘her own brother’s young mother’’ (107). Aníbal, Doro’s ‘‘other half,’’ comes to play everyday, although playing is really a pretext for catching a glimpse of the elusive Sara, who is a√ectionate but, much to Aníbal’s chagrin, speaks to him as if ‘‘from afar’’ (108). Despite her forbearance, he begins to fantasize about her, casting her (as cherished women often are in Cortázar stories) in the roles of healer and nurse. Early on, when he is sick with bronchitis, he wishes Sara ‘‘would be there bringing him his medicines and looking at the thermometer while sitting at the foot of the bed,’’ and when his own mother shows up in the morning to rub his chest with an ointment, ‘‘Aníbal closes his eyes and it was Sara’s hand raising his night shirt, rubbing him lightly, healing him’’ (108–09). As in ‘‘Nurse Cora,’’ the boy’s daydreams in ‘‘Unreasonable Hours’’ usually culminate in an erotic fantasy masked as a healing session. At night, as Aníbal lies in bed, he wishes Sara ‘‘would place her hand on his forehead and pull down the sheets to check the cut on his calf ’’ (110). Two of Cortázar’s favorite motifs provide the warp and weft for this story about an adolescent’s carefully crafted daydreams: first, the loved woman simultaneously cast as evasive and a healer and, second, the hands (and not the sexual organs) portrayed as the quintessential source of pleasure. Substituting the caretaker for a lover and the hands for sex organs are Cortázar’s attempts to mask the nature of desire from the start; however, the undercurrent of the story attains such levels that it cannot help but surface in Aníbal’s sublimated fantasies, even when neutral words are systematically used in place of more explicitly meaningful ones. For instance, the organ that ‘‘swells’’ when Sara ‘‘pulls up Aníbal’s nightshirt’’ and ‘‘looks at him naked’’ is his stomach (110); the soothing rub that 66 Body of writing

‘‘heals’’ him is applied on his chest (109); and when he wishes that Sara would come to his bedside and pull down the sheets, it is merely ‘‘to check the cut on his calf ’’ (110). No matter how tacitly erotic, dreams about Sara have nothing explicitly sexual about them, Cortázar even making clear that when Aníbal’s hands ‘‘slide down under the sheets and he starts fondling himself . . . Sara never came into the picture’’ (111, my emphasis). We are told, moreover, that ‘‘that could not happen,’’ not because the boy was unfamiliar with sexual practices (Cortázar wastes no time in letting us know that Aníbal was well aware of ‘‘what loving someone could be like, and would readily imagine it with Yolanda’’) but because, emblem of ‘‘the pure female ideal,’’ Sara must remain unsullied even in dreams (111). Aníbal is no di√erent from most boys who tend to see in their mother a noble, unapproachable saint while unconsciously conceptualizing her as ‘‘the woman who serves the lusts of his father without a will of her own’’ (Rank, The Incest Theme, 421). It is because of this emotional tug-of-war that, according to Rank, ‘‘it becomes easier for the boy to displace his a√ection for the mother to the sister who is closer to him in age, maturity, and outlook. Most significantly’’—and this is the section most pertinent to our discussion—‘‘since the sister has no sexual relations, the brother can hold nothing against her on this account . . . and she falls into one of the two mother roles—usually into that of the pure, chaste, adored one’’ (421). (It is interesting to note that when, after reading Bestiario, Evelyn Picón told Cortázar that he had a problem with incest, he was startled because, as he put it, he had ‘‘never thought about it on a conscious level.’’ The observation caused him to take stock of his own dreams and to acknowledge ‘‘that, in fact, [he] had an incestuous problem with a sister’’ (quoted in Cortázar por Cortázar, 43). Even more startling, in light of his knowledge of and interest in psychoanalysis, is what he went on to say to Picón: ‘‘The strangest thing is that on a conscious level, my sister and I have no relationship whatsoever. We’ve never gotten along. We are like night and day; in fact, we have even despised each other at times. Now that years have gone by, and we don’t see each other as much, our relationship is somewhat more cordial. But we are totally di√erent. And in spite of it, I have often woken up with a start because I was dreaming that I had gone to bed with my sister’’ (43). Cortázar’s long-lasting preoccupation with incest in literature takes on Cortázar’s perpetual exile


new meaning when we read this declaration. After spending over a quarter century writing stories laced with veiled and not so veiled references to it—stories which, of his own admission, were written ‘‘as a form of therapy’’—he was still dreaming he was sleeping with his sister in or around 1978 when Picón interviewed him. Obviously, after twenty-seven years of self-immersion he was still oblivious to what was obvious to shrewd readers like Picón. In all likelihood, if he had been able to ‘‘cure’’ himself, to bring the unconscious content of his stories to the fore, he would no longer have needed to write tales in which he dramatized the incestuous fantasies of adolescents. Instead, and for three decades, he went on describing the rejection felt after being ousted from the safety of a shelter; anger about mothers in general; and, last but not least, incestuous feelings. In the 1980s his heroes were as fundamentally alone as they are in the stories he wrote in the 1950s, although, once in a while, and in spite of such unrelenting loneliness, Cortázar intimated that a solution, help for pain, was at hand. When the hero or heroine is tenacious enough (as in ‘‘Axolotl’’), or resourceful enough (as in ‘‘Bestiario’’), a return to the safe world inside—a repossession of sorts—can be negotiated. The fact that these utopian outcomes happen in and through the act of writing suggests that they are all dramatizations of wishes: returns and repossession take place because the author wills them, because he writes them into the fiction. Such writing had an artistic purpose, of course. The uncanniness that springs from these stories hinges on our awareness—even at some imperceptible level—that these returns and reunions fulfill wishes that are both forbidden and shared. Identifying with Cortázar’s heroes and heroines, readers are made to feel that the forbidden is graspable, that in fiction the most unfulfillable dream can be fulfilled. The psychic controversy, the malaise that ensues from this realization, explains the eeriness we feel when we read ‘‘The Night Face Up,’’ or ‘‘Poison.’’ It is not the medium that is the message in these instances, but the other way around: the message—the incest camouflaged within the tales—becomes, in fact, the means to achieve the preternaturally strange e√ect Cortázar’s plots have on the reader. We don’t understand where this eeriness originates not because we cannot intellectually grasp its sources but, rather, because recognizing them and our own identification with the wish fulfilled in the fiction would imply confronting—and defying in thought—the cardinal taboo of our civilization. 68 Body of writing

It is this tension between grasping and not grasping, between masking and disclosing the sources of our own malaise, that makes Cortázar’s stories so titillating. This is why he would not frankly portray the taboo he intimated for over thirty years. The pith of his plots had to suggest incest but be a scrubbed-down version of it. This is why the woman who shuns the almost ubiquitous adolescent in his stories is first a neighbor (Lila in ‘‘Poison’’), then a nurse (Nurse Cora) or a sister (in ‘‘House Taken Over’’) and, finally, in ‘‘Unreasonable Hours,’’ the sister of someone who is one’s ‘‘other half,’’ analogous to ourselves but di√erent. This is also why the masterstroke in ‘‘Unreasonable Hours’’ was to introduce a doppelgänger. Because Aníbal is ‘‘Doro’s other half,’’ one of Cortázar’s lustful little heroes can at last take to bed the woman he pines for and skirt the taboo of incest. Sara and Aníbal are not brother and sister although he is the ‘‘other half ’’ of her brother while she is the ‘‘mother of her own brother.’’ It takes Cortázar thirty years to find the right formula of diluted kinship that he needs in order to accomplish the unspeakable in writing: Aníbal will not only catch up with Sara in terms of age, he will actually take his other half ’s ‘‘mother’’ to bed. Most of the characters we have seen thus far find themselves teetering somewhere between childhood and puberty. Isabel in ‘‘Bestiario,’’ the narrator in ‘‘Poison,’’ Pablito in ‘‘Nurse Cora,’’ Aníbal in ‘‘Unreasonable Hours’’ are all on the cusp of adulthood; they are grandecitos but not quite grandes, which is another way of saying, willing but not yet able. Be that as it may, with the exception of the narrator in ‘‘Poison,’’ the protagonists of these stories do get some form of satisfaction from the surrogate mother. This satisfaction is always portrayed as being cared for, cuddled, kept in a state of babied dependence—exactly the tenor of Aníbal’s fantasies in the first half of ‘‘Unreasonable Hours.’’ The other half of the story is not so conventional, however; in fact, it is unique in Cortázar’s repertoire and, arguably, his best example of psychological legerdemain. Years after romping through the wilds of Bánfield with his pal Doro and doting on his sister under the safe cover of his bed sheets, Aníbal moves to Buenos Aires and becomes an engineer. The torch he carried for Sara as an adolescent still burns, however, so, in an e√ort to go on savoring the past, he decides to set down on paper his tortured memories of childhood. Like Cortázar at the beginning of his career, Aníbal becomes a part-time writer, an artist a deshoras. One day, as he is coming out of his o≈ce building in Buenos Aires, the Cortázar’s perpetual exile


young writer-cum-engineer catches a glimpse of Sara walking down the street, dressed in white (117). Wasting no time, he catches up to her and explains who he is to the very startled young woman. He is so grown up that she is unable to recognize him at first. She, on the other hand, has not changed one bit: ‘‘No, you haven’t changed,’’ Aníbal assures her, ‘‘not even your hair style. You are just the same’’ (118). Almighty fiction freeze frames time, and lets Aníbal catch up with Sara at this point. Not wanting to waste another minute, they sit down to have a drink and soon Aníbal is telling Sara the story of his life: ‘‘you were the young mother I didn’t have, you used to take my temperature and stroke me until I fell asleep’’ (119). In fact, Sara never did these things; this is pure fantasy on Aníbal’s part, a rewriting of his own life to fit his wishes, and one that mirrors the essence of literature, the liberating medium where anything can happen. After they reminisce for a while about their younger days, Aníbal begins to tell Sara about an episode that made a deep impression on him. Doro and he had fallen into a muddy ditch and gotten terribly messy. When Sara saw them come into the house filthy up to their ears, she had sent them in to take a shower and then, as they were washing and horsing around in the bathroom, she had come in and spoken to them as if it were perfectly normal to be carrying a conversation with two naked boys. Aníbal was so embarrassed with his shower’s transformation into a public spectacle that he wished ‘‘to die for real’’ and had never forgotten the incident (113). After carefully listening to Aníbal, Sara gives her version of the story. For a start, she admits having thought at the time that, ‘‘it was a pity he was just a kid,’’ that it ‘‘. . . didn’t seem right.’’ She had even wished back then he ‘‘might have been five years older’’ (120). Because he was not, she decided to use the bathroom as a classroom to show him their love could not be, to make clear that she saw him as a kid, and nothing more. Sara claims she walked in on the two naked boys ‘‘on purpose . . . because it was a way of curing [him] of [his] dream, of having [him] grasp the fact that he would never be able to look at [her] like that’’ (120). Plainly, the young Sara was a clean, law-abiding mother figure who sought to erase incestuous thoughts from Aníbal’s dirty mind. It is also clear that Cortázar not only abided by moral proscriptions when he wrote; he also compounded these social conventions with personal inhibitions. Since Sara and Aníbal were not related, why shouldn’t there be 70 Body of writing

something between them? The answer is to be found in Cortázar’s design, in which Sara ‘‘stands for’’ Aníbal’s mother twice removed. She is, in his words, the ‘‘young mother of her brother,’’ who is Aníbal’s ‘‘other half.’’ In all the stories this chapter has discussed up to now, a social or psychological proscription precludes the fulfillment of forbidden longings. ‘‘Unreasonable Hours’’ is the first and only time in Cortázar’s fiction that a forbidden longing is fulfilled and punishment is not meted out. The first half of the story contains the moral interdictions Cortázar typically portrays: a boy meets a girl, the girl looks after the boy, the boy hopes for more than a soothing backrub but fails to get what he is after. In the second half, after Sara reveals her morally correct stance, she gives in to their mutual longing and they find a room where the ‘‘endless meeting’’ of their bodies repeatedly culminates in a ‘‘furious bodily frenzy’’ that is ‘‘less and less believable each time’’ (121). And then the biggest surprise: the entire scene of their unexpected encounter after so many years, the taxi ride to a room that either he or she knew about, the frenzied ‘‘implosion’’—all take place not on white sheets but on blank pages written by Aníbal, whose lifelong wish is at last consummated by and through the pen. In other words, Cortázar the writer fulfills a wish by portraying Aníbal the writer who writes a scene of fulfillment in which his longing is satisfied. The dynamics at play here recall the Escher drawing of a hand drawing a hand which is drawing the original hand drawing it. The scene is also written as if it were true; in other words, the reader is made to believe that Aníbal really sleeps with Sara, the stand-in for the mother in Cortázar’s canny scenario. Intercourse takes place only in the imagination of the character imagined by the author but, actually, it need not take place anywhere else in order for the wish to be fulfilled. Literature can exorcise demons and execute wishes through dramatization, which is why it works as therapy. Coming out It took Cortázar thirty years to work through the demon of incest and put this notion to rest.≤∂ The dismembered hands, the burrowing animals, and the appetite for darkness so typical of his stories dramatize a universal longing he kept masked for three decades. Masked though Cortázar’s perpetual exile


it was, this longing was nonetheless fulfilled through writing both by Aníbal in ‘‘Unreasonable Hours,’’ and, more significantly, by Cortázar himself using Aníbal as his proxy. Such fulfillment and, particularly, the means through which it was obtained suggests that the stories we have read can all be likened to infantile scenarios in which imagining the implementation of an action is tantamount to having that action take place—the kind of game which is at the very source of storytelling, in other words. Doubtlessly, because he was intent on exploring the sources of writing, Cortázar was drawn to the tale of origins and made it the starting point of stories in which he cast a dark, sheltering space as the heart of longing. As time went by, the contours of the space he had originally portrayed as the enveloping folds of a sweater, the recesses of a pyramid, a woman’s bedroom became more specific. What the adolescent heroes of ‘‘Bestiario,’’ ‘‘Poison,’’ and ‘‘Miss Cora’’ long for is no longer a space but a body, specifically the body of a woman who is as reassuring in her way as the engulfing wool in ‘‘Don’t Blame Anyone,’’ and the cavernous maw in ‘‘The Night Face Up.’’ Almost without exception, the longing of Cortázar’s heroes is never attenuated. Even when a woman—such as Nurse Cora, for instance—returns the hero’s love, the stories seem to say that whatever sets o√ longing cannot itself be grasped. This message is clear, inescapable, and a source of frustration both to his heroes and to the reader, compelled to identify with them. We are given to understand there are valid reasons for the unfulfillability of the hero’s wish, and made aware that this wish is linked (in ‘‘Bestiario,’’ for instance), to something forbidden, albeit unvoiced within the tale. Sensing without fully grasping the actual nature of the forbidden yearning within these stories doesn’t just enhance their uncanniness, it becomes the very source from which uncanniness springs forth. Master artificer, Cortázar creates ominous scenarios by dramatizing a wish that is at the root of all prohibitions. The body he alludes to is not just a forbidden body but the most forbidden of all. Forbidden and yet craved, which explains why the narrator of ‘‘Don’t Blame Anyone’’ attempts to cower back into his sweater, why the Moteca doesn’t want to leave the tunnel, why Lucho clamors to get back into Dina’s room, and why the hero of ‘‘Axolotl’’ projects himself into a warm, liquid world. Returning to the sheltered dungeon of a pyramid is as impossible as


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obtaining Cora’s love, however, which is why thwarting the fulfillment of these wishes is portrayed as death. Readers of ‘‘Bestiario’’ or ‘‘Blow-Up’’ feel ill at ease upon completing these stories, without knowing why. Mistaking queasiness for eeriness, no doubt, they fail to see how the malaise that these scenarios evoke comes from within. Identifying with the heroes’ plight, and grasping how the wish for returning to a lost, protected harbor or possessing a perpetually elusive woman is taboo, we sense at some level that such wish is vicariously our own. We want Cora to give in to Pablito, Sara to yield to Aníbal, Rema to place her soothing hand on Isabel’s head and give her the caress ‘‘as if of death’’ she longs to have. We are implicitly aware that wishing these wishes carries a moral onus even when the portent of such onus is never made explicit in the stories themselves. Cortázar may not make his readers wish the murderer would kill the victim, but he does make us hope the guilty yearning at the heart of his scenarios will be fulfilled. We become guilty by proxy, therefore, and it is from the conflict waged between our guilt and our own desire to have the hero surmount all obstacles that the special brand of uncanniness characteristic of Cortázar issues forth. In other words, the body of the mother, always masked in his stories, is not just cast as the longed-for body but, also, as the body eliciting the readers’ guilt. That is, Cortázar creates discomfort and uneasiness not through invoking extraneous fear but by making his readers complicit. The real bogeyman in his extraordinary tales turns out to be not a tiger in a country house but our own conscience. Forcing readers to confront the burden of their own feelings of longing, Cortázar creates one of the most pernicious monsters ever conceived because it bites from within. In his work the safe harbor commonly suggested by the mother’s body is turned into a racking prison cell, into a house pestered by a wild beast, into a choking embrace. Nevertheless, his characters continue to covet the shelter, the refuge, and the warmth of that body, and we the readers are made to identify with their yearning in a process that taints our own original love with guilty feelings. The fact is, the maternal body is both the heart of the mystery in the stories we have looked at, and a lure to the reader, a port of entry that invites a psychological commotion to take place. Only writing can heal the wound that being torn from that body has

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rent. Only writing can bridge the gap that keeps Arcadia far-removed. This is why Cortázar contrives ‘‘Unreasonable Hours’’ and craftily conceives a deputy for himself: Aníbal the author who writes a scenario in which his deepest wish comes true. Transforming wishes into actions in writing does much more than get Aníbal what he wants, moreover; it also heals the wound that has festered during thirty years by putting an end to Cortázar’s obsession with incest. Cortázar’s obsession ends with ‘‘Unreasonable Hours,’’ but not our story, which is the story of that obsession. After all, nothing ends without leaving a trace, and Cortázar’s stories are no exception. Lest we forget, he always maintained that his obsessions were more guardian demons than avenging angels, purveyors of a torment that was both painful and useful. They became sources for his plots and were cherished because dramatizing them gave him and the reader the illusion that wishes can come true. None preoccupied him more than the feelings of separation and loss, which he perceived as the core of the human legacy. This is why he wrote for thirty years about the nostalgia linked with origins. The tormented scenarios he crafted leave a trace that was in all likelihood personal—one, in any event, with which his readers readily identified. His exploration of loss shed light on the very genesis of fear and took him straight to the sources of longing, to the original love story. Like the narrator of T. S. Eliot’s ‘‘Little Gidding,’’ Cortázar never ceased from exploration, and the end of all his exploring was ‘‘to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time’’ (The Complete Poems and Plays, 145). The pain connected with this starting place was insurmountable as well as unforgettable but, resourceful to the end, Cortázar cunningly transformed it, through writing, into our pleasure.


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2 More than meets the I: Guillermo Cabrera Infante’s La Habana para un Infante difunto i

And all shall be well and All manner of thing shall be well When the tongues of flame are in-folded Into the crowned knot of fire And the fire and the rose are one —T. S. Eliot, ‘‘Little Gidding’’

Tales such as ‘‘The Night Face Up,’’ ‘‘Bestiario,’’ and ‘‘Nurse Cora’’ are exceptional in terms of disclosure even if disclosure is not readily apparent on their surface. Cortázar distanced his stories from himself, and their deep meaning from his readers, by introducing uncanny elements such as tigers in country houses and cockroaches in chocolate coating, subterfuges that make one focus more on the plot than on the symbolical allusions it contains. What happens if instead a writer were to dispense with such distancing devices and make disclosures within a realistic context assembled from elements borrowed from his or her own life? What if such refurbished autobiography turns out to be perfectly accurate, mimetic in terms of setting, albeit somewhat exaggerated, a crafty transformation as true to the original as a highly polished surface is to a stone in the rough? Works of this sort are not as infrequent as one might think. Stretching the definition of autobiography a bit, we might say that Rousseau’s Confessions and Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist fall in this category, for instance. Both present altered portraits of their respective authors as circumstantial performers, although it is interesting to note that they do not really reveal

the phantoms which fuel the fiction. Such phantoms are highly conspicuous in Cortázar’s fantasies, as we have seen. Doubtless because his stories are couched in metaphorical terms and are not explicitly revelatory of the problems that haunted him, Cortázar was able to give free rein to his unconscious. In the process of creating he was not confessing anything overtly; he was writing about Motecas being made ready for sacrifice or about hapless victims trapped within the narrow sleeve of a sweater—not, to all appearances, about primal trauma or the problem of incest. Because he was comfortable with sublimation he was extraordinarily candid about portraying the obsessions that engrossed him. His work has extraordinary variety but also extraordinary consistency. It is astonishing to see, for instance, how few motifs he relied on, and how frequently they appear in his work. Cortázar was so remarkably obsessive that, for the critic approaching his writings, it becomes relatively easy to look at the tracks he left behind and put together the pieces of his personal puzzle. Tracks are not always so readily apparent in more blatant confessions. This is what I mean when I say that works belonging to this genre do not usually reveal the phantasms that fuel the fiction. Confessions tend to be so intentional about revealing private moments that they show no cracks through which the unrehearsed voice of the author can be heard. Which is to say, if revelations become purposeful or written on command they lose the candor they were intended to have in the first place. For instance, in his Confessions Rousseau recognized he liked older women, but his admission did not reveal the nature of his attachment. It certainly did not reveal how much that attachment was a constitutive part of him, a fundamental cell of his mental universe. On the other hand, when Cortázar dwells on breathing disorders, darkness, and tunnels he is not coldly and clinically acknowledging an attachment similar to Rousseau’s, he is actually portraying the pangs of separation in full, anguished detail by means of symbols. Writing about such trauma in terms that represent a repressed complex through unconscious association frees him from the censorship imposed by modesty. The body—his own obsessional body—unravels itself and becomes the stu√ of fiction. It may appear that in contrasting Rousseau’s Confessions with Cortázar’s opaque disclosures I am suggesting that realism and a mimetic context deter rather than invite revelations. Actually, there are a number 76

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of works which bring together straightforward revelations typical of the confessional mode, and unconscious but profoundly revealing elements that shed light on the psychological needs of an author, many of the very needs that want to be told and are responsible for orchestrating a work of fiction in the first place. A womb with a view Among these works is a relatively unknown, ribald rite of passage written in 1979 by Cuban-born Guillermo Cabrera Infante. La Habana para un Infante difunto (Infante’s Inferno [1984]), a thinly disguised and very exaggerated autobiography, is often dismissed because it is perceived as politically incorrect, a belated and out of tune manifesto of machismo. If Don Juan had sat down to write about his own exploits, and bragged about his liaisons while describing them in full detail, his catalogue of conquests might have read somewhat like Cabrera Infante’s. This comparison needs to be immediately qualified, however, because, unlike Don Juan’s, the long list of entanglements described in La Habana is rife with failures. What it does have in common with Don Juan’s catalogue is that the narrator exploits women as sex objects; he is cruel, calculating, and selfish; however—although this is no attempt to excuse him—he is no harder on them than he is on himself. Disrobing himself in public, Infante’s hero readily admits how seldom he got what he wanted in life, and his dog-eared catalogue soon reveals more frustrated attempts than successful conquests. Despite all the humor in this bawdy reckoning of heartbreaks, La Habana is a book full of angst, a tropical cocktail shaken with blood, sweat, and tears. We laugh, but once we grasp the hero’s dilemma we laugh as we do at Menippean satire: to hold back the tears. In fact, La Habana is as much about the sources of writing as it is about sex. The novel’s Gargantuan originality is that it shows how both are interwoven. Writing down personal experiences by means of an alter ego, Cabrera Infante reveals the convoluted relationship between the psyche, the pen, and the fable. And because it is well-nigh impossible to open the mind without engaging the body, he writes a book where sex is a vital concern. This concern is apparent from the very first pages of the novel. Cramped in a one-room apartment where he is impelled to attune a gawky body to the fanciful rhythms of a wayward mind, the twelve-year-old narrator Cabrera Infante’s La Habana


dreams about love and rhapsodizes about flesh. The action begins in 1941, at a time when his family has just moved to the Cuban capital. The spindly adolescent has the impression that he has died and gone to heaven. He is smitten with trolley cars, dazzled by lights and the equally luminous characters who people his tenement building, veritable walking novels who enact the human comedy a step away from his door. On occasion, the performance of these walking novels borders on the bewildering, and (no doubt because the hero’s standard of perfection is the silver screen) life in La Habana always imitates art. What the hero sees or, rather, what he describes is transfigured by the magniloquent wand of Hollywood, dating from one fateful Sunday when a family friend took him to a double feature at a neighborhood theater. From that day, movies become the only lasting passion he knows as a teenager. Passion in the context crafted by Cabrera Infante must be taken literally, moreover. In the womby darkness of seedy theaters, platonic caves before the screen, movies in this novel become amalgamated with erotic experience. Watching and feeling his way simultaneously, all hands and eyes, the hero fulfills much more than the screen dreams that whet his appetite: he rubs elbows, squeezes thighs, and plays, whenever possible, his own variations on a theme by peg a ninny with sultry silhouettes picked up at random in the dark. In his mind, erotic experience is so inextricably bound with the movies (‘‘my fleeting love for any woman linked up with my eternal passion for the movies,’’ 78)∞ that characters in the novel begin to cross the proscenium and enter the screen, inducing him to reminisce, ‘‘I was submerged in the moviehouse—as much among the shadows of the screen as amid the figures in the seats’’ (99). Later in the novel, the least coy of his mistresses, Margarita del Campo, arouses him with a faintly lit striptease vividly recorded as ‘‘a shot in black and white, a scene taken . . . from Von Sternberg’s visual repertoire,’’ while his sexual mentor, Julieta Estévez, is brought to life as ‘‘a show in slow motion’’ (630, 582). This tra≈c from one medium to another—from life to literature filtered through the movies—is in no way startling coming from a man who describes himself as a magic lantern and who readily admits, ‘‘I’m not just a plain old camera, I’m a movie camera’’ (596, 537). The narrator of Cabrera Infante’s novel identifies so closely with the camera that he remembers scenes from life as shots that freeze reality and lay bare its fictional nature. Even body parts are pictured in the language of the screen 78

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in what amounts to a veritable osmosis from one genre (the movies) to another (the novel we are reading). For example, the most obsessive figuration in the satire, the vagina, is consistently depicted as a camera— ‘‘the hymen the focus, the vulva the lens, the clitoris the shutter, the secretion the silver salts’’—on the basis of a transference of sense cunningly founded on the popular Cuban notion that ‘‘to see a naked cunt was to take a photograph of yourself ’’ (475). It soon becomes obvious that for the narrator, ‘‘what was taking place on the screen was . . . both life and theatre’’ (223). It is this fascination with gazing and make-believe that always drives him toward women who are performers: Julieta, who reaches the peak of passion to the strains of Debussy’s La Mer, artfully mimics the pose of Goya’s Naked Maja during their love sessions in the afternoon (‘‘conscious of art even during those moments when she should have been least aware of it,’’ 368), and both she and Margarita make their living from the stage. Honey Hawthorne (in the English version of the novel)—Dulce Espina (in the Spanish)—is both an ex-ballerina and a ‘‘high priestess of literature’’ (440), and the young maid who embodies the hero’s fascination with nannies and ancillary employees enacts a false scene snatched with impunity from a soap opera (‘‘Swear to me that you love me with all your heart’’) as a preamble to their love tryst (514). But what of all the others, the thousand and one memorable and not so memorable faces who linger, albeit fleetingly, in the pages of Cabrera Infante’s catalogue? As the narrator longingly admits, these are no more than ‘‘sour gropes’’ (I.I., 81). One after another, they inspire ‘‘one-sided love’’ (137), ‘‘love’s labor lost’’ (288), impotence, lovelessness, deception, and even in one instance—when in the heat of passion he bites the beefy shoulders of a one-night stand—broken dentures. Like the beleaguered Chinaman who will not give up the laundree without seeing the tickee, Infante’s hero will not respond to sex without the rousing prick of performance, the allure of celluloid. The screen is such a magnetic pole of attraction because mediating space and unreachable women appeal to him best of all. Like screen stars, the girls he meets during his years in the tenement building are living proof of his self-declared ‘‘attraction to impossible love objects’’ (47), women who either turn away from him (‘‘The history of my erotic life in Zulueta 408, that stretch of my sexual via crucis, that station on my road to passion seems like a long and languid initiation to failure . . .’’ 151), or put him in a state similar to that of his own panicked penis: ‘‘cowering, Cabrera Infante’s La Habana


folded back upon itself, reduced from fear of all the flesh within its reach’’ (78). The reasons ascribed to his many sexual failures are legion; they include accidents, forgotten addresses, mothers in adjoining rooms, and even imminent mutilation (161). We can sum up his sex life by saying that he fails in the flesh and succeeds with ‘‘loves from the world of shadows,’’ the women he picks up in the movies or those who work on stage (89, 138). Readers of Infante’s Inferno cannot help wondering what this di√erence between the world of flesh and the world of shadows indicates, or what this contrast in sexual prowess suggests about Cabrera Infante’s personal obsessions. As we set out to unravel the many mysteries in La Habana, we discover that Cabrera Infante—himself an ardent fan of the whodunit—loads his satire with clues to help us unravel them. It soon becomes apparent, for instance, that the novel’s main riddle can be charted from a number of intimations focusing on the eye of both beholder and beheld. The screen may be the cynosure of La Habana ’s perennially tangled wooer, but in watching movies, what most thrills him is what comes first: not the movies but the act of gazing. As far as he is concerned, the eye is a lonely hunter and he has no intention of keeping his closed. In the chapter titled ‘‘La vision del mirón miope’’≤ (the novel’s English version explains, ‘‘The Spanish word for voyeur, mirón [from mirar, to look], indicated someone who looked a lot or persistently, but it isn’t quite the same as voyeur or Peeping Tom, a kind of pervert who in sexology manuals is called a scopophiliac,’’ [I.I., 209]), the hero makes no bones about his perverse proclivity—‘‘the obsession with looking,’’ ‘‘la manía de mirar’’—an endeavor at which he becomes proficient when a friend lends him a pair of field glasses, and he moves to a well-exposed apartment in the fashionable Vedado neighborhood of Havana (399). Many years before moving to Vedado, a couple of formative encounters had already given the narrator a taste for what would later become a full-blown passion. His first experience with peeping takes place when he climbs to the roof of his first Havana home and happens to look across the street to the windows of the Hotel Pasaje. There, on that fateful day, and structuring his magnetic mania for life, he spots a naked blond, her shiny body completely smeared with ‘‘vaseline or, better yet, with butter’’ (I.I., 116). This blond Venus is available to the naked eye yet mercifully unreachable, a vision, he will later admit, ‘‘that remains ideal to this day’’ (116). 80 Body of writing

Years later, parapeted in his Vedado (a word which, besides being the name of a neighborhood, means forbidden in Spanish) viewing platform, his fleeting glimpses of bodies in apartments across the street arouse him like a meretricious madeleine: voluptuous yet untouchable, voluptuous because untouchable.≥ His reaction to them makes him immediately aware of the role that watching plays in the dynamics of his sexual desire: ‘‘the spyglasses became a projection of my body,’’ he admits, ‘‘making the eye tactile. It could touch the prisoners of my eye, and when they undressed, it was I who removed with my outstretched fingers the garment whose absence turned them into precious gems’’ (I.I., 214). Such a fervent gazing impulse, as we know from Freud, can be traced to the child’s curiosity ‘‘toward the sexual life of the parents.’’∂ Freud links scopophilia with the primal scene and suggests that the fixation with viewing masks the infant’s fascinated horror at discovering the father’s pride of place vis-à-vis the mother during coitus. The mother—first love object—becomes substituted for the desire to look on, a gazing impulse which is the closest the infant can come to holding on to the body it wishes to have all to himself. Freud assures us that for the voyeur a split is always maintained between the object observed and the source from which the impulse originates. By this he means that the locus of pleasure for the scopophiliac is found in the stimulated organ itself (i.e., in the eye); in addition, in order to fulfill the dynamics of the voyeur’s sexual response, in order to force his gaze and thus stimulate the locus of pleasure, the object of desire needs to be at a distance. Considering the design of La Habana para un Infante difunto, it comes as no surprise that the dynamics of cinema watching should include many of the same elements that arouse the voyeur. Like the infant hiding behind the door to its parents’ room, in the peeper’s dark paradise of the movie house we stare, unseen, and as if through a keyhole, at the tantalizing phantoms flickering on a white sheet. The analogy between voyeuristic pleasure and cinema watching does not end here. In his insightful The Imaginary Signifier, Christian Metz expounds on how, at the movies, the actor is always present when the spectator is not (at the moment of filming), whereas the spectator is present when the actor no longer is (the projection).∑ An analogous staging of absence and presence takes place in the act of voyeurism: the Peeping Tom watches a love scene from which he is physically absent, and gets his pleasure alone while excluding the participants of the very act which stimulated him. The cinema viewer or Cabrera Infante’s La Habana


voyeur must do without any signs of recognition; ‘‘L’objet vu ignore son spectateur,’’ writes Metz, and it is this feature which Cabrera Infante so cannily translates in order to model and structure his hero’s fixation: Infante the protagonist will only be aroused when the love object is distant, elusive, or an actress (who is both distant and elusive).∏ Loving from afar, the narrator’s early infatuations are always unrequited (‘‘It was, it had to be, a one-sided love,’’ [I.I., 137]). Wishing to keep his distance, he also prefers imagination to consummation: ‘‘I think I did the right thing in not touching her,’’ he reflects of a beautiful naked back he watches one afternoon at the movies, ‘‘[I think I did the right thing] . . . in not stretching out my finger until I could touch her because her destiny was to become the epitome of all the backs I’ve ever seen and longed for’’ (I.I., 184). As Metz suggests, one of the key elements in the dynamics of voyeurism is that the ‘‘object observed ignores its spectator’’ (88). This is why in La Habana the woman who most arouses the narrator’s passion, Margarita del Campo, gets his attention by means of her uncanny ability to watch him without seeing him: ‘‘I mean to say that she looked my way but her gaze went right through my body, piercing me as if I were all air, invisible, and she didn’t even notice my intruding presence: the source of my stare . . . never existed for her’’ (525). What holds Margarita dear to Infante is, clearly, her denial of his person, the lack of all recognition, of all—as Freud puts it—‘‘signs of agreement from the part of the object’’ (General Introd., 201). In fact, the narrator readily admits, ‘‘That reduction to the absurd of nothingness with an annihilating, unseeing glare made her unforgettable: I didn’t see her for a long time but I didn’t forget her. You see, it’s impossible to forget the eyes of the unwitting Gorgon’’ (535). Focusing on the eye, the hero of Infante’s saga establishes relationships predicated on gazing, not on contact. Gazing is but a part of the neurotic cluster portrayed in this novel, however. It informs the nature of the hero’s one-sided relationships, and this unusual penchant feeds right into his enjoyment of pleasure taken in isolation. He readily admits, for instance, ‘‘I always liked to go alone . . . to enjoy the solitary pleasure of the movies’’ (192). The movies satisfy him because they fulfill a sexual need that can be swiftly defined in six words of the Spanish language: se mira pero no se toca. Seeing but not touching also explains his fascination with Joseph Cotten’s tireless but unsuccessful pursuit of Alida Valli in The Third Man (254). What Valli represents for Cotten, all screen actors 82 Body of writing

represent for the public;π this is no doubt what the narrator means when he states, ‘‘bodies didn’t exist in the movies, spiritist sex sessions’’ (191). If bodies do not exist in the movies and our scopophiliac narrator concedes that the picture palace is his ‘‘favorite place for romance’’ (197), we can conclude that bodily contact is not one of his priorities (he makes no bones about it, actually, claiming, for instance, ‘‘those women—the ones discovered from my balcony—should remain virgin, always distant’’ [409]). Distant virgins do not usually make ideal bed partners, however; elusive as the pictures on the screen, they keep the narrator in a perpetual state of frustration. This longing is compounded because on the rare occasions when the hero has a date or visits a prostitute he can’t perform.∫ Or, I should say, he usually can’t perform. As it turns out, there are three major exceptions to his fixation on distant virgins: Julieta Estévez, Margarita del Campo, and Honey Hawthorne. Bringing sex appeal as well as confusion into our reading of the plot, these three women break the rule of the narrator’s one-sided loves. After considering the frustrated hero’s fondness for the movies and the strong appeal that aloof, untouchable women exert upon him, we concluded that he was specially drawn to impossible loves. Now we are saying that he has at least three full-fledged relationships in the course of the novel. Infante’s narrator is able to have sexual intercourse, it is true, but the key to his curious sexual fixation is that the three women he performs with are all performers of one sort or another. Shared by every man who gazes at them from the safety of his seat, they are not exclusively the hero’s partners. We can say, therefore, that when performance does not catalyze the hero’s relationships, sex fails. In fact, failure is such a major component of the dynamics of love in this novel that the narrator bluntly declares at one point, ‘‘a love poem is a declaration of impotence’’ even when (or no doubt because) he is writing a celebration of love (420). The question we need to ask ourselves at this point is, what is Infante saying about his hero’s sexual partners? Is his peeping performer impotent or merely confused? Because La Habana is ostensibly autobiographical, we could say that this pavane for a dead infant lays bare the author’s obsessional world.Ω Infante the character siphons o√ features from Infante the author, acting out behaviors which mirror the preoccupations of both. The first and most obsessive preoccupation is sex. But why is Infante putting sex on the Cabrera Infante’s La Habana


billboards in bold letters when the protagonist is so frequently unfulfilled, and even impotent? And if the hero is unfulfilled, why does he go on running after images and denying real bodies? Why doesn’t he grasp what he most covets? In short, why is he still a virgin after fraternizing with not one, but three prostitutes? Why does he declare that ‘‘in order to become a performer’’ he ‘‘had to stop being a spectator’’ (319)? Wouldn’t refusing to perform, as he puts it, contradict the very needs the hero clamors about in over seven hundred pages? Those needs are paradoxically fulfilled only through the eye that functions as the doorway to gratification but also as a protective screen. Like the hand in Cortázar, the eye in La Habana alludes to the hero’s personal trauma directly but symbolically by not making public that the fixation with gazing from afar is strongly suggestive of the primal scene. This statement invites another comparison with Cortázar. The author of Bestiario uses uncanny features to distract and beguile the reader, to steer our interest away from the personal problem imbedded in the story line. Cabrera Infante does the same but he relies on raunchy humor and explicit sex. These distracting features shield our view from something forbidding. And what could be more forbidding than the raw exhibitionism of his ribald satire? The orphic cave When he was just twenty-nine days old, the narrator of La Habana was brought to the temple of the seventh art by his mother. In an initiatory ceremony to a religion that binds them together for the rest of their lives, Zoila creates for her son ‘‘a second umbilical cord’’ that welds him to movie watching as tightly as it did to herself (212). While he is ‘‘almost born with a silver screen in (his) mouth,’’ she—and it is not immediately clear why—‘‘is alienated by the bedsheet with film shadows’’ (211). To grasp why the narrator feels his mother is alienated by the screen which he describes as a bedsheet, we need to understand that, as he sees it, Zoila is ‘‘a faithful wife capable of being unfaithful to [his] father . . .’’ (212). Zoila’s unfaithfulness is not of a conventional nature, however. Hand in hand with her son, partners in crime, the mother in La Habana flees into the womb of movie palaces to share her secret passion with her infant, and not with her husband. Their flights into dark theaters remind the narrator of their first sojourn together, the solo flight they shared 84

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before his birth: ‘‘Now the two of us were going, as in the first days . . . on our way to the Orphic cave’’ (212). For this reason, it is not surprising that in his memoirs, and echoing Metz, Infante should refer to the screen as the bedsheet that alienates his mother. After all, the bedsheet in question is their bedsheet as opposed to the bedsheet she shares with his father. It is the emblem of her disloyalty to the man she married and, at the same time, the token of her exclusive relationship with her son. Movies are important both as site and symbol in La Habana. They are a place to love and the place of love because the bedsheet flickering in the dark literally turns on the libidinal switch wired by the woman who brought the narrator to the Orphic cave. Movies are the space—the time and place—that binds together mother and son; they are both their shared sin and his wish fulfilled: the sanctuary from which Laius is excluded. In the dark movie palace, the infante difunto can have his mother to himself. She can be seen but not touched, however: this is the price for having exclusive rights over her. A small price to pay, really, when we consider that only he, the narrator, has free access to the altar. The hero and his mother commune in the dark, and their communion sanctifies the bedsheet with flickering shadows, investing it with a sense of pleasure because in his mind it is associated with her. By a process of metonymy, Ma becomes linked with maw, the cavernous darkness of movie theaters conceptualized as a spacious, welcoming womb in the hero’s mind. Entering this womb with a view he recaptures the original feeling of well-being and communion with his mamma. The space itself is so coated with pleasure that it, in turn, conditions a mania. From his first visit to the movies in the company of the woman he loves, objects of desire will be cast in the same light—and with the same proscription—as she: se mira pero no se toca. It follows that actresses, women who fall in the same category as mothers insofar as they can be seen but not touched, will become the ideal love objects. At the movies perfect pleasure can be had for the price of a ticket. In the outside world the dynamics of pleasure are not so simple; the narrator must recreate the conditions which the movie theatre provides if fulfillment is to be attained. His fixation requires watching from a distance, so voyeurism becomes his modus operandi because it reenacts both the primal scene (from which he was excluded), and his first visit to the movies (from which he was not). During the first, he observed his parents from a distance; during the second, he had his mother to himself. La Cabrera Infante’s La Habana


Habana, a tale of sound and fury told by a now-grown infante, unfolds as a telling and retelling of two scenes—one of exclusion, one of inclusion— and if this is not always evident it is because they are both wrapped in the delusive tinsel of frustrated sex. Cave at emptor At this point, and not unlike Cabrera Infante himself, who approaches the most important subjects indirectly, I would like to set aside our discussion about the role of the mother and approach it from a di√erent perspective after clarifying one feature that is intrinsic to its sphere of action in the novel. At least as present as the theme of maternal hegemony is a persistent correlation between movie theaters and caves, leviathans and wombs in La Habana para un Infante difunto. Cabrera Infante may be a punster nonpareil but he is an even better master of the metaphor who builds his fiction through a remarkably intricate network of associations. The first reference to the cave appears early in the novel, soon after the hero’s arrival in the capital. Along with his parents and brother he spends the night in a cheap hotel, sleeping all bundled together, ‘‘the four of us crowded into the same bed’’ (25). The infamous inn or posada (the true nature of which becomes evident from the moaning and groaning heard later that night) is referred to as an ‘‘Aeolian cave’’ (27), a label which is likewise given to the first love motel the narrator visits with Dulce Espina (463). This posada is in turn compared to a movie theater (‘‘this seemed more than ever the ticket window of a cheap movie theatre,’’ the narrator notes as they go in [463]), and, further, to the womb: ‘‘the multiple corridors seemed even narrower . . . a hallway that led to the cubicle . . . then . . . another passageway’’ (463). This last identification becomes more explicit in the scene with the chambermaid when, during lovemaking, the hero plunges forward ‘‘through a soft gully until he reached her flooded cave’’ (517). The analogy between caves, movie theaters, and wombs develops as a full-fledged leitmotif in the epilogue. In this section, called Función continua, the hero enters a theatre in hot pursuit of a blond. He sits next to her, and after staring for some time without getting a response, he lets his hand casually drop to her knee, then, when she doesn’t seem to mind, to her bosom. The woman roars with laughter, not at him, apparently, but at 86 Body of writing

a Pluto cartoon she is watching on the screen. Then, without batting an eyelash, she removes his hand from her breast, and returns it to her knee. She begins by squeezing it so hard between her thighs that she almost breaks his knuckles, but eventually she lets her legs fall open. Encouraged, the narrator begins a slow dive, not to the bottom of the sea but to the steamy swamp between her thighs. His disembodied hand, ‘‘a Frankenstein monster . . . with ideas of its own’’ turns into a sexual climber, crawls by itself up her garter, crosses the ‘‘bulge of her cheap old-fashioned garters,’’ and finds ‘‘its final cradle, endlessly crotched’’ (I.I., 397). The woman has no panties on. Without wasting a minute he’s inside Pandora’s box but, instead of spilling out its contents, the greedy little box begins to engulf the narrator’s belongings: first his wedding ring, then his wristwatch and, finally, his cu√ links. The woman, eager beaver suddenly turned eagle scout, hands the narrator a flashlight, and spreads her legs wide open, placing each on either arm of her seat. Not stopping to count his blessings, he begins ‘‘cutting a path through the bushy hedge’’ (403). As he pokes his head inside the opening, his shoulders slip through, and he feels afraid of getting stuck. Using his ‘‘elbows as fulcrum and arms as lever,’’ he achieves the opposite of the e√ect desired: the entrance becomes a sloping channel and he is swallowed in (402). Realizing he has lost his left shoe during the skirmish, he considers crawling back out, but when he peers through the orifice into which he has fallen, all he can see is himself ‘‘facing a dark lobby with a mauve bell up above and some deep purple hangings along the sides’’ (404). As he continues to feel his way inwardly he realizes he is ‘‘in a soft cave,’’ more precisely, ‘‘inside a pear-shaped salon’’ (404). There is a sudden tremor at that point and he slides downward again, suddenly ‘‘alone in a woman’s world’’ (404). He finds a book with a Latin inscription which reads, ‘‘Ovarium, corpus luteus, labium majus, matrix, tubae Falloppi’’ (405). Without understanding a word, he declares it to be ‘‘a book about books’’ (405). The title of this book’s first chapter is ‘‘Cave at Emptor’’ and it contains fragments from a diary or a ship’s log taken from Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth. The log entries quoted by Cabrera Infante refer almost exclusively to the sighting of terrible monsters: crocodiles with huge jaws and rows of teeth, whales with enormous fins, voracious creatures which lived deep down under the surface, and left enormous gashes and dents on any surface they could sink their teeth into, ‘‘huge, dark hillocky bodies’’ with Cabrera Infante’s La Habana


appetites so unsatiable that ‘‘a hundred whales a day would be insu≈cient to satisfy’’ (405–6). As he reaches the last page in the log, in a scene reminiscent of ‘‘The Night Face Up,’’ the narrator is shaken by seismic spasms and feels his body moving along the floor. He is carried into an alluviated area where he floats in a pool ‘‘of a mud-like substance’’; everything around him turns red, and the pool floor begins to shake, the whole basin boiling over ‘‘like a pressure cooker about to explode’’ (409). Like the characters in Verne’s book he is ‘‘caught in the middle of an eruption’’; unlike them, however, he is deeply concerned that he will be ‘‘thrown out, expelled, rejected, vomited, spat into the air’’ (410). Allowing himself to float ‘‘in the amniotic fluid of memories,’’ and as he is about to wake up screaming, he falls instead into ‘‘a horizontal abyss’’ (410). The fantasies that pullulate throughout this dream reiterate in the space of a few pages what the narrator has been saying all along: namely, that there is no place like home, and that if the infante is now difunto it is because—like the heroes of Cortázar’s stories—he was cast o√ from paradise.∞≠ It is clear from the outset that his main worry in the epilogue is that this might happen again (I.I., 410). As Rodríguez Monegal maintains (and against my own expressed opinion in an earlier article), Cabrera Infante’s infante does not, in fact, emerge from the cave; he begins to spin in ‘‘a wild whirlpool with no center’’ and falls ‘‘into a horizontal abyss’’ (410).∞∞ Once in the abyss he declares, ‘‘here’s where I came in,’’ the very words we say at the movies when we reach the scene that was on the screen when we entered the theater (410). As expressed in the epilogue of Infante’s Inferno, then, the hero’s wish is to stay inside the cave; this is precisely the reason he is stripped of the three elements that tie him to the outside world: his wedding band, symbol of the social contract; his watch, emblem of time; and his cu√ links or yugos, the singular of which translates as ‘‘yoke’’ or ‘‘bondage.’’ The obsessional contents of the dream are as revealing as the elements from which the hero is stripped before reentering the womb. For instance, the emphasis on leviathans able to gulp down ‘‘a hundred whales a day’’ and leave teeth marks as a tantalizing reminder of their ability to engulf make us recall Freud’s observations about animal phobias, particularly his suggestion that big animals that swallow represent the unconscious wish to return to the womb (I.I., 407).∞≤ In addition, the book the hero finds and refers to as the book of books is a trope of the female 88

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sex; not only does it contain a description of the female reproductive system within its cover (‘‘Ovarium, corpus luteus, labium majus, matrix, tubae Falloppi’’), but also, the leather lips that bind it assimilate it to the object portrayed within its pages (706; I.I., 405). Handling the book in the cave, the narrator is both held within and holding the symbol of the object he covets; like Alice on her way to Wonderland, he is simultaneously gripping and enclosed by the space he reveres. Cabrera Infante writes a book of books which evokes, as we have seen, the female sexual organs. He clothes a wish in autobiographical trappings, but distances it from his readers—unable to see the tree for the woods—by staging the novel as a catalogue of conquests. So many women show their faces in this compulsively long chronicle because, ultimately, they are all slippery reenactments of the first one, remembrances of loins past which, bringing to mind the primordial womb, are unattainable by definition or, rather, by association. In the epilogue to his catalogue Cabrera Infante reveals how far from the bush his tree of life has grown. The hero—no longer an infante but about to be reborn—enters the cave and finds a book which stands for the womb he has lost, that is to say, the longed-for object adumbrated throughout the novel. In this serendipitous discovery we can see more than one statement regarding the narrator’s origins. With it not only does he go back to the source of life, he faces up to the sources of writing: his own, at least. After all, Cabrera Infante is an author of books and, like Cortázar, he is able to create—that is, to recover—the lost cave through writing, and only through writing. In other words, he reveals the desire to reenter the womb by writing about it, and writing about it makes it possible to fulfill his wish. In the epilogue the Infante comes home to stay. La Habana para un Infante difunto exists because he wrote his longing for the body that catapulted him into the outside world, and became a writer to write himself into it again, to put himself back in the place that in his eyes or, rather, in his wishful thinking, he should have never left. Sharp blades Having inquired into the author’s desire, and witnessed its fulfillment in the oneiric epilogue, we are now ready to examine the way in which he portrays the object of that desire in more mimetic passages. Is Cabrera Cabrera Infante’s La Habana


Infante’s longing for the womb conditioned by real events, one wonders, and if so, how was such longing set o√ in reality and, presumably, curtailed? Since the novel portrays a rite of passage and culminates with a wish fulfilled, shouldn’t we also take time to examine how this wish was conceived? Does it come into the world as pure figment or does the ‘‘reality’’ portrayed in the novel keep it alive? With this new quest in mind, we can backtrack and pick up a thread we began to unravel earlier in our discussion; we are ready to examine the triangular relationship between the narrator and his parents. To say that in La Habana para un Infante difunto the relationship between the narrator and Zoila, his mother, is an uncommon one would fall short of an understatement. Zoila’s presence permeates the fiction and conditions the hero’s response to every aspect of life including sex. As a matter of fact, we are led to believe that his sexual appetites evolve as a reaction to her. For instance, the narrator explains his preference for small breasts by saying that they returned him ‘‘to the maternal breast’’ because his ‘‘mother had small tits’’ (468; I.I., 249). Later in the action, deeply aroused by a chambermaid, he ponders over his rapture and finds at the bottom of it the recognition, in the maid’s body, of his own mother’s particular smell, ‘‘the same kind of talcum powder my mother used to buy’’ (I.I., 514). These are not the only times when thoughts of mother enter his mind during an episode of lovemaking, moreover. When Margarita praises him halfheartedly after their first time together, he cannot help thinking, ‘‘Was there something in her tone of the mother who doesn’t reward the son but who doesn’t want to hurt him either?’’ (575). It is startling, to say the least, that the narrator should associate sexual intercourse both with his mother and with fiascos in bed. His mother’s own behavior (filtered, it is true, through Cabrera Infante’s powers of recall) is no less flabbergasting. One day, when the spent hero comes home after an afternoon with Margarita, it is she, the mother, and not his wife, who demands, ‘‘Where have you been until now?,’’ prompting him to remark, ‘‘It’s clear that it should have been my wife who asked me that question’’ (601). The hero’s mother is not only nosy, she is also clinging, a stern judge who expects to be obeyed and demands to know his whereabouts at all times. Whenever he gives her the slip (usually to go hunting for girls), she invariably turns into ‘‘a fury,’’ and interrogates him police style upon his return (I.I., 91–92; 438; I.I., 230). Turned into a meek lamb, the 90

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narrator cannot even ‘‘call upon [his] rights’’ because as far as his mother was concerned, ‘‘[he] had none’’ (201; I.I., 92). Zoila’s authority overpowers all around her, not just her son: ‘‘My mother . . . bitched at everyone in the family, including my father of course, over whom she had an advantage not only in height but in character, her dynamic vitality . . . contrasting with his passivity’’ (439). Her authority is much more than verbal, moreover, at least in the fantasy that is constantly brewing in her son’s mind. As attested by the three scenes of confrontation and pursuit we will now look at—in all of which mutilation is suggested—she inspires fear as well as awe. As we have seen, the hero of this novel is always in pursuit of women who, for the most part, slip away. Sometimes he sneaks out of the house hot on their tracks; others, he changes seats at the movies to get closer to a girl and ends up following her after the show and leaving his parents in the lurch. Frantic at her son’s mysterious disappearances, Zoila set out to find him in three episodes that can be regarded as independent dramas— allegories within the fiction—couched in symbolic terms. In the first, she is worried out of her wits because a body has been hacked in pieces that have later been strewn all over their neighborhood. The murderer has gone into hiding, and her son is nowhere to be found. When, after many hours, Zoila finally finds him calmly strolling on the Parque Central, she conveys her anxiety in terms more ambiguous and revealing in the Spanish original than in the English translation: ‘‘The butcher lives in our house . . . ,’’ she blurts out, ‘‘The man who was butchered, too’’ (‘‘El descuartizador vive en casa . . . también el descuartizado’’ 122; I.I., 54). Zoila’s is a strange proclamation indeed. After all, aren’t we being implicitly asked to draw a parallel between el descuartizador who lives en casa and the one who buries limbs in the park? What sort of hacking activity is the hero’s family involved in? Once the narrator explains the mother’s idiosyncratic use of the word casa or home to refer to the whole tenement, however, her statement about the mad hacker seems purely coincidental. At least until we realize that the element of mutilation appears in all three episodes detailing her not-so-trivial pursuit of her son. The preamble to the second scene of confrontation between mother and son takes place at the movies. The narrator, his parents, and his friend Carlos Franqui are sitting together when, all of a sudden and seemingly out of the blue, the hero stands up and announces, ‘‘I can’t see a Cabrera Infante’s La Habana


thing’’ (193). His mother is understandably alarmed, ‘‘thinking that I had been struck by sudden blindness, a tropical Oedipus,’’ while the father, ‘‘as usual, had nothing to say’’ (193; I.I., 87). One thing leads to another, sudden blindness to changing seats, finding a girl, leaving the theater, following her home, and finally having to confront Jocasta’s glaring recriminations: ‘‘Kid, where the hell have you been?’’ (199). In this second episode the reference to mutilation is oblique and less revealing than in the first. The hero leaves the mother to find a girl; the mother is enraged when she notices his disappearance; the father, as usual, ‘‘has nothing to say.’’ Of all the nicknames Cabrera Infante could have picked for his hero as a consequence of changing seats at the local theater, are we to think that Oedipus is purely gratuitous? What is the author saying or, rather, implying in this scene about the relationship between mother and son? That it is a constraint more than a bond? That the mother makes unreasonable demands based on her unrealistic expectations of the duties of filial love? What are these demands saying about Zoila’s needs or, in other words, about Zoila’s own desire? Before we attempt to answer these questions we need to look at the third and last scene of motherly pursuit in La Habana. By the time it takes place the narrator is already in his late twenties; it is late at night or, more exactly, very early in the morning, and we find ourselves in the swinging Cuban capital of the fifties. The hero has been out all night with Honey Hawthorne and returns home to hear his grandmother echo his mother’s earlier remark, ‘‘Muchacho, where the hell have you been?’’ She informs him that his parents are roaming the streets in dogged pursuit of him (437). Half disgruntled, half amused, he cannot help thinking: ‘‘This was really big news; here I was, no longer a minor, searched by my mother as if I were a lost child’’ (437). Dashing out into the street, he eventually discovers her ‘‘passing the spearlike lancets guarding the gate to the medical school . . . followed by [his] father who looked even smaller’’ (437). The towering mother is once again portrayed in glaring contrast to the father, whose role is as reduced as his stature. But this is not the only disclosure made in this scene. The narrator had been drinking heavily that night and his alcohol-addled brain transforms the backdrop to his and the reader’s eyes by means of imagery that is as suggestive as it is revealing. In the fiction anger turns the mother into a veritable colossus: ‘‘She seemed taller from the quest, walking tall in her anger, a giantess upon 92

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seeing me appear beyond the spears, safe and sound, my mother the Fury’’ (438). The spears on the railing of the medical school are a handy tool inviting a double entendre; using them as both the background and the basis for an artistic allusion, Cabrera Infante goes on to describe the encounter between mother and son with the title given to one of Velázquez’s most famous paintings in the Prado, The Meeting among the Lances (438).∞≥ Thanks to a conveniently placed visual gimmick—the lancets atop the fence—the mother in her avatar of avenger is juxtaposed with another cutting instrument: the spears, las lanzas. The spears are not the only indication of the mother’s penchant for violence and of the danger she seems to embody within the fiction. Zoila has no qualms about voicing her rage, either. When she finally finds her son among the lances, and realizes that he has been out with a girl, that rage knows no bounds: ‘‘And I’ve spent the whole night without sleeping, looking for you like a madwoman,’’ she hisses, ‘‘while you were out with a girl?’’ (439). The hero’s observation immediately following his mother’s is anything but naive: ‘‘My mother’s raging reaction upon knowing that I’d been with a girl all night is curious’’ (439). When we consider the nature of the partnership between mother and son, the former’s reaction is startling, of course, but perhaps ‘‘partnership’’ is not the right word to use in this context. How could one describe a maternal bond in which jealousy is rampant as a ‘‘partnership’’? What exists between the narrator and his mother is, clearly, a relationship but not one that is easy to define or even to bear, at least as far as he is concerned. In addition, as in Cortázar’s ‘‘Letters from Mother’’ and for the same reason, the burden this relationship brings with it is not explicitly portrayed. This does not mean it is not painfully present, however. The narrator harbors ambiguous feelings vis-à-vis his mother from the start: she introduces him to the movies and conditions his libido for life, but she is also a pigheaded pest who pursues him whenever he is out of her sight. His fear of her is symbolically portrayed in the three scenes of pursuit we have just looked at. In the first, she draws together an axe and a dismembered body; the second touches on Oedipus’ blindness; and the third frames her with a background of spearlike lancets. Manifestly, Cabrera Infante is making a statement about his mother by means of the sharp blades with which he systematically associates her. Might not La Cabrera Infante’s La Habana


Habana be a chronicle of the mother’s ability to hurt to the same degree that it is a tale of the son’s desire to be reunited with her in spite of the pain she is capable of inflicting? Are these two desires (hers to hurt, his to be reunited) so contradictory, in fact, if we are willing to recognize that what Cabrera Infante is saying is that the wound that never heals is always two-sided? Let me make myself clear. The mother in La Habana lashes out at her son during those times when she feels she is losing him. On the other hand, when she is the exclusive object of his a√ection, she seeks to share with him the world of the movies (associated, as we have seen, with the womb). By having her infante born with a silver screen in his mouth, isn’t she making sure he will remain forever in that womb with a view which is her legacy to him? But how can the narrator respond to her wish if he is frightened of her? Isn’t it fright that compels him to compare his mother with a giantess who walks tall in her anger among spears, and to declare that el descuartizador and el descuartizado both live ‘‘at home’’? Isn’t it fright— and feeling wounded—that makes him identify with Oedipus? Why, in his imagination, does he make his mother larger than life? Isn’t Cabrera Infante inviting a comparison between the giantess and all the other leviathans that populate La Habana para un Infante difunto? As a matter of fact, aren’t oversized monsters one of the leitmotifs in this novel? What do these monsters suggest? Isn’t it curious that they should all have teeth capable of tearing and rending or be linked with sharp instruments empowered to cut, scar, and maim? How does this capacity to cut and maim fit into their portrayal in the novel or, in other words, into Cabrera Infante’s scheme? Because most of the monsters mentioned in La Habana appear in the cavern described in the epilogue, we are being directed to think of this cavern as a dangerous place, a toothy grotto teeming with jaws, a bottomless pit that could swallow the hero like the leviathans described in Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth. Furthermore, since the cavern is associated with the womb throughout the book, we must reach the conclusion that it, too, is a dangerous place, a vagina dentata that can snatch your watch as an entrée and swallow your wedding band for dessert. Because this vagina dentata is coupled with the cave, and via the cave with the movies, and with pleasure, however, it also brings to mind associations with the mother that were established early on in the hero’s life. As we have seen, the mother is both object of desire and taboo: se 94

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mira pero no se toca. She is also dangerous: mi madre, la Furia. Ambivalence is born in connection with her not because the hero longs to be reunited in some passive dream of wish-fulfillment, but because she won’t cut the silver cord and leave him in peace. In fact, she symbolically castrates him, shaping his libido to suit her needs and obsessions. Saying that Zoila castrates her son is no hyperbole. For a start, she makes him impotent by instilling a dread of ‘‘las enfermedades malas’’ (80). This dread is so restrictive that when he is at last ready to have sex he wilts at the thought of his mother’s possible arrival, referring to her as ‘‘la policía del sexo’’ (78). Zoila is so obsessed with venereal disease that she wipes chairs with alcohol after they have been sat on by fully dressed guests whom she thinks might be contaminated. She inoculates the fear of diseased sex to such a degree that after her son’s second consecutive fiasco at the brothel he blames it on the ‘‘fear instilled in me by my mother’’ (325). He is right, but not completely. No matter how ‘‘real,’’ Zoila’s obsession with venereal disease is also a subterfuge: the pin that pops the hero’s balloon. It is true that she plants the seed of disease in his brain but, as we will see, this seed develops its own root system as soon as it hits the ground she has so diligently tilled. Fetus accompli We have already seen how movies represent the umbilical cord that tethers the hero to his mother. The movie theater is their shared sanctum sanctorum, a place where ‘‘touching is not allowed.’’ Because his relationship to her conditions his subsequent relationships to women, he even envisions his first sexual encounter with Xiomara the prostitute in movie terms. Incapable of having an erection, he thinks to himself, ‘‘your money will not be returned if the performance is cancelled’’ (I.I., 64). In the hero’s mind, sex becomes inextricable from performance, which is in turn linked to the movies as the movies are to his mother. But Mom—it can’t be said enough—is that which cannot be touched. Zoila conditions her son, therefore, by imprinting a sexual program on his subconscious from which physical contact is disenfranchised. Sex with bad women is dangerous because it can make you sick; sex with normal women is impossible because the one and only blueprint for a relationship between the sexes inhibits—not to say, prohibits—it. The hero may not consciously understand why he was ‘‘practically impotent’’ when he was a teenager Cabrera Infante’s La Habana


but his unfolding biography leaves no doubts as to the causes of this a∆iction, and the grown-up narrator telling his story in flashback is certainly aware of this neurosis (I.I., 163). When after his second failed attempt Xiomara tells him, point blank, ‘‘You should go see a doctor,’’ the hero thinks to himself, ‘‘she scared the hell out of me because she meant something was wrong with my body (unless she was perceptive enough to imply that something was wrong with my head)’’ (164). Manifestly, in La Habana para un Infante difunto Zoila’s prohibition of diseased sex makes her son impotent, his sexuality displaced from one organ (the penis) to another (the eye). When sexuality does become genital, intercourse takes place, as we have seen, with actresses and performers. But we haven’t yet begun to explore the very revealing terms in which these sexual relationships are described. In La Habana intercourse is usually based on a fantasy in which the penis is identified with an unborn child. As movie houses are linked with sex houses (posadas), sex houses with caves, caves with the female sex, and the female sex with books, sexual penetration is coupled with birth and the penis likened to the fetus in three revealing instances. The first occurs when the hero makes love to Julieta Estévez: ‘‘Her vulva sliding forward and back around my naked penis,’’ he reminisces, ‘‘adopting, adapting it, the two tethered by that other umbilical cord, moving us in unison, like the mother with her son in her belly, my fanatic fetus fused with her’’ (379). In the second, he rhapsodizes about Margarita’s sex with terms that mirror his description of lovemaking with Julieta: ‘‘Not the voracious vagina dentata but that vulva-versa sucking with contractions, practically an inverted birth, the penis becoming a fetus on its return trip’’ (577). Last but not least, in the long day’s journey into night which is the epilogue, the aroused hero enters the womb, fulfilling the wish voiced in the analogy between penis and fetus in the two earlier scenes: he literally comes to occupy the place of the male sex organ within the body of a woman. These three episodes portray one and the same obsession: they substitute the fetus for the penis translating the adult’s wish to put himself back again into the position of the unborn. It is important to note that in Infante’s fantasy of a return to the womb the female sex is ‘‘not the voracious vagina dentata, ’’ moreover. This qualifying clause suggests that there are two kinds of wombs in La Habana: good ones (those you enter as a fetus), and bad ones (those of prostitutes) which you do not enter at 96

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all because they are polluted with ‘‘enfermedades malas’’ and, besides, the ‘‘policía del sexo’’ (i.e., Zoila) forbids it. The only way sexual congress is validated or even possible in this novel is by recreating the primal situation by means of fantasies (equating the penis with the fetus), or by going to the movies (entering the theater, we remember, is ‘‘practically an inverted birth,’’ in which he becomes ‘‘a fetus on its return trip,’’ 577). The notion of intercourse as an inverted birth in which the penis is identified with the child is not typically the infant’s, but the mother’s (Lacan, Les formations de l’inconscient, 33). The mother sees her child as an extension of herself, as a tool to reach out into the world beyond the narrow confines of her own limited body, as ‘‘the complement to her incompletion’’ (i.e., the phallus) (33). This is why castration is as much a trauma for her as it is for the developing child. As we know, at the resolution of the Oedipal phase the infant sees itself symbolically severed from the object it covets. Lacan argues that the paternal proscription also cuts o√, or symbolically sets apart, the mother from the body of the child whom she views as an extension of herself. But what if this proscription were never internalized? What if, as in La Habana, the father occupied a marginal position within the family dynamics? What kind of bond would exist then between mother and child? Before answering this question, we need to dwell on the child’s wish to fulfill its mother’s unconscious desires before the Oedipal phase comes to an end—particularly since in La Habana para un Infante difunto that phase never does. Fully identified with his mother before the paternal proscription is assimilated into the unconscious, the infant mirrors her wishes, including the notion of casting himself as phallus. At this stage of its development, Lacan feels the child is not an individual but rather a blank space totally devoid of singularity because its wishes are all borrowed. If, as Zoila seems to do in La Habana, the mother treats her infant as a complement of her own incompletion (as the very organ with which the infant is identifying, in other words), the infant will be unable to break away from her sphere of influence and forge its own individuality. There should be no doubt by now that La Habana is the tale of one such unresolved bond between mother and child. But what an extraordinary trail this bond leaves behind it. In voicing his sexual craving through seven-hundred-odd pages, the perpetually frustrated hero of this biography is actually telling the tale of his mother’s wish, one to which he responds sympathetically. Taking the place of the phallus in the epilogue, Cabrera Infante’s La Habana


he allows that wish to take shape and mold the fiction as it has molded his own unconscious cravings. Such profound complicity between mother and child hinders the identification of the latter with the voice of authority which Lacan defines as the ‘‘Name of the Father,’’ however. (To have access to the ‘‘Name of the Father’’ is, we recall, to recognize the precept forbidding incest—that is to say, the law castrating the infant’s own desire.) In La Habana para un Infante difunto, the infante consistently shows, if not outright disdain of his father, at least an aloofness that is not unlike contempt, while he identifies with the name of the mother in more ways than one.∞∂ First of all, he adopts her fantasy (i.e., to cast himself as embodiment of the penis) and, secondly, behaving as an impotent man, he responds to her desire of a nongenital relationship (for the hero’s unconscious, tolerated sex is sex without contact, sex in which the theater has been substituted for the bedroom, the screen for the sheets, gazing for touching). In sum, then, the hero of La Habana is much more his mother’s son than his father’s, more Infante than Cabrera, as the novel’s title makes readily evident. La Habana rhymes with Pavana, and although Infante’s music is more a symphony for bedsprings than a concerto for the left hand, he is as able as Ravel to mourn the passing of youth, the loss of his homeland, and the bond that strapped him to mother while providing— lest it be forgotten—the kindling to write this elegy. The infante in the title is also difunto, no longer an infante although still very much Infante, his mother’s son. The infante difunto has, in addition, become Infante the writer, able to dramatize a return in utero that makes him both a fetus accompli and the phallus his mother wished for herself. Fully identifying with Zoila, the infante obnubilates his small, quiet, unassuming father ‘‘who had succeeded in making himself invisible’’ (24). The senior Cabrera, and notably the prohibition of incest that he is capable of wielding, are obscured in this novel because, as Lacan maintains, ‘‘It is only insofar as the father’s word is acknowledged by the mother that it can be perceived to be the voice of authority. If the father’s role is shaky (within the family dynamics) the infant will remain dependent upon its mother’’ (Les quatre concepts fondamentaux, 326). In La Habana this dependence is metaphorically illustrated by the infante’s perpetual pursuit of the womb (linked in turn with that other object of desire in this novel, the movies). The hero reaches the summit of that dependence and the end of his pursuit in the epilogue, where movies 98

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become inseparably fused with wombs once and for all. Not surprisingly, the all-too-willing Ariadne who leads him into the movies—the blond who laughs at Pluto—turns out to be informed by the ostensibly dissonant portraits of longing and failure described earlier in the action. This girl is cast to remind the reader of the inspiring blond Venus seen naked and smeared with butter in her room at the Hotel Pasaje (which means both ‘‘passage’’ and ‘‘transition’’ in Spanish). It is not only that the Pluto blonde is described using the same words that were used to describe the Pasaje blonde (both have a ‘‘cinnamon colored face,’’ and a ‘‘yellow shock of . . . bleached hair’’ (689, 392), but also that this section of the book begins with the words ‘‘I saw her. I saw her again. I saw her again years later’’ (689, my emphasis), and the hero twice recognizes, ‘‘Before, she had her back turned [i.e., in the Pasaje hotel room] . . . but now [as she buys her ticket at the theater box o≈ce] she was looking at me only . . . though on the sly, out of the corner of her eye’’ (689, my emphasis). The blond Venus is also an echo of Xiomara, the first prostitute the narrator visits and fails with: ‘‘I could see her body (i.e., Xiomara’s) which reminded me . . . of the naked girl lying in bed in the Pasaje Hotel room. Now, for one fleeting instant, Xiomara the whore brought back to me the girl I had lost’’ (323). The lost Pasaje girl was observed from a distance; emblematic of safe sex, she was a perfect womb because untouched. Xiomara, on the other hand, was a big bad womb; deflated by the beckoning abyss of her tainted sexuality, the hero’s little red riding hood was—on that occasion, at least— unable to ride. In the epilogue, Xiomara the bad and Pasaje the good are fused into one. The Pluto blond embodies what each of the others represents; she is Jekyll in Hyde, the perfect vehicle to fulfill the hero’s fantasy of entering the womb. But as we have already indicated, there are two ways to enter the womb: intercourse, and returning in utero. Since the hero’s initial attachment to mother is unresolved, the first is impossible because it is tainted with the onus of incest (he is impotent in his first sexual encounters because of his mother’s tacit prohibition). There is one way to overcome his mother’s proscription, however; he can mirror her fantasy and cast the penis as fetus. At that point he can enter the womb, simultaneously chicken and egg. The womb, as we have seen, is equivalent to a cave that is in turn equivalent to movie theaters to which he was introduced by his mother, conditioning his mania for life. He longs to get into movie theaters because the notion of getting into this womb with a Cabrera Infante’s La Habana


view masks and substitutes for his greatest wish: being swallowed by Mama. In the epilogue he finally gets what he wants, skirting the problem of incest once and for all. If social taboos prohibit the hero’s wish to get into his mother’s body, a return in utero is obstructed by reality itself. It is at this point that literature comes to the rescue, however. In La Habana the narrator can at last fulfill his greatest wish; in the epilogue Infante puts himself in the posture of the infante, bypasses all taboos, and reenters the room from which he had been ousted. We remember how in his fantasies with Julieta and Margarita he waxed lyrical about an ideal uterus from which he could not be cast o√, a ‘‘vulva-versa’’ that would suck him in with contractions instead of ejecting him (577). Such an inverted birth is exactly what happens to the hero in the cavern described in the epilogue, a cavern he is almost forced to leave (he sees a light at the end of the tunnel), until he falls into a ‘‘horizontal abyss’’ (410). The story told in La Habana is circular, not in terms of its structure, but in terms of the wish it portrays. Like a Función continua of a picture that never ends, that wish is the tale told throughout the novel, the tale of the infante who becomes Infante and writes himself as the infant he never stopped longing to be. La Habana is also a declaration of love, a legacy from Zoila to her son, and from Infante to his mother whose own wish he achingly echoes in the pages of this novel.

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3 The excremental vision of Gabriel García Márquez i

Such Order from Confusion sprung, Such gaudy Tulips rais’d from Dung —Jonathan Swift, The Lady’s Dressing Room

Thus far, we have studied authors whose writing is a mirror of their private selves, whose obsessions are both the mainspring and subject of the tales they write. The body in fiction need not be a reflection of the person writing, however; in fact, it is most often endowed with symbolic value beyond its personal and material identity. It can be featured as a trope for Everyman or as the means to generalize about social ills, political upheavals, or emotional sensibilities. In works with a political agenda the body will, in all probability, show up as a substitution rather than a sublimation to suggest an analogy between itself and another object. The bizarre deformities of a dictator or the uncanny incorruption of a drowned man’s corpse may not exclusively refer to a sick statesman or to a fallen angel but be a comment on what the statesman and the drowned man represent within a given context. Filled with allusions to bodily functions and organic metaphors, Gabriel García Márquez’s novels and short stories are cases in point of works that should not be taken at face value. Without stretching the point, we could say that each of them is an anatomical entity, an organism that reveals truths about the author’s intentions through its own symptoms or physiological particularities. For instance, in One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967) the preposterous size of José Arcadio’s penis suggests his

embodiment of life forces that are contrasted with the death drive inherent in other members of the Buendía family. As in the work of Cortázar and Cabrera Infante, the full portent of organic references featured in García Márquez’s work is not readily evident. Tucked away beneath the epidermic tissue of the story line and supporting the narrative skeleton, these references are like muscle and bone, concealed under the surface. Grasping all their connotations is not even a requisite for understanding the plots these authors serve up, moreover; discovering the function of symbols adds to our comprehension of a story, but just as we don’t need to understand every nuance about the circulation of blood to be awed by the human body, we are not required to grasp the sense of every symbol used by García Márquez to apprehend the originality of his portrayals. Even in works as deceptively straightforward as No One Writes to the Colonel (1958), García Márquez delivers his message through indirection.∞ Plain-spoken to the point of pellucidness, this tale of a retired colonel who waits away his life dying of hunger for a pension that never comes could be a terse indictment of social injustice and nothing more. Certainly in 1961, when it was first published, the story was seen in this light, which is to say that it was read on its most unmistakable level. More recently, critics such as Peter Earle and Graciela Maturo have examined the network of symbols that sustain the main theme of García Márquez’s novella, leaving no doubt that he conveys narrative elements— some readily apprehensible, some not—on many levels simultaneously.≤ Earle points out at least three features instrumental to our understanding of No One Writes to the Colonel. After showing that the novella has a musical structure conceived on the basis of two themes which he labels ‘‘discouragement’’ and ‘‘illusion,’’ he goes on to discuss the dialectic between desire and death embodied by the colonel. Finally, he convincingly explains how the rooster that was the prize possession of the colonel’s slaughtered son should be seen as ‘‘an allegory of vigilance and resurrection.’’≥ Graciela Maturo’s concerns are of a more religious nature: she views the chronological development of No One Writes to the Colonel in the light of the Christian liturgical calendar. The story’s action, starting around the October equinox, concludes at Christmas and suggests to her ‘‘the spiritual regeneration of man’’ (Claves simbólicas, 105). What these readings both share and bring to our understanding of García Márquez’s novella is the importance of the theme of renewal. 102 Body of writing

They also emphasize that the story is a rite of passage during which the colonel frees himself from the oppression and sense of discouragement which typify him at the outset. And they conclusively qualify the notion of García Márquez’s ‘‘apparent simplicity’’ (Earle 82). This simplicity is in appearances only because, even when the sentences are clipped and the syntax plain, No One Writes to the Colonel has the ‘‘simple’’ complexity of a romanesque cathedral: the structure is disciplined, almost severe, but the result is labyrinthine if we speak in terms of the layering system which spells out the message. Fortunately, all labyrinths have a center and No One Writes to the Colonel is no exception. In fact, a direct path to it has been laid out by Mario Vargas Llosa. In García Márquez: Historia de un deicidio (1971), Vargas Llosa highlights the importance of the ‘‘demons’’ or ‘‘obsessions’’ which appear and reappear converted in themes in all works of fiction. Something about this remark, forthright though it is, catches the attention. Critics approaching No One Writes to the Colonel have concerned themselves with the net result of Vargas Llosa’s equation—the themes—instead of directly tapping the wellspring. It is unquestionable that the fighting cock, the rain, and certain numbers are fundamental to the development of this novella. They are pieces of the narrative puzzle but not, as far as I can see, a pivotal obsession from which the whole thematic development issues. And yet, such an obsession is present. Redundance and obviousness do much to camouflage it, it is true, but should in no way detract from the fact that a concern with eating and the digestive process functions as the matrix of No One Writes to the Colonel. Food for thought The action of this novella begins on a morning in October and concludes on a Sunday night in December. The protagonists are a seventyfive-year-old man and his wife. He is a dreamer, an inveterate optimist; she, a woman of a ‘‘naturally hard character, hardened even more by forty years of bitterness’’ (101). They are unable to make ends meet, having waited for over fifteen years for a war pension which the man, a retired colonel, should have received in recognition for his services during the war. They have no money left, no provisions, and no guarantees for the future. Their son, Agustín, was shot nine months before the beginning of the story for distributing clandestine political literature at the cockfights. The excremental vision of García Márquez


His legacy to his parents is a fighting cock that, we are led to believe, will probably win at the fights scheduled for January. The problem is that, left with almost no resources, the couple will have to choose between feeding it or feeding themselves. The day and the action begin simultaneously when the colonel takes the lid o√ the co√ee can and realizes ‘‘that there was only one teaspoonful left’’ (7). He throws half of the boiling water down the drain and scrapes the inside of the can with a knife to get at ‘‘the last co√ee grounds mixed together with rust from the can’’ (7). This initial occupation, not to say preoccupation, with food and drink is only the first of many in the story and, some might argue, could well reflect that García Márquez wrote No One Writes to the Colonel while living in Paris on a shoestring budget. Real hunger will doubtlessly have a lot to do in forcing the hand of an author, but mention of eating in this instance is no reflection of the author’s poverty early in his career. Food—consuming it and discharging it, buying it, fixing it, tasting it, or refusing to eat it—turns out to be the key to unraveling the protagonist’s thorny evolution as a character and grasping the otherwise problematic outcome of this novella. If we concern ourselves exclusively with the three members of the main household—the colonel, his wife, and the fighting cock—we find twentyfour references to eating and drinking in the 106 pages of the Biblioteca Era edition of No One Writes to the Colonel.∂ Our first thought is that such insistence is just a personal fixation leading nowhere. What makes the references to eating and drinking significant is that, until the last of seven sections, and with only one exception, all mention of food and drink brings forth, immediately following, a reference to death. For instance, in the opening scene, when the colonel is waiting for his co√ee to brew, we discover that he ‘‘experienced the sensation that poisonous mushrooms and lilies were growing in his bowels’’ (7). Soon after, when his wife, prostrated in bed after an asthma attack, drinks the last sip of co√ee left in the house, the omniscient narrator declares: ‘‘at that moment the bells began to toll. The colonel had forgotten the burial . . .’’ (8). His wife also begins to think ‘‘about the dead man,’’ and after finishing her co√ee, ‘‘she was still thinking about [him]’’ (8). Later in the action the wife recovers her pluck and fixes a stew by boiling together ‘‘all the edible things that tropical lands are capable of producing’’ (27). As she and the colonel are about to finish their meal, their doctor pushes the door open and cries out, ‘‘ ‘are all the sick dead?’ ’’ 104 Body of writing

(28). Never one to keep her mouth shut, the wife picks up the doctor’s cue and develops her husband’s earlier concern: ‘‘ ‘One of these days I’ll die and I’ll take you to hell, doctor’ ’’ (29). In the meantime, however, she o√ers him a cup of co√ee which he turns down with revealing irony, ‘‘ ‘No, thank you very much . . . I absolutely deny you the opportunity of poisoning me’ ’’ (29). During yet another meal, prepared by borrowing corn from the rooster’s provisions, the colonel mournfully reflects, ‘‘ ‘I am thinking about the employee responsible for my pension. . . . Fifty years from now we will be resting in peace underground while that poor man will be in agony every Friday as he waits for his own pension’ ’’ (66). The following day, as they finish up the rest of the corn stew, it is his wife’s turn to feel despondent: ‘‘ ‘I am thinking,’ ’’ she says out of the blue, ‘‘ ‘that the man is dead going on two months and I haven’t given my regrets yet’ ’’ (68). The dead man turns out to be the same one for whom the bells toll at the beginning of the story, his body conveniently dragged out as the topic of food turns up once again. This topic is tainted with death, moreover, whether provisions are available or not, and it is relentlessly alluded to, both metaphorically, ‘‘ ‘we are dying of hunger,’ ’’ or, as in the previously quoted examples, ‘‘factually,’’ within the fiction (81). Obsessive and systematic, the association between consuming food and dying reaches a climax at the end of part six in a scene that functions as the turning point of the novella. The colonel goes to the pool hall one Sunday evening. A friend of his son’s slips him a sheet of clandestine political propaganda. The colonel pockets it and, almost immediately, the music stops. It is a police raid and he realizes that, like his son Agustín, he has been caught red-handed. To boot, the man conducting the raid, the very one who shot his son, is now facing him, ‘‘his rifle pointing right at his stomach’’ (89). The man stares at him unblinkingly while the colonel feels ‘‘swallowed by those eyes, mashed, digested and immediately expelled’’ (89). Significantly, as we shall see, the murderer lets him walk his way out of the tight spot with the words ‘‘ ‘Go ahead, colonel’ ’’ (88). More significantly still, the next and final section of the novella, immediately following the scene in which the colonel is metaphorically ‘‘swallowed and expelled,’’ opens with a complete reversal of all the previous premises. Of the seven sections composing No One Writes to the Colonel, six take place during the humid Colombian winter or rainy season. The seventh The excremental vision of García Márquez


unfolds at the beginning of the springlike dry season announced from the opening line: ‘‘He didn’t have to open the window to identify December’’ (90). To say that the overall tone of the novella changes dramatically after this point would be an understatement. Earlier in the action man and nature were hopelessly sick, unremittingly dreary, whereas the brave new world of section seven glistens with newness. All of a sudden, the backyard is a ‘‘patio maravilloso’’ inviting the colonel to set out for the dock, as usual on Fridays, to wait for the mail boat (90). But rather than a mere stepping out into the rain, as on previous occasions, his walk becomes ‘‘a prodigious moment, made of a clarity not yet tried out,’’ and the colonel, taking his cue from new-fledged surroundings, feels crisp and clean ‘‘as if made out of glass’’ (92). From this point onward in the story, the pain of waiting seems to be over, even if waiting itself is not. The letter the colonel has spent fifteen years waiting for may still not come, but hope is in the air (21). In keeping with the festive mood, the circus arrives, ‘‘the first to come in ten years,’’ and ushers in, with a typically carnivalesque sense of inversion, the transposition of all previous conventions (93). The sun begins to shine; the colonel’s pernicious constipation miraculously heals. The relationship of the central couple evolves in unison. He, heretofore uncertain, begins December full of mettle, just like the fighting cock which his wife is so adamant about selling. During one of their many arguments on the subject he ‘‘discovers, with no astonishment, that she awakens neither compassion nor remorse in him,’’ and, ‘‘with unfathomable kindness,’’ proceeds to inform her that ‘‘ ‘The fighting cock is not for sale’ ’’ (97–98). The couple’s relationship evolves not only in what they say to each other but, more importantly, in how they say it. Up until the spring section the wife usually chose the imperative tense when addressing her husband and tended to treat him like a child: ‘‘ ‘Those shoes are ready to be thrown out,’ ’’ she tells him in section two, ‘‘ ‘go on wearing the patent leather boots’ ’’ (20). Later, wrangling over their most typical bone of contention, she orders him, ‘‘ ‘You get rid of that rooster immediately’ ’’ (52) and, on a di√erent subject, ‘‘ ‘You take him the clock right away, you put it on the table and you tell him: Alvaro, I am bringing you this here clock’ ’’ (54). Always demanding money, she finally informs her husband, ‘‘ ‘Don’t you come back here without the forty dollars’ ’’ (55). The colonel’s flaw is not merely (in the words of his wife) that he ‘‘lacks 106 Body of writing

character’’ but that, in keeping with the inversions which typify relationships in No One Writes to the Colonel, he is often reduced to the status of a child while she, the voice of authority, behaves like his parent (79). The colonel’s infantile behavior is strongly suggested in three di√erent scenes. The first takes place at the post o≈ce when he turns toward his friend, the doctor, ‘‘with an entirely childish look’’ (23); soon after, in a discussion about politics, the physician reminds him, ‘‘ ‘Don’t be naive, colonel . . . we are already too old to be waiting for the Messiah’ ’’ (24). Finally, much later in the action, when the disgruntled colonel tells his friend, ‘‘ ‘If I were twenty years younger things would be di√erent,’ ’’ he is reminded, somewhat cryptically, that he ‘‘ ‘will always be twenty years younger’ ’’ (83–84). Being fussed over parentally by his own wife further reinforces the theme of the old man’s childishness. Not only does she direct and scold him throughout the story, she enhances his protracted boyishness whenever possible as, for instance, by ‘‘taking twenty years o√ [his] back’’ when cutting his hair, and persuading him to keep on wearing what to him frankly ‘‘ ‘look like orphan’s shoes’ ’’ (35, 20). When he demurs she is quick to refresh his memory, claiming that, as a matter of fact, they are ‘‘ ‘orphans of their son’ ’’ (21). The role of child is superseded in the last section of the novella, however, where, in addition, the wife’s use of the imperative to address her husband is replaced in the Spanish text by a series of nonassertive interrogatives that fully qualify her change of status and function as foils introducing the colonel’s thrustful new tone: ‘‘ ‘And if it doesn’t come?’ ’’ the old woman asks, referring to the pension check. ‘‘ ‘It will come,’ ’’ answers the husband (98). ‘‘ ‘And if they don’t understand?’ ’’ she wonders, voicing her doubts about his plan to return a slightly worn pair of shoes for a refund. ‘‘ ‘Then they don’t,’ ’’ he chips in (99). Finally, doubting once and for all the improbable arrival of the money from the pension fund, she nags the old colonel, ‘‘ ‘And if it doesn’t arrive?’ ’’ until he interjects, without batting an eyelash, ‘‘ ‘It will arrive.’ ’’ (100) Such a complete reversal in the relationship between husband and wife is far from being the only changed feature in part seven of No One Writes to the Colonel. The references to food in this section, for one, are associated with death in the case of the wife’s remarks exclusively, never that of the husband. During lunch, feeling deprived of her authority, she informs him, ‘‘ ‘You should realize that I am dying, that what I su√er from is not a disease but an agony’ ’’ (102). And later that evening, after mumThe excremental vision of García Márquez


bling her prayers in bed (the original version literally says, ‘‘chewing her prayers’’ [masticó oraciones, 102]), she complains, ‘‘ ‘I don’t want to die in the dark’ ’’ (103). There is one other significant change in this last section: the colonel is finally rid of his digestive troubles. ‘‘He feels good,’’ we are told, ‘‘December had wilted the flora from his viscera’’ (92). So not only does he prepare and consume food that is untainted from a≈liation with death but, just as importantly, he is rid of the excremental curse which hounds him throughout the six earlier sections. Tulips raised from dung The fact that the actual full-fledged ‘‘demon,’’ the obsession, in this novella should comprise not one single ingredient but rather a kinship of contraries—food and excrement—comes as no surprise. We are dealing with a narrative scheme in which all the supporting elements are portrayed as pairs, beginning with husband and wife, winter and summer, assertive and submissive. The scatological fixation should surprise us even less: the anal weapon is brandished throughout García Márquez’s fiction from In Evil Hour to Love in the Time of Cholera. After all, carnival (and the carnival literature which these works epitomize) is also, according to Bakhtin, a celebration of the forces of the lower body, a mighty thrust downward.’’∑ This thrust penetrates the novella from the first page, where the colonel is assailed by the invading sensation already alluded to, the ‘‘poisonous mushrooms and lilies growing in his bowels’’ (7). This same curse reappears as a leitmotif thirteen times throughout the tale, as has been noted by critics such as George McMurray in his insightful study of García Márquez.∏ However, McMurray’s sense of propriety gets the better of his analysis when it comes to describing the colonel’s ailment, which he identifies as ‘‘gastritis.’’ A close look at the nature of the colonel’s complaints is enough to ascertain that his ailment is wholly di√erent from McMurray’s diagnosis. After ‘‘agonizing many hours in the privy, sweating ice, feeling that the flora of his viscera was rotting and falling in pieces,’’ the perpetually pained hero of this story learns that all was really ‘‘a false alarm’’ (52, 26). Squatting on a platform of rough-hewn boards, he anxiously experiences ‘‘the uneasiness of an urge frustrated’’ (26). His trouble, in other words, is not an inflammation of the lining of the stomach as McMurray would have us believe but rather, and speaking 108

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very plainly, constipation. This constipation is resolved at the very beginning of section seven, as we have seen, after the colonel feels swallowed and rejected by his son’s murderer. Confronted with death at this point, he behaves courageously—perhaps for the first time in his life—by pushing aside the barrel of the rifle which the poker-faced murderer is ‘‘pointing right at his stomach’’ (88). In this scene the colonel finds something he didn’t know he had: courage. He emerges not only safe and sound from his close encounter with death but also a changed man, one ready to fly on his own and leave his old defenseless and childlike mask behind. His transformation is described as a physiological process in the story; when the murderer stares at him, he feels ‘‘swallowed . . . mashed, digested and immediately expelled’’ (89) The colonel, constipated swallower of seldom-to-be-had victuals, becomes part of the food chain and is swallowed in turn. The physiological resolution he goes through (being ‘‘swallowed,’’ ‘‘digested,’’ and ‘‘expelled’’) drains, in turn, a thematic bottleneck and warrants the utterance of previously censored scatological language. To his wife’s last injunction, ‘‘ ‘Tell me, what do we eat,’ ’’ the now feisty colonel rebelliously answers, ‘‘ ‘Shit’ ’’ (106), bringing together the two poles of the symbolic matrix in an echo of Freud’s succinct formula, ‘‘excrement becomes aliment.’’ The obvious question at this juncture is, how does this confluence fit within the scheme of the action? In No One Writes to the Colonel meaning is apprehended on three autonomous and interwoven levels. On the first and most obvious, we read the injustice of the political system which a∆icts the hero. The second level records the evolution in the relationship between a man and his wife and, read in the light of the first, raises a pivotal question, namely, why is the colonel’s battle fought on the home front? Since the context depicted is the family (common ground to all), and not the battlefield, I would suggest that García Márquez’s aim in this novella is to portray the urgency of evolving beyond the submissiveness which lies at the base of all social injustice abetted by the men who wait rather than act. After all, the fitting phrase applied to the last Aureliano in One Hundred Years of Solitude, ‘‘the habit of obedience had dried up the seeds of rebellion in his heart,’’ could just as easily apply to the retired colonel at the beginning of this tale (308). But unlike Aureliano, the colonel evolves toward a self-realization which culminates at the conclusion of the novella when he feels ‘‘pure, explicit, invincible’’ (106). What is less manifest The excremental vision of García Márquez


is that this evolution is depicted through the figuration of bodily functions, a physiological frame which operates as the third level of the narration, and one which García Márquez plainly conceived on the basis of psychoanalytic theory. We have already seen the emphasis given to eating and swallowing in this story. We also know that, according to psychoanalysis, the oral phase is a period of dependence, a period during which the child is incapable of accepting separation from the mother. Isn’t García Márquez highlighting the link between dependence, childlike behavior, and food intake in his story? By juxtaposing the ingestion of food with death, isn’t he suggesting that the oral fixation portrayed in this case is a curse because it entails dependency? Isn’t this why there are twenty references to eating and drinking during the time the colonel submits to his wife and is treated like a child (addressed in the imperative voice and directed in his actions)? Psychoanalysis also teaches us that the incapacity to accept separation from the mother is, in Norman O. Brown’s classic formula, ‘‘the core of the human neurosis’’ (Life Against Death, 284)—neurosis because separation confers individual life to all organisms while, at the same time, it leads to death. Man’s inability to deal with this prospect makes him repress the death instinct but, in so doing, he ironically denies life which can only come through individuation. In other words, during the oral dependent stage, a fixation with the body of the mother brings together the nourishment which provides life, and the subjection which denies it, a fact which distinctly illuminates the link between food and death in No One Writes to the Colonel, and one that also explains the denial of elimination (the colonel’s ‘‘urge frustrated’’) in the first six sections of the novella. Antithetically, the oral phase foregrounds incorporation while the anal is characterized by separation. Freud sees in this separation a path through which the organism’s innate destructive instinct (the death instinct) is channeled. ‘‘The organism converts the destructive energy into an aggression directed onto others,’’ he argues, ‘‘which preserves it from harm and makes its own existence possible’’ (Beyond the Pleasure Principle, 69). But we must not see in this aggression forces which are ultimately destructive of the organism itself. On the contrary, rejection is the very mechanism of reinstatement, driving the organism forward in a dynamic confrontation and involvement with life. It is, as Julia Kristeva points out, ‘‘le mécanisme même de la relance, de la tension de la vie’’ (Révolution, 136–37).π 110

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In light of Kristeva’s remark we can better grasp the full tenor of the colonel’s evolution, and recognize how the climactic ending of the novella betokens in every way the beginning of a new life for its hero. We can also see how the conclusive invective at the end signals a release; it is not at all ironic, as McMurray would have us believe (22), and certainly not a ‘‘new way of expressing violence,’’ as Angel Rama suggests, but rather the most fundamental step on the path toward self-realization (‘‘Un novelista de la violencia americana,’’ 119).∫ As it unfolds, and very conclusively in its last scene, isn’t García Márquez’s story conveying how the hero has evolved away from submissiveness and become capable of asserting his independence? It is not surprising, then, that he should feel ‘‘pure, explicit, invincible’’ as he prepares to oppose the will of his wife and assert his own for the first time in the action (106). It is even less surprising that the word used to a≈rm this newly acquired self-su≈ciency should be the emblem of the rejection he is about to carry out. And by rejection I do not mean that he breaks away from his wife but, simply, that their relationship evolves until it reaches the climactic conclusion which puts the hero on the threshold of a fresh involvement with life. No One Writes to the Colonel is in every way a eulogy to independence pictured as an organic evolution and a portrayal of the struggle required to achieve it (dramatized in the continuing dialogue between husband and wife, authority and subordination, ‘‘parent’’ and ‘‘child’’). It is also an indictment of political injustice and, implicitly, an injunction to those who, through their passivity, make it possible. Fully in keeping with his political aims and his firm belief in social evolution, the novella reflects García Márquez’s wholly original artistic creed. By this I do not mean his artful technique but, rather, the less conspicuous undercurrents of his multilayered conception. Working on several levels simultaneously, he transforms reality, including, very often, political reality. García Márquez has always repudiated the misjudgment inherent in the bending of artistic inspiration to serve political aims. In a very revealing article published in ‘‘Tabla Redonda’’ in 1960, he intimated what was to become the basis for all his fiction: ‘‘It is perhaps more rewarding to write honestly about what one is capable of telling for having lived it than to write, with the same degree of earnestness, about that which our political position suggests must be told, even if it means inventing it’’ (quoted in Fossey, ‘‘Entrevista,’’ 8). Forcing the pen to fit the message, he feels, leads unremittingly to The excremental vision of García Márquez


failure. With equal conviction, García Márquez indicates that the best means of eliciting reader response is through suggestion and challenge, not pontification. All this by way of saying that, in keeping with both his political and artistic beliefs, the message of No One Writes to the Colonel does not jump out at the reader. The violencia which tore Colombia in shreds starting in 1948 is implied throughout, but García Márquez does not write a tale of war. He portrays instead a much more penetrating message, a struggle between two people—Everyman and Anywoman— cannily conceived on two levels. As the body is the mirror of the soul, he allows the vital processes of his protagonists to dictate the dynamic evolution of their relationship. The first six sections of the novella, in which orality and an inability to evacuate are emphasized, are followed by a seventh where García Márquez makes clear that the break away from passive dependence must be self-initiated. It takes an act of courage to move beyond passivity but once the first step is taken, courage has a way of snowballing and transforming behavior. No One Writes to the Colonel is about political involvement but shows how such involvement begins with personal freedom, and cannot exist without it. A childlike old man who is willing to waste away his life waiting for a letter instead of fighting for his rights is shown to be correspondingly passive and dependent in all his relationships. One day, he takes his life in his own hands, sees that he is capable of making a stance and, feeling ‘‘digested,’’ comes out into the light a changed person. An emphasis on eating in the first six sections ushers in evacuation and release in the seventh. For this reason, the digestive process is as important in understanding No One Writes to the Colonel as the dialogues between the characters, perhaps even more so. On one level, this tale is about the hero’s physiological release while, simultaneously, on a symbolic plane, this release suggests his break from dependence. Through the universal language of the body García Márquez voices both a tale of struggle and a panegyric to action that applies equally to all humans. In this sense, it is perhaps one of the most political of his novels. The message it conveys is do not wait: act. It also establishes that action need not be postponed until the day of battle but can take place across the dinner table, while putting on a pair of shoes, or walking down the street. Passivity is a straitjacket, and a person who does not exercise freedom of action will become cannon fodder for those who come in to trample, quell, and subjugate. 112

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A quest for true love If No One Writes to the Colonel is the most insinuatingly political of García Márquez’s novels, Love in the Time of Cholera (1985)—because it portrays an emotion that knows neither limits nor borders—is the most influential.Ω Like the earlier panegyric to action, this much misunderstood eulogy to love speaks to humanity as a whole, and features the body not as a reflection of the author’s own but as a vehicle to educate readers. By 1985 García Márquez had written about finding courage and needing to break the yoke of submission (No One Writes to the Colonel, Innocent Eréndira [1972]), about the sempiternal struggle between the forces of life and death (One Hundred Years of Solitude), about the horrors of totalitarianism (The Autumn of the Patriarch), and about the unavoidability of destiny (Chronicle of a Death Foretold ). His purposeful sagas make one think of the Human Comedy because, like Balzac’s, they are clearly designed to teach a moral lesson. Always didactic, they furnish evidence of an unfailing optimism, which is why, like his much-admired William Faulkner, García Márquez refuses ‘‘to admit the end of mankind.’’ Such end, he reasons, can come about in one of two ways: as an explosion that would erase all traces of humanity from the face of the earth, or as an emotional implosion that would cauterize love and thus abolish the species. Either way, humanity would come to an end for the same reason: because men and women do not know how to relate to one another in a significant way. It seems logical, therefore—especially from the perspective of a humanist—that an educational program be charted for teaching the human animal how to bond in more enduring ways. Surely other alternatives exist and we have not found them, or found and later forgot them. Unable to voice what they feel, men and women stray away from lasting satisfaction, from relationships that could give their lives meaning and purpose. When García Márquez stated, in his Nobel address in 1982, that ‘‘love really can be true,’’ wasn’t he suggesting that love as we presently feel and show it was not true, that we have spent centuries misconstruing it? Or was he, perhaps, taking up Calderón’s lament, ‘‘What is love, if not an illusion’’? Three years after voicing these doubts and making the claim that love could be true, his extraordinary Love in the Time of Cholera saw the light. It contained García Márquez’s reflections on a subject close to his heart, The excremental vision of García Márquez


and some of the most poignant opinions on the theme of love written in our century.∞≠ The book was very well received by the general public but criticized by a handful of critics who found it trite, and even ‘‘repugnant.’’∞∞ The problem with such readings was that, once again, the author of One Hundred Years of Solitude was being taken at face value. When he included a character who had 622 ‘‘long-term liaisons, apart from . . . countless fleeting adventures,’’ many readers felt he was parodying Don Juan, and making a mockery of love (152). They couldn’t have been more mistaken. Love has not been taken more seriously in a humorous tale since Much Ado About Nothing was written. The ending of García Márquez’s eulogy was less ambiguous than the tortuous development, and for this reason, easier to grasp. In a perceptive reading, David Buehrer rightly a≈rmed that ‘‘the finally consummated love of Florentino and Fermina in old age as the climax of Love signals the beginning of a ‘new era,’ a post-apocalyptic one that sees the return to traditional humanistic values as its wellspring of hope’’ (‘‘A Second Chance on Earth,’’ 21). But what do we do with the four hundred and some pages that come before this ‘‘new era’’? Why, for instance, does the book begin with the suicide of a man whose very name—Jeremiah de Saint-Amour—suggests the holiness of an emotion which is the sum and substance of the entire novel? Why, if love is the essence of this novel, is the tale of Saint-Amour (whose name literally means ‘‘holy love’’) dropped after twenty pages, and only picked up again in passing references? Isn’t ‘‘Holy Love’’ related to the rest of the novel? And what about Juvenal Urbino’s and Fermina Daza’s picture-perfect marriage, and Florentino’s endless liaisons: how do they relate to the new ‘‘post-apocalyptic era’’ at the conclusion? Ever the humanist, García Márquez seldom writes without engrafting the body into his narration.∞≤ To answer these questions we must turn to his characters and observe not merely what they say but also what they do. It is in their graphically obsessive behavior that we shall find answers to the riddle portrayed in his 1985 masterpiece. Blind stare The myriad relationships portrayed in this novel (which are, as in Infante’s Inferno, conceived as a catalogue) can be pigeonholed under five headings: marriage (Dr. Juvenal Urbino and his wife Fermina); Platonic love (Florentino and his secretary, Leona Cassiani);∞≥ sex without love 114

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(Florentino and his 622 mistresses); love without sex (Florentino and Fermina); and—for lack of a better term—fulfilled love discovered by the same couple once they come to know and accept each other.∞∂ I have purposefully not included in this list the opening tale evoking the relationship between Jeremiah de Saint-Amour and his mistress because it does not seem to relate to any other in the book, unless it is somehow linked to the ‘‘new era’’ of consummated love betokening ‘‘the return to traditional humanistic values’’ at the conclusion of the novel (21). Such a link is likely if we agree that beginnings and endings of novels are often related; enigmas are introduced in the former, resolutions provided in the latter. Since Saint-Amour’s tale opens the novel and the ‘‘ ‘new era’ of consummated love’’ closes it, the two might be connected in some as yet undetermined way. But if they are, why does Saint-Amour commit suicide while the old couple at the end sails on, impervious to the ravages of death and disease, and America—Florentino’s prophetically named fourteen-year-old ward—slashes her wrists in despair? Whether or not it fits within the overall puzzle, we will have to look at the episode in which Jeremiah de Saint-Amour’s fateful sacrifice is brought to life. However, given the potency of Florentino’s sex life and the astounding number of his involvements, it seems most fitting to begin a study of love by studying this character’s relationships and, particularly, the one that lasts longest and develops in most detail: his love for Fermina Daza. Even before fully embarking on this discussion, however, I wish to emphasize my choice of words. I wrote that Florentino’s love develops. Since it evolves along with the novel, we need to look at it in all its phases, especially when we consider this character’s focal position within the narrative. The first phase of Florentino’s relationship with Fermina begins with a ‘‘cataclysm of love’’ that lasts over half a century and is unleashed by a casual glance the day Fermina, still a girl, ‘‘raised her eyes to see who was passing by the window,’’ and saw Florentino (55). From that point onward, gazing and the eye become inextricable from the tale of the ‘‘solitary hunter’’ and ‘‘the impossible maiden’’ (56). In his cunning L’oeil vivant, Jean Starobinski notes that ‘‘gazing opens the gates of desire without satisfying it.’’∞∑ This is exactly what takes place in Love in the Time of Cholera. Early in their relationship, ‘‘just seeing [Fermina] was enough for’’ Florentino (56). This is a big just, however, a need that soon becomes dependence, obsession, disease. Florentino keeps it at bay by The excremental vision of García Márquez


putting a park between himself and the woman he pines for. Every morning from seven o’clock onward, ‘‘he sat on the most hidden bench in the little park pretending to read a book . . . until he saw the impossible maiden walk by in her blue-striped uniform’’ (56). He would see her ‘‘pass back and forth four times a day’’ accompanied by her aunt Escolástica, ‘‘and once on Sunday when they came out of High Mass’’ (56). One day, as this gazing ritual has begun to reach a pitch of frenzy, Florentino discovers Fermina sitting under the almond trees at the doorway to her house ‘‘in an open-air repetition of the scene he had witnessed the first afternoon in the sewing room: the girl giving a reading lesson to her aunt’’ (59). He sits down to watch them, forlorn on his bench across the square, not even bothering to make a pretense about reading. Fermina is not wearing her school uniform any longer, but a narrow tunic in the Greek style, and ‘‘on her head . . . a garland of fresh gardenias that made her look like a crowned goddess’’ (59). At first, Florentino thinks the lesson under the almond trees is ‘‘a casual innovation’’ but he soon learns it is a daily ritual that will take place, ‘‘every afternoon at the same time during the three months of vacation’’ (60). Every day, henceforth, he sails to this new Byzantium to lose himself in contemplation. However—and it is this detail that is most pertinent to our discussion—‘‘he did not have the impression that he was seen, he could not detect any sign of interest or rejection’’ (60). This is not the first, and certainly not the only, time Florentino stares and his lovelorn glances find no sign of interest. During the first phase of his relationship with Fermina, it seems that she walks through him, an empty respondent impervious to his longing. While Florentino gears his day around the four glimpses he hopes to catch of his crowned goddess on her way to and from school, she glides by, ‘‘with natural haughtiness, her head high, her eyes unmoving’’ (56).∞∏ Later on, when she becomes aware of his constant presence and steals rapid glances at him while he is not looking, she seems to maintain her distance, giving poor Florentino the impression that both she and her aunt cross the park ‘‘without looking at him’’ (58). It is curious to read, moreover, that although Escolástica and Fermina both hurry to look at him ‘‘with a rapid glance,’’ what Florentino sees when he raises his eyes are ‘‘two rigid, aloof women’’ who crossed the park without seeing him (58). We must adduce that either they are very quick in disguising their movements or Florentino simply sees what he wishes to see. In view of 116

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his penchant for fantasy, the second possibility, paradoxical though it may be, seems the most likely. Still, one cannot help wonder why he would not wish to be acknowledged by the woman he loves, and prefers to cast himself as unseen when in fact Fermina is so eager to catch a glimpse of him that ‘‘her blood frothed with the need to see him, and one night she awoke in terror because she saw him looking at her from the darkness at the foot of the bed’’ (58). Instead of responding to her need, Florentino watches her from a distance. What he sees across the park is an ‘‘illusory maiden’’ who does not ‘‘even respond with a charitable glance’’ (60). On the basis of this curious game of hide-and-seek between Florentino and Fermina, the geography of love portrayed in this section of the novel can be mapped out in three spaces: first, the place occupied by Florentino, the lonely gazer; second, the place occupied by the object watched, Fermina; and, third, the seemingly unbridgeable chasm that keeps them apart. I say unbridgeable because Florentino’s fixation is no di√erent from a voyeur’s, and voyeurs do everything to keep the object they long for out of reach, giving gazing the primacy over touching, as we have already seen in Infante’s Inferno.∞π According to Christian Metz’s spellbinding discussion of voyeurism, an empty no man’s land, a chasm between the viewer and the object viewed is an essential ingredient in the pathology of the voyeur (Le significant imaginaire, 63–65). If this chasm were to be bridged, the voyeur would resolve the problem of absence and longing which are at the base of his perverse desire. The problem is that he doesn’t wish to resolve it. The voyeur’s yearning actually restages the infant’s longing for the mother, observed, or imagined, in the act of lovemaking with the father, the act from which the infant is excluded. Excluded in the flesh and yet included par voie interposée, the infant who grows pathologically dependent on this bizarre geometry of desire learns to derive gratification from watching, the locus of pleasure becoming transferred from the penis to the eye. From then on, the body it pines for is kept at bay, recreating in its distance the dynamics of the primal scene which taught the child to watch and not to touch. Gazing at an impossible and unreachable love object becomes, thereafter, the infant’s supreme source of pleasure. For this reason, he must perceive the rift which keeps him at bay from the object he longs for as something unsalvageable, even when that rift is purely imaginary, fueled only by his needs. Directly connected to our discussion, the need to keep fueling the fantasies of distance and of the The excremental vision of García Márquez


object’s ungraspability explains why Florentino ignores Fermina’s growing interest in him, why he fails to see her ‘‘rapid glances,’’ her ‘‘frothing blood.’’ He cannot see her glances because he does not want to; she must remain, at this stage of the game, at least, a crowned goddess. Galatea cuts the cord Fermina is not a crowned goddess, however. She is a woman of flesh and blood who sweats and gets saddle sores, who locks herself up in her bedroom, the door bolted with a crossbar, to smoke hand-rolled cigarettes and talk about men with her cousin Hildebranda; she is a woman who will not allow her father’s bone-breaking will to trample her own when he tries to separate her from the ‘‘accursed upstart whom he did not remember ever having seen,’’ and takes her away on a demented trip to the end of the Earth (80). Back from her enforced exile a year later, she is a changed woman or, more exactly, a woman tout court. Not somebody else’s projection of an ideal girl, but a ‘‘forest animal’’ ready to pounce out of her skin in order to satisfy her own longings (159). Fermina’s profound transformation is made explicit on her first visit to the marketplace the day after she returns home to run her father’s house. Out shopping with her maid, the erstwhile shy and demure schoolgirl enters ‘‘every doorway where there was something for sale, and everywhere she found something that increased her desire to live’’ (99). The two paragraphs in which her shopping expedition is vividly sketched are drafted as a shopping list itemizing the wonders she discovers: ‘‘She relished the aroma of vetiver . . . she wrapped herself in embossed silks, she laughed at her own laughter . . . she sampled an Alicante sausage that tasted of licorice . . . she crushed leaves of sage and oregano in the palms of her hands . . . and bought a handful of cloves, another of star anise, and one each of ginger root and juniper’’ (99). The foodstu√s, spices, and silks Fermina touches, smells, and drapes over her body envelop her in more ways than one, sharing with her a measure of their sensuality. Her body becomes the recipient into which the world around her pours itself. To emphasize not her coming of age but, rather, her coming to be, García Márquez showers the two paragraphs that sketch her Archimboldian romp amidst the vegetables with twenty-six third-person feminine pronouns that leave no doubt as to her newly found central position within the narrative.∞∫ She enters, she finds, she relishes, she wraps herself, she 118

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laughs, she picks the lid of a barrel of herring; at this point, like the Eucharist, Fermina has transubstantiated: the watered-down schoolgirl of a year earlier has become a grown woman, the center of the universe portrayed in Love in the Time of Cholera. Her scene of initiation is reminiscent of Marisela’s lustral cleansing at the beginning of Rómulo Gallegos’s Doña Bárbara. The di√erence is that there is no Santos Luzardo in Love in the Time of Cholera, no Holy Light to cast o√ the shadows from the cavern. The man who follows Fermina’s step after startled step is blinded not by her dazzle, but by the glow of his own idealized projection. Because in the marketplace ‘‘he was seeing (her) for the first time in her natural state,’’ in fact, Florentino is practically unable to recognize her, and when he finally plucks up enough courage to speak to her his words are simultaneously a denial of her newly found identity, and a wish to continue inflicting on her the mask he had invented: ‘‘this is not the place for a crowned goddess,’’ he mutters (99, 102). Unable to continue staring at herself in the mirror of his illusion, Fermina feels ‘‘the abyss of disenchantment’’ for the first time, and understands ‘‘the magnitude of her own mistake,’’ wondering ‘‘how she could have nurtured such a chimaera in her heart’’ (102).∞Ω The Florentino she loves in her imagination, clearly, does not correspond to ‘‘that livid face, those lips petrified with fear’’ that address a ‘‘crowned goddess’’ a few inches from her face (102). Correspondingly, the woman Florentino loves is not the sensual and resourceful maiden who prowls through the marketplace with such ease. Goddesses don’t prowl, and Fermina is no goddess, which is why she is the first to grasp the quagmire of their illusion and erase Florentino ‘‘from her life with a wave of her hand’’ (102).≤≠ It cannot be emphasized enough that Fermina, not Florentino, becomes conscious of their shared blindness. Typically in García Márquez, the lucid role is woman’s.≤∞ As is usually the case in his work, men in Love in the Time of Cholera are shortsighted and stubborn, restless dreamers who are outwardly e≈cient but, down deep, incompetent nincompoops like the first José Arcadio Buendía in One Hundred Years, or ‘‘senile babies’’ like the urban Dr. Urbino whom Fermina Daza ends up marrying (26). Mention of men’s dependence ushers into our discussion the second type of love portrayed in Love in the Time of Cholera. If a single determining feature links the Urbinos’ married love to the idealization of FlorenThe excremental vision of García Márquez


tino’s and Fermina’s first phase, it is the childlike way men behave in their relationships with women. In García Márquez’s fiction, women nurture the men they love while men think they do all the important work, like fight wars, for instance.≤≤ To point out how really childish are most of men’s endeavors, García Márquez portrays wars as protracted and useless a√airs in which even those fighting lose their sense of reality and forget whether they are liberals or conservatives. Men also see themselves as important because they are great explorers, even if, more often than not, their forays into the unknown have no purpose and they return home hungry, dusty, and flea-bitten after traveling around in circles. Returning home empty-handed does not deflate the José Arcadio Buendías of this world because men are tough. We know how to argue and fight although, it is true, our arguments tend to be over stupid, childish matters—such as which is the better fighting cock in the ring—and we end up killing each other over di√erences as insignificant as the right way to peel an egg. According to García Márquez, the ‘‘disadvantage of being a man’’ is not that males are the intrinsically inferior sex but that they spend most of their time trying to convince the world that they are not (224). For this sin men are punished, and their punishment, like Oedipus’s, is blindness. Unless an epiphany of some sort occurs (like the colonel’s in No One Writes or Florentino’s at the end of Love in the Time of Cholera), men spend their lives strutting and fretting upon some ridiculous stage, or, like the quintessential wise fool in One Hundred Years of Solitude, tied to a tree while women go on solving the ‘‘menial’’ tasks of daily existence—feeding the family, keeping the children clean, paying the bills, and doing their best to keep their husbands out of trouble. Women at work García Márquez strongly suggests that, too blind or too stupid to love women as they are, men change them over, inventing an idealized image that blurs reality; they marry Fernanda del Carpio instead of Petra Cotes; they turn schoolgirls with braids into ‘‘crowned goddesses,’’ and fail to discover what’s underneath the crown. Perhaps men don’t love women enough to love them as they are because men are profoundly afraid—as García Márquez makes plain in all his novels—of their superior common sense and ability to live without squelching everyone around them. Rather than recognize the truth, men suppress it and invent an ideal 120 Body of writing

which they impose through sheer physical strength. Not given the option to choose, women are cast in one of three roles: little girls, crowned goddesses, or whores, roles that are kept alive by legal conventions enforced by men and abided by women who identify with power in order to forge themselves an identity. In other words, as García Márquez portrays it, ties between the sexes are established on the basis of lies born out of man’s fear. To keep women in ‘‘their’’ place, men rule, but they rule blindfolded. The blindfold is not removed—not in worshiping from afar, as Florentino does, nor during marriage, in spite of sharing the same roof. Fermina marries Dr. Juvenal Urbino half out of inertia, half out of curiosity, but fully compelled by the force of his desire, his will that it be so. As for love, ‘‘he was aware that he did not love her. He had married her because he liked her haughtiness, her seriousness, her strength, and also because of some vanity on his part’’ (159). Their marriage is a perfect one in the eyes of the world; they are the most prominent couple in the city, the best dressed, the most sought after, the most cultured, and full of charm. Their married life has all the right trappings, but after fifty-three years, nine months and seven days, when Juvenal dies and Fermina is ‘‘lost in her longing to understand’’ their years together, she comes to the realization that ‘‘she could not conceive of a husband better than hers had been, and yet when she recalled their life she found more di≈culties than pleasures,’’ so many di≈culties, in fact, that they made her wonder ‘‘how one can be happy for so many years in the midst of so many squabbles, so many problems . . . and not really know if it was love or not’’ (329). Fermina’s doubts regarding her love for her husband shed light on García Márquez’s design. Writing about love, he takes pains to describe how little we know about it, and how seldom we feel it. To drive this point home, he conceives Florentino’s 622 love a√airs, impelled by his sudden revelation that ‘‘his illusory love for Fermina Daza could be replaced by an earthly passion’’ (143). It is this third form of illusion—that lust can be substituted for love—which explains why sex is overacted to the point of histrionics in Love in the Time of Cholera. Il catálogo è questo Many readers are put o√ by the ostentatious catacomb of Florentino’s love life without realizing that, piling Ossa upon Pelion, García Márquez The excremental vision of García Márquez


is poking fun of his hero’s remedy for heartache and substitute for love.≤≥ There can be no doubt that García Márquez amused himself with the portrayal of Florentino’s outrageous love a√airs and that these multitudinous encounters were conceived as sideshows to caricature physical relationships which are an end unto themselves. Mockery and grotesque exaggeration enter Florentino’s love life from the day he is deflowered by an anonymous river voyager who seizes him by his shirt sleeve one night with ‘‘a hand like the talon of a hawk,’’ and pulls him into a cabin where ‘‘her ageless body . . . pushed him onto the bunk . . . unbuttoned his trousers, [and] impaled herself on him as if she were riding horseback’’ (142). This mysterious stranger who traveled with a baby in a large wicker birdcage, and urged Florentino in a hushed voice to ‘‘go and forget all about’’ their lovemaking because it had ‘‘never happened,’’ is equally as outlandish as his first o≈cial mistress, the ironically named Widow Nazaret, whom he talks into sundry activities that include letting ‘‘themselves be observed while they made love, replac[ing] the conventional missionary position with the bicycle on the sea, or the chicken on the grill, or the drawn and quartered angel,’’ until ‘‘they almost broke their necks when the cords snapped as they were trying to devise something new in a hammock’’ (151). The lubricious widow is in turn replaced with the wife of a hairy ship captain, a saucy fifty-year-old who opens the door stark naked except for the ribbon in her hair, and undresses Florentino on the spot where he stood because she thought it was bad luck to have a clothed man in the house. She is left in the lurch when Florentino repairs to the arms of an elephantine lady of mother-of-pearl whiteness and alpine bosom, who is unable to reach the heights of glory while making love unless she is sucking on a pacifier. Finally, the Gargantuan Venus is displaced when Florentino picks up a madwoman for a lark, unaware that she had decapitated a guard from Divine Shepherdess Asylum who tried to stop her from dancing at Carnival. The tenacious hero of Love in the Time of Cholera survives all the titillating ignominies of sex, thrives on them, even. But there can be no doubt in anyone’s mind that the burlesque quality of these liaisons is designed to show up their ludicrousness, and that they are no less a lion in the path of love than Florentino’s own idealized feeling for Fermina or Urbino’s marriage of formulas and conventional expectations.≤∂ Barren and selfish, Florentino’s 622 catalogued adventures are based neither on 122 Body of writing

sharing nor on giving; they are ‘‘something that resembled love but without the problems of love,’’≤∑ something that led his own mother to say that ‘‘the son she had conceived in love and raised for love was immune to any kind of love’’ (198).≤∏ Which is why he becomes known around town as ‘‘the man most avid for love as well as most niggardly with it, the man who gave nothing and wanted everything,’’ and why—again by way of the body—García Márquez insists so tellingly about his ‘‘chronic constipation’’ (216, 286, 54). ‘‘Should I the queen of love refuse because she rose from stinking ooze?’’ Florentino is so detached in his involvements that he is regarded as a man ‘‘passing through’’ life while his own body is paradoxically stopped up (198). From the start, we learn that his constipation was so chronic he was forced ‘‘to take enemas throughout his life,’’ and he became so fond of this remedy that he started using it in bed as a spicy condiment for sex (54).≤π Later in the novel, after Urbino dies and Florentino repeats his vow of eternal fidelity and everlasting love to Fermina Daza and is told to leave her house never to return, he su√ers ‘‘a crisis of constipation that swelled his belly like a drum’’ (277). But when, after he has hounded her with letters for months, she invites him back, the e√ects of the chronic ailment are reversed, and ‘‘his intestines suddenly filled in an explosion of painful foam’’ (304). A bastion against release, the body that had remained immured for seventy-six years begins to liquify at the onset of what promises to be an emotional catharsis. Florentino tries to repress the sudden urge, ‘‘but it is to no avail: a twisting in his guts like the coil of a spring lifted him from his seat, the foaming in his belly grew thicker and more painful,’’ and he began to look more and more like a corpse, frightening the maid who brought him co√ee (304). Lest Fermina hear ‘‘the deadly griping of his bowels,’’ he flees at that point, promising to come back another day (304). And then, just barely after the premonitory ‘‘sound of his automobile’s backfiring faded at the end of the street,’’ he shifts ‘‘into a less painful position in the back seat, closed his eyes, relaxed his muscles, and surrendered to the will of his body’’ (305). To him, ‘‘it was like being reborn,’’ but his usually impassive driver warns him, somewhat alarmed, ‘‘Be careful, Don Floro, that looks like cholera’’ (305). Florentino’s intestinal explosion is not the first time that the e√ects of The excremental vision of García Márquez


love are compared with those of cholera in the novel, but the message conveyed in this scene of release is very di√erent from that of many others in which the symptoms of love are shown to be analogous to those of disease.≤∫ García Márquez’s point is well taken; once it takes root, love can make one nauseous and feverish, catatonic or convulsive. In extreme cases, its symptoms may even be similar to those of the plague, but one thing is certain: in Love in the Time of Cholera the disease of love does not relate to elimination except where Florentino is concerned. This does not mean that all allusions made to excrement in this novel refer exclusively to Florentino, however;≤Ω in fact, carefully tracking the excremental theme, we soon recognize it is so pervasive because it holds a prominent place in García Márquez’s master plan. We learn early in the action, for instance, that the entire city flooded in winter until the latrines ‘‘turned the streets into sickening bogs’’ (17). The excrement then ‘‘dried in the sun, turned to dust,’’ and was ‘‘inhaled by everyone along with the joys of Christmas’’ (109); people in the streets of the city featured in this novel are perpetually enveloped in a ‘‘tender breath of human shit’’; the bay is described as a ‘‘stagnant garbage heap,’’ and the marketplace is set on the spot ‘‘where the bay belched filth from the sewers back onto land’’ (17, 19, 110). Filth is pervasive but, as in other examples of carnival literature, we soon realize the excremental vision in Love in the Time of Cholera is associated with growth, not with decay.≥≠ We can assume, therefore, that in García Márquez’s didactic fable, one that culminates in a new era of consummated love betokening ‘‘the return to traditional humanistic values,’’ the slow transit through and final explosion in Florentino’s bowels are in some way connected with this character’s evolution; they are a rite of passage in both senses of the phrase (21). Writing a book about love and never straying from his didactic intent, García Márquez—like Florentino and Fermina themselves—is searching for a way to the heart of love. One cannot help wondering, nevertheless, how such a tortuous path can be connected to Florentino’s di≈cult transit. What can García Márquez be saying about love, and the art of love, through Florentino’s body? Why is this body first shut and then open while the narrative focus evolves from its upper quadrant (the eyes) to its lower (the bowels)? Is García Márquez simply pulling our leg with all this tomfoolery about constipation, griping of bowels, and backfiring automobiles? The possibility that he was having a grand old time writing about 124

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Florentino’s excremental journey must not be ignored; however, we should not look askance at tomfoolery and let ourselves be ruled over by a notion of comedy which denies meaning to wit. García Márquez may well be more deliberate in his approach than someone who is merely being gratuitously scatological and just having fun. Isn’t Florentino actually evolving in his approach to love as the novel unfolds? Isn’t his development parallel to the capricious but expressive activity of his intestines? How does Florentino’s fickle organism speak the message that García Márquez delivers per angostam viam? To begin with, Florentino’s chronic constipation is not his only anal characteristic. His miserliness, his extreme personal immaculateness, maniacal sense of order, secretiveness, ‘‘eagerness to ask for everything and give nothing in return,’’ even the fact that he is always dressed in black— all are features suggesting an anal personality (286).≥∞ To those who think I might be stretching the point, let me note that the color black is consistently linked with excrement in dream analysis and psychoanalytic literature; García Márquez emphatically and repeatedly describes Florentino as someone ‘‘almost always dressed in black,’’ someone who ‘‘had one black suit,’’ someone who walks over in this same ‘‘black suit’’ to see the woman he loves looking as ‘‘if he was going to a funeral’’ (58, 56, 65).≥≤ Why, after he begins to have a mature and realistic relationship with Fermina and, very pointedly, after his moment of ‘‘rebirth’’ when he lets his intestines explode in the backseat of his car, does he show up ‘‘dressed in comfortable white shoes, slacks . . . linen shirt [and] . . . a white Scottish cap . . . instead of the funereal clothing he had worn all his life’’? (330). Let us suppose that the insistent association of the color black with Florentino and his shift to white clothes on board the ‘‘New Fidelity’’ are not part of a scheme, of an undercurrent of meaning in the novel. Could the same be said about his obsessive secretiveness? Why, then, is he persistently described as the ‘‘solitary hunter’’ with a secret life, as someone who ‘‘was always one of the protagonists, but always, as in almost everything he did, a secret protagonist’’? (56, 193) In his liaisons Florentino tends to ‘‘slip in by the back door, almost always very late at night, and sneak away on tiptoe just before dawn’’ (197). He hides constantly, a penchant that induces Fermina to describe him as ‘‘not a person but only a shadow . . . the shadow of someone whom no one had ever known (198, 204). Florentino is a shadow because he is ‘‘invisible in the darkness, always alone’’ (231). And isn’t he invisible because he does not and will not The excremental vision of García Márquez


give of himself, allowing no woman ‘‘to leave a trace of her passing in his heart’’? (216). Is it not possible, then, that at some level the purpose of this novel is to show that man’s inability to give of himself is the source of our profound solitude? Isn’t our lack of generosity, our unwillingness to share, one of the two great obstacles in finding true love? And isn’t our lack of tolerance, our refusal to accept the love object on its own terms, the other? Furthermore, isn’t this second impediment subsumed in the conflict between our animal body, appropriately epitomized in the anal function, and our pretentious sublimations, more specifically the pretensions of romantic-Platonic love? Aren’t these pretensions at the bottom of García Márquez’s plan to cast Fermina as a goddess and an impossible maiden in the first part of the book? Aren’t these conventional terms used to reveal the illusion in the mind of the adoring male, the illusion that his beloved from afar is all crown and wings? Where does this leave the Fermina ‘‘with an irrepressible desire to live,’’ the one who ‘‘felt in her blood the wild beating of her free will’’ (329, 347)? True, Urbino loved her, but he loved her with ‘‘his o≈cial love’’ and ‘‘only for his own sake’’ (329, 221). Florentino’s love was di√erent from Urbino’s, but no better. His ‘‘feverish excitement’’ when they were young ‘‘had been something very noble . . . but it had not been love’’ (317). Fermina had detested ‘‘the sentimentalities of his letters,’’ and ‘‘his lyrical lies’’ addressed to an ideal woman that wasn’t she (317). The young Florentino had an ‘‘infinite capacity for illusion’’; consequently, the love he felt for Fermina ‘‘was nothing more than an illusion’’ (230, 132). Both Florentino and her husband projected their own needs onto Fermina; both refused to see her as she was, to recognize her identity. That man’s idealization of woman was very much on García Márquez’s mind when he wrote Love in the Time of Cholera can be gleaned from the entry poem on divided love which Florentino and his mistress Sara Noriega jointly submit to the Fifth Poetic Festival. The idea for this poem comes to them one day when Florentino ‘‘had asked himself which of the two was love: the turbulent bed or the peaceful afternoons’’ or, in other words, physical or spiritual love (199). Sara calms him down with the argument that love is a combination of both aspects, not one or the other taken in isolation. As she puts it: ‘‘Spiritual love from the waist up and physical love from the waist down’’ (199). The problem is that hu-


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manity seldom thinks like Sara, or if it does, it doesn’t behave accordingly, at least not in the pages of Love in the Time of Cholera. This becomes obvious when we compare the five tales composing the novel: Jeremiah de Saint-Amour’s, the young Florentino’s and Fermina’s, Dr. Juvenal Urbino’s and Fermina’s, Florentino’s and his 622 mistresses’, and, most importantly, the mature Florentino’s and Fermina’s. The three central episodes interwoven into the long midsection of the novel are designed to portray divided love, the love which is not a combination of the physical and the spiritual but gives precedence to one over the other. Consequently, in each of the three tales—Florentino and his mistresses, Urbino and Fermina, Florentino and Fermina when young—love is never a fulfilling experience, even if, as is the case of the Urbino couple, it looks perfect from a distance. As García Márquez paints it in this modern-day parable, the problem a√ecting the lives of his characters is an imbalance between higher and lower functions. Our animal body, appropriately epitomized in the anal function, is just what Florentino is repressing in his relationship with Fermina. He will not touch or speak to her, limiting his contact to the writing of lofty formulas culled from the classics, thoughts and ideas which mask and inhibit his own. And this repression is, as we have seen, at the base of the romantic illusion embodied in his personal conception of the ‘‘crowned goddess.’’ Conversely, Florentino represses the spiritual or ideal with his mistresses, with whom he is all body but fundamentally absent, unable to give of himself beyond the bedroom. In sum, then, what García Márquez is voicing is a ferocious critique of sublimation, which he depicts as the relationship between higher and lower, spiritual and physical, showing that sublimation’s basic structure is, to use the psychoanalytic formula, ‘‘displacement from below upward’’ (Brown, Life Against Death, 194). As the emphasis was given to the mouth and orality to suggest dependence in No One Writes to the Colonel, in Love in the Time of Cholera the stress is placed on the eye as the sublimating organ which seizes an image and appropriates it. By appropriating it, the eye denies the image’s own identity, however. As long as they continue to deny those to whom they attempt to relate, García Márquez is saying, humans will continue to exclude themselves from the ultimate happiness, which is based on communing. Communing is based on acceptance, and acceptance is contingent upon knowing the other’s

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identity. If we deny the other through idealization, how can we ever hope to establish fraternity among human beings and peace on earth? At present, our relationships are shallow, simultaneously limited and limiting. Florentino’s 622 liaisons are only ‘‘from the waist down.’’ Urbino’s love for his wife is made up of ‘‘atavistic contracts, banal ceremonies, preordained words’’ (211). In fact, the doctor believed ‘‘it was against all scientific reason for two people who hardly knew each other, with no ties at all between them, with di√erent characters, di√erent upbringings, and even di√erent genders, to suddenly find themselves committed to living together . . . to sharing two destinies that perhaps were fated to go in opposite directions’’ (209). As for the third kind of love found in the body of the novel—idealization—we cannot ignore that in the first stages of his romance with Fermina, the ‘‘solitary hunter’s’’ intense and binding anal fixation goes hand in hand with an inhibited sexual response to her. One gets the impression that his anal fixation is so pernicious that it impairs or inhibits normal sexual relations, that the anal obscures any development of the genital, as is clearly suggested by the otherwise cryptic episode when Florentino approaches Fermina for the first time. In this scene, the solitary man in black brings a letter to the girl who sits embroidering in the doorway to her house. As he takes out the blue envelope from his inside jacket pocket, she does not dare look at him. Then, when she raises the embroidery frame toward his hand, the startling but suggestive occurs: ‘‘a bird shook himself among the leaves of the almond trees, and his droppings fell right on the embroidery’’ (61).≥≥ Excrement taints the couple’s first contact and brings to mind the old colonel’s relationship to his wife in No One Writes to the Colonel. Like the colonel’s, Florentino’s problem is translated into a visceral cryptogram: the former’s inability to relieve himself suggested his dependency; Florentino’s constipation betokens his inability to give of himself. Both are stuck. The colonel condemns himself to a belated infancy; Florentino’s inability to ‘‘pass through’’ dramatizes the quandary of the analretentive personality whose genital response to the woman he loves is inhibited. García Márquez uses his heroes’ malfunctioning bodies as a metaphor to portray their dilemma and—as the action unfolds and they heal—to signal their evolution. As each tale reaches its climax, the hero’s ability to relieve himself brings with it a new sense of self and betokens freedom. At the conclusion of No One Writes to the Colonel the old colonel 128

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begins taking action into his own hands; at the conclusion of Love in the Time of Cholera Florentino shows up in white from head to foot, ready to engage in the arduous process of accepting someone else for the first time in his life. Heretofore, love had been confused with sex or substituted for an ideal. In the novel’s last episode, however, the emotion depicted is of a di√erent kind, one founded on the bedrock of mutual knowledge, recognition, and acceptance. Sailing straight to the heart of love The cardboard-stage symbolism of Florentino’s and Fermina’s allegorical journey on the Magdalena river makes García Márquez’s intentions amply clear.≥∂ After wasting half a century wallowing in memories, and over two years in pursuit of false illusions, the couple sets sail on a ship named the ‘‘New Fidelity’’ where Fermina is housed in a regal suite with an enclosed observatory that has the ‘‘climate of perpetual spring’’ (326).≥∑ Like Florentino, the ship’s captain, Diego Samaritano, is dressed in white from head to foot, and to underscore the reigning theme of rebirth within a decaying world (on the riverbanks all nature is perishing: the alligators have eaten the last butterflies; the manatees, parrots, and even the villages are gone), the seventy-six-year-old hero has become ‘‘an ageless man’’ with ‘‘skin like a baby’s,’’ and the heart ‘‘of an adolescent’’ (340). The obvious symbolism of this last episode is not what is most important, however. What catches our attention is the evolution in the way Florentino and Fermina love each other. García Márquez begins the New Fidelity episode by insisting on the couple’s mutual discoveries of, and ensuing disappointments over, their respective bodies. The first time they touch hands, they ‘‘were not the hands they had imagined’’ because they ‘‘were made of old bones’’ (329). This initial disappointment is immediately followed by acceptance, however: ‘‘In the next moment . . . they were’’ (329). One night, Fermina sits motionless until dawn thinking about Florentino, ‘‘not as the desolate sentinel in the little Park of the Evangels, whose memory did not awaken even a spark of nostalgia in her, but as he was now, old and lame, but real’’ (330). Florentino writes Fermina a letter ‘‘as lyrical as the others’’ except that ‘‘it had a foundation in reality’’ (330). He even begins looking di√erent, ‘‘not only because she saw him now with The excremental vision of García Márquez


other eyes, but because in reality he had changed’’ (330). Finally, several days after setting sail ‘‘it seemed to her that she knew him as well as if she had lived with him all her life’’ (335). Doing without chimeras is not an easy task for people who have been tangled in self-deception all their lives, however. Unable to face having sex together, Florentino and Fermina get drunk one night to give themselves courage, and end up failing miserably. Is isn’t until much later, ‘‘when the inspiration came to them without their looking for it,’’ that ‘‘they made the tranquil, wholesome love of experienced grandparents’’ (341, 345). Love that is not heartfelt, García Márquez is saying— uninspired love—is as barren as the banks of the Magdalena River described at the end of the novel. If the description of barren love takes up the better part of Love in the Time of Cholera, it is only as a foil to introduce the kind of nurturing a√ection that one hundred years from now, and after much practice, might put an end to solitude. Taking his cue from Dante but bringing the action of his novel closer to earth, Márquez demonstrates that there can be no love without knowledge, conoscenza. Human beings must learn to accept each other as they are, without gilding the lily or, to put it in Márquez’s own terms, without crowning the goddess. This is the lesson that Love in the Time of Cholera teaches us through exempla like those of a medieval romance. In the three central tales love is misconceived and fails because the love object is never acknowledged. The characters idealize and misconstrue each other, capsizing on the shoals of ‘‘unreal love’’ (282). García Márquez’s point is that sublimation is a lie and cannot survive confrontation with the truth. In One Hundred Years he demonstrated the terrifying solitude to which human beings seem condemned; in Love in the Time of Cholera he shows that this condemnation is selfimposed. If we are alone it is because we are more prone to bewitchment and lust than to mutual understanding based on acceptance.≥∏ Conceived as a model of love based on knowledge, the tale of Florentino’s and Fermina’s gerontic idyll sheds light on the novel’s first episode while being illuminated by it. Both tales—the one that opens and the one that closes the novel—relate to each other as do the two extremes of the body, upper and lower. As emphasis on the upper body is superseded by a release in the lower, the obscurities of the first tale are resolved in the allegorical conclusion. Without the coda, in other words, the puzzling opening story of Love in the Time of Cholera makes no sense and serves no 130

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purpose. Until we reach that coda, we cannot fathom the ‘‘unsavory revelations’’ contained in Jeremiah de Saint-Amour’s eleven-page suicide letter to Urbino, revelations which ‘‘might have changed [Urbino’s] life,’’ but are never disclosed (11). Bitter almonds, sweet dregs Once readers understand that Love in the Time of Cholera is about the search for love and that love must be based on mutual understanding, they are equipped to grasp the sense of the opening tale. When that time comes, although the contents of Saint-Amour’s mysterious letter are never disclosed, the nature of his revelations can be gleaned from the life he led, his relationship to the woman he loved and, most of all, from the symbolic role in which he is cast. After all, in a novel that portrays the accelerating destruction of a continent while a character named America commits suicide, a novel in which a good-hearted ship captain surnamed Samaritano espouses the cause of an old couple until the end of time, it would be foolish not to take the imposing name of Jeremiah de Saint-Amour literally.≥π That is, given the conspicuous significance of many names in the novel, it is not far-fetched to assume that in a book about love someone christened ‘‘Holy Love’’ (Saint-Amour) would have considerable significance. It would be equally naive to think that the name Jeremiah shows up by accident. One of the two giants of Hebrew prophecy, Jeremiah fearlessly denounced the social ills of the Hebrew nation, and warned of the disasters that would follow. His agony was echoed more than two thousand years later in the words of Shakespeare’s Hamlet: ‘‘The time is out of joint; o cursed spite / That ever I was born to set it right!’’ Unlike his illustrious predecessor, García Márquez’s Jeremiah does not consciously set out to put anything right, however. The one who does is García Márquez, who painstakingly sets up this character and the nature of his love as examples to be contrasted with the didactic tales that follow. Saint-Amour does share a number of significant traits with his Biblical namesake, however. Both Jeremiahs emerge as lonely and sensitive figures wrenched by inner conflict. Both are radical in their thinking; both are ‘‘overwhelmed by the burden of disillusion’’ (Love, 8). Jeremiah the prophet states that God told him not to get married and have children, while Jeremiah de SaintAmour lived ‘‘a clandestine life shared with a [woman] who was never The excremental vision of García Márquez


completely [his]’’ because, as she later explained, ‘‘that was his wish’’ (14). Both men are cut o√ from the fabric of ordinary life; one is a visionary zealot, the other a judicious criminal. One is known as a prophet, the other is described as a saint (6).≥∫ Jeremiah the prophet compares Yahweh to the watchful almond tree whose flowering announces the coming of spring. The tale of SaintAmour the ‘‘saint’’ harkens, likewise, the coming of a perpetual spring in the concluding episode of Love in the Time of Cholera. Like Yahweh, Saint-Amour is linked to the almond tree, which explains why, when Urbino enters his home and finds him dead, he is overtaken by ‘‘the scent of bitter almonds’’ (3). The scent of bitter almonds reminds the straitlaced doctor ‘‘of the fate of unrequited love,’’ and unrequited love is what the novel is all about, with two exceptions: Jeremiah’s and the old couple’s at the end (3). Urbino also likens the scent of bitter almonds to ‘‘hapless love’’ although, ironically, Saint-Amour’s love is far from hapless (3). On the contrary, the woman he shared half his life with respected his dream with devotion and tenderness beyond death; she abetted his suicide out of respect for his wishes, and put those wishes before her own needs. In other words, she instinctively did what only the old Florentino and Fermina eventually learn to do: love beyond oneself, beyond egotism and personal vanity.≥Ω The great prophet of the seventh century b.c. is not only similar to Márquez’s character, he is also curiously close in spirit to the modern world. Jeremiah lived in a confused and insecure time in which the old values were crumbling, and even a man of God could be assailed by doubt and a sense of alienation from society. Nonetheless, Jeremiah clung to a vision of a happier world beyond disaster, where men would have entered into a new covenant to renew themselves.∂≠ If at times he felt overwhelmed by the burden of disillusion, it was because the Jews forgot how to love Yahweh. In our own time, men and women are worse o√: they have forgotten how to love each other. The consequences of their respective shortcomings are similar: chaos in a world slowly but relentlessly decaying, ‘‘like an angel condemned to putrefaction’’ (Love, 9). Striving to stir his people into action, Jeremiah the prophet shocked the worshippers who had gathered at the Temple, and swore that if they did not mend their ways, God would destroy their sanctuary.∂∞ In Love in the Time of Cholera, his prophecy comes to pass: the ‘‘calcinated flatlands stripped of forests’’ echo T. S. Eliot’s ‘‘The Wasteland’’; ‘‘the debris of 132

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god-forsaken villages whose streets remained flooded even in the cruelest droughts’’ and ‘‘the nauseating stench of corpses floating down to the sea’’ suggest the holocaust announced in the Old Testament (Love, 336).∂≤ Jeremiah promised his sinful brethren exiled in Babylon that, in the end, God would bring them back home in peace. To his pained wondering, ‘‘Why does the way of the wicked prosper? Why do all who are treacherous thrive?’’ García Márquez seems to be answering: humanity has erred in its ways. We deny our partner’s essence when we repress his or her identity and substitute our own projections for it. How can we possibly build societies and prosper when we haven’t learned to communicate? To teach humanity a mature and significant way to do so, García Márquez conceives Love in the Time of Cholera as a moral fable and sets up the example of the opening love story, one in which the wishes of each partner are heeded above all other considerations. We cannot ignore, in addition, that his prophetic Jeremiah takes his life the night before Pentecost, the Christian feast on the seventh Sunday after Easter commemorating the descent of the Holy Spirit on the apostles. That descent conferred the gift of tongues, faith healing, and premillennial teaching upon his disciples. It taught them a whole new way of life and prepared them to teach others, the way Saint-Amour’s tale teaches modern readers about respect and acceptance in the life of a couple. The first recipients of such salutary teaching are the old Florentino and his partner Fermina, emblem of everywoman.∂≥ Thus, in spite of the proliferating decay which surrounds the aged couple at the end of their voyage, Love in the Time of Cholera can be said to cling to a vision of a happier world beyond disaster. It is a novel about renewal that opens and closes with a model to strive for, and describes the limitations and shortcomings of idealization and lust. Florentino casts Fermina as an untouchable ideal; Urbino assigns her the role of the perfect society woman and mother; and Florentino’s relationship with his 622 mistresses is ‘‘a love without love.’’ Looking but not touching and, conversely, touching but not giving are a paltry expression of the human capacity to communicate; one way or another, the human animal continues holding back. Florentino Ariza is an example of such withholding. His a√ective retention is ironically paired o√ with constipation to drive the point home. Early on in his career, constipation is also linked with scopophilia, since he begins his love life by relating exclusively through eye contact. Sex is conspicuously absent from his first relationship with Fermina, and yet it The excremental vision of García Márquez


dominates to the detriment of enduring a√ection in his endless liaisons. Neither type of relationship is healthy; neither can last because neither takes the love object into account. In contrast with such idealizations and examples of unfulfilled liaisons, Florentino’s and Fermina’s mature love in the last episode portrays the essence of García Márquez’s humanist teaching. The author is not singing the praises of geriatric love out of irony; his aim is to draw an analogy between age and experience, between experience and acceptance.∂∂ Experience acquired through time is mapped out directly on Florentino’s body: his gastric explosion after his third visit to the widow Urbino signals a release of the curse which has shackled his intestines as well as his a√ections. He begins a new life, no longer idealizing but actually getting to know, and understand, the woman he loves. The concluding episode invites readers to recast civilization and discard the hollow substitutes for love that society has been living with until now. As in No One Writes to the Colonel, García Márquez uses the body as a mirror of the human condition with the aim of motivating social change. In other words, organic symbols enter his composition as a means to orchestrate his civilizing message. After all, as Peter Stallybrass and Allon White point out, ‘‘the body cannot be thought of separately from the social formation, symbolic topography and the constitution of the subject . . . it is rather that the body is actively produced by the junction and disjunction of symbolic domains and can never be legitimately evaluated ‘in itself ’ ’’ (Politics and Poetics of Transgression, 192). When García Márquez endows the body with symbolic value beyond its material identity, he is simply acknowledging that it has a cultural importance which has often gone unrecognized, that—in his fiction, at least—the organism is a trope for the polis, an agency that permits him to generalize about constipation while referring to the passivity of an old colonel or to the compulsive retentiveness of a voyeur pining for love. His emphasis on excrement is not a gratuitous and windy cacophony but a meaningful metaphor of release, a hopeful remedy for our ailing times.


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4 The degraded body in the work of Severo Sarduy i

Tela zurcida y oscura. Vendas. Llagas purulentas que sudan sobre las cuentas del collar que las sutura. Ni otra forma ni mas pura del cuerpo que se quebranta. —‘‘Babalú Ayé’’

As the real subject of Las Meninas is the art of painting, the real subject of Severo Sarduy’s novels is the art of writing.∞ The analogies between the Cuban author’s hermetic writing and Velázquez’s enigmatic masterpiece do not end here, moreover, leading one to believe that the kinship between these works is more than coincidental. As in the puzzling royal portrait, mirrors invite us to delve further into Sarduy’s compositions; flickering in the dark backgrounds of intimate scenes, they reflect casual events that turn out to be crucial in solving both kinds of conundrums. Not the least enigmatic feature of these riddles is that, like Velázquez, Sarduy includes himself in his work. He is both actor and creator, an active participant whose presence reminds us that the world he portrays flows directly from his pen.≤ His writing sits on the page like pigment on canvas, a mnemonic trace recording outlandish circumstances that turn out to be of momentous importance because, like scratches on the skin, they picture ‘‘the incident that etched them into the surface’’ (El Cristo de la rue Jacob, 7). Sarduy—who epitomizes the subject of this book—was a staunch be-

liever that writing was an ‘‘archaeology of the skin’’; he liked to say, extending the metaphor to a di√erent field, that scabs on the body could be peeled back to expose the original wound and give an idea of the instrument that scratched them on the flesh (El Cristo, 7). It was typically discerning of him to choose the metaphor of the scar to designate recorded memories. After all, the bodies he portrays are often battered. His fantasy was very di√erent from Cabrera Infante’s or García Márquez’s. Bodies in their work are always inspirited; they yearn and evolve through yearning, seldom seeking to bring about their own destruction. In contrast, in Sarduy’s writings the body is beaten, mauled, torn to pieces. Pain, torture, and defilement suggest a process of deterioration that goes against the grain of the usual literary portrait. Most authors conceive of writing as a process of accretion through which characters add layers of consistency and definition as they develop an identity. To chisel his characters, Sarduy proceeds more like Giacometti than like Rodin, however. He whittles away at his embattled heroes, creating in order to tear apart. Tortured and defiled, his beleaguered protagonists evolve through a process of abrasion and subtraction: Cobra is hung from the ceiling until his body starts oozing blood; Totem cuts o√ his tongue; Pup rips the ears o√ a little girl (Cobra, 108–09, 170, 97). In Maitreya (1978), the old hags who attend the holy man drink ‘‘repulsive liquids: saliva and urine’’ in order to ‘‘humiliate themselves’’; one of them spits on her neighbor’s feet, pierces her lips with a pin, burns her arms, and hangs two bloody chicken necks from her green and sa√roncolored dreadlocks (66). After the Most Noble Infant they serve stops breathing, the old acolytes ‘‘lunge for his body with the voracity of a pair of vultures,’’ and start to ‘‘tear away handfuls of hair, eyebrows and lashes’’ (72). Once they have distributed these relics among the faithful, they chop up his remains into one hundred pieces and empty out the head; in an unmarked tomb, they reconstitute his broken body and abandon themselves to rapture: ‘‘Here is the fragmented body . . . ,’’ they gloat, ‘‘here is the object of desire’’ (74). In Colibrí (1984), sweaty, muscular wrestlers who exude testosterone and excel in the art of humiliation lock arms on the makeshift stage of a homosexual bar ironically named the Big House (la Casona). They shame, insult, and spit on the loser, taunting aroused onlookers to buy them for the night on the basis of their ability to pummel their sexual partners. In turn pursuer and pursued, the novel’s hero is slapped across 136

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the face and ‘‘brought down on his knees,’’ his body covered with green spittle (123–24). Colibrí is not the only character whose body is fouled with vile droppings and ejections, moreover; the horde of pursuers who shake a tree to knock him down from its branch is drenched in ‘‘viscous cobweb threads, tiny rotten eggs and excrement’’ (49). Excrement enters Cocuyo (1990) as a pivotal theme for the first time in Sarduy’s writing: San Sebastian is defiled by it, caught in the act of defecating as his body is pierced through with arrows (14), and the novel’s hero slides down a slope at full speed while holding on to his potty turned sled (11–12). Defecation in Cocuyo is described as something that robs us of part of ourselves, emphasizing the element of attrition fundamental in Sarduy’s portrayal (14). Over and over, diminished organisms in his work are ravaged by mutilation and decay, showcasing the loss of self in a crumbling world in which even ‘‘condemned angels topple down from the heavenly vault amidst strident squeals’’ (Cocuyo, 16). Sarduy’s angels squeal because the world they live in is an alarming place where pain is all too readily dispensed. The truth is, all of Sarduy’s characters are cruel, bent on harming themselves and each other as they trim down the universe around them. The universe mimics the characters: it is continually crumbling. Like one of Julian Schnabel’s shardcovered canvases, the landscape in Sarduy’s novels disintegrates before our very eyes: ‘‘the sun devours everything with its leprosy and cruelty,’’ the humidity and heat are like acid that ‘‘corrodes the facades’’ of houses, the ocean is ‘‘anemic,’’ the land exudes ‘‘a putrefying stench’’ (Cocuyo 155, 102, 189, 208). Detailed in El Cristo de la rue Jacob (1987), the narrator’s body is as bruised and wounded as the landscape in Cocuyo: sharp thorns puncture his skull; two of his teeth break; his gashed lower lip needs to be stitched; a wart grows on his foot (11, 21, 25). True to his prediction that the body is ‘‘a fragile and opaque container always ready to break,’’ the hero’s organism ends up depicted as a conquered territory (Cocuyo, 18). In Pájaros de la playa (1993), his last novel, the body continues to corrode on its unremitting path to putrefaction. A slow kind of leprosy scorches it until the narrator turns into an ‘‘organic wreck’’ (132). His energy drained, each day witnesses the ebbing away of his faculties: to write, to think coherently, to remember. Each new crisis is more shattering than the ones before; they ‘‘water down the humor that trickles through his veins, dissolve the marrow in his bones’’ (137). The narrating body turns out to be ‘‘a pitiless The degraded body in the work of Sarduy 137

enemy;’’ his nails are ‘‘chewed up,’’ the ‘‘sole of his feet and tender flesh around his toes’’ invaded by a ‘‘whitish, microscopic fungus that eventually bursts out into swollen, pussy pimples’’ (156). A persistent gash that will not heal tears the skin between his ‘‘hollow, white-haired’’ left testicle, and the ‘‘no longer impetuous, shrunken’’ penis (157). His gums bleed, and his eagerness to put an end to the ‘‘bundle of farts and excrement’’ that is his body can come as no surprise to the reader (165–66). The degraded walking carcass in Pájaros de la playa is not that of a transvestite in a Moroccan nightclub, or of a wrestler in some godforsaken male brothel, moreover. It is the narrator’s own, painstakingly described until it becomes confused with that of Sarduy, who was dying of aids while he wrote these pages. Scourged and devastated, Sarduy’s body eventually became indistinguishable from those of his most vilified characters; marking it, blotting it, taking possession of what was theirs to begin with, putrefaction and decay ended up imitating art at its most macabre. Physical degradation remained an ingredient of Sarduy’s fictional portrayals until the end of his life, but did the withered carcasses featured in his work always spring from the same sources, one wonders, or were they altered by his own disease? Why were his flamboyant stories overrun with foul stenches and bone splinters, splattered marrow and curdling blood? Why was he so obsessed with portraying the organism as wrecked and the world as abject? In short, where was Sarduy’s destructive vision stemming from? The fragmented body In Cobra, his towering masterpiece of 1972, Sarduy dramatized the fantasy of the dismembered body for the first time in his career. Running the full gamut from the sublime to the ridiculous, the hero of the novel spends the first seventy pages searching for ways to reduce the size of his feet. After many experiments, including mainlining curare juice into his veins, his feet don’t get any smaller but his body splits into two and, from that point forward the full-grown hero shares the limelight with a pintsized version of himself.≥ Later in the action, the schizoid and sexually ambivalent Cobra sets out in pursuit of a second transformation, which, as Alicia Rivero Potter


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has explained, is metaphorically equivalent to the first.∂ After finally tracking down the elusive Dr. Ktazob (whose name alludes to the organ Cobra wishes to be rid o√ ),∑ he submits to his blade and the doctor ‘‘tears out the superfluous in one fell swoop’’ (Cobra, 85). But then, scarcely fifteen pages after his operation, Cobra is surrounded and—in spite of his fancy drag and elaborate makeup—immediately recognized as a man: ‘‘it’s him,’’ cries out an old lady in the crowd (130). Given all the emphasis on reducing the size of extremities, tearing o√ limbs, and chopping o√ sex organs, readers of this novel have had no di≈culty in recognizing Sarduy’s preposterous dramatization of castration. Much has been written about Cobra’s mutilated body since the novel appeared in print, but nothing has been said about the hero’s last and most significant gender switch. It is significant because, if Cobra recovers his original gender after Ktazob’s removes ‘‘the superfluous,’’ isn’t Sarduy suggesting that castration has been in some way annulled? Castration is particularly trenchant in this novel because, quite literally, the hero is a penis with a mind of its own, a talking head with no use for his feet. As I have suggested elsewhere, in the chapter titled ‘‘The Conversion’’ Sarduy makes a point of establishing a homology between the snake and the male sexual organ.∏ This is why, following the castration scene, Cobra’s pillow is found to be smeared with ‘‘limpid starch or semen,’’ and immediately afterward, the hero’s behavior is described with an ambiguous terminology that could apply to a penis as well as to a reptile: ‘‘It raises itself . . . it unfolds . . . the triangular head crowned with an arch . . . contracts and dilates’’ flooding everything with ‘‘spurts of corrosive juices . . .’’ (118, 119, 120). The nexus between penis and reptile is conspicuous not only in the passage describing the castration ceremony. When an Alexandrian saint emasculates himself in mystic rapture, we are told he ‘‘amputated his own basilisk with a single blow,’’ and when a snake coils itself around Totem’s sexual organ, its head and his glans adhere to each other, the reptile’s ‘‘pointed tongue dashing in and out, dripping semen’’ (89, 142). The hero is not simply named after a reptile; he looks and behaves both like a snake and a penis. Like Shiva’s, Cobra’s avatars are the serpent and the lingam. For this reason, his castration implies much more than having his genitals removed; it betokens the eradication of a feature that is analogous to himself and suggests the obnubilation of his whole identity. Like a pipe

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organ that chooses not to blow, what Cobra denies is, in point of fact, his very essence. This brings us directly to the question of the self as it is generally portrayed in Sarduy, which is to say, as unable to accept or, in other words, coincide with itself. His characters are not just in pursuit of an ideal that seems to elude them; they loathe their own bodies, a rejection that lies at the base of their mutilations and perpetual transformations. As Sarduy portrays it, identity is friable. It is no coincidence that so many of his characters spend time staring at themselves in mirrors, and that some are unable to recognize themselves, ‘‘as if the image behind the mercury lining were someone else’s’’ (Colibrí, 178). Mirrors and an inability to recognize oneself bring to mind Lacan’s much repeated and, in this case, very applicable remarks regarding the infant’s development of a separate identity. We know that, like Sarduy’s flighty hero Colibrí, the infant in the first phase of Lacan’s mirror stage fails to recognize itself in the mirror. Fully identified with the mother, it does not yet have a sense of itself as separate. That sense only develops after the paternal proscription which psychoanalysis terms a symbolic castration takes place.π However, if the infant fails to internalize the Name of the Father or, in other words, if castration falls short, it does not develop a sense of itself as distinct, and will remain identified with the mother. Sarduy referred to the mother and to the trauma of separating from her on several occasions, although never more explicitly than in El Cristo de la rue Jacob. All autobiographical references contained in this extraordinary little book must not be taken at face value, however. As Rosemary Feal has pointed out, ‘‘more than the story of one’s life written by oneself, autobiography has come to be seen as synonymous with the exploration of the self through writing,’’ exactly the tenor of Sarduy’s so-called personal revelations (Novel Lives, 11). Like many of his characters, his revelations are often in drag, dressed up in bangles and beads that are a response to the overarching needs of the narrative. Sarduy’s autobiographical I is always a mask, in other words, a figure split in two that remains nonetheless revealing about the author and his designs. For instance, in a particularly candid episode of El Cristo de la rue Jacob, the narrator reminisces about his childhood as the period in which, as he puts it, ‘‘my mother and I were very close to each other; we were almost . . . the same

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person’’ (11). That seamless bond is broken when the young Sarduy hurts his head and grasps, almost simultaneously, that ‘‘it wasn’t [his] mother’s body that felt pain’’ but, actually, his own (11). What is most relevant about this anecdote is not whether the events really took place, but the way in which Sarduy chooses to tell the story, that is, the way he chooses to frame those events. Revealingly, the discovery made by his alter ego in El Cristo de la rue Jacob involves a mirrored reflection; the narrator-cum-author stares at his own distorted, and asymmetrical, body on the shiny surface of the floor tiles in the surgery room and has a painful epiphany: ‘‘we [i.e., his mother and he] had become separated in and through pain’’ (12). The instant he feels the burning lips of his wound stitched together, the narrator recognizes his own insularity. This realization comes hand in hand with another: his ability to obtain pleasure is likewise self-determined and isolating. The scene in the surgery room is both a restatement and a culmination. It is a restatement because it brings together three features that insistently show up in all works of prose that Sarduy wrote in the seventies and eighties: first, a close bond between the hero and an older woman (Cobra and the Señora; Colibrí and the Regent; the dwarf and Lady Tremendous; the narrator of El Cristo de la rue Jacob, and his mother); second, a mirror in which one or both characters are reflected together; and, third, a scene of separation. It is a culmination because the fiction wants us to believe that the two characters who are bonded to each other, reflected on the same surface, and then separated are not merely symbolic substitutes but the author and his mother. On the basis of this connection between mother and child, it could be said that El Cristo de la rue Jacob is a kind of viaje a la semilla, a close look at the sources that inspire the three main features which, thematically speaking, tipify Sarduy’s work during two decades of his career. A fourth feature characteristic of his work during this period is the emphasis on eroticism. One cannot help noticing that while the accent is on eroticism, however, the presence of genital sex diminishes proportionately as we travel from Cobra to Pájaros de la playa. When we take a close look at their behavior, we realize that characters in Cobra, Maitreya, Colibrí, Cocuyo, and certainly in Sarduy’s last novel have little or no contact with each other, sexuality becoming progressively more autarchic as the author gets older. Furthermore, because all four features appear conjointly in his

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work, we are led to believe that there must be a connection between mirrors, the sexual activity they reflect, and an arresting diminution of physical contact. Two scenes in Maitreya corroborate this connection. Through the looking glass In the first of these scenes, Luis Leng contemplates his own reflection contemplating three women who are themselves contemplating ‘‘their interstices’’ in a mirror; as he begins to masturbate, the women reappear in a veritable apotheosis of voyeurism: reflected in miniature in a translucid drop that glistens on the head of his penis (120). As he watches their reflection, they approach him with a bedspread with which they shroud his body and, soon after, they begin making waves in a ‘‘tortuous up-anddown’’ movement described as ‘‘the Asiatic transmutation of the fort-da ’’ (121). Leng then orders Lady Tremendous to take his sex with her mouth, demanding that it be done ‘‘without touching it’’ (121). She obeys in spite of herself because, ‘‘although she wanted to catch it,’’ ‘‘she caught nothing’’ (Maitreya, 122). Leng’s screened vignette mirrors, while inverting, an earlier scene that opens with Ladies Divine and Tremendous wantonly sprawled on a sofa. In the scene in the looking glass we have just described, the women walk toward Leng under the protective cover of a blanket before covering him with it, while in the episode on the sofa it is the Chinaman who approaches the ladies camouflaged behind bedcovers. All the sleepy duo see as he moves closer is ‘‘the gradual advance of a velvety black screen’’ which Leng will eventually ‘‘drop . . . on them like a fallen curtain’’ (96). ‘‘Protected by . . . the sudden intervention of invisibility,’’ the Chinaman proceeds to strip naked at that point and soon begins caressing himself, ‘‘enveloped in what was a double opacity for the twins, facing their . . . buried bodies’’ (96). What cannot fail to strike readers of the sofa episode is that Leng throws o√ his clothes ‘‘as if alone or absent-minded,’’ and that he only dives between volumes of flesh wrapped in the undulating thickness of the bedspread when he feels ‘‘the germinating spark . . . beginning to rise from the ball-shaped distilleries’’ (96). In other words, the lascivious lothario reaches a climax by himself aroused by what is near but, ultimately—as is always the case for voyeurs—separate and unavailable.


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The first two mirror scenes in Maitreya reveal an obsession and invite what may seem like a hasty generalization this early on in our discussion: intercourse seldom takes place in Sarduy’s scenarios, and when it does, contact tends to be screened, prophylactic, or sterile. As pictured by Sarduy, physical contact is curiously mediated by distance; characters in his mirror scenes come together but something keeps them apart even while in each other’s presence. One cannot help wonder why sexuality is an independent and self-gratifying activity in Sarduy’s novels, one that brings with it a sense of exclusion and separation. Considering his emphasis on eroticism, why does he proscribe intercourse whenever he portrays men and women together? Why does he bring bodies close to each other but keep them from touching? Couldn’t the link between isolating sex, blankets, mirrors, and the emphasis on gazing rather than on physical contact be his tongue-in-cheek allusion to primal scene fantasies? Primal scene fantasies translate an unresolved conflict; they dramatize the kind of triangular dynamic which, as in Leng’s show-and-tell, exclude the primal viewer from playing an active role in the sexual act. Instead of physically partaking, the viewer becomes a passive respondent, displacing the erotic locus from the genitals to the eye, the organ with which he watches from a distance a scene he can only enjoy by means of a substitute. As it turns out, the displaced viewer upstaged by a rival is a prescriptive feature of the last and most revealing mirror scene in Maitreya. In the concluding quarter of part two (the sections titled ‘‘The Fist I and II’’), Lady Tremendous takes center stage after pricking her twin sister with a pin that deflates her like a character in a Tom and Jerry cartoon (114). Once the randy twin is whisked out of the fiction, Sarduy pulls one of his favorite toys out of the bag. The dwarf, that ‘‘body fallen’’ from Cobra after he has had his penis removed, comes back with a vengeance in Maitreya, a book in which Sarduy’s intentions for casting him as alter ego of the hero are made amply clear (Cobra, 115). The little fellow first shows up as part of a threesome that includes Lady Tremendous and a well-endowed Iranian chau√eur (but I am getting ahead of myself because the Iranian only comes to occupy pride of place after the dwarf is displaced, and it is the removal of the little man that is crucial to understanding Sarduy’s plot). To begin with, what the fantasy in the last quarter of Maitreya dramatizes is the little tyke’s anal penetration of Charming Chubby with his fist. The Iranian enters both

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the drama and the Lady only after the dwarf has ruled ‘‘the annals of the Empire’’ in tableaux which contain every element depicted in Luis Leng’s earlier menage à trois, beginning with mirrors (Maitreya, 161). The first time the dwarf puts his joined fingertips into Lady Tremendous’s rectum, she sees the reflection of his little hand sinking into her body in the tiles of the Turkish bath where the scene takes place. Moreover, as in earlier erotic episodes, the Lady perceives her own body ‘‘as if it were someone else’s’’ (156). Literally putting the scene in wraps and further adding to the distancing e√ect suggested by Lady Tremendous’s alienation, the Iranian shows up with an unfolded screen which he places ‘‘right in front of the gasping players,’’ and behind two large lamps, turning in this manner the living tableau into a screened performance, ‘‘life’’ into an art form in which the characters appear as silhouettes (156). It is impossible not to recognize Christian Metz’s description of the relationship between voyeurism and cinema watching in the Iranian’s cheat sheet. Sarduy flaunts his sources, in fact, as emphatically as the Iranian parades his erections; both kinds of citations—verbal as well as bodily—are hard to avoid. But just in case anyone wants to fight the evidence that nothing in his scenarios is gratuitous, that the intention of the lecherous dwarf ’s sour gropes extends far beyond Lady Tremendous’s gummy center, Sarduy clobbers the reader with allusions in a pendant to the dwarf ’s first erotic scene. The role played by the lusty dwarf in the matching tableau is dramatically di√erent from his first stewardship. In the second scene, the Iranian chau√eur is in the driver’s seat, and his ruttish tiger in the Lady’s tank. For overdoing his ‘‘digital assuagement,’’ and sticking his hand where he shouldn’t have, the dwarf has been pursued, pounded to a pulp, and thrown in the boot of a car (162). By the time the trio resurfaces at the Grand Hôtel de France a few pages later, we find the lady ‘‘slithering into position for intercourse,’’ and the Iranian chau√eur ready for action (172). But what about the dwarf ? It is at this point that Sarduy’s intentions begin to make sense. To begin with, the little tyke, pijirita, no longer has his finger in the pie. By that I mean that the Lady’s body is no longer at his disposal. His reaction to this displacement is one of total regression: he ‘‘closes his eyes tightly,’’ and covers ‘‘his ears with his fingertips,’’ bending over, ‘‘shrinking, until his elbows met his knees’’ (172). From this fetal position he falls to the floor. As the two big people get ready to tango, pijirita looks like he is 144 Body of writing

‘‘about to walk on all fours,’’ and his little face is ‘‘prenatal with amazement’’ (172). A cat accompanying the trio begins to purr ‘‘as if seeking at the bottom of a closet a newborn babe’’ (172). Could all these references to newborn babes, walking on all fours, and prenatal amazement be mere coincidences, or is Sarduy suggesting a parallel between the displaced dwarf and an infant after it has been separated from the body it loves? And why does the chau√eur stand by, ‘‘ready for action’’ but, instead of having sex with the Lady or, that is, beating around the bush, he ends up choosing the narrower among forking paths, and his fist over his fly? (175). Is Sarduy building fiction not just as a house of mirth but, more to the point, as a house of wish-fulfillment? Aren’t we seeing, first, the displacement of the dwarf from his privileged attachment and, second (when intercourse between the Big Mama and her well-endowed consort fails to take place), the annulment of his rival’s hegemony, even before this hegemony can be established? Was Sarduy fighting the dwarf ’s battle, or was the dwarf acting out the most immoderate wish of ‘‘newborn babes’’: to revoke all privileges from the burly man who usually gets his big foot inside Big Mama’s door? Undeniably, at the beginning of the scene in which the three key figures are brought together, seeing the Iranian’s erect penis sends the dwarf into some sort of prenatal regression. By the end of the scene, however, the little tyke is triumphant because he managed to keep his archrival’s sexual consummation from taking place. This annulment, or displacement, of the big guy’s power in favor of the little guy turns out to be the real tour de force in Maitreya. Since the characteristic exclusion of the little man from the primal scenario is absconded with in Sarduy’s novel, the Cuban author sticks closer to his sources, in fact, than even Freud. After all, Oedipus does manage to get rid of his father and keep Jocasta to himself. In Freud’s version Jocasta’s body is taken away from the infant, however. Skipping over Freud’s transformation of Sophocles, Sarduy goes back to the source. Like Oedipus, the dwarf in Maitreya disempowers his rival in the triangular conflict and becomes a leading figure in the resolution, as we shall see. Discussing, analyzing, and even parodying Freud’s reading of the family drama were very much on the agenda of intellectuals revolving around Tel Quel, a group with which Sarduy became closely a≈liated between 1965 (date of his first collaboration with the journal Tel Quel ), and the early 1970s.∫ During these years of great intellectual ferment in Paris, The degraded body in the work of Sarduy 145

members of Tel Quel were particularly interested in what they termed the theory of the subject, and sought to explore the nexus between ontological development and the creative act. Julia Kristeva’s thesis on Mallarmé (La révolution du langage poétique) and Roland Barthes’s spellbinding essays on Michelet, Racine, Fourrier, and Loyola are but two of the theoretical ventures that grew out of these interests. Of those caught up in the creative energy surrounding Tel Quel, the only one who explored in fiction the theory of the subject and the forces shaping artistic development with any degree of success was Sarduy. In fact, beginning in 1972 with the publication of Cobra, the subject in process becomes one of the thematic springboards into his fictional world; from this point forward, disguising them in one form or another, he only orchestrated ontological psychodramas. Because he turned to his own experience in order to understand the way the self develops, his focus in Cobra, Colibrí, El Cristo de la rue Jacob, and Pájaros de la playa was directed toward the forces that shape artists, ‘‘artists’’ who include transvestites, painters of fleas, and even authors who have their plots stolen by characters in the fiction. Was Sarduy poking fun at the creative process? Pondering over—but very tongue in cheek—Tel Quel’s theories? Of this there can be no doubt; in fact, as Roberto González Echevarría states with typical acumen, Sarduy transforms the contradictions of structuralism into a sort of sideshow, and fictionalizes them in a process akin to a deconstruction avant la lettre (La ruta de Severo Sarduy, 46). And yet, even with tongue firmly in cheek, Sarduy was also being carried away by the psychoanalytic and formalistic fevers that were taking Paris by storm in the seventies. He parodied Freud’s and Lacan’s theories but he could not avoid exploring their implications while mocking them at the same time. Focusing most particularly on the development of both author and self in Colibrí (1983), Sarduy writes a family melodrama that leads one of the narrators to defy paternal authority and write books that break away from the conventional, law-abiding type of narrative discourse such authority represents. His exploration of the rivalry between father and son in Colibrí is highly parodic, alluding to purportedly autobiographical episodes and making revelations that shed light on those made in Maitreya by means of the dwarf. White and tiny, this dwarf is reminiscent of the bodies that fly out of the mouths of the dead in medieval paintings, the uominini which, today, we might refer to as projections of the self. These 146 Body of writing

uominini were painted on wooden retablos, and frequently on diptychs and triptychs in which the resurrected and the dead were placed on opposite panels of the composition. Also like the panels of a diptych, the meaning of Colibrí is so closely dependent upon the parody of the family drama portrayed in Maitreya that it is impossible to understand one without referring to the other. In fact, in many ways the tale of Lady Tremendous, of her prodigiously endowed consort, and of the little guy who runs circles around them both is Sarduy’s masterplot, the source from which his fictional universe after De donde son los cantantes (1967) derives. I said earlier that I would return to the matter of the dwarf ’s revenge and his reappearance after getting rid of the big Iranian. In order to discuss revenge, however, it is essential to point out that in Maitreya the dwarf ’s repossession of the Big Mama follows her repudiation of him. The family plot Sarduy portrays with such insistence in this novel develops in three phases which can be summed up in three words: rejection, retribution, and repossession. In the first, Big Mama throws the little fellow over for the Big Guy. But even before the Iranian can stake his claim, the dwarf gets back into the picture, displaces his rival, and gets the Lady pregnant. In terms of the family triangle the story parodies the dwarf violates a proscription in order to get what he wants. When Lady Tremendous makes clear to him that having his way with her is ‘‘forbidden,’’ he ‘‘drag[s] himself convulsively to her feet screaming like a newborn rabbit’’ (Maitreya, 155). Screaming never stops him from trying to get her back, however. Clearly, the ‘‘newborn rabbit’’ depicted in Sarduy’s fantasy is a clever bunny who finds another way of getting back into the hutch, even after being told it is forbidden. Getting into the hutch entails, first of all, getting rid of the rival. But Sarduy doesn’t completely run o√ the well-meaning and ultimately useful Priapus; he just tampers with his belongings. Appendages in Maitreya are not cut o√ as they are in Cobra, they are merely disempowered. Immediately after Lady Tremendous ‘‘slithers into position for intercourse,’’ and the Iranian’s ‘‘massive muscle’’ is ready to throb into action, the dwarf falls to the floor and has the scene of regression in which he is described as ‘‘prenatal with amazement’’ (172). As if by magic, Big Papa’s erection is suddenly whisked out of the picture, deflated not from lack of vim but by a choice which is entirely the author’s. Such sleight-of-hand is part of a charade that begs to be looked at in closer detail. The degraded body in the work of Sarduy 147

Sarduy begins by placing his characters in a triangular confrontation in which the dwarf, likened to a newborn babe, gazes at Lady Tremendous about to be possessed by the other man in the picture. But then, suddenly, the scene resolves itself into a dissolve with no penetration, no intercourse, nothing ‘‘sti√ and without veins’’ as Sarduy rewrites the script for the primal scene fantasy he was in the process of parodying (172). Instead of the child watching with horror as the father and mother grapple in each other’s arms, the ‘‘newborn babe’’ in Maitreya ’s primal scene gets what he most wishes, which is exactly what the fiction portrays: to erase the erection from the scene and make it impossible for the Iranian to ‘‘slither into position’’ (172). As I have already indicated, the Iranian is not without a role, however. Soon after his failed coupling with the Lady, we find him ready to perform for public view. The scenario is framed with ‘‘creamy-colored sheets’’ that partially reveal, partially disguise what is about to take place (175). Lady Tremendous appears naked and painted pink, while the Iranian—pricked by sexual abstinence—is itchy to get on with the show. At that point, the dwarf gets ready to crash a pair of cymbals but, mimicking the Iranian’s enforced impotence, stops right before the crash. The three performers look each other in the eye; the Iranian begins to undress, and soon reveals a ‘‘big bundle’’ from which ‘‘the vibrant dart leapt out rapidly, like a Chinese squirrel set free from a trap’’ (176). At the sight of the ‘‘squirrel,’’ the dwarf runs o√, soon to return with a copper platter on his head, and the ensuing scene is described from above, literally, a vuelo de pájaro. Are we to see shades of Salome and decapitation, or of Bette Davis’s and Joan Crawford’s birdie on a tray in Sarduy’s parable of the platter and the prick? Everything up to the point in which the platter turns up has seemed to indicate that intercourse is imminent. Instead, it turns out that, like St. John the Baptist, the Iranian ends up having one of his extremities removed. Rather than having sex with Lady Tremendous, he begins to eat, his coitus once again interruptus, this time by an exchange of saliva-drenched delicacies which he, the Lady, and the dwarf ‘‘inserted between each other’s lips with their fingertips’’ (177). After eating, and in keeping with the symmetry binding things oral with things anal, foreplay turns into hindplay. Instructed by the dwarf, who masterminds the scene, the Iranian chau√eur sinks his hand into the Lady’s ‘‘rough passage . . . as far as the phalanxes,’’ while the dwarf 148

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watches from below (178). As in other episodes we have looked at, a reflecting surface turns out to be a key element of this sex scene: ‘‘The dwarf had placed a Moroccan mirror on the carpet, and in the oval mercury . . . he contemplated upside down the giant’s entrance into the cave’’ (178). The primal scene inspiring this travesty is as upside-down as the giant’s entrance. Upside-down because in spite of his amply described sex organ, what the giant puts into the Lady is not his penis but his hand. The penis, as in the earlier scene, has temporarily disappeared from the giant’s loins and—here is a new development—become emblematized by the dwarf, who ‘‘out of ritual excess or sarcasm had donned a big hat like a tower,’’ and becomes, figuratively at any rate, the Lady’s partner, a penis for her thoughts (178–79). The big towering hat not only ‘‘squats,’’ ‘‘squints his eyes,’’ and examines the ‘‘threshold of penetration in the mirror;’’ it also stops the ‘‘sweaty penetrator of the crime’’ (i.e., the Iranian) from going any further (179). The following night Lady Tremendous begins to swell and, within hours, gives birth to ‘‘the runt hatched by the dwarf ’’ (181). It is this runt who turns out to be Maitreya, the future Buddha, the last reincarnation in the chain of evolution, the one betokening perfection, and the end of all desire. But whose desire is being emblematized in the two scenes we’ve just described? Obviously the runt’s, which, as we will see, turns out to be a deconstruction of the primal fantasy. In that fantasy, the child perceives itself as displaced, understands the preponderance of the father in the alchemy of family life, and, if all goes well, identifies with the father’s longing for a body of a di√erent gender. Plainly, this identification is what never takes place in Sarduy’s scenario, however. What we see instead is the father’s rebuttal by the son who takes his place. That place is the place of the phallus, what Lacan would call the ‘‘object little a,’’ an object that the runt clearly embodies in Sarduy’s allegory. Becoming identified with the phallus allows the object of the mother’s longing, here represented by the dwarf, to impregnate the Lady and become father of himself or, rather, father of his own alter ego who is Lady Tremendous’s anal son, the twin to whom he is ‘‘joined together’’ (186). The resolution of Maitreya is thus a masterpiece in terms of wishfulfilment, since the emblematic infant in the fiction brings about the greatest of all fantasies: to dismantle the father’s power, take his place, The degraded body in the work of Sarduy 149

and reenter the mother’s body. Far from being an anus miserabilis, therefore, Lady Tremendous’s narrow path functions as a fertile furrow, a beckoning crack drawing the writer’s fantasy back to the space his tiny protagonist keeps craving for. The pijirita in the novel is manifestly a projection of the pajarito who wrote that novel, a little tyke who allows Sarduy to saunter playfully back into the hutch. Better a bird in hand than a hand in the bush Clearly relishing the transformation of theory into parody, and using both to shed light on the byzantine complications of the family plot, Sarduy went on turning truths into fiction in his next novel. Instead of the symbolic allusions typical of Maitreya, however, in Colibrí he called things by their proper name, with one exception: he substituted the body of the mother for the body of the text as the object of rivalry between two men. Like its immediate predecessors, Colibrí showcases androgynous characters and sex changes. The bird-named hero is a dancer-cum-wrestler in a bar, the Big House, somewhere in South America. The two other main characters are the Regent, a white-haired matron in charge of the bar, and a Japanese karate master with whom Colibrí flees from the homosexual club where he dances every night. After countless ploys that take up about a third of the novel, the Regent finally comes close to catching Colibrí. At that point, rescued by a big-headed little giant, the bird man deploys the skills that make him worthy of his name (i.e., Hummingbird) and flies away (136). From that moment onward, the story repeats itself: once again Colibrí takes to his heels, once again he joins hands with the Japanese karate master;Ω together, they flee until a party of grubby hunters surrounds them (155). The hunters’ intention is not to harm Colibrí and the karate master, however, but merely to tell the hero, ‘‘You’ll return in order to burn down. To destroy. You are the only one who could get into the Big House and take the reins of power without hindrance’’ (158). The hunters’ prediction comes to pass; Colibrí returns and razes the Big House. He then opens a new bar, and takes the place of the Regent. In fact, his transformation is so complete that when he stares in the mirror at the end of the novel, at first he fails to recognize himself: ‘‘as if someone else showed up behind the mercury lining’’ (178). Once again, as in Maitreya, Sarduy’s narrative plot is a facade masking 150

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the most fundamental geometry of desire: a triangle which includes, this time around, the narrator, his father (who enters the story in part 2), and an object of desire which turns out to be the tale itself, perpetually getting away from its author. Getting away in this instance must be taken literally, moreover. As in Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author, in Colibrí a group of ‘‘choreographing Myrmidons’’∞≠ steals the story in progress, and changes its style and setting, filling it with ‘‘pom-poms, old fashioned frills and the namby-pambiness typical of pastoral novels: useless adjectives, synonyms and antonyms, gratuitous complications and repetitions’’ (112). After a while, Colibrí reappears looking just like he was at the beginning, but due to the Myrmidons’ tireless shifting of the original scenario, everything else is changed. The Big House, ‘‘that haven of truck drivers smelling of greasy screws . . . that stalwart stud-farm . . . had become, believe it or not, a harmless phalanstery or, if one prefers, a sophisticated tea room’’ (113). The story continues in search of an author, and the chapter concludes with the voice of the father addressing his son, who is actually one of the narrators about to do away with ‘‘the most ignominious pages’’ that the choreographing Myrmidons have forced down his throat (129): ‘‘Is it possible!’’—admonishes the father—‘‘burning papers again! What bad habits you’ve got, son! Jesus, what an obsession! Not only do you waste time writing them; afterwards you put a match to them. . . . It’s outrageous! And look here . . . I need to have a few words with you. You are already a grown man and a member in good standing of the Sarduy family in which, up until now, there haven’t been any queers. I don’t want anyone pointing a finger at me when I walk down the street. So you are going to go right this minute and burn those four pieces of shit. Who has ever seen a man playing with papier-mâché fruit?’’ (129) The father’s tirade is essential in understanding Colibrí because the whole novel is conceived as a rejection of paternal authority. In the quoted passage, when Sarduy’s father enjoins his son to ‘‘burn those four pieces of shit,’’ we are led to believe that he is referring to the shiny fruit that glitters on the turban of the dwarf dressed as Carmen Miranda in the same chapter.∞∞ However, as we look more closely, we realize the subject of the father’s tirade is not just the dwarf ’s headgear, but writing itself. The ‘‘them’’ the father disparages refers to his son’s papers, not to the fruit. The The degraded body in the work of Sarduy 151

father is enraged over the time Sarduy the narrator wastes writing these papers; he also does not want anyone to point a finger at him on the street and assures his son there haven’t been any queers or—in a literal translation—any ‘‘birds’’ ( pájaros) (the slang term for homosexual in Cuban Spanish) in his family. He makes clear that ‘‘the four pieces of shit’’ are somehow connected with the son’s sexual inclination, moreover, and that to destroy them would amount to removing the stigma that threatens to tarnish the family name.∞≤ Implicitly, the paternal injunction condemns not only the son’s sexual deviance but also, and even more pointedly, the sublimation and dramatization of this deviance, which is his writing (‘‘Don’t you waste enough time already writing . . . ?,’’ sco√s the senior Sarduy). Given the link between writing and sexual transgression in the father’s words, isn’t it possible that ‘‘the four pieces of shit’’ refer—again, very much tongue-incheek—to the four novels Sarduy the author had published up to that point: Gestos, De donde son los cantantes, Cobra, and Maitreya? Isn’t Sarduy’s homosexuality cried from the rooftops of these novels? And, given their transgressive tenor, don’t they breathe of a rupture with paternal proscriptions and, by the same token, with the normative identity which the father’s authority attempts to impose on Sarduy, the narrator of Colibrí ? Clearly, Sarduy is playing here with both sources and origins; he is taking bits and pieces of life, and recasting them into fiction, inventing a feathered alter ego who ends up as the absolute victor of his tale. The story of the bird subjected to a smothering matron is written by a man whose father tells him not to be a pájaro because he doesn’t want his own name tarnished. Both birds have much in common. For a start, the one that saunters through the story and the one who writes that story are linked to each other by the very instrument that defines them; it is no coincidence that pluma should mean both feather and pen, the latter an instrument which happens to be the tool of Sarduy’s art. In addition, as the matron cannot control her bird, the narrator cannot control his story, which keeps getting away from him and refusing to come out the way he would like. He is so exasperated by the story’s seeming independence, in fact, that he is ready to burn it. It is at this point that his father intervenes and tells him—we think, at first—to stop playing with fake fruit or, in fact, to stop writing.


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The stories of both birds have at least as much in common as the bird themselves, and they—the birds—can be readily compared to another of Sarduy’s protagonists: the dwarf in Maitreya. Like the dwarf and Colibrí, the narrator, who is ‘‘a Sarduy,’’ wants to hold on to a body that gets away from him. In Maitreya that body is Mama’s; in the parallel tales of Colibrí it is the Japanese boy’s in one, and the tale itself in the other, a pairing o√ that suggests a link between the writing which the father forbids and homosexuality. Another shared feature is that Colibrí, the dwarf, and Sarduy all have a rival: Colibrí’s is the Regent, the dwarf ’s is the Iranian, Sarduy’s is his father. All rivals want what the heroes of both novels want for themselves. Colibrí wants a sexual partner, the dwarf wants Mama, and old Sarduy wants to have a firm hold on authority, he wants to tell his son o√. Both novels portray a revolt: the dwarf defeats the Iranian, Colibrí the Regent, and Sarduy his father. In sum, both novels are about transgression and—given the nature of Sarduy’s writing—a transgression unto themselves. Sarduy is famous for writing transgressive literature that breaks with all the canons, all the principles of logic and of the mimetic novel. In Colibrí his transgression is more than just logical, structural, and aesthetic, however. His defiance also shows up on the title page, where his patronymic (which, we remember, the father does not want smeared) is coupled with the name of a bird, the ambivalent noun that designates the weakness the father censors above all others (‘‘You are already a grown man, and a Sarduy, among whom, thus far, there haven’t been any ‘birds,’ [pájaros, i.e., any queers]’’ [Colibrí, 29]). Is it not possible then, that Colibrí is Sarduy’s facetious answer to the—by way of this very answer— slighted father who harangues him in the previously quoted passage? His answer was facetious because Sarduy was a product of his time. True to the spirit of the seventies, he explored defiance and transgression in kitsch melodramas comparable in spirit to Warhol’s and Lichtenstein’s pop art creations. When Lichtenstein paints a woman drowning with a big tear rolling down her cheek—a cartoon bubble with the words, ‘‘Help me Brad, I’m drowning!’’ emerging from her mouth—his subject is both enhanced and diminished by being a monumental pastiche, a cartoon that creates a distance between itself and the viewer because it is so selfconsciously nonmimetic. As in a play by Brecht, this distance is a framing device that encourages viewers not to empathize but to judge without

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letting themselves get emotionally involved. Contemplating Warhol’s boxes of Brillo pads could lead to a reflection on modern-age commercialism and the ironic beauty of disposable artifacts. But such reflections are couched with irony (the suggestion that art is consumable and therefore disposable) and a sense of play, the very devices that typify Sarduy’s work in the seventies and early eighties. Sarduy’s, Warhol’s, and Lichtenstein’s devotion to prototypes reveals how all three were arrested in what Harold Bloom terms a ‘‘poetic misprision’’ (The Anxiety of Influence, xxiii). Mocking the qualities of cultural icons such as Liz, Marilyn, Campbell’s soup cans, as well as the rivalry between fathers and sons, they were caught in the web of their own irony, becoming, if not the great cultural anthropologists of our era, certainly the visionaries who brought the tinsel tawdriness and emotional dilemmas of our times to public consciousness by espousing that tawdriness or revisiting family scenarios in outlandish fairy tales. For instance, parodying the masterplot of masterplots—the tale of Oedipus—Sarduy falls in love with his source and casts it not as the cause but as the consequence of what Bloom would likely call his own anxiety. In other words, he makes fun of the rivalry between fathers and sons only to end up seriously exploring his own joke in and through the fiction. And, because his involvement with Tel Quel had such impact on his thinking, he explores this source by creatively interpreting the gurus of this group: Freud, Lacan, and Bataille. In fact, we would not have Cobra, Maitreya, Colibrí, Cocuyo, and Pájaros de la playa without Sarduy’s reading of these gurus, even when such reading became a parodic transformation of its sources, ‘‘a complex act of strong misreading,’’ as Bloom would say (The Anxiety of Influence, xxiii). Among the Tel Quel gurus no one was more fervently parodied than Jacques Lacan. From his writings and seminars the topic that most tantalized Sarduy was what Lacan called ‘‘the mirror stage in the process of ego development’’ (le stade du miroir comme formateur de la fonction du Je). In the late 1960s and early 1970s Lacan advanced that the phallus represented the authority or ‘‘law’’ of the father and that, since the father embodies the threat of castration for the child, the phallus eventually comes to suggest separation and loss in the child’s mind. Informed with a great deal of irony and transformed into a pastiche, the equation linking together the phallus, the law, the father, and a sense of loss structures the

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role of the little man in Sarduy’s fantasies after 1972 (publication date of Cobra, the most Tel Quel-influenced of his novels). Another feature that Sarduy borrowed from Lacan is the mother’s longing for the phallus (which the French analyst maintains symbolically stands for the power she does not wield). As Lacan saw it, the infant, fully dependent upon the mother and not yet having a sense of itself as separate, identifies with her longing (i.e., wishes to be what she most wishes for), and this identification turns him into a passive element, a ‘‘receptacle for the mother’s wishes’’ (a fact that explains why both Cobra and the dwarf in Maitreya are homologated to the phallus in Sarduy’s uproarious take on Lacan [Kristeva, Révolution, 44]). After identifying with the mother’s longing, Lacan continues, the infant’s imago combines an assumed relationship that fuses the self with the other, and a love that determines the other as an object apart from the self. At this stage of development the infant is not an individual, says Lacan, but a blank space (‘‘un manque’’). This notion of the as yet unindividuated personality informs, in turn, Sarduy’s characterizations and helps explain why, in his novels, identity is volatile. If identity is constantly eroded and transformed in his work, it is because, as one of his protagonists reveals, characters are missing something critical. ‘‘What is missing,’’ explains Cocuyo in one of the eponymous novel’s key revelations, ‘‘was not air to breathe, or the precise contour of things . . . but something simultaneously more vast and recondite which could be found neither here nor there but besides these things’’ (73). What is missing—Sarduy melodramatically suggests—is what the dwarf in Maitreya is after: the mother, the woman from whom the narrator of El Cristo de la rue Jacob ‘‘had become separated in and through pain’’ (12). The fluctuating sense of identity resulting from this separation also explains why Colibrí cannot recognize himself when he first stares into the looking glass (178). As the novel evolves, however, he realizes that the face on the other side, ‘‘this reflecting-reflected ‘I,’ ’’ as Lacan would say, ‘‘does not refer to anything other than himself,’’ and he ends up identifying it: ‘‘It was his look of astonishment that made him recognize himself ’’ (Lacan, ‘‘Le stade du miroir,’’ 90–91; Colibrí 178). Lacan places the resolution of the Oedipus complex between the second and third phases of the mirror stage, separated from one another by the father’s proscription which compels the child to repress its imaginary

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unity with the mother and allows it to develop its own identity. In the words of Kristeva, Grasping the import of castration makes the subject independent from the mother and, by way of this cleavage, transforms the phallic function into a symbolic function. Decisive moment full of consequences: discovering its identity in the symbolic, the subject breaks loose from its dependence vis-à-vis the mother, establishes its libido as a genital drive and transfers the semiotic impulse into the symbolic order. (La révolution du langage poètique, 45) According to Kristeva, we have a shift in identification from the mother to the father once the Oedipus complex is resolved, once the symbolic castration splits up the dyadic unity between mother and child. What Sarduy chose to dramatize in his fiction, however—and saying this I revise my own earlier opinion—was not so much castration (as one might think after finishing the first half of Cobra) but its failure to take hold.∞≥ This is why, in terms of a creative misreading the most important scene in this novel is not the one portraying the hero’s sex-change operation, but the one in which he is recognized as a man after his penis has been lopped o√. The reversal or denial of Ktazob’s operation tells us two things: first, that gender is an ineradicable part of the self, both a mental and physical perception of oneself that endures even when the penis has been severed from the body, and second, that, symbolically speaking, the evolution from the second phase of the mirror stage (during which the infant perceives itself as dependent) to the third (in which the dyadic unity between mother and child is split up) is being disowned by Sarduy. This, in a nutshell, is the gist of his misreading, the essence of his revision of the Lacanian mirror stage. To drive this revision home, Sarduy writes a scene in which Cobra is recognized as a man immediately after she—following the sex-change operation—has been staring at her new and already wrecked image in the mirror of a photomaton and, ‘‘was able to size up the damages: the severe sca√olding of her hairdo crumbled on all sides, the curls . . . dripping bleach . . . a large black stain rolling down from her eyes, the blue shadow emerging around her mouth’’ (129). As her ridiculous pastiche of a female identity literally dissolves in front of her eyes, Cobra is at a loss to recognize herself. If, as Sarduy doubtlessly wished us to, we view this lack of recognition from the perspective of the mirror stage being parodied, we 156 Body of writing

are forced to conclude that—to translate his obstreperous burlesque in plain terms—the subjective development of the hero comes to a standstill at a point before the Oedipal crisis is resolved. Picturing the development of his heroes frozen in place before the Oedipal crisis comes to a head, and erasing intercourse from his farces, Sarduy suggests—parodying both Freud and Lacan, at this juncture— that his characters’ libido is arrested prior to the genital stage. We don’t need to look very far to begin uncovering the hilarious depiction of objects and images that translate the sadism, will to power, and death wish characteristic of the anal stage, and resulting from the breakdown in libido development imagined by Sarduy. The epitome of his histrionic emphasis on things anal turns out to be the heroine of Maitreya. Lady Tremendous wears a bracelet marked with the cryptic initials f.f.a., initials that, the reader soon discovers, refer to a worldwide ring of lasciviousness known as ‘‘Fist Fucking of America’’ (110). When the trio made up of the Iranian, the Lady, and the dwarf travels to Oman, other aspiring members of this chafing sect line up to receive ‘‘digital assuagement’’ from the latter, who appoints himself master of all things retro, thrives on giving enemas, and ends up, as we already know, penetrating and impregnating the Tremendous Mama from behind (Maitreya, 156, 162). This anal penetration signals, among other things, the dwarf ’s repudiation of the other channel, the via recta which, in normal circumstances, is the domain of the rival represented in Maitreya by the burly giant with the ‘‘squirrel’’ in his pocket. In contrast to the well-endowed Iranian, the dwarf rules over things anal, his name an abridged anagram of his function in the novel: enano [i.e., dwarf ] mano en-ano. The anagram is as abridged, most likely, as what the enano keeps hidden and substitutes his mano for. The mano is forced into every ano in Oman, a country whose name is, also very conspicuously, another anagram—this one of mano. The mano is also a five-finger pyramid, a pirámide falangista that is shoved to the accompaniment of ‘‘slaps, burns, whacks, and wallops’’ in the Oman bath house were the faithful undergo ‘‘the apotheosis of the fist’’ to the strains of ‘‘eses’’ and ‘‘emes’’ that is to say, of ‘‘s’s and m’s’’ (Maitreya, 154, 159). Directly falling within the purview of the anal function, sadism is ubiquitous in Cobra, Maitreya, and Colibrí. What distinguishes these novels from each other is that Sarduy fulfills a di√erent objective in each before building to a climax in the last. Cobra broadcasts his denial of The degraded body in the work of Sarduy 157

castration; as its hero is a symbolic substitute for the phallus, the en-ano in Maitreya rules over ‘‘the annals of the Empire’’ (Maitreya, 161). In other words, in Cobra Sarduy nullifies the traditional consequences of the Oedipal conflict; in Maitreya he pictures the supremacy of the anal stage. If the anal reigns supreme, it means that the genital shines forth through omission—brilla por su ausencia—a fact that explains why sexual intercourse is glaringly absent from the pages of these novels. Denied in both Cobra and Maitreya, the genital function is the domain of the other man, the rival of the little tyke who rids himself of him before getting back into the hutch. Typically associated with the forces of death, anality underlies the preponderance of severed organs, bleeding bodies, and struggles over power and dominance dramatized by Sarduy.∞∂ His playfully destructive vision—if we can call it that—doesn’t stem from a gratuitous love of destruction but from a wish to parody the stages of libidinal development, and to show that in the fictional universe he creates, Freud’s unacceptable scenario is being totally recast. Recast because, as in Cortázar’s ‘‘Nurse Cora,’’ the older man in the love triangle portrayed in Sarduy’s misreading of Freud’s version of the Oedipal legend doesn’t win out, the little tyke does. But does winning out against his burly rival mean he also prevails over Lady Tremendous? If that were the case, then what can we make of Maitreya ’s last scene when the emblematic Big Mama puts on her shiniest pair of high-heeled shoes and steps over the dwarf ’s tomb until ‘‘it sinks into the ground’’? (186). To answer this question we must turn to the third installment of Sarduy’s misread depiction of the Oedipal legend. Colibrí begins where Maitreya leaves o√ with one exception: the hero of the bird saga is not dead and buried like the dwarf, but alive and kicking, ready to illustrate, through his own evolution, the last stage in Sarduy’s refutal of Freud. As in its immediate predecessors, we soon recognize signs of anality in Colibrí: rampant violence, sadomasochism, the will to power, and feelings of division and fragmentation. Most particularly, feelings of division and fragmentation appear at all levels of the narration: first—and as the model and source of other kinds of disconnectedness—between the older Sarduy and his son; second, between the narrator and the plot that escapes him; third and fourth, between the Regent and Colibrí, and Colibrí and the Japanese wrestler; and, last but


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not least, between the many characters who split themselves into doubles and pairs. The disconnectedness or, more exactly, the rift between Sarduy the narrator and his father brings to a head the author’s conspicuous rejection of authority, one so plainly portrayed in Colibrí that we cannot fail to see in this novel a resolution of the Oedipal parody pictured by Sarduy. The burning issue of authority emerges the moment Colibrí and his men walk into the Big House after setting it on fire and watching it blaze. As Colibrí soon discovers, the fire doesn’t spare much except for the Regent’s private boudoir, miraculously untouched by the flames. He halts upon entering into that inner sanctum, completely ‘‘freaked out’’ by ‘‘two things he notices . . . which obscured his personal history as if someone were jotting it down while it unfolded’’ (177). The two things in question are a neon ring, partly broken and used to plug up a circular fanlight, and a collection of stu√ed birds on the walls. Significant to our understanding of Sarduy’s puzzle is that right underneath the neon ring is an old rocking chair in front of a vanity table strewn with old-fashioned jars of make-up and powder pu√s. It is in the mirror of that same vanity table—the Regent’s own—that Colibrí rushes to look at himself for the last time in the novel (178). But even before we consider looking into this last reflection, shouldn’t we be struck that the hero is ‘‘freaked out’’ by what he sees in the boudoir, and that these things ‘‘obscure’’ his personal history? How could a broken neon sign and some dusty trophy cases obscure someone’s history? In order to answer this question, we need to start by noting that the neon sign blocks a round window. The sign appears to retrace the shape of the window’s perimeter although—since part of it is broken—it has become ‘‘an incomplete ring’’ (177). We have, therefore, a ‘‘C’’ shape strung over an ‘‘O’’ which, in addition, ‘‘has been plugged up’’ (177). The plugged-up window is a passage whose original function has been cut o√. We remember, of course, that the first half of Cobra also comes to a head in a scene in which something is cut o√, although later, as we pointed out, the consequences of that severance are annulled. Are the consequences of plugging up the tunnel likewise nullified in Colibrí ? Is this scene a restatement, a recapitulation of denial, or is it a step forward in resolving the mystery of the mirrors and the problem of authority portrayed in Sarduy’s trilogy?

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Taking over mama’s private parts As it turns out, the little bird’s entry into the old lady’s fire-spared den represents both a nesting and a branching out. For a start, it is important to note that he manages to enter the room in spite of the obstructions blocking his way. It should also be noted that the passage is round, a lucerna (177). Another name for lucerna is ojo de buey (bull’s-eye window), a synonym that must have crossed Sarduy’s mind because the verb he chooses to indicate that the window or ‘‘eye’’ has been plugged up is ‘‘cegado,’’ that is, blinded (177). Sarduy’s choice of words might seem fortuitous until we turn to the conclusion of Cobra and discover that, not only is the ‘‘golden statue of Gautama’’ (i.e., Buddha) lit by ‘‘a neon light,’’ but the monks watch the sun set ‘‘amidst snow-covered valleys . . . right besides the great stupas and the eyes, already erased across the towers of the father land’’ (262–63; Sarduy’s emphasis). The question we need to ask ourselves at this point is, why did Sarduy want readers to pay particular attention to eyes? And why should he again allude to the image of an eye framed in neon lights at the conclusion of Colibrí ? Equally of interest, why are eyes in both novels portrayed as dysfunctional? In Cobra they are ‘‘erased . . .’’ ; in Colibrí, ‘‘plugged up.’’ Aren’t both the eyes and the message they contain further linked together through the allusion to the neon light which appears in both novels and, by inference, to the first syllable of Cobra and Colibrí suggested by the broken ring representing the ‘c,’ and the ‘‘plugged up’’ bull’s-eye window mimicking the ‘o’? Might this ‘‘coincidence’’ point to a connection between both endings? What, in fact, is taking place as we reach the last few pages of these novels? Cobra concludes with the worship of a golden Buddha ‘‘whose lips are stretched in a rictus’’ (262). In Sanscrit, ‘‘Buddha’’ means ‘‘enlightenment,’’ which is to say, the final blessed state marked by the absence of desire or su√ering. Colibrí ends with the displacement of the Regent and the hero’s takeover. In the last scene, when Colibrí looks in the mirror, he can’t recognize his face. His mouth, like the Buddha’s, is stretched in a rictus: ‘‘Las comisuras de los labios han bajado’’ (178). Are we to think that, as in Cobra, what we are meant to read in the conclusion of Colibrí is ‘‘the end of all desire’’? Isn’t this also, by the way, the concluding message of Maitreya insofar as it depicts the birth of the future Buddha and the novel’s last words are that what ‘‘they’’ did was done ‘‘to prove the imper160 Body of writing

manence and the emptiness of everything’’? (187). Can there be desire if everything is empty and impermanent? If Sarduy’s intention is to emblematize the birth of the man who represents the end of all desire, then why does this man-child end up embalmed and buried next to his father and twin, the dwarf (Maitreya, 186)? Is there something about the drama portrayed in Maitreya that nixes the possibility of nirvana? Is this also the case in Colibrí ? Now that we have twisted three endings together into a knot, let us proceed to unravel Sarduy’s mystery. Cobra, as we have seen, portrays a rejection of castration. Cobra-Oedipus (Oedipus means ‘‘swollen foot,’’ and Cobra hates his feet because they are too big)∞∑ is castrated, but this castration is overturned in the fiction, and the novel concludes with a vision of phalluses lined up ‘‘in rows’’ (260). Dramatizing a barely disguised fantasy of incest in Maitreya, a spunky little fellow takes the place of a big man and impregnates a tremendous Mama. His engendro, the runt who emblematizes the end of all desire, ends up getting buried, and his burial mound is flattened out of all recognition by his own mother (186). Was this Sarduy’s way of saying that fulfilling a wish could still leave us unfulfilled? What I mean to say is that, if the object of Maitreya was to portray the little tyke’s takeover, then why would he end up ‘‘flattened out’’ by mom (186)? Was Sarduy suggesting that, after being a winner, the little man was still, somehow, a loser, that—as in Cobra— sacrificing oneself to an ideal was no guarantee of overcoming impediments? Was there—might there be—a way for the little fellow to get his wish and, at the same time, avoid getting ‘‘rolled over’’ by his man-eating mama (186)? It was to travel one step further on the road to wish-fulfillment that Sarduy wrote Colibrí, a novel in which the dream of possession harbored in Maitreya is left behind.∞∏ Freud believed such a dream perseveres if the child’s imaginary unity with the mother is not repressed in the Oedipal crisis, in which case the child remains dependent upon her. Sarduy dramatized this dependence when he portrayed the little man dragging himself convulsively to Lady Tremendous’s feet, and screaming like a newborn rabbit. He went on to suggest that the little man’s imaginary unity was in no way repressed when he portrayed him displacing the Iranian and getting into the lady himself (Maitreya, 155). But, isn’t it time we asked ourselves where these subterranean excursions actually get the dwarf ? As the novel comes to an end, he is literally squashed by the very The degraded body in the work of Sarduy 161

woman he longed for. When he succeeds in becoming father of his own twin or, in other words, of his mirror image (which is another way of saying that he becomes father of himself ), there is no doubt he gets what he is after, but then he ends up embalmed and buried when ‘‘Lady Tremendous stamp[s] her two-toned high-heeled shoes over [his] grave’’ (Maitreya, 186). The truth is that Lady Tremendous’s carnivalesque burial of the dwarf is—in spite of the ironic banter—a pretty explicit portrayal of ambivalence regarding mother figures in general, and prepares the way for Sarduy’s next novel, one in which a ruling and androgynous matriarch—the Regent—is avoided as primary love object, and the hero substitutes himself for that object. Freud suggests that each stage of the infant’s libidinal development is structured as an attraction to one of the two original sexual objects: himself and the woman who takes care of him (Lacan, Seminaire I, 151). Once again seeking to parody his models, Sarduy latched on to Freud. From Freud he learned that as the homosexual’s imago develops he begins to move away from the mother as primary love object (an interdependency which Freud labels anaclitic), and to substitute himself instead, a pivotal point that Sarduy transforms into the concluding scene of Colibrí. In this novel the portrayal of desire is simply an inversion of the earlier model; it is no longer the little man who is after the big Mama, but the matron of the Big House who pursues the pajarito. Sarduy has inverted their roles for two reasons. To begin with, the Regent’s futile pursuit of the swiftest of birds is a denial of possession (Colibrí cannot be had), and a mockery of dependence (unlike the dwarf in Maitreya, the bird doesn’t want the ruling matriarch to be his overlord). At the end of the novel, Colibrí supersedes the matriarch who held the reins of power from the beginning and he razes the Big House in order to build his own replica of it, indistinguishable in all respects except that, this time around, he is the one in control, the subject and not the object of desire. To prove that control, he yanks o√ the papier-mâché fruit from the hands of his Japanese lover reminding him to leave ‘‘all that fag stu√ aside’’ because ‘‘power is in the hands of macho men,’’ and he smashes not one but two mirrors in the Big House in order to show that power (176–7). This final scene of destruction is, in fact, Sarduy’s way of suggesting an evolution beyond the first phases of the mirror stage. The first smashed mirror alludes, in all semblance, to the annulment of the father’s wish (i.e., castration), and the 162

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second to the conclusion of the anaclitic phase which has kept Sarduy’s alter egoes dependent on ruling matrons all along.∞π If, as I argue, the real subject of Sarduy’s novels is the art of writing, it makes all the sense in the world that his novels should outline in what way the writer’s alter ego develops or, in other words, how this ego becomes empowered. Cobra, Maitreya, and Colibrí are the tale of this empowerment, the tale of a dissatisfied travesti who is superseded in the next novel by a developing runt who, stepped upon in every way, succeeds—in the last installment of the trilogy—to overcome all obstacles and rule over a Big House. There can be no doubt that Colibrí is cast as a prizefighter because he is meant to be a winner. After all, he is the only ‘‘bird’’ who manages to get back into the Regent’s lair even though the round window above the door—the tunnel above the slit—is plugged up. It is striking that this entrance should be in the shape of an eye, moreover, an eye that, as we have seen, has been ‘‘erased across the towers of the father land’’ (Cobra, 262–63). We have already wondered what the concluding image of the eye suggests in both novels; the time has come to examine how this image relates to the hero’s forceful entry into the Regent’s inner sanctum. Our first intuition could lead us to relate the symbol of the eye to Vedantic speculations on ultimate reality and the liberation of the soul. I am fairly certain Sarduy had something more basic in mind, although something just as consciously and playfully pedantic. I say this on account of a conversation we once had in which he spoke at length about ‘‘the blind spot’’ (to which he kept referring in French because he said he couldn’t come up with a good enough term for it in Spanish). Like Sarduy, Bataille (in his spellbinding discussion on Hegel) culled ‘‘la tache aveugle’’ to define the spot in our understanding which he felt was ‘‘reminiscent of the structure of the eye’’ (‘‘Hegel,’’ in Oeuvres complètes, 5:127– 30). Because of my own blind spot, no doubt, it didn’t strike me until recently that the erased Eye at the end of Cobra and the ojo cegado at the conclusion of Colibrí were, in all probability, allusions to the ‘‘tache aveugle’’ and, via this overarching reference, to Hegel’s own discussion regarding the ‘‘development of the various . . . stages of spirit on the way to full self-comprehension’’ (Phenomenology of Spirit). Whether through allusions to Lacan’s mirror stage or to Hegel’s configurations of spirit, and laced with a good dose of irony and ridicule, there is no doubt that Cobra, Maitreya, and Colibrí trace a process of selfThe degraded body in the work of Sarduy 163

discovery and self-comprehension. Cobra, the first phase of this process, is an allegory of the negation of consciousness, a story of how the I refuses to be what it is (i.e., a man) and is unable to be what it wishes (i.e., a woman). Maitreya shows I as separate although fully dependent upon she, involved in a relationship that eventually ‘‘flattens’’ him. A new twist to the dialogue between I and she springs forth in Colibrí, a novel in which, for the first time in Sarduy’s trilogy, I is not pursuer but pursued, and, close to the end, not a dependent object but subject of desire. For this very reason, it is hardly surprising that this novel should culminate with what Hegel refers to as ‘‘an intuition of the identity of ego and non-ego’’ when the hero understands himself to be something other than a she as he grasps ‘‘the thought of [his] innermost depth’’ (Phenomenology, xxi, 166). At first unable to recognize his own reflection in the mirror, Colibrí ends up realizing the face on the quicksilver is his own, grasping, once and for all, that the ego is not only the self, but it is ‘‘identity of the self with itself, ’’ separate and self-reliant, a castaway who, like the young narrator of El Cristo de la rue Jacob, ‘‘grasps the sense of its own separateness through pain’’ (Phenomenology, 167, Hegel’s emphasis; El Cristo de la rue Jacob, 12). Likewise essential to our understanding of Sarduy’s purpose and meaning in the trilogy is that Hegel portrays knowledge as a closed circle and suggests that circular, absolute wisdom is the definitive form of nonknowledge. To put it another way, we could say that upon reaching the summit of understanding (in the event that this were possible), we wouldn’t know anything more than when we started o√ (Phenomenology, 127). Understanding, no matter how thorough, would be incomplete by definition, an incompleteness that Hegel likens to a broken circle or ring. Incompleteness wraps itself around (potential) completion as the broken neon ring in Colibrí winds itself around the blinded eye, circular symbol of absolute knowledge.∞∫ According to Hegel, closing the ring is tantamount to developing a sense of self-awareness, of grasping the human ipse. Selfawareness is what takes place when Colibrí finally recognizes the reflection on the mirror as his own. It is this sense of self as separate— symbolized by the broken ring around the oculus above the door of the Regent’s boudoir—that empowers him to become master of the house. Colibrí, that is to say, Hummingbird, becomes master of one house, master of one tale, but what happens to the other bird, the narrator of Colibrí named Sarduy whose own spiraling tale was getting away from him at one point? The empowered Hummingbird addresses that other 164 Body of writing

pajarito with the following words of admonishment: ‘‘the real fool in this tale is you who stayed forever outside the Big House and the game . . .’’ (174). ‘‘Your role,’’ concludes Colibrí-Hummingbird, ‘‘is the easiest one: to leave, tell about it [contar], and not to play’’ (174–75). Colibrí is almost completely right. Unquestionably, Sarduy the narrator leaves lots of baggage behind (his motherland, the original Big House, his role models). It is also true, although only partially, that he doesn’t play. His empowerment, unlike Hummingbird’s—which is merely a fiction—is the real thing, so real, in fact, that borrowing once again the language of his elders, Sarduy pairs o√ the tools of his trade—‘‘the pencil and notebook’’—with the tool tout court (‘‘su sexo, junto al cuadernillo y el lápiz’’) in the novel that follows Colibrí (Cocuyo, 134). Sarduy the narrator’s break from the forces that subjected him—from his own regents—is made apparent in and through the trilogy that parodies and transforms the Oedipus legend. This parody and this transformation was Sarduy’s way of both cutting loose from—and repossessing—Lacan, Freud, François Wahl: his models and fathers, in other words.∞Ω Colibrí is right, therefore, when he says that Sarduy ‘‘leaves, tells about it and [does not] play,’’ but he is wrong to chastise the narrator of his own tale—his own creator—about not playing. The truth is that Sarduy both plays and doesn’t play. He doesn’t play because, unlike Colibrí, he doesn’t live in a world of fantasy. One could argue, however, that telling is his way of playing. He plays by amusing himself with dismantling the voice of the masters, but his play is mighty serious. Decidedly, both birds play. Hummingbird and Sarduy the narrator have much in common. Like his creation, the pajarito who writes takes over a Big House that used to be governed by a domineering ruler, and becomes its master. It seems astonishing, given their similarities, that Hummingbird should tell o√ Sarduy the narrator, and call him a fool. Astonishing, that is, until we remember that Sarduy also tells o√ his models, and builds his towerhouse of fiction on the decrepit ruins left behind by his own ‘‘creators.’’ If we must find a di√erence between the author-cum-narrator, and the hero of Colibrí it might be that the latter acts out his independence while the former uses him as a vehicle to play out his own agenda. Sarduy is explicit about this when he portrays the hero of the novel as text by covering his body with scribbles that make him readable as the story itself is readable, and referring to him as ‘‘el Manuscrito’’ (Colibrí 68). Even if one character is the creation of the other, however, there is no doubt that The degraded body in the work of Sarduy 165

both are equally successful in their endeavors. The hero of Colibrí takes over the Big House, while the narrator demonstrates his empowerment by writing a quest for knowledge and self-awareness of which he is ultimately the recipient. Knowledge and self-awareness are both predicated upon a recognition of one’s identity, which is exactly what Sarduy’s fairy tale takes pains to portray. Awareness of the self as self requires breaking away from a dependence on models, which, in the symbolic terms of Colibrí, translates as ousting the Regent from her private quarters.≤≠ Once she is out of the picture, the hero can at last identify his reflection in her vanity table mirror in a scene packed—for very significant reasons—with allusions to fairy stories of all sorts. The ultimate fairy tale Since fairy tales deal imaginatively with the most important developmental issues in our lives, it is not surprising that so many of them center, like Sarduy’s trilogy, on Oedipal di≈culties. For instance, although disguised, as Bruno Bettelheim indicates, ‘‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’’ portrays a feminized Oedipal struggle between a daughter and a ‘‘mother’’ who hates her (Uses of Enchantment, 202–03).≤∞ The emphasis on mirrors in ‘‘Snow White’’ prefigures Colibrí in more ways than one, pointing, rather emphatically, to the narcissistic theme of the story. Like Sarduy, the Grimms portray the evolution of a young, beautiful creature who eventually succeeds in getting rid of her abusive ‘‘mother’’ and in finding an identity.≤≤ Like Colibrí, Snow White is docile and submissive at the beginning of the tale, while both the Queen and the Regent are malevolent. Also like the Regent, the Queen has ‘‘a secret lonely chamber where no one was likely to come’’ (Grimm’s Fairy Tales, 169). It is here that she prepares the poisonous apple that, to all appearances, kills Snow White. After her apparent death, Snow White is laid out in a glass co≈n and becomes a living emblem of passivity until a Prince shows up and falls in love with her. At that point, she regurgitates the poisoned apple, comes back to life, and watches the Queen dance herself to death in redhot iron shoes. In other words, like the Regent in Colibrí, the old Queen in ‘‘Snow White’’ is displaced by the new Queen who takes her place in a Big House. ‘‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’’ and Colibrí are homologous in more fundamental ways as well. To begin with, they are both tales of 166 Body of writing

empowerment and self-discovery. Like many other fairy stories, they permit ‘‘the child to comprehend that not only is he jealous of his parent, but that his parent may have parallel feelings—an insight,’’ according to Bettelheim, ‘‘that can . . . permit dealing constructively with di≈culties in relating which otherwise would not be accessible to resolution’’ (Uses of Enchantment, 195). As Roberto González Echevarría has shown, finding an answer to the question of origins is one of Sarduy’s central aims (La ruta de Severo Sarduy, 34). In fiction, the problem of origins is usually portrayed as a struggle to escape the triadic existence (between father, mother, and child) in which others serve mainly as foils who facilitate or impede finding oneself. After illustrating the many perils of unresolved, destructive attachments (the kind that ‘‘flatten’’ the dwarf in Maitreya), Sarduy concludes his trilogy with a modern-day fairy story in which the hero frees himself from the grip of domination. As is always the case in fairy stories, perils in Colibrí are successfully overcome; the final outcome is not death and destruction (as in Maitreya), but higher integration symbolized by victory over the enemy or competitor. The competitor in question may be a thinly disguised parent figure such as the wicked queen in ‘‘Snow White.’’ In fact, like Colibrí, fairy stories often portray sons replacing their fathers, and fathers doing everything in their power to forestall their sons’ wish to replace them.≤≥ Replacing one’s father is but one facet in the process of growing up, which, as it happens, all fairy tales portray. Growing up entails coming to terms with who we are, recognizing the self as self. Such recognition implies severance, implies learning that one need not be subservient to the demands of a clinging mother like the Regent or the beautiful Queen who spends her life talking to her mirror. That such severance is possible is the message of both the Grimms’ tale and Sarduy’s. Both are humorous and yet somber rites of passage, didactic projects to bring relief from Oedipal anxiety and designed to provide a happy solution to the problem of dependence. Dependence is dangerous, lethal if we listen to Sarduy when he portrays castration (in Cobra) and getting buried by a Tremendous Lady in Maitreya≤∂ as part and parcel of undi√erentiation. To highlight the consequences of a hero’s identification with, or absolute reliance upon, the opposite sex, frame his personal reaction, and drive his point home, Sarduy turns to one of the screen’s most masterful depictions of dominant mothers, clothing the conclusion of his facetious fantasy on personal origins with allusions to the most macabre of modern-day fairy tales. The degraded body in the work of Sarduy 167

Like Norman Bates, the protagonist of Alfred Hitchcock’s masterful Psycho, many of Sarduy’s heroes have an old lady in the closet from whom they seem unable to extricate themselves: the Señora in Cobra, Lady Tremendous in Maitreya, the Regent in Colibrí. Like Hitchcock’s, Sarduy’s hero is so identified with the emblem of power in the story that he cannot separate his reflection from hers: Colibrí is unable to recognize himself when he stares into his mother’s mirror, and Norman dresses up in his mother’s clothes and speaks in her stead. A taxidermist by avocation, Norman goes to such lengths to satisfy his fantasy of dependency that he mummifies his mommy to keep her present. Was Hitchcock’s tale not every bit as facetious and pun-filled as Sarduy’s? When we first meet Norman, he is in a room with stu√ed birds perched on every wall. Sarduy recreates this room in Colibrí as a sort of visual pun, and fuses it with Mrs. Bates’s own private space, the bedroom. This explains why, after the Big House burns to the ground, the walls of the one room left standing—the Regent’s boudoir—are covered ‘‘with a collection of the most varied stu√ed birds’’ (177). Like Mrs. Bates’s domain, the Regent’s boudoir is furnished with a coqueta, a vanity table. Both Hitchcock and Sarduy linger lovingly, almost enviously, on the jars of make-up, the creams and combs that cover every square inch of this table (Colibrí, 178). The jars’ reflection on the vanity table’s mirror makes the arsenal of beauty seem limitless, a woman’s endless resource. Colibrí runs to stare at himself in this mirror, coqueto en la coqueta, Narcissus ogling the pond. Unable, at first, to recognize himself, he begins to borrow the tools of artifice, the cotton balls and peroxide, to change his appearance. Changing appearances reminds us of Cobra, whose original aim was to be a woman. Sarduy tackles one subject, reaches a resolution, and moves on, however. In Colibrí, the notion of fusion with another identity has been superseded. The hero identifies with the Regent’s image, but simply as an emblem of power. He takes over her room and borrows her makeup, just as Norman Bates borrows his mother’s voice and her clothes. Norman and Colibrí cannibalize the women who obsess them; they put on their trappings but go on being themselves, at least for awhile. As a psychoanalyst explains during the arraignment scene in Psycho, Norman ‘‘could be both personalities, carry on conversations . . . he was never all Norman.’’ By the same token, through most of the film, Norman could not be all mother, either. Even at the end, when Mrs. Bates drowns out Norman’s voice, Norman’s body remains, a perpetual reminder of the 168

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other in the mother who has ceased struggling to come out. The outcome of Psycho is that Norman loses the struggle. Swallowed up by his own projection of Mrs. Bates he ends up relinquishing his own identity. This is where Hitchcock and Sarduy part ways. Unlike Bates, the victorious Hummingbird is not swallowed up; instead, he takes over the Big House after getting rid of the wicked lady who tried to rule over him. At the end of the novel, dropped on the ground, the Regent remains, ‘‘inanimate . . . giving no signs of life’’ (174). Defeated and cast aside, the Regent translates Sarduy’s wish to punish, a wish he shared with Hitchcock, who spent much of his film career tormenting women on the screen. As Hitchcock saw it in Psycho and Sarduy sardonically depicted it in Colibrí, women committed an unpardonable a√ront: they preferred grown men to little fellows who spent the rest of their lives longing for them. Like the Regent, Norman’s mother was ‘‘a clinging demanding woman’’ with whom the boy (like the protagonist of El Cristo de la rue Jacob) had lived ‘‘for years . . . as if there was no one else in the world.’’ Then, one day, the mother met a man and, ‘‘it seemed to Norman that she threw him over for this man. That pushed him over the line and he killed them both.’’ After he killed his mother, Norman stole her body from the graveyard, embalmed her, and began wearing her clothes. Hitchcock could go no further to portray the Unheimlich as home, the other as self. Cobra, the first installment of Sarduy’s trilogy on the theme of dependence is no di√erent from Hitchcock’s fantasy of undi√erentiation except for the fact that it is even more ridiculous, a kitsch take on Hitchcock’s already kitsch take on the Oedipal masterplot. Like Norman, Cobra yearns to be taken for a woman, to be a woman. He dresses in women’s clothes and, one-upping Norman, he has his penis cut o√. The di√erence is that when Sarduy worked through this notion in fiction, that is, by the time he wrote Colibrí, he came to the conclusion that becoming the other was a chimera, although one that doesn’t exclude the possibility of identifying with what the other represents as long as the cord of dependency— and not the penis—is cut o√. Sarduy was quite funny but also quite adamant about this: the Regent had to be thrown out of the Big House before the swiftest of birds could take her place. In fact, the serious aim of his comic parody was to show the ‘‘identity of the self with itself ’’ after having been the object and extension of the mother’s power (Hegel, Phenomenology, 167). The degraded body in the work of Sarduy 169

Colibrí must be seen as a resolution, as the last step in a rite of passage that opens with an attempt to become fused with the other (Cobra), is followed by the depiction of an unresolved attachment leading to selfextermination (Maitreya), and culminates with the recognition of one’s distinctly separate image (or, as Freud would put it, with a transition from the anaclitic to the narcissistic stage betokening the beginning of ego development). As in all fairy tales, the message of Sarduy’s trilogy is that ‘‘oedipal entanglements and di≈culties may seem to be unsolvable, but by courageously struggling,’’ the odds are ‘‘successfully overcome’’ (Bettelheim, Uses of Enchantment, 199). Not death and destruction as in Maitreya, but ‘‘higher integration—as symbolized by victory over the enemy or competitor . . .—is the hero’s reward at the end of the fairy tale’’ (199). Like Colibrí, all birds have ‘‘to search, travel, and su√er through years of a lonely existence,’’ but at the end of the rainbow awaits the possibility of discovering the identity of the self, neither as a reflection of, nor, as dependent upon the other but, very simply, with itself (199). This, in a nutshell, is the knowledge that the eye symbolizes in Sarduy’s work, his personal discovery and wink to the reader. Since the self takes the place of the other in Sarduy’s willful miswriting of the Oedipal scenario, we still have one question left unanswered, however. What happens to the other, what happens to the coveted object whose elusive presence has been the mainspring of Sarduy’s fantasies all along? Does substituting the self put an end to desire, or is there a way to recreate the other—to mummify the mommy, as Norman Bates does? Might the body that can never be possessed be somehow displaced and represented in the body of fiction? If, as Kristeva suggests, writing is a way to represent both absence and desire in symbolic terms, isn’t there a way in which the maternal space could be colonized as Colibrí colonizes the Regent’s private quarters? The heinous takes over the home As we have already seen, while he alluded to the symbolic content of scars only in El Cristo de la rue Jacob, Sarduy dramatized mutilation and wounds every time he wrote. As I hope I have been making clear, rampant violence is not just the consequence of his fixation with fragmentation. Issuing, it is true, from a fragmented body image, the portrayal of


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heads emptied of their contents, of limbs scattered ‘‘like a handful of jacks thrown in the air,’’ of ‘‘blood mixed with tears,’’ and of brews intended ‘‘to empty out the body’’ suggests a breakdown of the boundaries that separate the inside of the body from the outside (Maitreya, 81; Cocuyo, 114; Pájaros de la playa, 121). Confronting these portraits, readers feel queasy without knowing why. The truth is that approaching Sarduy is di≈cult not only because of the perpetually shifting scenarios and the ironic distancing mechanisms that he deploys but also, and in a more immediate way, because of the confrontation with the body’s insides which he imposes on the reader. In her enlightening Powers of Horror (1980), Kristeva has pointed out how all bodily fluids are psychologically upsetting because they flow from within, calling to mind the space where we, ourselves, were once housed. Urine, blood, saliva, and sperm, she observes, frequently show up as a substitute in analysis. Those who voice a constant preoccupation with bodily fluids appear to be sublimating an unresolved attachment to the mother and, in their fantasies, the fluids themselves act as a substitute, suggesting an ongoing physical bond (Powers of Horror, 65). Substituting bodily fluids for the absent and primary source of longing endows these fluids with sexual energy, moreover. Voicing or writing the abject is an extraordinarily e√ective way of negating the trauma of separation because it keeps alive the bond between a speaker or author and the inside of the body from which he was forcefully ejected. After losing the primary love object, in other words, the unconscious can conceive a fantasy in which the abject comes to occupy the place of that object. Such a fantasy, Kristeva assures us, is a way of annulling castration, of keeping alive an unresolved attachment to the mother. Let us look no further for a key to Sarduy’s portrayal of mutilated, bleeding bodies. Bleeding bodies were present in his work from the start, and remained important features until the very end. They are not, like his facetious allusions to Freud and Lacan, based on prototypes but rather, most likely, on an unconscious reflex that can be understood on the basis of Kristeva’s reflections. The consequence of Sarduy’s encompassing obsession with loss (in La ruta, González Echevarría rightly points out that ‘‘absence, separation and the notion of want distinguish his work,’’ 5) was to bring back the presence his protagonists longed for by means of images that evoked the inside of the body which he was in the process of can-

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nibalizing—which is to say, of revisiting, as he revisited Lacan’s and Bataille’s texts—whenever he wrote about it, even if such writing was highly parodic. Simultaneously subject and object of longing, the fleeting bodies in Sarduy’s fairy stories were a sort of onanistic pacifier, a personal reminder of the loss which he excelled in camouflaging through parody. Making fun of Freud and Lacan’s theories on primal attachment, Sarduy was nonetheless caught in the prison of the master texts. Even when his stories disempowered the emblems of authority—and, most particularly (as in Colibrí ), when they disempowered the father—rejecting authority could not make up for the original severance. Severance was a fact of life even Severo had to deal with. He dealt with it, not as a loss but as inspiration for his enigmatic fables, fables in which he dramatized the quest for realization by revisiting the sources that inspired him. Recasting Freud and Lacan—colonizing the voice of the masters—was his way of becoming father of himself, and mothering a house of fiction. Built, like the Casona, on the ruins of what the bird razed when he repossessed it, that house accommodated his personal history mortared with a good sense of humor and the enduring legacy he plundered from the past.


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5 Rewriting the body: renewal through language in the work of Rosario Castellanos i

Man acts as if he were the shaper and master of language, while it is language that remains mistress of man. When this relation of dominance is inverted, man succumbs to strange contrivances. Language then becomes a means of expression. Where it is expression, language can degenerate to mere impression. Even where the use of language is no more than this, it is good that one should still be careful in one’s speech. But this alone can never extricate us from the reversal, from the confusion of the true relation of dominance as between language and man. For in fact it is language that speaks. . . .—Heidegger, ‘‘Dichterisch Wohnet der Mensch . . .’’

Oficio de tinieblas (1962; The Book of Lamentations, 1996) opens with a rape scene and closes with the self-imposed silence of a young invalid. Hovering between ravishment and prostration, Rosario Castellanos’s arresting novel lays bare the su√ering of the oppressed. Like García Márquez, Castellanos cuts open the abscess that festers at the base of human relationships to expose the personal politics that compel a society to strike, trample and persecute. In her novel, families fall apart, communities crumble, words turn to dust. The social body she portrays is mirrored and mocked most specifically in the body of women who are hurt by extraneous forces, and inflict pain on themselves. The female body is not just harmed—it is stripped of power and ultimately disabled. We have already seen how maimed bodies translate Severo Sarduy’s wavering identification with power and disregard of symbolic authority. The time has come to ask ourselves if persecuted and invalid women in Oficio de tinieblas are likewise featured to show rejection of the dominant

power structure, or if the humiliation and infirmity in Castellanos’s writing must be read from a di√erent perspective. We have made clear why Sarduy’s Cobra is unable to accept his imperfections and tampers with his body, but why does one of the main protagonists of Oficio cripple herself ? Pendant to the powerful Catalina Díaz Puiljá, the sickly, pampered Idolina startles everyone when she suddenly begins to walk. By the time Oficio de tinieblas comes to an end, however, the young woman is back in bed, although no demonstrable disease mechanisms account for her paralysis. Her face is to the wall, and she doesn’t seem to be listening to her nursemaid’s account of the Tzotzil Indians’ disastrous defeat. Given the havoc wreaked on the Tzotzil at the end of the novel, is Castellanos suggesting there is no hope for the oppressed? Insofar as all intimations of female independence and power are squelched by the time we reach the end of the novel, is she also indicating that women fall into this category? After all, Castellanos appears to be bowing to conventional novelistic canons in her contrasting portrayals of rewarded meek women and misbehaving strong ones who are punished for their arrogance. Are the characters she portrays shaped by forces that are cultural as well as biological? Is her elaboration of the construction of gender—of woman as a cultural product rather than a biological essence—as well as her focus on woman’s fundamental otherness in relation to men a notion Castellanos borrows from Simone de Beauvoir to develop her own feminist theories of sexual di√erence? But if Castellanos was a feminist, why does she systematically neutralize the women in her novels? Did she write Oficio de tinieblas to satisfy the demands of patriarchal disciplinary power or are her portrayals of invalid women a subversive reaction to the exploitation and abuse imposed by that very power? Ever since the mid-nineteenth century, Spanish American women authors have participated in and refined a male-defined genre. Particularly after the publication of María Luisa Bombal’s revolutionary La última niebla (1935) (House of Mist [1947]), however, the portrayal of sweet heroines typical of patriarchal culture has been counterbalanced by what Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar describe as ‘‘a madwoman in the attic’’: a repressed, angry voice that acts as counterfoil to ‘‘the angel in the house.’’ Isn’t this angry voice the same one we hear in Oficio de tinieblas? Isn’t Catalina Díaz Puiljá’s rage a foil to Idolina’s passive resistance? If resistance is featured in Oficio, we also need to ask ourselves how Castellanos tempered the submissiveness that comes through so clearly 174

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in her recently published letters to her ex-husband (Cartas a Ricardo, 1994). Unlike Cortázar, Cabrera Infante, and Sarduy, was she writing portraits that were not projections of her own anxieties and insu≈ciencies? Did she, like García Márquez, envision her own writing as a social project designed to alter what she felt was an unfair situation? But if this is the case, why did she disarm both Catalina and Idolina at the end of her novel? Doesn’t Idolina’s reversion to the sick bed suggest that Oficio is a panegyric to female passivity and not a work of protest? Something like a dirty joke Much like other women authors writing about the Indian struggle— Juana Manuela Gorriti and Clorinda Matto de Turner, for instance— Castellanos begins Oficio de tinieblas by drawing a parallel between the deflated social status of Indians and that of women. Undeniably, both groups have much in common: exploited, they have traditionally resorted to passivity, contributing in every way to maintain the system that oppresses them. Like her fellow Neo-indigenistas,∞ Castellanos focuses on human dynamics as they a√ect the underprivileged but, unlike them, she finds room to explore the inner psychology of characters. Her novel can be compared to a gigantic body in which each organ is diseased. Church and state, Indian and ladino,≤ rich and poor figure in its pages at odds with each other, cards in a deck stacking up to a vicious struggle for power. Wielding or yielding that power, having or forsaking it, killing for it, lying, cheating, beating and raping in order to hold on to it sweeps all characters into a maelstrom that culminates with a resounding return to inequality, exploitation, and passivity. Nothing sums up better the bonds between the characters in Oficio de tinieblas than the words of Castellanos when she describes ‘‘the yoking together of two carnivorous beasts of di√erent species that suddenly find themselves locked up in the same case. They scratch, they bite, and devour each other to conquer one more inch of the half of the bed. . . . And not because the bed or the portion of food is important. What is important is to make the other submit into slavery. To annihilate him’’ (Cartas a Ricardo, 87).≥ In the struggle depicted in Oficio de tinieblas, four women stand out: all of them shrewd, all manipulative, each a mainspring in one of the four interwoven plots composing the novel. One is a mother, the second a wife, the third a mistress, the fourth a daughter. Keeping pace with the Language in the work of Castellanos


shifts in character, the setting alternates between the village of San Juan Chamula and Ciudad Real (San Cristóbal de las Casas) in Castellanos’s native Chiapas. As the action opens the reader confronts the frustrations of a Tzotzil woman unable to conceive—a great source of shame among their people. Catalina Díaz Puiljá will not be shamed out of the picture, however. Rather than meekly submit to a separation from her husband, which is the conventional aftermath to sterility among the Chamulas, she modifies her role from mother to soothsayer and eventually comes to be highly respected for her powers. Soon after the action begins Catalina visits Ciudad Real with a group of women. They are attacked by thieves, become separated from each other, and one of the youngest is raped. When a few months later Catalina notices that same young woman is pregnant, she engineers a marriage between her own retarded brother and the young woman. When the child is born she names it Domingo (Sunday), and raises him as her own, altering her prospects once again through guile. Aware that—if determined—she can retool the course of life, Catalina sets out to change the destiny of her people. Tired of her husband’s wise but meek leadership of village a√airs, she remembers a cave she happened upon as a child—an old, forgotten Mayan sanctuary—where she rediscovers ‘‘the silenced gods of her ancestors’’ (209). Soon after her discovery, the cave becomes a secret place of pilgrimage, and the silenced gods begin to speak through Catalina, their new oracle. In fits of incomprehensible ramblings that must be interpreted by Tzotzil shamans, the sybil or ilol lets her people know the time has come to free themselves from the paleskinned usurpers who have taken away their land and their freedom. While the seeds of revolt are slowly simmering in San Juan Chamula, Castellanos returns to the scene of the rape and begins probing the rapist’s own byzantine family entanglements. After a barren marriage to the prudish and now embittered Isabel Zebadúa, the insatiable Leonardo Cifuentes amuses himself by running after women. His marriage to Isabel is surrounded by an aura of mystery on account of her first husband’s alleged suicide. As it turns out, everyone—and, most notably, Isabel’s daughter Idolina—suspects that Leonardo killed him. During a violent argument with her mother soon after her father’s death, Idolina has a fit of hysterics from which she emerges an invalid. From that point onward, she accuses her mother of abetting her father’s murder, and uses her infirmity to punish and manipulate her. 176

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Idolina’s passive posture is contrasted with the ease and dynamism of a newcomer to Ciudad Real, the beautiful Julia Acevedo, who, to compound matters, becomes Leonardo’s mistress. Julia is so engagingly aggressive that she manages to make her way upstairs into Idolina’s bedroom during a party and, surprising the young invalid outside her bed, succeeds in obtaining her trust. At that point, Julia has not yet succumbed to Leonardo’s advances and Idolina, hungry for a√ection, becomes enthralled with her. Under Julia’s watchful eye, the ‘‘miracle’’ takes place: Idolina starts walking again, and, in the course of time, begins to go out and have a life beyond the four walls of her self-imposed prison cell. To jump from Indian village to city bedroom, as I have done in attempting to summarize the extraordinarily complex, multi-level action of Oficio de tinieblas, may give the impression that the novel is divided in two halves focusing first on San Juan, then on Ciudad Real. This is far from being the case. Instead, the plot line shifts regularly between one context and the other and among each of the four related plots. Taking turns to come to the fore, the plots build, nonetheless, to one and the same crescendo: a confrontation between the Indians of San Juan and the nonIndians of Ciudad Real, a confrontation that brings Catalina and her nemesis Leonardo Cifuentes face to face. The terrible battle that puts an end to the power struggle is not depicted in the action, however. We learn of the Tzotzils’ defeat only through Idolina’s nanny, who tells her the story as something that took place long ago, turning, in the process, active history into passive myth. The implications of myth were very much in Castellanos’s mind when she wrote Oficio de tinieblas. As Martin Lienhard has shown in a cunning article, cyclical time was as relevant to her thinking as linear time (‘‘La legitimación indígena,’’ 14). Fusing together di√erent historical epochs— namely, the late nineteenth century and the 1930s—Castellanos recasts the crucifixion of a young Indian in K’anjobal in 1889, President Lázaro Cárdenas’s social and land reforms in the 1930s to benefit Indian minorities, and the notorious Indian raid on San Cristóbal de las Casas to suit her own ends. I say she recasts because instead of wholly inventing her plot, she dresses the bare bones of history with events of her own design. For instance, the crucified child in Oficio turns out to be Catalina’s adopted son, Domingo, whom she forsakes so the Chamulas can become equal to the ladinos by having a man die on the cross for their sake. Inventing the motivation for actions that actually took place, Castellanos Language in the work of Castellanos


sheds light on the opaque behavior of indigenous communities that have left no written records. Oficio provides, therefore, a complement to history and, by complementing it, completes the picture with fabrications that, as it turns out, reveal a great deal more about their author than they do about history. Making choices that are only partially determined by what took place, Castellanos emphasizes some aspects of relationships rather than others, and explores idiosyncratic emotions that keep turning up in the portraits she draws. For instance, in order to find an explanation for the crucifixion of an Indian by his own community, she explores the intimate bonds between parents and children, a subject that always drew her attention. What she imagines between Domingo, Catalina, and Catalina’s husband Winiktón is rivalry, resentment, and jealousy. She sees the same negative forces in the relationships between Idolina and her parents, and between Marcela (the raped Indian girl) and hers. Such insistence on warped family triangles compels us to conclude the obvious: her dramatization of parental jealousy was likely designed to get a better grasp of a scenario that haunted her personally.∂ Isn’t it striking, after all, that there should be no a√ectionate mothers in Castellanos’s work and that, despite appearances to the contrary, even the initially very maternal Catalina Díaz Puiljá should be no exception? Catalina, who wants a child more than anything in the world, gives him up to be crucified once she feels he is getting too close to his adopted father, and she herself has ‘‘given birth to the gods,’’ molding them with her own hands (249). In other words, as Castellanos portrays them, mothers are far from being the kind of sustaining refuge we often see in romantic novels. Instead, like Isabel Zebadúa, they pull away from their children when they are most needed or squelch them with misguided benevolence. Struggling to find voices of their own, their o√spring— Idolina, Marcela, and Domingo—end up being the victims of their oppressive demands. As Castellanos saw it or, at least as she portrayed it, an abyss gapes open between parents and children. Having always been second-best while growing up and made to feel guilty for the death of her brother at a very early age, she understood rejection well, as we learn from one of her pulverizingly frank letters to Ricardo Palma. ‘‘I have always felt a bit embarrassed about being alive . . . ,’’ she admits to the man who would become her husband, ‘‘I had a brother . . . who died and . . . my parents, 178

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although they never came right out and said it, gave me to understand that it was unfair that the boy of the house had died while I, instead, was still alive and kicking’’ (Cartas a Ricardo, 35). In the very autobiographical Balún Canáan (1957), Castellanos did not mince words while portraying parental rejection, but this portrayal pales in comparison to the searing one she drew in Oficio. Like Cortázar, turning to scapegoats and subterfuges allowed her to be much more transparent about her pain. She could explore and talk about it better by projecting it onto characters whose circumstances, in all appearances, did not resemble her own. But that she looked inwardly in search of features to draw those circumstances is made clear when we read her correspondence. In another letter written to Palma on 6 November 1950, for instance, she reveals the chemistry that would later propel the fictional Idolina to react: ‘‘Whenever I live on my own, I am always inventing illnesses to give myself the opportunity to pamper myself ’’ (78). Inventing illnesses is a way to somatize anxieties whose origins are di≈cult to grasp because unconscious. The hysteric displaces pain springing from undefinable sources unto a graspable field—the body—and the body, as Castellanos used to say referring to her own, was ‘‘my most inopportune and cumbersome companion’’ (Cartas a Ricardo, 39). Finding your tongue Castellanos’s letters to Ricardo Palma provide readers with a rare and useful document. Voicing her insecurities, an a√ecting vulnerability, and a seemingly limitless capacity for loving Palma, Castellanos exposes herself to a degree seldom seen outside fiction. This is why, in her stirring introduction to these letters, Elena Poniatowska refers to them as ‘‘a formidable and vital document, the kind of personal revelation that will seduce men and women who seek to understand the way women think and act’’ (Cartas a Ricardo, 19).∑ Like the character in Edith Wharton’s early short story ‘‘The Fullness of Life’’ who compares a woman’s nature to a house full of rooms that includes ‘‘a hall through which everyone passes . . . a drawing room, where one receives normal visits,’’ and an ‘‘innermost room . . . far beyond . . . [where] the soul sits alone,’’ we could say that Castellanos’s frank correspondence opens up unsuspected vistas. The di√erence between the house described in Wharton’s story and Castellanos’s letters is that the soul mentioned in the former ‘‘waits for a Language in the work of Castellanos


footstep that never comes’’ whereas in the latter the ground is covered with imprints. Thus far in this book we have adduced facts from fiction and made a number of assumptions, which, for some, may be hard to accept. But with Castellanos’s correspondence in hand we can enter directly into the heart and mind of an author and document how the dramatizations she created were based on private experiences. This is one reason why I was drawn to her work, among so many potential choices. Other writers may be more representative of, let us say, the feminine outlook, or of a feminist stance. Others could possibly broaden our analysis of the body in literature more dramatically and explicitly than Castellanos. But no one else has left behind an annotated guide like Cartas a Ricardo in which candid revelations go hand in hand with piercing intelligence and psychological insight. Any of the other authors we study might have peeled him- or herself down to the raw core, but none did, or have as yet. In addition (with the exception, perhaps, of Elena Poniatowska in Querido Diego te abraza Quiela [1978], [Dear Diego]), few women authors seeking to formulate a voice that is feminine, honest in itself, and politically correct shift their narrative stance as dramatically as Rosario Castellanos to make a point that is, true enough, often missed. A revolutionary in both purpose and design and a feminist by all accounts, Castellanos nonetheless portrays women as defeated, their anger turned to silence. This is a seeming contradiction that begs to be examined, and it is the reason for which I say she shifts her position. What I would like to make clear in this chapter is why the shift occurs and what it implies regarding the place of women in writing. How does a woman aiming to examine and ultimately alter gender roles take hold of a pen to vindicate herself and her sex? If, to abide by conventions and, therefore, to mirror reality, she portrays women as weak, how can she ultimately expect to bring about changes in social perception and gender roles? Is pity the best reaction a woman author can hope to get from her readers, or should she aim for understanding? What sort of understanding did Castellanos have in mind when she declared, ‘‘My combat literature or whatever you want to call it is not designed for the hands and eyes of someone who is going to come in and change the situation. I simply want people to become aware . . . or, at the very least, I want to become aware myself about the implications of certain behavior patterns’’?∏ An author aiming to make us aware of the social roles played by 180

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women would choose to portray, it seems, as many as possible to allow her readers to generalize about the feminine condition. Therefore, in order to determine what Castellanos was saying about women, we need to examine the roles she gives them in Oficio de tinieblas. When we do, the first thing we discover is that, from the start, she binds behavior or performance to language and examines exploitation, passivity, activism, defeat, and, ultimately, hope by exploring their nexus with the speech act. In her novel, as we will see, power and gender are inextricable from the issue of lengua seen in a variety of roles as language and tongue, langue and parole, a tool to control, define, and possess. The master’s whip In The Conquest of America (1982) published twenty years after Oficio de tinieblas, Tzvetan Todorov highlights the link between language and power in ways that retrace almost word for word Castellanos’s reflections on the subject. Todorov explains how in pre-Colombian Mexico ‘‘power demands wisdom,’’ and wisdom ‘‘is attested by the capacity to interpret’’ (78). From the start of his chapter ‘‘Montezuma and Signs,’’ Todorov links linguistic excellence with control, taking up a subject that can be said to be the backbone of Oficio de tinieblas. Written in a formalized, ritual, and, in the opinion of some, highly contrived style, the opening pages of Oficio were meant to evoke the language of indigenous manuscripts such as the Popol Vuh (Lienhard, ‘‘Legitimación indígena,’’ 4). Describing these pages as a misguided attempt to cast ancient rhetoric as representative of contemporary indigenous culture, even the characteristically insightful Joseph Sommers misinterprets Castellanos’s intention (‘‘Changing View of the Indian,’’ 51). Beginning with a mimicry of the language used in the Popol Vuh was meant to suggest that her book should be seen as another genesis, but one, we must keep in mind, written by a woman who does not forget the oppressed. First under a cloud are the Indians, and the instrument with which they are subjugated, language. From the start of Oficio de tinieblas Castellanos makes clear the profound di√erences between Tzotzil and Spanish. Poet to the core, she speaks of the latter only metonymically, referring to it as castilla (a term still used by many Tzotzil speakers), and not castellano, that is, Castilian. The temptation to trace the etymology of Castellanos’s linguistic choice is di≈cult to resist. Castilla is, of course, Language in the work of Castellanos


the name of the region in Spain (Castile) famous for its many castles, or castillos, built for protection against invaders. Castillo evolves from the latin castellum, which means fortress, and is a diminutive of castrum, a ‘‘fortified place.’’ Curiously, the latin form of castrum is akin to castrare, ‘‘to castrate,’’ which is exactly what castilla does to Tzotzil in the region of Chiapas, according to Castellanos. We also know from heraldic devices, coats of arms, and feudal banners that castillos in Castilla were fortified buildings that were usually towershaped. Castellanos makes ample use of the signifieds implicit in this iconography to develop the action of her novel. She begins by evoking the erect, tower shape of castillos in two weapons: the sword and the whip. From the start of Oficio the language called castilla is described as a cast iron instrument of control, a conquering weapon (arma de conquista) in contrast with Tzotzil, which has a dreamy, unconscious quality (a language ‘‘que se dice también en sueños,’’ 9). The ‘‘castled’’ language of Castilla, we are told, is not only iron hard ( férreo) and the butt-end of a body (not the whip itself but its tip, the punta del látigo), but also emblematic of power because it is the ‘‘whip of the law’’ or látigo de la ley (9). Castillos, or castles, are sti√ and upright like whips and usually built on summits, placements that prefigure the station of the Spanish in the social hierarchy of the New World. According to Castellanos, the men who spoke the ‘‘castled’’ language ‘‘wore the sun on their face,’’ and their speech was ‘‘haughty’’ in contrast to Tzotzil, which she describes as a balbuceo, a stammer (9). If we abide by the terms of her metonymy we could say, then, that Oficio depicts the struggle between sti√, inflexible instruments, and blind bats (which is what Tzotzil means) for control of ‘‘the whip of the law’’ (9). Bats fly in the dark, and darkness contrasts with the sol en la cara of the Spaniards as markedly as castilla di√ers from Tzotzil. Castilla is a metonymy that can harm because it is described as a férreo instrumento, an iron instrument. Its ability to cause pain is made clear at the beginning of the novel immediately after the young Indian woman is raped. Disconcerted by her daughter’s disappearance and eventual return empty-handed (like the typical girl in one of Jean-Baptiste Greuze’s portraits, she has ‘‘lost’’ the clay pots she was carrying on her back), her mother strikes her and begins insulting her in Tzotzil. The mother uses only one word in Spanish in her long tirade and we are told this word, cabrona, ‘‘cracked like a whip’’ (restalló como un latigazo) in the air, and 182

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on her daughter’s back (27). Of course her insult is not the only whip that cracks open Marcela’s skin; the girl is also pregnant after her close encounter with Leonardo Cifuentes’s punta de látigo, and from this union is born Domingo, who will die on the cross years later unable to expiate the sins of his people, a potentially pregnant symbol turned into a barren sacrifice. As Castellanos depicts it, women willingly put up with pain as long as they can be left to admire the power of the whip. The omniscient narrator of Oficio points out how, despite her hatred of her husband, Isabel Zebadúa, the submissive wife of Leonardo Cifuentes, considers this weapon ‘‘the emblem of manliness with which the male subdues the female’’ (76). Women such as she, we are told, ‘‘keep the memory of countless humiliations among the relics of love’’ (76). Although the reader will never know for certain, it is very likely that Isabel knew about Leonardo’s murderous intentions regarding her first husband. If she did nothing about it, it was because she had nothing but disdain for the weak man to whom she was married and much preferred ‘‘the whip as the emblem of manliness’’ of the one who, in all probability, did away with him (76). In contrast with her first husband, Leonardo is willing and able to ‘‘pull by the mane any who resist him, be she headstrong, churlish or capricious’’ (76). Is Castellanos suggesting, like Verdi in Rigoletto, that women feel bound to the men who rough them up? How, otherwise, could they both love a man and tolerate the punishment he metes out? That much is made of Leonardo’s whip is a point no reader of Oficio de tinieblas can ignore. He is not only the Don Juan of Ciudad Real but also one of the city’s varas altas or ‘‘tall rods’’—another metonymy translated from Tzotzil that is used to designate the men chosen to govern in Indigenous communities.π Leonardo—who ‘‘lived in the certainty of the irresistibility of his authority’’—is appointed to head the forces charged with reducing the Tzotzil to submission (68). It is no coincidence that his stepdaughter Idolina associates him with ‘‘the King of Swords because of the ideas both suggest’’: Leonardo is a symbol of virility and the living incarnation of military might (85). He has what all the characters in Oficio struggle to obtain: power. To suggest that power whenever she refers to him, Castellanos brings into a cluster the sword, the whip, and the phallus—in other words, the erect symbols of potency emblematized in castillos. It follows that if language—and specifically Castilian∫ —is associated Language in the work of Castellanos


with the weapons of war, which are in turn identified with virility embodied in this novel by Leonardo Cifuentes, anything having to do with femininity would be part of a contrasting semantic field. Those who feel I build castles in the air when I suggest that Castellanos yokes together language, power, and the phallus might change their minds after being made aware of the painstaking symmetry with which she likewise sketches the feminine domain. While pinpointing the link between power and language mastery, Castellanos does not fail to establish a nexus between passivity and linguistic incompetence or, at its nadir, between passivity and the absolute denial of language. For instance, Isabel Zebadúa, whose habit, we are told, ‘‘was to resign herself,’’ finds a refuge in ‘‘total muteness’’ whenever she discovers ‘‘her wishes had been overruled by Leonardo’s,’’ and her daughter Idolina completely shuts o√ the expression of her body as she sinks into an infirmity that has nothing to do with physical lesions (67). To understand both Idolina’s invalidism and Castellanos’s referent when describing the behavior of women who make themselves sick, we need to recall Lacan’s definition of hysteria as le vide absolu. Curiously, in Oficio ‘‘le vide absolu’’ is not the exclusive domain of women. Emptiness and self-denial are likewise attributes of Indians, who are at the opposite extreme of ladinos on both the social ladder and the chain of power. For instance, after her rape, the young Marcela Gómez Oso discovers the ‘‘paradise’’ implicit in the ‘‘supreme abolition of consciousness’’ (24). The place ‘‘where memory hurt her’’ stops being ‘‘bleeding viscera’’ to become, we are told, ‘‘marvelously empty’’ (45). And her husband—Catalina’s retarded brother brought out of hiding to camouflage Marcela’s rape—is both impotent and mute (41). In sum, then, language in Oficio is the ladino’s private domain, while women and Indians have to conform themselves with the sounds of silence. Describing a world where changes are slow to take place, where everyone turns a deaf ear to a neighbor, Castellanos’s only hope is to reach the reader, to ‘‘make people more aware,’’ as she once declared to Luis Adolfo Domínguez (‘‘Entrevista,’’ 17). Some readers might be willing to listen, but in Oficio the Indians are struck dumb and women turn a deaf ear. The silence of the latter is self-imposed when they discover they have no language of their own, whereas the former—who do have a language— realize from the start it is a blunted instrument: ‘‘the stammering of a race


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that has lost its memory’’ (143). Homologated, both minorities talk without speaking, are seen but not heard. Womanspeak: a language no one can understand? In and of itself, associating submissiveness with silence is nothing original. Where Castellanos breaks new ground is in the recovery of language made by the most startling character in her saga, Catalina Díaz Puiljá. Castellanos begins by portraying Catalina as unable to bear children and then highlights the dire consequences of sterility among the Tzotzil. Catalina is a resourceful woman who will not let herself be undone by social conventions or even biology, however. To compensate for her lack of children, she casts herself as priestess. Soon, everyone in San Juan Chamula acknowledges her powers, which she readily accepts ‘‘with the placid recognition of someone receiving her dues’’ (86). Gradually, however, she comes to realize that in spite of their respect the Tzotzil continue to see her as a pariah because of her sterility. When circumstances turn propitious, she conceives an audacious plan by which she becomes the assumed mother of Domingo, whose name prophetically means both master and lord. Endowed with what she perceives as a new extension of herself, she feels ‘‘she would never be alone again, never be humiliated again’’ (13). But Catalina miscalculates the control she can exert over a child not biologically her own in a traditional community where men of all ages bond together in daily chores. As he grows older, it is toward his adopted father—Catalina’s husband, Pedro—that Domingo turns. Enraged by this unexpected turn of events, she sets out to find a substitute for ‘‘the missing husband’’ and ‘‘the abducted child’’ (192). At that point she remembers how, as a young girl, she had happened into a cave where three stones ‘‘shaped like people’’ were hidden (192). By degrees the reader comes to understand that these are ancient Mayan idols, lost gods that Catalina hopes to find again in order to fill her emptiness because, forced to face the truth, she has begun to tell herself, ‘‘Can’t you see you have been lying to yourself all these years? Can’t you see you were lying when you said you were [Domingo’s] mother, and your husband his father?’’ (193). She even concedes at this juncture that her much touted supernatural powers are a lie: ‘‘Your frown is a cloud without lightning, your left hand a conjured catastrophe’’ (194). Forsaken by

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her family and forgotten by her peers, she feels abandoned by the gods: ‘‘Deaf are their ears . . . barren their promises’’ (194). ‘‘I am alone,’’ she gradually realizes, ‘‘I need to accept this. Entirely alone’’ (192). No sooner has she recognized her bereftness than she runs into the forest, desperately climbing, creeping, and falling. Struck by the low branches, her skin torn by brambles, she makes her way to the cave that hides its secret. When she finds it, she feels once again ‘‘owner of the world . . . owner of her destiny’’—a destiny that incites her to run and yell, ‘‘Let all men bow to you!’’ (196). Catalina has no doubt that the stone idols are ‘‘the emblem of the great repressed power of the Tzotzil people’’ but she also recognizes that they are deaf and dumb (172). In spite of their silence, when she lets the Tzotzil know of her discovery everyone comes to visit the place of worship and to hear with their own ears that ‘‘the god forgot our language and no longer knows how to speak to us’’ (210–11). On the edge of despair, Catalina goes into a trance, thick foam oozing ‘‘between her tightly shut teeth,’’ and she begins to mutter ‘‘incoherent, senseless words’’ which ‘‘no one around her can understand’’ (212). She gives birth, at last, but her o√spring is no ordinary stock. What she brings into the world is the flesh made verb. This verb is shrouded in mystery, unfathomable. And yet, when Catalina speaks her people are stirred because ‘‘her voice fills itself with the rumble of the dreams of her tribe . . . the reminiscences of an abolished past’’ (212). Even without understanding the enigma surrounding this sacred woman, the people begin to venerate and obey her, at least until Father Manuel, the Catholic priest of San Juan Chamula, realizes that his parishioners are showing up less often to church, and goes to the mysterious cave to find out why. In a frenzy when he discovers the seditious nature of Catalina’s revelation, the priest begins tearing away at the ornaments and yards of fabric which the faithful have wrapped around the stone idols, and drags them outside and across ‘‘a square littered with the peel of fruits, leftovers and garbage’’ (226). As they stare, thunderstruck, the Indians wonder how the ancient powers will react to the sacrilege that is being perpetrated against them. But nothing happens. Once again dispossessed, Catalina falls to the ground and loses consciousness as all abandon her. Thus far, no one has taken time to consider the role Catalina’s incoherent, senseless words play in Oficio de tinieblas. When we consider how important language is to the thematic development of this novel, how186

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ever, it seems that casting one of her protagonists as a creator of a unique form of articulation needs to be seen as a significant feature of Castellanos’s design. Portrayed as a distinct register characterized by gestures and prosody instead of symbols and grammar, Catalina’s language is easily distinguishable from the phallogocentric whip of the law wielded by men like Leonardo Cifuentes.Ω Hers gives primacy to the voice as rhythm and timbre, to the body as movement and gesture. It can be heard but not understood; it has its place and reason for being but without the symbolic whip intervening as order, identity, and consciousness, it is perceived as mere babbling even if, as it turns out, that babbling is sacred. The incoherent sounds Catalina utters spring from the primary and presymbolic modality that Julia Kristeva refers to as semiotic and links to the feminine chora.∞≠ Being presymbolic, Catalina’s language dispenses with morphological units. This is why, when she first raises her voice in the cave of Tzajal-hemel, ‘‘she didn’t modulate syllables, she didn’t construct words. It was simply a moan, an animal or superhuman rattle’’ that shifts and ‘‘reaches an almost imperceptible register’’ until it becomes ‘‘like the ripple of a distant, underground spring’’ (219). The primary impulses characteristic of the semiotic also include nonverbal features apparent when—amidst stammers—Catalina ‘‘gestured, banging her head with clenched fists. Or repeated disconnected words, sounds of an invented language that filled everyone with wonder and awe’’ (219). Catalina’s invented language turns her into a symbol both for her people—who have no voice—and for the reader, who can only listen. Language gives her power but it is a power she is constantly being deprived of, as if it didn’t belong to her. Why, after showing that women are systematically neutralized—Marcela is raped, Isabel silenced, Idolina bedridden, Julia ostracized—does Castellanos empower Catalina through language? And why, after empowering her, does she strip the sacred woman of that power? Is Catalina’s linguistic epiphany meant to be read as the turning point of Oficio, the moment when, to put it in general terms, woman discovers and reappropriates herself as subject? Let us consider this question for a moment. Up until the scene of investiture at Tzajal-hemel, Castellanos shows women as the objects of male desires, male fears, and male representations. When Catalina allows the voices of her body to be heard, however, she articulates a language that people respond to even if they cannot grasp its sense. The Tzotzil rush to the cave to witness the miracle Language in the work of Castellanos 187

and leave behind the language of the law articulated in the Catholic Church of San Juan Chamula. Put in Castellanos’s own symbolic terms, they abandon the whip and turn to the cave; or, stated otherwise, recognizing the power of the semiotic, they turn their back on the symbolic. There is no doubt that establishing a distinction between one form of articulation (male, symbolic, and dominant), and another (female, semiotic, and sacred) opens the possibility for a distinctly feminine space within language as well as within the structure of power. In other words, it suggests a separate house or domain from which the feminine voice can be articulated. Catalina invents a language that shakes up old habits of thought and old ways of seeing. It comes as no surprise that this language eventually instructs the Tzotzil to revolt against the ladino forces that emblematize law and order in the novel. True, the Indians lose the battle, but does their defeat really alter Castellanos’s design? One of the points Castellanos is making in Oficio is that both women and Indians have alternatives. Before they can act on those alternatives, they must develop a sense of themselves, however. Catalina’s didactic role is to show this development, although, as Castellanos makes clear, what she brings into the world is trampled by those in control. Domingo is taken away, her language is translated by Mayan shamans, the gods she finds are cast from their altars by the Catholic priest, and her people are massacred. Husband, community, religion, and the law take every opportunity to silence her. Once in the novel she overpowers the forces of repression, however: when she creates not as an act of the will but through her own physical body. Body talk After the priest of San Juan Chamula removes the gods from the cave, Catalina feels dispossessed. In the weeks that follow, however, this feeling becomes the fuel that helps her overcome her sense of loss. Tenacious, she learns to thrive in vicissitude. When she at last returns to the empty cave at Tzajal-hemel, her hands begin to sculpt the shapes of the sequestered gods, seemingly of their own accord. The terms in which Castellanos describes Catalina’s creation are highly significant: as the priestess molds the wet clay she ‘‘pants in a restless frenzy, with the panting of women who are about to give birth’’ (249). Issued from her exertions, shaped by her fingers, the new gods emerge ready to command. 188

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Catalina becomes their mother and mediator—the means through which they communicate with the faithful. Thereafter, her wishes are law. She too is law but a law that—as we shall see—the fathers in the novel find hard to tolerate. When Catalina’s gods begin speaking once more, the Tzotzil return to the sacred place of their ancestors. One day, Father Manuel discovers the new treason and travels to the cave to reclaim what he has lost. The first time he had gone to Tzajal-hemel he knocked down the gods without hesitation or consequences. The second time, the gods he finds are made of di√erent stu√, however; these are Catalina’s creations in every sense. What we have in this second version of the cave scene is not only Mayan versus Christian beliefs but also a confrontation between phallogocentric authority (represented by the Church, ladino culture, men in general), and female power embodied in a high priestess who has become an organ for her people. The power of the whip cannot tolerate rivalries or confrontations, however. It comes as no surprise, therefore, when we read that Father Manuel enters Catalina’s cave brandishing this weapon. Whip in hand, he begins thrashing altar and worshippers alike. But this time his destruction is cut short as Catalina breaks his weapon across her knees (‘‘Catalina quebró el fuete contra sus rodillas,’’ 263–64). As if this were a concerted signal, the Indians fall on the priest, and pummel him until all that is left is ‘‘a revolting mass of bones and blood’’ (264). Threatened by a new order, the whip lashes out against the power of the cave, one organ striking another until the whip’s destructiveness is silenced by a new voice issuing forth from the deepest layers of Catalina’s psyche.∞∞ Catalina’s language and the alternate order she embodies are Castellanos’s attempt to portray ‘‘both a new poetics and a new politics based on women’s reclaiming control over their bodies,’’ an aim which, according to Susan Rubin Suleiman, characterized the first wave of feminism.∞≤ There can be no doubt that in the cave scene Catalina finds her identity and a voice to speak forth that identity, and, more to the point of our discussion, that she finds both by means of her body. But the larger issue Castellanos also questions is whether that voice can hold its own ground. Providing an answer takes her extraordinarily topical Oficio de tinieblas much beyond the first wave of feminism, and straight to the heart of the feminist polemics of the 1980s. After linking language with power and endowing Catalina with a unique form of speech, Castellanos explores the plausibility and eventual Language in the work of Castellanos


consequences of a form of discourse that would be inherently woman’s (what Luce Irigaray would term, years later, a parler femme or ‘‘womanspeak’’), di√erent and independent from phallogocentric language.∞≥ Can woman, wonders Castellanos, create a form of discourse that—as Irigaray also thought at one time—rejects patriarchy and allows her to escape the oppression of phallogocentric society? The Mexican author dramatizes her answer to this question in Catalina’s personal saga. At first marginalized because her body does not respond to the criteria imposed on women by patriarchal society (i.e., women’s purpose is to conceive), Catalina begins to have mystical visions. If, as Irigaray argues, the mystical experience is precisely an experience of the loss of subjecthood, of the disappearance of the subject/object opposition, mysticism in general would seem to hold a particular appeal for women such as Catalina whose subjectivity is already being repressed by patriarchal discourse (Speculum, 238). Touched by the flame of the divine, Catalina is transformed into a fluid stream dissolving all di√erence between subject and object. She becomes le vide absolu, and it is from this undi√erentiated perspective that she begins to carve out purpose and meaning for herself. Castellanos establishes a clear di√erence between borrowing an identity and defining your own, or, to put it in terms of woman’s dilemma as symbolically portrayed in Oficio, between seizing the ready-made emblems of power (the ancestral gods) and creating her own. The first culminates in Father Manuel’s reappropriation; the second suggests—for a while, at least—that woman is capable of articulating her own form of language and can assert her otherness through a voice unique to herself. Castellanos is too lucid to entertain this chimera for very long, however. Oficio de tinieblas seeks to determine in fiction questions that Shoshana Felman would articulate years later: ‘‘Is it enough to be a woman in order to speak as a woman? Is ‘speaking as a woman’ a fact determined by some biological condition or by a strategic, theoretical position, by anatomy or by culture? What if ‘speaking as a woman’ were not a simple ‘natural’ fact, could not be taken for granted?’’ (‘‘The Critical Phallacy,’’ 3). Using Catalina as a vehicle, Castellanos’s answer to Felman’s questions rings clear: speaking as a woman with a voice that is unique cannot be taken for granted. It would be a wonderful thing if, as Luce Irigaray suggested in the eighties, women could enunciate their own form of articulation distinct from phallic discourse. However, as Julia Kristeva has repeatedly pointed out, the inherently feminine semiotic modality 190

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cannot prescind the symbolic register. Without that register, without the symbolic Name of the Father intervening as order and identity, language cannot be understood. The heroic ‘‘stammering’’ of Catalina’s ‘‘underground spring’’ is a case in point (219). As Kristeva has argued, from the writing of her prophetic Polylogue onward, to avoid psychosis, the feminine element in women as well as in men needs to be inscribed within the symbolic order. In her opinion, it is doubtful whether any society could be matriarchal in anything but name—given that the symbolic is the precondition of social life. This is why both her and Castellanos’s approach to feminism could never be couched within an either/or polemical framework of the feminine semiotic on one side or the masculine symbolic on the other—a position that was long contested by Irigaray and many of her advocates. Elizabeth Grosz, for instance, began by finding Kristeva’s arguments ‘‘puzzling in feminist terms,’’ and ended up saying that Kristeva’s theory of sexual di√erence ‘‘implies an anti-feminist stance’’ (Sexual Subversions, 97). The same sort of criticism has been directed at Castellanos. Readers have pushed her novels into a closet (it took over thirty years since its publication in Spanish before Oficio was translated into English, for instance), not because her fiction is perceived to lack quality but because her political posture regarding women is generally perceived to be muddled. To this day, critics cannot comprehend Castellanos’s apparent surrender of feminine power. Why, they wonder, does Catalina Díaz Puiljá find her tongue only to be ultimately silenced? Why do men in the microcosm portrayed by Castellanos ultimately crush powerful women like Julia Acevedo? Does casting women as underdogs in spite of their potential for power suggest that Castellanos’s view of the war between the sexes is fundamentally pessimistic? Assuredly, to grasp all the implications of the gender dynamics portrayed in Oficio we need to consider the female voice not in isolation but in confrontation with the language of power. In other words, we need to consider the cave not in and of itself but as it interacts with the whip. Taking each side of this dialogue in turn, we could begin by saying that what Catalina gives birth to in Tzajal-hemel is what Hélène Cixous refers to as ‘‘the voice’’: ‘‘a song before the Law, before the breath was split by the symbolic, reappropriated into language under the authority that separates’’ (La jeune née, 172). The voice finds ‘‘its source in a time before the Law came into being,’’ says Toril Moi, ‘‘nameless . . . it is placed Language in the work of Castellanos


firmly in the pre-Oedipal stage before the child acquires language, and thereby the capacity to name itself and its objects’’ (Sexual/Textual Politics, 114).∞∂ Cixous convincingly argues that women have this ‘‘privileged relationship to the voice’’ because of their relative lack of defense mechanisms: ‘‘No woman ever heaps up as many defenses against their libidinal drive as a man does’’ (173). ‘‘Whereas man represses the mother, woman doesn’t (or hardly does),’’ adds Moi (115). This repression is clearly portrayed in Oficio de tinieblas. In fact, one could argue that the novel was designed as an anatomy lesson, as a way to dissect the cancer that allows the sick body of society to thrive on exploitation. Repressing the mother, man represses woman, whom—as is clear in Castellanos’s portrait—he views as an antagonist. Man’s stance is defensive; judging from the ruthlessness with which he treats women, he is also angry. What is it in women’s voices, which, in those rare moments (as in the cave scene in Oficio) in which it is uttered, drives men into a rage? Why is it that Catalina’s always reasonable husband feels so threatened by his wife’s empowerment in the cave that he strikes her after witnessing her linguistic frenzy? Isn’t it clear that when Catalina speaks in tongues or, as Cixous would say, when the voice springing from the deepest layers of her psyche can be heard at last, that she finds an identity which, for the first time, is neither borrowed nor defined by a law exterior to herself ? And who emblematizes that law? Isn’t it Pedro and all the men in the novel who wield it, albeit to di√erent degrees? Doesn’t it follow, then, that by finding her voice Catalina (and any woman who would dare do the same) antagonizes the law? From the perspective of those in control, wouldn’t her sudden empowerment be considered a threat? Wouldn’t such a notion explain why we are told that, when she finds her own voice, ‘‘Catalina takes away one of [Pedro’s] possessions, part of his personal domain’’ (213)? Clearly, what ensues from the clash between the voice and the law, the power of the whip and the power of the cave, is a fight to the quick, one that reveals the deep antagonism that drives men and women apart, undercurrent not just of Castellanos’s novel but of every story we have looked at in this book. The source of men’s fear? What is at the origin of this rivalry, at the root of these ambivalent feelings of attraction and rejection that draw men and women together 192

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and apart? For Dorothy Dinnerstein the answer is clear: the rivalry is predicated on fear, and specifically, as we see in Oficio de tinieblas, on fearing ‘‘the will of woman,’’ which is the first and most enduring authority we know (Mermaid, 161). According to Dinnerstein, all human beings live in perpetual terror of ‘‘sinking back into the helplessness of infancy,’’ a time when the idea of absolute power was inseparable from the image of woman (161). Infancy, she goes on to say, is the time when a link is established between societal despotism, female rule over childhood, and male rule over the historical process. The notion of viewing woman as the living embodiment of despotism is born because, as infants, we internalize her socializing program and strive to please by submitting to her every wish. The time comes when, during the last phase of the mirror stage, the infant grasps the notion of its own individuality, however. From that point onward the will of the mother is perceived as that other voice against which one’s own identity must be forged. In Dinnerstein’s words, ‘‘maternal will emanates, first of all, from a subjectivity that we encounter before our own sense of subjectivity is at all clearly established. It is the first separate subjectivity of which we become aware, and its separateness is a fact to which most of us are never fully reconciled’’ (163). We have seen the inability to come to terms with separateness in the writings of Cortázar, Cabrera Infante, and Sarduy, authors who never ceased portraying longing for the first space they left behind. In Oficio de tinieblas we witness not the inability but the consequences of reacting to a separate subjectivity. Castellanos’s cave is a space that is first trampled, and ultimately conquered, by the whip. The whip lashes out because it lives in perpetual fear of submitting to the opposing will. And since the whip destroys what it touches, society is in perpetual upheaval. Thus the winding path of history is littered with rubble. The sad thing is that, as we move forward in time, the path’s prospects look little better because we have made almost no e√ort to examine the roots of belligerence. Only our collective lack of insight into the link between female rule over child rearing, and male control over the historical process, can explain ‘‘the shared self-delusions on which [that] historical process now rests’’ (Mermaid, 163). As long as we entertain these self-delusions, Dinnerstein maintains, we shall be unable to alter the course of history. Altering the course of history would have probably sounded far too ambitious a task for someone as unassuming as Castellanos. More modLanguage in the work of Castellanos


est in her aims, she only wished to get a better grasp of the muddle that was life in her beloved Chiapas, to understand the reasons behind the seemingly endless strife between races, genders, and social classes. This is why she writes a novel in which all manner of power struggles play themselves out. If she chooses to give particular emphasis to the role of women it is because social, racial, and gender di√erences spotlight the issue of identity, and any consideration of identity logically pushes her to ponder her own. If she casts a Tzotzil prophetess as the protagonist of her deeply disturbing novel, it is because following the footsteps of a character who was both a woman and a native American meant she could take the question of marginality almost as far as it could go. Catalina is also sterile, not only sexually and socially inferior but biologically dysfunctional, an outcast in every sense of the word. Everything she turns to in an e√ort to carve out a private space, to define her uniqueness, is taken away from her, repossessed by her husband, or the village shamans, or the priest—until she is empowered in a symbolic scene in which she gives birth to gods and becomes their oracle. At that point in the novel it is clear she defies an authority that, up until then, had been vested only in men. Castellanos makes this defiance manifest when she portrays Catalina breaking the priest’s whip across her knees or enraging her husband, who senses that, endowed with her new gift, Catalina takes ‘‘away one of [his] possessions, part of his personal domain’’ (213). So personal, in fact, that he feels both naked, and flayed (desollado), a bleeding body stripped of a vital organ (213). Even if only alluded to in figurative terms, Catalina’s phallic appropriation is hard to miss. All we need to do is walk our way back through the referents used for language in the novel and substitute each of them for what the seer acquires in the cave of Tzajal-hemel to realize that, symbolically speaking, what she seizes from Pedro is not castilla but his own personal tower, the castillo that is the symbol of his strength. Stripped of something vital, Pedro feels ‘‘betrayed,’’ his lessened body in vivid contrast to Catalina’s enhanced image (213). Castellanos portrays the loss in one and the gain in the other in terms of both language—his phallic and symbolic, hers preverbal and semiotic—and the body: Pedro is ‘‘flayed’’; Catalina gives birth. Giving birth gives her both social status and personal significance: she becomes not just a mother but mother of gods, and she rules for the first time because they speak through her. 194

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The kind of language we speak determines our identity, and, conversely, the kind of identity we develop informs the language we speak. Articulating language, human beings develop a self-image made manifest not only in terms of sounds but also of gestures and attitudes that are socially and linguistically programmed and read as constitutive elements of the gender package. Language mastery is something all characters of Oficio aim to have. Pedro and Catalina are cases in point. Seemingly fighting over the control of language, their real struggle is unquestionably over power. This is why the clay idols that Catalina molds with her hands irritate Pedro and Father Manuel∞∑ not in and of themselves but because they communicate with the community and their wishes are obeyed. It is significant that to create these idols Catalina ‘‘pants as if about to give birth,’’ moreover (213). As she sculpts the wet clay and gives birth to gods, her issue is homologized to a child: it becomes the object little a. Empowered with her own object, wielding her own whip, we are told, her need of Pedro is soon eclipsed (213). Like each and every Tzotzil, Pedro is relegated to the empire of shadows, a stuttering bat who has been ‘‘flayed’’ or, in other words, dispossessed of his organ. In the cave scene in Oficio Castellanos dramatizes woman’s biological preponderance. Up until Catalina’s epiphany, men in the novel controlled language and through language held power, but the role of creating those who through sheer force hold unto that power (the role of giving birth to gods, to use Castellanos’s terms) is woman’s and woman’s alone.∞∏ This is another way of saying that the symbolic sphere cannot do without the semiotic, or that phallic authority cannot prescind the maternal body. Men in all societies may continue pushing woman into the periphery but even from that periphery she will go on exercising a procreative role that is hers as a law of nature. Over and over, the precedence of the semiotic will be denied in a phallogocentric society, but even persistent denial will not annul its validity. The vindication of the female body lies in its capacity to continue formulating the very sign from which society and biology continuously strip it. If recognizing our natural dependence on women is di≈cult, it is harder still to tolerate it. Accepting the importance of the feminine element in the historical process implies, in Castellanos’s terms, giving credence to the language the priestess articulates; it implies giving faith to the power of the cave. As we know from Dinnerstein, however, accepting the will of woman implies sinking back into the helplessness of infancy; recognizing that will leads to fear, and fear Language in the work of Castellanos


quickly turns into antagonism as a defense mechanism. No wonder then that Pedro Winiktón should ‘‘allow himself to be overcome . . . with obscure terror’’ when he hears his wife speaking in tongues and sees her possessed by the gods (213). Terror, according to Hélène Cixous, distinguishes the whole male libidinal economy. Predicated on ‘‘a fear of expropriation, of separation, of the loss of the attribute,’’ it is the male response to ‘‘the threat of castration’’ ( Jeune née, 147). Males are so afraid of losing that we are not even comfortable receiving, since, ‘‘the moment you accept something you are e√ectively open to the other, and if you are a man you have only one wish, and that is hastily to return the gift, to break the circuit of an exchange that could have no end . . . to be nobody’s child, to owe no one a thing’’ (Cixous, ‘‘Castration,’’ 48). Unable to give, man cannot show a single crack in his armor. In contrast to men, Cixous points out, woman gives because she doesn’t su√er from castration anxiety; she is not afraid of losing ‘‘the attribute’’ ( Jeune née, 147). Perceived as a sign of weakness, her openhandedness is a further irritant to men, who take advantage of her generous ‘‘passivity’’ to trample on her. In Oficio de tinieblas the epitome of passivity is Idolina. Like much else in the novel, the young invalid girl is not what she seems, however. There is no denying that by refusing to walk she sinks back into the helplessness of infancy—the time in life when the idea of absolute power is inseparable from the image of woman. What is not clear is why she regresses when regression implies forfeiting her independence and putting herself at the mercy of a mother she loathes.

Little i-dol For me the universe is dumb, Stone-deaf, and blank, and wholly blind; Life I must bound, existence sum In the strait limits of one mind; That mind is my own. Oh! narrow cell; Dark—imageless—a living tomb! There must I sleep, there wake and dwell Content,—with palsy, pain, and gloom. —Charlotte Brontë, ‘‘Frances’’


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What a curious name: Idolina. Others before me have remarked on its uniqueness, seen in it an allusion to religious ritual, to gods, and to worship. But if Idolina is a little idol, isn’t it time we found out who worships at her altar and what sort of Mass they—or she—o≈ciates? Does it make sense to portray an idol as sick, an object of worship as invalid? Aren’t idols normally inspiring? Isn’t their power of suggestion an active force? Isn’t the little idol in Oficio de tinieblas a little too idle to be idol? Why, instead of fighting, like Catalina, does she pull back from the fray? Why, instead of forging a language, does she sink into silence? Why, instead of giving birth to gods, does she become the living denial of a time and a place she appears to abhor? Is her refusal to walk a statement of nonbeing to the same degree as her muteness at the end of the novel? To answer these questions we need to look into the genesis and subsequent development of Idolina’s paralysis. Clearly the young woman’s passivity is as important to the novel’s design as Catalina’s tenacity, making both women foils of one another, a mismatched pair used to portray the feminine condition as Castellanos saw it. Idolina is from first to last a woman without—outside society, without parents or friends (her father is dead and she despises her mother), without physical or mental attractions, without confidence or health. Benumbed, she is an ino√ensive shadow who has given up her independence as an act of protest, suggesting, through her behavior, that escape becomes increasingly di≈cult as women internalize the destructive strictures of patriarchy. Locked into herself, defeated from the start, Idolina is tormented by the realization that she has bought survival at the price of never fully existing, voiced anger by retreating into the dull grave of her paralyzed body. At the end of the novel, dispossessed not only of meanings and goals, but also of power, she listens to her childhood nanny tell her the story of the Tzotzil’s defeat. Her face is to the wall, her head sunk deep into the pillows, her eyes shut tight ‘‘to make the world disappear, once and for all’’ (565). Adopting the pose of a nineteenth-century fictional heroine, the young invalid closes the novel as she opened it: pale, passive, and inert. She o√ers a vision of a moral, feminine world that suggests that claims about women’s weakness are true: that women might prove too passive to rule. As Diane Price Herndl points out in her enlightening Invalid Women,

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becoming sick ‘‘was a way to reconcile and a≈rm the cultural discourse’’ that cast the nineteenth-century heroine as perpetually weak or with a predisposition to illness (Invalid Women, 39). As portrayed in fiction, invalidism traditionally refers to a lack of power and, etymologically speaking, to the nonvalid in general, but it was also a way to strike against the establishment since ‘‘women are taught that illness and death o√er them the best route to power’’ (3). Backtracking to the time of Idolina’s first attack of paralysis, and keeping in mind Price Herndl’s dual propositions, the first questions we need to answer are, What is the young invalid striking against? and, in embracing illness, is she seeking refuge and solace or empowerment? Idolina stopped walking after her mother remarried, an event that takes place before the action described in Oficio de tinieblas begins. As we already know, her mother’s second husband, Leonardo Cifuentes, is a willful, domineering man, a contrast in every way to Idolina’s spineless father. Leonardo rapes, murders, and steals; Isidoro flees from the stables whenever a calf is going to be branded, and abandons his wife’s bedside when Idolina is born to avoid witnessing her pain. One dares all; the other buries his head and shirks from confrontations. It doesn’t take long for Idolina’s mother to recognize that her husband was a weak man and, regretfully, one with whom her daughter identified from the moment she was born (76).∞π Nervous, easily upset, and glued to Isidoro’s flanks at all times, Idolina bursts into tears even at the sight of guests invited to celebrate her birthday. When Isidoro dies from a gun accident in mysterious circumstances and his body is brought home, Isabel thinks her daughter will not endure the pain. Idolina surprises everyone, however. She doesn’t shed a tear during the funeral services, asks no questions, and gives no sign of regret. ‘‘She knew all there was to know about absence from a very young age,’’ we are told, ‘‘and now that absence would be permanent no one ever heard her ask for its reason or voice a complaint’’ (77). Her only reaction after her father is gone is to turn to her mother, clinging, begging for a√ection. Isabel resented all the attention, however, and tried to push her away with mockery and disdain, but nothing succeeds in severing the cord that tied mother and daughter to each other (77). That is to say, nothing succeeded until Isabel suddenly married her ex-husband’s suspected murderer, Leonardo Cifuentes. After her mother’s wedding ceremony Idolina’s behavior was dras198

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tically altered: ‘‘for weeks she refused to touch food. She lost weight until she was nothing but skin and bones. And every time she stared at herself in her wardrobe mirror her eyes shone with a malignant sort of glee’’ (77). Soon after, Isabel begins giving in to her daughter’s unvoiced demands: she spoon-feeds her but, even then, Idolina refuses to eat, determined ‘‘to let herself be consumed’’ (77). Leonardo could not forgive his new wife for letting herself be manipulated, and his anger became ‘‘the first crack on the wall raised by the new couple’’ (77). This is Idolina’s first victory. Full of spite, Leonardo begins seeking the company of other women. It is Isabel’s turn to feel hurt and abandoned. Looking for solace, she confides in Idolina, who revels in her mother’s grievances and comes to see in Leonardo the perfect instrument with which to punish her. For, with an agenda of her own, Idolina ‘‘desperately needed to have Isabel punished’’ (78). One night when the young woman is practicing the piano Leonardo comes in drunk and makes fun of her. Choking with hatred, Idolina clenches her fists and bangs them on the keys with all her might before dashing in the direction of her stepfather ‘‘to knock him down, to break him’’ (78). After taking a few steps, however, ‘‘she collapsed, spitting foam and falling unconscious’’ (78). When she comes to, she is ‘‘no longer able to move without asking for help’’ (78). Doctors are called in, local ones, then specialists from Guatemala and Mexico City, to no avail. Embarrassed about her inability to discuss or even recognize the symptoms she is supposed to have, Idolina contradicts herself in her answers and confounds medical experts by exaggerating her pain. The more confident the doctors feel about curing her, the more resilient she becomes to their treatment, ‘‘since it had become a point of honor not to let herself be healed’’ (83). The reader assumes at first that if Isidoro’s death was such a shock to Idolina she must still feel very close to him. When her new friend Julia Acevedo asks the girl if she loved her father, however, her negative answer is so categorical that she startles even herself. The omniscient narrator peevishly asks, at that point, ‘‘What force had uprooted Isidoro from his daughter’s heart?’’ (95). The answer, we soon learn, is ‘‘a sudden resentment, a fulminating disappointment; Idolina had felt her father’s death as a personal a√ront, as an unfulfilled pact and a broken pledge. It was the first time she felt betrayed’’ (95). In fact, Idolina fabricated her infirmity and kept her subsequent recovLanguage in the work of Castellanos


ery secret to strike back against those who betrayed her and stayed alive. When after many months in bed she secretly takes a few steps around her room, we are told not to consider her walking as ‘‘a triumph of the will but as the means to conciliate her willpower with a wish to punish her mother’s conduct using herself as a vehicle’’ (88). In other words, Idolina’s body houses and discharges emotions that are directly addressed to others. Her inability to move is a form of passive aggression, the conditioned reflex of what J.-D. Nasio refers to as ‘‘a dissatisfied ego’’ deployed to manipulate those around her (L’hystérie, 18). Nasio convincingly argues that the female disease Freud designated as hysteria (because it takes its name from the Greek word for womb, hyster, the organ that was supposed to cause this emotional disturbance) never strikes isolated individuals.∞∫ As far as he is concerned, hysteria is a neurotic relationship that subjugates one person to the will of another. ‘‘Hysteria,’’ he claims, ‘‘is the name we give to the ties the neurotic establishes with another individual on the basis of the phantasms he or she creates’’ (18). Victims of hysteria are tyrants, master manipulators who impose on others the sick logic of their unconscious fantasies. Instead of casting themselves as masters, however, they fantasize themselves as victims because they are always dissatisfied with their lot. As long as hysterics remain dissatisfied and in the role of victim, Nasio explains, they keep themselves from focusing on what their unconscious imagines as an imminent danger to their safety and well-being (19). Perpetually afraid, hysterics make themselves dissatisfied to keep their minds busily attuned to activities other than considering imagined threats that they perceive as real. They somatize. In Oficio de tinieblas, when Idolina discovers that her stepfather has decided to give a party and her mother has been coerced into throwing it, her unconscious sets out to thwart their plans. Her body turns a yellowish color; she is unable to keep down any food; she shuts her eyes and lies perfectly still, almost catatonic. Because it seems to obey its own laws, her body, one thinks, is out of control, but nothing could be further from the truth. Although the plaything of her unconscious, her body becomes a tool that is both controlled and in control: through it Idolina can wield power, a√ect the actions of those around her. She coerces her mother to plead with her, to stay by her bedside, to become her slave. Even if she does not wish to recognize it, Isabel feels directly responsible for her daughter’s relapse. Eventually unable to tolerate the guilt, she 200 Body of writing

rationalizes and pulls away from her as if o√ended (89). In a complicated game of projections and rationalizations it is not just the daughter who feels o√ended by the mother’s improper conduct, but the mother who feels personally insulted by her daughter’s infirmity. Isabel is not mistaken; she sees Idolina’s behavior at face value and reacts in kind: ‘‘From the threshold of her bedroom she declared that she would never again worry about such an ungrateful person who abused the patience of those unfortunate enough to be obliged to take care of her’’ (89). Was this what Idolina was after, one wonders: getting rid of her mother? But when the invalid goes on to become the best friend of Isabel’s rival for the love of Leonardo, we begin to realize that getting rid of her mother is only part of her scheme. In fact, to understand the full extent of her inclinations we need to backtrack to the first blush of her infirmity. The angel-woman and the monster-woman Idolina’s paralysis can be likened to a prenatal posture in a variety of ways. If birth is the time when an infant is forced to take its first step toward autonomy, the loss of motor ability followed by a total regression into passivity can be seen as a restaging of life in utero. Significant to Castellanos’s design is that whenever Idolina’s mother attempts to make her daughter walk, she fails. The guilty Isabel Zebadúa (who seems to have looked the other way if and when her husband was murdered) wants her daughter out of the picture. Idolina refuses to move; her feet will not carry her o√ from what she perceives as the scene of the crime. Her infirmity is also a way to assert her power: unlike her father, she will not allow herself to be whisked away, at least not feet first. Becoming an invalid whenever her mother is present, she sinks back into the helplessness of infancy and puts herself at her mercy. Idolina is a dependent object exacting its own demands, however, someone who is looking out for her own interests. The invalid girl wants something her mother refuses to give her, and vice versa. As it did in the work of Sarduy, the rivalry between both women in Oficio—a dramatization of the equivocal relationship between a wicked mother and her victimized daughter—reminds us of the Grimm brothers’ ‘‘Little Snow White.’’ As in the fairy tale, the central action of the family drama in Castellanos’s novel arises from the relationship between a young, pale, and ostensibly weak woman and a second, not as Language in the work of Castellanos


young, and fiercer version of the first; the one a daughter, the other a mother; the one ignorant and passive, the other cunning and active; the one idle as an idol, the other an artful witch. Idol and witch are at odds with each other from the start, and, since Castellanos has made amply clear that—with the exception of Catalina Díaz Puiljá—women in Oficio are dispossessed of whips, Idolina and her mother fight with one of the weapons patriarchy ascribes to them: passivity. When Leonardo spurns her, Isabel retreats into her sanctum sanctorum: the sewing room.∞Ω When he mocks Idolina she cowers into a cocoon: infirm after confronting him, she leaves neither bedroom nor bed for several years. But we soon discover that both isolated refuges, both enclosures or caves, are fortified places of action from which wars can be waged. Good mothers are not supposed to wage wars, however. For that reason, as in ‘‘Little Snow White,’’ the mother in Castellanos’s story metamorphoses. Married to the weak, gentle Isidoro, Isabel is a beautiful but dissatisfied Queen. Fifteen days after her wedding to Isidoro, he locks himself up in his room for no apparent reason and refuses to speak to her. Rebuked, Isabel’s gentle Queen falls prey to sexuality: she whiles away the hours leaning over the balustrade and watching Isidoro’s adopted brother Leonardo gallop across the fields. She is tormented by a wish ‘‘to run toward that man and beg him to save her from such an unfortunate destiny’’ (75). Ultimately, she does, although not directly. Burdened with guilty feelings about Leonardo, she begins by confessing to the bishop (75). A few months later, while Leonardo is showing a new and (perhaps inadvertently) loaded gun to his brother, he accidentally presses the trigger and pierces Isidoro’s heart. Isabel’s husband dies and Leonardo marries his widow ‘‘even before the period of mourning was up’’ (70). As I have already indicated, even after this second wedding takes place, bliss fails to come to Camelot because Idolina enters the picture and begins exacting her revenge. Demanding attention, she succeeds in turning Leonardo against Isabel. Several months after marrying Leonardo, Isidoro’s erstwhile sweet young bride has turned into the embittered consort of her first husband’s adopted brother. She has become the other side of the mirror, the bad Queen. Significantly, whenever Idolina plays solitary, she assigns the role of King of Swords to her stepfather, and that of Jack or, in Spanish, sota, to her mother (85). Sota also means ‘‘hussy’’ and ‘‘substitute,’’ roles Isabel adopts throughout the novel. Like the Queen in 202 Body of writing

the Grimms’ fairy tale, she is two women in one or, more exactly, two facets of the same woman presenting themselves in rapid succession, like a chrysalis that turns up, one day, with a new set of wings. The good Queen is replaced by the mischievous hussy who lures Leonardo to her bed, a woman ‘‘whose great thirst of that man [i.e., Leonardo] was never sated’’ (73). She is also her daughter’s rival although, in her telling, Castellanos revises the role of rivalry. According to Bruno Bettelheim, in the Grimms’ tale Snow White and her wicked stepmother, the bad Queen, are involved in a sort of feminized Oedipal struggle for the King’s attentions (Uses of Enchantment, 202). In other words, they both want the King for themselves. In Oficio de tinieblas rivalry does not at first appear to be over the King’s body or what this body represents (i.e., power and control), but Isabel and Idolina’s struggle is charged with sexual energy, although this energy is foisted onto a third character who acts as surrogate for the invalid girl. Setting out to study the roles women play in patriarchal society and to explore where these roles ultimately lead, Castellanos assigns the manifold incarnations of womanhood (the good and bad mother, the daughter, the mistress, the panderer, the witch) to a variety of characters who in some ways complement and, in others, compensate for one another. For instance, the other side of Idolina’s angel-in-the-house prototype is the beautiful, passionate Julia Acevedo, who forces the invalid’s confidence after introducing herself into her private sanctuary. Julia is a brazen woman who startles the conventional souls of Ciudad Real by strolling the streets unaccompanied, by stating her opinions openly, and, most of all, by letting her long auburn hair cascade loosely down her back (‘‘she strolled alone and with her hair unbraided like a mare,’’ 72). For this reason, her ultra-conservative neighbors nickname her la Alazana (‘‘the roan mare’’). The red-haired beauty, we soon discover, is everything Idolina is not. While one is physically impotent, the other is sexually promiscuous; while one does not walk, the other struts. Idolina is the heroine of a life that has no story; the Alazana is an adventuress, a fascinadora de hombres, a woman with far too many stories in her life (73). As Idolina has no story she also has no self-image. Much is made of her lack of identity in the novel, in fact, and it comes as no surprise that mirrors play a leading role in the long party sequence in which she observes her parents’ guests, unobserved, from a garret window.≤≠ Language in the work of Castellanos


Through an artful ellipsis that compresses several years into two pages, the party sequence in chapter 8 follows almost immediately after the first mention of Isabel’s marriage to her brother-in-law at the conclusion of chapter 7. As we have said, this marriage is a shock to Idolina. Soon thereafter, she starts refusing food and studying her rapidly transforming body in the wardrobe mirror. The weight loss resulting from her anorexia is so dramatic that she is soon unable to recognize the image on the mirror as her own (77). This sense of estrangement or loss of identity is exacerbated by the years spent in bed after the onset of her paralysis so that, when she finally gets up and ‘‘watches herself standing up for the first time, reflected on the wardrobe mirror, she became scared’’ because ‘‘her body was very di√erent from the way she perceived it from within’’ (87–88). At that point, as Lacan would say, ‘‘the image on the mirror no longer coincides with her own.’’≤∞ The scene that follows the first mirror episode is the one in which the party is described, a party, it must be added, from which Idolina is excluded because, ostensibly paralyzed, she has not left her room in years. Unbeknown to all except her Indian nanny, Idolina has been practicing walking, however, and on the night of the big event she will not be dissuaded: she must watch the guests as they arrive. From a garret overlooking the patio, Idolina admires the dancing couples and wishes ‘‘to be each of the girls who were dancing’’ (92). As she studies the patio from the other side of her glassed-in parapet—from the other side of the mirror, one might say—she fuses together the idealized image of the dancing girls with her own reflection, ‘‘excluding no one (as a potential model)’’ until ‘‘her soul, normally so lackluster, overflowed from the reality conferred to it by other women’’ (92–93). Each gesture made, each step taken by the women milling around the patio ‘‘gave her enough material to compose herself a personality’’ (93). But this personality had no specificity until Julia Acevedo, who had been snooping around the house, abruptly entered Idolina’s dark little garret, her private room with a view. Idolina is mortified to be discovered not only hiding and gawking at the guests but, worst of all, outside her bed and walking. But Julia doesn’t bat an eyelash when she finds her. In fact, she is delighted to have landed upon the mysterious and reclusive girl she immediately refers to as ‘‘the famous daughter of Leonardo Cifuentes,’’ an allegation that Idolina vehemently parries, insisting, ‘‘Leonardo Cifuentes is not my father’’ (93). 204 Body of writing

Without further ado, Julia forces Idolina to walk to the window to get a closer look at her (94). Framed as a pair within the reflecting surface, the Alazana traces the outline of Idolina’s face with the tip of her finger and, ignoring the girl’s angry response to her earlier allegation regarding her origins, she insists: ‘‘you don’t look like him ’’ (i.e., Leonardo; 94, my emphasis). Struggling against Julia’s commanding authority but drawn all the same into the dark, powerful image that represents the other side of herself, Idolina begins to relinquish her own sense of self ‘‘as she slowly succumbs to the power of the other’’ (94). Thereafter, Julia will carry out what is undoubtedly Idolina’s dark desire: to conquer Leonardo and take him away from Isabel. Explaining the very similar scenario of ‘‘Little Snow White,’’ Bettelheim alleges that the mother in that story is threatened by her young daughter’s ‘‘ ‘budding sexuality’ as the daughter is by the mother’s possession of the father’’ (Uses of Enchantment, 202–3). Without going so far in our discussion of Oficio, su≈ce it to say that Isabel’s marriage and possession of the father—predicated on what amounts to be a personal loss for Idolina—severs the bond between the women. I speak of loss because Castellanos makes amply clear that Idolina sees herself as an extension of her father. In fact, Isidoro defines Idolina to such a degree that her pusillanimous and dependent behavior in every way mirrors his own; he is the ‘‘object little a’’ she will not relinquish because it defines her. Discussing identification with the father in her illuminating Feminine Psychology, Karen Horney argues that this process is the root of the castration complex in women, an allegation that also sheds light on Idolina’s hysterical behavior (48). Unable to give up Isidoro even after he dies, Idolina makes him a part of her own persona, integrates him physically into her body by somatizing. Horney explains how hysterical patients displace ‘‘the feeling of having sustained a wound to other organs so that when [their] obsessional symptoms had been resolved the clinical picture is markedly hypochondrial’’ (51). Plainly, Idolina’s obsessional symptoms are a conversion reaction in which a psychosexual conflict is transformed into a bodily disturbance. One of the essential features of conversion hysteria is the presence of a physical complaint without demonstrable physiological or disease mechanisms to account for it. According to the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (dsm-iii), conversion disorders present a ‘‘clinical picture in which the predominant Language in the work of Castellanos


disturbance is a loss of or alteration in physical functioning that suggests physical disorder but which instead is apparently an expression of a psychological conflict or need,’’ exactly the nature of Idolina’s infirmity, in other words (232). The girl’s paralysis is her way of dramatizing loss, of dealing with her feeling at having been deprived of an extension of herself (i.e., her father). Idolina blames Leonardo Cifuentes and her own mother for this loss. As far as she is concerned, Leonardo is an usurper who erased her father from the picture and removed the only thing she fathomed as her own: her source of identification, the man she loved and admired while he lived and despised after his death because he let himself be defeated. As Idolina sees it, Isidoro didn’t love her enough to live for her sake, and so she feels betrayed and ends up despising her father. Imagining her mother as Leonardo’s ally in the plot against Isidoro, the young invalid blames Isabel and seeks to punish her with a revenge that parallels the punishment which, as she sees it, Isabel perpetrated on her: she aims to take away her mother’s phallus, which is to say, her mother’s man. Once she contrives this plot, she moves forward in two ways: hysterical and invalid, she begins by turning Leonardo away from her mother by demanding so much attention that she ends up making her stepfather jealous and, ultimately, angry at his new wife. But her revenge does not crystallize until she meets Julia. It is through Julia (with whom she becomes homologated in the mirror scene in the garret) that she will ultimately take away her mother’s man. Idolina and Isabel are not the only women in Oficio de tinieblas who hate each other. The fact is that most of the women portrayed in the novel end up estranged from each other, confirming Gilbert and Gubar’s allegation that ‘‘female bonding is extraordinarily di≈cult in patriarchy: women almost invariably turn against women because the voice of the looking glass sets them against each other’’ (Madwoman, 38). The voice of the looking glass is ‘‘the patriarchal voice of judgement that rules the Queen’s—and every woman’s—self-evaluation’’ (38). The patriarch decides, for a start, that his consort is ‘‘the fairest of all,’’ and then, ‘‘as she becomes maddened, rebellious, witch-like, that she must be replaced by his angelically innocent and dutiful daughter, a girl defined as ‘more beautiful still’ than the Queen’’ (38). The twist that Castellanos gives the old Brothers Grimm plot is that she casts the bad Queen’s rival as not just

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another woman but as a pair of opposites who are complementary to each other: a passive virgin and a flame-haired adventuress who will stop at nothing to get what they want. Idolina senses Julia’s resolve because it mirrors her own, and this is why, after the latter leaves the garret, the former runs back to the window ‘‘not like the first time, with her attention virgin and unfocused. This time she was looking for someone’’ (96). What she finds is Julia ‘‘. . . who [likewise] seemed to be waiting for someone’’ (96). After Idolina sees her new friend, Leonardo Cifuentes’s steps are heard in the patio, and Julia turns around to look at him ‘‘with her face lighted by a cynical smile that was full of promise’’ (96). At that point, the invalid understands the nature of their relationship or, at least, the likelihood of what will eventually take place; her eyes ‘‘flooded with tears’’ (96). Julia, her other I reflected on the mirror in the garret, will bring about the punishment she seeks. She will take Leonardo away from Isabel but, by the same token, he will take Julia away from Idolina, once again stripping the girl from any power she has. In sum, Idolina’s revenge succeeds against her mother but fails against Leonardo, and, to compound matters, both Julia and Idolina end up dispossessed. What Castellanos voices through the parable of the weak i-dol is that women’s actions are not just trifling but also self-damaging: they end up becoming the victims of their own machinations. This happens because they identify with the opposite gender and not with their own. Time and again, they see men as emblems of power, and they seek not to have that power themselves but rather to bask in its light. They confuse holding with having, preferring to charm and lure in order to shine with borrowed light rather than to kindle a light of their own. Exercising a pull on men is no problem for women, but as Castellanos makes amply clear, once they are drawn to the flower and taste its nectar, men are once again on the prowl, and women—like Marcela Gómez Oso at the beginning of Oficio—have to deal with the consequences. Like Marcela, Isabel Zebadúa is a victim in the social drama she accepts with all its conventions and limitations. Drawn to the emblem of phallic power, she gives up everything to get Leonardo, only to end up with dregs in her heart. Her own daughter turns against her instead of seeking to punish her stepfather, the actual perpetrator of the crime. And since the best way to punish Isabel is to take Leonardo away from her,

Language in the work of Castellanos


both mother and daughter end up estranged from Julia. Potentially sisters, women end up tearing each other up for the sake of men who use them and leave them. Women, Castellanos is saying, have magnetism but no power—at least not one that endures. Idolina, for instance, seeks to control Leonardo through her mother, but she is in-valid in more ways than one, her power that of a lame duck who cannot even hide the secret of her paralysis. To punish those around her, the girl uses her body as a weapon but that body—as Castellanos makes clear—is always defeated by the symbolic power that the whip emblematizes. Idolina embodies the quandary of many women for whom the body is a trap, a trap because they haven’t learned how to use it properly to get what they want. Castellanos touched upon this idea as early as 1960 in a poem titled ‘‘Presencia’’ where, with typical foresight, she predicted: ‘‘Some day I will find out. This body that has been my house, my prison, my hospital, is also my tomb.’’≤≤ How could the life-sustaining body of woman also be a tomb? In Oficio Castellanos shows its mortifying limitations by portraying the way it is most typically used: as a lure (by women like Julia), or as a plaything (by men like Leonardo). In either case, women are ultimately squelched because their bodies—programmed to abide by the rule of patriarchy— are all flesh and no voice, at least not a voice of their own. It is true that women create in and through the body, but their creations—like Catalina’s gods—are taken away from them, repossessed, once again, by the whip. The whip, as we have seen, is castilla, the ‘‘férreo instrumento de señorío’’ (9).≤≥ Only those who wield it rule, which is why, in a painfully sardonic episode, we find the Tzotzil carving open the bodies of their ladino enemies in search for the voice box that empowers them. Misguided, they look for this elusive appendix in the trampled flesh, in the spoils left behind on the battlefield. Symbolically castrated, the Tzotzil seek a way to compensate for their loss. Instead of empowering themselves through language they are reduced to stammering: the ruling oligarchy keeps them from learning Spanish lest they become ‘‘uppity and independent’’ (56–57). Likewise castrated, women are reduced to borrowing the whip; they grow up believing their only means of ushering power into the house is by using their bodies as a lure. For a time, the lure works, but Castellanos shows how the power women derive from men is not lasting because, perpetually dissatisfied, their partners are always after new chimeras. 208 Body of writing

Arousing them does not amount to having them stay. Deaf to this sentence, women have deluded themselves since time immemorial; they have identified the symbolic power of the phallus with those who control and latched on to men to be ruled and defined by their wishes. In patriarchal society even women’s biological supremacy culminates in loss. Like Catalina Díaz Puiljá, women create something that is in every sense an extension of themselves and has a commanding voice. But this voice has to be interpreted by the forces of law and order, and women—who are not part of these forces—are ultimately stripped from the beings they give life to, making one wonder if there can be any hope for sustaining feminine power. Name of the father/name of the mother From Delilah to Madonna, women have sought to manage and control by turning their physical charms into articles of trade. As Castellanos makes clear, however, lasting power cannot come through a body that is both, as she puts it in Lívida luz, a prison and a tomb. The only power that endures is engineered through language. The language spoken in Oficio de tinieblas is castilla; it is in castilla that ‘‘orders are given and judgments pronounced,’’ in castilla that punishments and rewards are meted out (9). Both castilla and castillos are traditionally ruled by men. In fact, writing has been considered as a kind of male gift, and, as Gilbert and Gubar point out, the pen has been seen ‘‘in some sense (even more than figuratively) as a penis’’ (Madwoman, 4).≤∂ Castellanos revises these characterizations by suggesting that the pen is not a penis but a phallus, that is to say, a symbol of power available to whomever puts this instrument to its rightful use. Her symbolic conception of the empowerment provided by language prefigures Edward Said’s sober discussion of the relationship between creation, possession, and power in Beginnings: Intention and Method, where an author is defined as someone who originates or gives existence to something, a begetter, beginning, father or ancestor, a person also who sets forth written statements. . . . Auctoritas is production, invention, cause, in addition to meaning a right of possession. Finally it means continuance, or a causing to continue. Taken together these meanings are all grounded in the following notions: (1) that of the power of an individual to Language in the work of Castellanos


initiate, institute, establish—in short, to begin; (2) that this power and its product are an increase over what had been there previously; (3) that the individual wielding this power controls its issue and what is derived therefrom; (4) that the authority maintains the continuity of its course. (83) One of Said’s statements is particularly pertinent to our discussion: ‘‘that the individual wielding this power [i.e. to initiate, to set forth written statements] controls its issue.’’ The issue of Oficio de tinieblas is, to all appearances, the defeat of both women and Indians. Since the publication of the novel in 1962, the silencing of Idolina and the decimation of the Tzotzil forces emboldened by Catalina Díaz Puiljá have been interpreted as a message of hopelessness. Critics who have expressed this opinion have focused on the conclusion of Oficio without taking into account Castellanos’s extraordinarily subversive method, one that takes its cue from one of the oldest forms of women’s art: embroidery. From the start, the role of language and the exploitation of the female body by both men and women are themes stitched unto the fabric of Oficio de tinieblas like colored threads weaving their way through the complex pattern of a huipil. These threads appear and disappear, no less present for working their way below the surface of the novel’s epidermic tissue. As Castellanos saw it, language and body are the respective weapons of men and women, quarrelsome partners in a struggle for supremacy. In the interaction between yoke-mates—Winiktón and Catalina, Isidoro and Isabel, Leonardo and Isabel, Idolina and Leonardo, and Leonardo and Julia—Castellanos portrays the whip as the instrument emblematic of power, puts this instrument in the hands of those who command, and threads together the issue of command with the notion of language, namely, castilla. We have spoken at length of castillos and castilla in Castellanos’s novel. There is one related term we have neglected to include in our discussion, however: the name of the woman who drew the comparison between both. Herself the weaver, Castellanos is implicitly caught in the web of language and what is implied about its function in Oficio de tinieblas. In fact, her portrayal of language, of the power it brings and, as Said puts it, ‘‘of the individual wielding this power’’ turns out to be like one of Lewis Carroll’s circular puns because it involves her as author. After all, the individual wielding this power is caught as both observer (by writing about it) and observed (like Catalina, 210 Body of writing

Castellanos is a woman seeking to use language as a weapon) in the portrayal of woman’s relationship to the power structure, one that turns out to be a cornerstone of Oficio de tinieblas. Let me be more explicit. We cannot forget that the person writing a story about how women undermine their potential for self-expression was herself a woman and one whose great passion in life was, borrowing Said’s terms, to ‘‘set forth written statements.’’ In Oficio de tinieblas Castellanos sets forth her points both by writing and by omitting to write. It is practically impossible to ignore that the word she omits in her elaborate presentation of the structure and ramifications of power is a homonym of her own name. The defender of women and Indian rights is Castellanos and this defense, in castellano (i.e., Castilian), is quilted into an attack against those who speak in castilla by a writer who, in formulating that criticism, excludes her own signifier. The missing signifier invites us to ponder over the castration perpetrated by phallocratic society, a society that, as Castellanos describes it, speaks castilla not castellano. As signifier, castellano is missing from the action but not from the title page. The novel about the men who speak castilla and control everyone and everything is, as this page makes clear, Castellanos’s own doing, an extension of herself. Stated otherwise, we could say that the phallus in Oficio de tinieblas is Rosario’s, hers the power that engineers an action in which women are trampled because they haven’t learned to use language to obtain power. It is to teach them that that power is within their reach that Castellanos wrote Oficio de tinieblas, a novel in which a woman— herself—has the last word. To attain and maintain power, Castellanos is saying, women must articulate their own language, one that cannot be the ‘‘whip’s’’ own arma de conquista. And so, in Oficio de tinieblas, she writes an indictment giving literary expression to women’s greatest error of judgment: seeking power by selling out the body. She is intent in showing that, even if temporarily successful, using the body to gain power leads nowhere in the long run. Idolina’s story serves to illustrate this point. The only power that endures, Castellanos is saying, is the power of the word, the power she herself deploys to make clear woman’s need to use it. Women must stop attempting to draw castilla into their house, stop seeking safety in the power of the whip, stop neglecting to use their own voices. Absconded as signifier from the action of Oficio de tinieblas, the Name of the Father (i.e., Castellanos) is immanent in the act of writing or, Language in the work of Castellanos


rather, in the auctoritas this act implies. What that auctoritas highlights is the dichotomy between body and language which has thus far kept women on the fringes of power. Relying on the body as a magnetic weapon that works by attracting the férreo instrumento to oneself leads only to disaster: Catalina gives birth to gods and these gods are taken away; Isabel and Julia draw Leonardo to their respective beds only to lose him once he chooses to explore virgin territory; Idolina controls those around her with her self-imposed infirmity but ends up empty-handed, her face to the wall, silenced by the power of men. Even when a supposedly sick woman like Idolina has been sentenced (by an author, by society, by herself ) to imprisonment in the infected house of her own body, she may discover that, as Sylvia Plath once put it, she has ‘‘a self to recover, a queen.’’ Recovering that self is not Idolina’s job, however. For Castellanos it made more sense to illustrate through her characters’ behavior how the self could be recovered than to have her characters perpetrate that recovery themselves. This is why we must not read the losses and defeats of woman in Oficio de tinieblas as conclusive evidence that Castellanos felt lost and defeated herself. Women in her novel are defeated, but they are defeated to bring home the author’s didactic message: that the body, in and of itself, cannot provide anyone with the kind of power that endures. Women’s misconception that it can are the tinieblas the writer’s oficio seeks to dispel. While demonstrating that the body cannot be used as a means to obtain power, Castellanos makes an equally important point: that only symbolic language emblematized in the name of the father can empower women, validate the in-valid Idolinas, and make the Catalinas of the world fecund. As she makes evident, the whip and the cave can both be instrumentos de señorío. To reveal the truth of what she suggests in fiction—and in spite of personal insecurities and professional doubts— Castellanos overcame her own paralysis and published Oficio de tinieblas, a novel that highlights the bitter truth about the feminine condition but one that, by virtue of its very existence, indicates the path that invalids seeking to walk need to follow.

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6 The body of pleasure in Tununa Mercado’s Canon de alcoba i

There is not much more left of the sea than a word without water: for we have also translated the words, we have emptied them of their speech, dried up, reduced and embalmed them, and they can no longer remind us of the way they used to rise up from the things as the peal of their essential laughter . . .—Hélène Cixous, ‘‘L’approche’’

Stunningly original, Tununa Mercado’s Canon de alcoba (1989) is a series of oneiric tableaux that have been stitched together, a sort of dreamingthrough-images version of the popular game of painting by numbers. This remarkably poetic book has neither plot nor chronological development nor characters whose lives unfold piecemeal throughout the fiction. There is a sequence of events in each of the vignettes that compose it, but the purpose of these vignettes is to titillate the reader, not to reach a dénouement. Reaching a climax is not what Mercado or her characters are after. Instead of focusing on the culmination of acts, she revels in the acts themselves, portraying them by means of provocative pictures designed for the readers’ pleasure.∞ Rousing every sense, these pictures invite a response, engaging us mentally as well as physically. ‘‘Writing makes the body happen,’’ writes Mercado, which is why, in Canon de alcoba, body and word are one, ‘‘the word is the body’’ (107, my emphasis). As Valeria Manca observes in El cuerpo del deseo, ‘‘. . . young women poets have started to break away from another tradition: that of hiding away their own feminine condition. . . . The fact that they have chosen the body as the language to speak about themselves strikes me as an act of defiance, one that happens to turn into an extraordinary pleasure.’’≤

This body is no corpse exhumed for our perusal, but a living entity, a construct of the mind that tickles the imagination. Transmuted into suggestive pictographs that Mercado calls imágenes-palabras (‘‘wordimages’’), this body is designed to touch and be touched. Reading Canon de alcoba can be compared to lovemaking, a lectura-cuerpo in which writing and reading take place through the body of both author and reader. Transported by the stimulation these body-images provide, readers become distanced from reason or sense. Mercado’s sexy pictures impregnate our personal fantasies and invite us to embrace a text whose dreamy sequences stimulate our own. More than meets the eye One of the features that enhances this physical involvement with the text is the emphasis on the eye and on visual imagery in general. Constantly putting readers in the position of voyeurs, Canon de alcoba promotes a state of arousal that invites sexual fantasies and subjective wishes to engage in sex. The wall of fiction that keeps readers from penetrating the traditional novel (the wall that serves to define and maintain the text as Other) crumbles in front of Mercado’s reader. Time and again we are led to establish a close intimacy with characters who remain unnamed, and find ourselves involved in the type of correlative relationships described by Lacan in one of his seminars: the objects in Mercado’s tableaux turn out to be the subjects of stimulation while the reader ends up becoming the tableaux, the canvas upon which this stimulation is painted (‘‘Qu’est-ce qu’un tableau,’’ Séminaire, XI, 97). In the seven sections composing Canon de alcoba (‘‘Antieros,’’ ‘‘Mirages,’’ ‘‘Dreams,’’ ‘‘Realities,’’ ‘‘Eros,’’ ‘‘Amor Udri,’’ and ‘‘The Last Stitch’’ [which could also be translated as ‘‘The Final Period’’]), references to the eye and to dreaming—an activity described as ‘‘seeing without seeing’’—show up with extraordinary regularity (50). The physics of seeing is curiously conceived, moreover, because Mercado turns narcissism into an act that is both self-reflexive and reflective, an act in which the self observes its own reflection in the eye of the other who functions as mirror: ‘‘She is looking at herself this very minute, with those eyes staring into the eyes of the other, plumbing with intensity the secret message she had begun to guess hours earlier’’ (34).≥ Curiously, this passage about looking into the depths of oneself ap214

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pears in a subsection entitled Oir (‘‘To Hear’’ [from ‘‘Mirages’’]) about three women whose adjoining rooms are mediated by a door left ajar. Two of them make love to each other while the third, her head to the wall, imagines what is taking place a few inches from her headboard. Nothing in the action is fortuitous: the women know each other and have agreed to play di√erent roles in the ménage à trois. What Mercado makes immediately clear is that their participation—both as a construct of the mind and as a response to the touch—is equally active. In fact, it is the woman alone in a room who describes the events taking place, her aroused imagination providing details designed to stir the reader, who pursues his or her own act of imagining. One of the main thrusts of ‘‘Oir’’ is that everything happens within the self, both the self in the fiction and the imagining self of the reader: ‘‘When overheard, lovemaking is like the sound of the ocean inside a shell,’’ writes Mercado. ‘‘The eyes don’t see, the nose doesn’t smell, the hands don’t touch, but that ocean hurls its angry waves against the cli√s or tamely subdues itself on the sands of the beach’’ (32).∂ ‘‘To listen,’’ Mercado adds, ‘‘is to know,’’ to see with the eyes within (32). Besides exposing the tenets of her philosophy regarding the body, this important section of the book sets forth the aims of Canon de alcoba. Mercado begins by exploring the relationship between perception and knowledge while raising questions about our fascination with bodies in general, and about the means we deploy for grasping their sense. The subject of knowing brings to mind what Freud referred to as the ‘‘epistemophilic urge’’ and its link to sexuality (in Brook, Body Work, 9). Freud argued that the sexual urge was directly linked to the drive to know, a drive typically understood by the unconscious as the wish to see.∑ For it is sight, with its accompanying imagery of light, unveiling, and fixation by the gaze, that represents knowing and even rationality, as we observe in Canon de alcoba. For instance, in the section entitled ‘‘Final Judgment’’ (from ‘‘Dreams’’) the narrator reflects upon the fragmented nature of experience witnessed by an eye staring out from ‘‘the middle of a mirror’’ (42). ‘‘Sight,’’ we are told here, ‘‘can arm and disarm, build and destroy the stirrings of the bodies decked out in dresses’’ (42). The eye not only sees, it brings sense to what it sees; it ‘‘arms’’ and ‘‘builds’’ the scenes we watch (42). Like Mercado’s, Freud’s writings emphatically return to the theoretical bases of eroticized seeing. These bases grow out of his theory, articulated The body of pleasure in Mercado’s Canon


in Civilization and Its Discontents, that the sense of smell, which is characteristically dominant in all mammals, was repressed when humans first stood upright and the sense of sight took its place as the main source of stimulation and knowledge. No doubt seeking to subvert the patriarchal perspective, Mercado takes Freud’s reflections about the correlation between the primacy of sight and standing upright tongue in cheek: in her own book homo ludens overrides homo faber laying him to rest, quite literally, on his back. Like Valmont in Dangerous Liaisons, characters in Canon de alcoba address philosophical and ontological issues from the flat perspective of their beds, exposing to each other’s gaze a sexuality from which all sense of privacy and all sense of shame have been abstracted. The body’s most intimate secrets are thus o√ered to the reader, inviting what may well be a unique bond in literature because our physical selves are directly involved in the action. The tableaux o√ered for our jouissance or bliss are, to borrow Barthes’s terms, a ‘‘reported pleasure’’ (Pleasure, 17).∏ The question that comes immediately to mind is, as Barthes himself wonders, ‘‘how can we enjoy a reported pleasure?’’ (17). Only, he says, if we can read this reported pleasure as a primary pleasure of its own. The problem is that we cannot take this reported pleasure—this critical text—on its own terms. Barthes feels we cannot become the ‘‘confidant’’ of this critical pleasure, ‘‘we must become its ‘voyeur’: the commentary then becomes in [our] eyes a text, a fiction, a fissured envelope’’ (14). Presumably this is also how Mercado wishes us to read Canon de alcoba. It is a fiction and must be read as such by the reader as voyeur, by the reader willing to see it as a text of jouissance, and not as a finished object from which we are separate. Nothing can complete this text, not even our own voyeuristic reading, and this feature is fully in keeping with Mercado’s approach to knowledge and to pleasure in general, as we shall see. Likewise concerned with the pleasure of the eye and its link with knowledge, Georges Bataille casts eroticism as an integral element of his ontological reflection. The di√erence between Bataille and Mercado is that his emphasis on expenditure or dépense always leads to death, whereas finding oneself in Canon de alcoba is a never-ending jouissance portrayed under the watchful gaze of an exultant subjectivity that encompasses the reader. What is missing from Mercado’s text (and most definitely not from Bataille’s) is that most Spanish of themes, desencanto. Canon de alcoba is a song of triumph in which there is no disappointment, 216

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no sense of loss, no recrimination, and no rage. No rage because Mercado has refused to adopt images generated by male authors. The women she portrays—the three nameless protagonists of ‘‘Oir’’ are a case in point— are agents in and of the fiction, not its objects. In fact, women are never cast as objects in Canon de alcoba, a book where no one is exploited, and no one is abused. Instead, the most banal circumstances become festive and downright titillating, inviting us to ponder the implications of Mercado’s perpetually jubilant attitude. Closing the gap In all the works we have studied so far, the intrigue has centered on an unattainable object (for example, Sara in Cortázar’s ‘‘Deshoras,’’ the mother in Infante’s Inferno, the feminine gender in Cobra). Incessantly pursued, this object can be seen but remains out of reach, suggesting in its impermanence feelings of loss beyond redress.π These feelings bring with them a sense of frustration that eventually translates itself into a rage of which women are most often the recipients. That rage is clearly present in the two models which, according to Gilbert and Gubar, subordinate and imprison women in patriarchal texts (Madwoman, 13). In their probing study of major nineteenth-century women writers these authors explore ‘‘the dynamics of female literary response to male literary assertion and coercion’’ as well as the dominant patriarchal ideology and the feminine models the male establishment chooses to portray (xii). As they see it, in patriarchal texts women are depicted as either angels (when they are passive recipients, willing receptacles of man’s fantasy), or monsters (when they reject the submissive role patriarchy has laid in store for them). In her own sensitive study of The Madwoman in the Attic, Toril Moi hones in on this dichotomy adding, ‘‘behind the angel lurks the monster: the obverse of the male idealization of women is the male fear of femininity’’ (Sexual/Textual Politics, 58). Such fear explains the repressive stance of patriarchy and leads Gilbert and Gubar to conclude that ‘‘since both patriarchy and its texts subordinate and imprison women, before women can even attempt that pen which is so rigorously kept from them they must escape just those male texts which, defining them as ‘Cyphers’, deny them the autonomy to formulate alternatives to the authority that has imprisoned them’’ (13). Rosario Castellanos’s Oficio de tinieblas is a good example of the kind of The body of pleasure in Mercado’s Canon


novel in which an author attempts to escape the male texts that define women as cyphers. Castellanos shows that women have the tools of language at their disposal but makes this clear while succumbing to the very formulas that oppress and determine every woman reader, namely, the dichotomy between passive angels and female monsters typical of patriarchal fantasies. In other words, Castellanos pillories the yoke that subordinates while simultaneously imprisoning women by portraying them as succumbing to that yoke. Women in Oficio de tinieblas ‘‘formulate alternatives to the authority that has imprisoned them,’’ but these alternatives fail, with one exception (Madwoman, 13). Castellanos empowers herself through the pen and demonstrates that women can find their own voice. It is this voice that endures even beyond Catalina Díaz Puiljá’s defeat. Castellanos also recognizes that women’s e√orts must make themselves manifest through the body, but because this body has been paralyzed for so long by the dominant patriarchal ideology (the invalid Idolina is a case in point), we see the blossoming of female autonomy wither in the bud. Even if the women portrayed in Oficio de tinieblas fail to break away from the strictures of patriarchal ideology, the need to bring about this break is voiced in the fiction and makes its way as coded message to generations of readers. Canon de alcoba is a response to the questions raised by Castellanos in her incisive portrayal of gender politics, a text in which women escape the prison house of male-designed roles to engage in their own fantasies. Traditionally, as Gilbert and Gubar point out, women have been barred from creating their own images of femaleness and have sought to conform to the patriarchal standards imposed on them. Their response to male literary assertion and coercion has been twofold: either to reproduce the dominant model of patriarchal ideology in their own work (casting the passive angel in the house ideal of contemplative purity as the heroine of their novels), or to create a dark double of the selfless heroine, a murderous or, at least, inexplicable grim interior Other that is opposed to the pure, contemplative, passive ideal, and is the vehicle through which women voice their frustration and rage (Madwoman, xii, 25). Another author studying role playing in fiction written by women is Annette Kolodny. Kolodny has located several stylistic patterns in female fiction, among which the two most salient are reflexive perception and


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inversion.∫ Reflexive inversion occurs when a character ‘‘discover[s] herself or find[s] some part of herself in activities she had not planned or in situations she cannot fully comprehend’’ (‘‘Some Notes,’’ 79), and inversion occurs when the ‘‘stereotyped, traditional literary images of women . . . are being turned around in women’s fiction, either for comic purposes, . . . to reveal their hidden reality [or] come to connote their opposites’’ (80). Inversion thus comes to sound like an early version of Gilbert and Gubar’s theory of the subversive strategies located beneath the surface of women’s fiction, strategies that were being deployed because women felt entrapped and conditioned by the images men had cast them in, and such entrapment typically resulted in feelings of rage. According to Gilbert and Gubar, women authors began voicing this rage in passive-aggressive fiction such as Jane Eyre, works in which a madwoman pent up in the attic acts as counterfoil to the angel in the house. We have already seen this type of scenario in Oficio de tinieblas, although Castellanos’s alterations to the standard prototype need to be recognized as a step forward in the evolutionary chain of women’s writing. The ‘‘madwoman’’ in Oficio de tinieblas—Catalina Díaz Puiljá—is not pent up in the attic, she is out in the streets and, further, out in the streets leading a revolt. Her rage—like Rochester’s mad wife’s—is evident. Unlike Brontë’s heroine, she is not consumed by the fire she herself sets, however, although the revolt she leads is ultimately defeated. And yet, despite her defeat, her voice lingers and her story of revolt, told to the passive Idolina, becomes a mythic tale conceived to be repeated, a legacy transmitted to younger generations who might ultimately take up the fight themselves and—this time around—win the struggle. Tununa Mercado is clearly one of the many women who listened carefully to the tale of Catalina’s defeat. Of those who heard that tale or other versions of it, many reacted with an anger that a passage from Jean Rhys’s classic Wide Sargasso Sea (1966) perfectly encapsulates: ‘‘One day, quite suddenly, when you are not expecting it,’’ says Rhys’s heroine thinking of a man, ‘‘I’ll take a hammer from the folds of my dark cloak and crack your little skull like an egg-shell. Crack it will go, the egg-shell; out they will stream, the blood, the brains. One day, one day. . . . One day the fierce wolf that walks by my side will spring on you and rip your abominable guts out’’ (107). The di√erence between Rhys and Mercado, between the whole gener-

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ation of feminists whose writing follows Castellanos and Mercado, is that the latter has neither a wolf by her side, nor a skull-cracking agenda to fulfill. Anger is conspicuously absent from her 1989 tour de force. Considering her long-range aims, this absence is not surprising. After all, anger is a response to repression and rekindles the coals of exploitation and defeat. Anger is the response of mauled and battered women and a legacy of patriarchy, one of the many scars left in its wake. It is doubtless one of the modalities of womanspeak but it is the response of victims to oppression, not a voice that resonates with an untainted desire motivated by its own, unfettered inclinations. A feminine voice In terms of portraying feminine desire and feminine fantasies, Mercado is a bellwether. For a start, she is not defensive about being a woman. If she is, this defensiveness is simply not present in Canon de alcoba, a work that celebrates the female body and paints a picture of feminine identity not determined by the patriarchal establishment, one that does not fall in either of the categories examined by Gilbert, Gubar, and Kolodny. There is nothing in her extraordinarily visual gallery of erotic tableaux (can we call it a novel?) that its bevy of heroines wishes to tear from themselves, no feelings of guilt or dependency, no belligerence. Quite the contrary, in fact. Like Hélène Cixous, Mercado believes that the writing woman is immensely powerful: to borrow Cixous’s terms, hers is a puissance féminine whose giving is always su√used with strength. As Cixous writes in La jeune née, ‘‘The more you have, the more you give the more you are, the more you give the more you have’’ (230). Like Cixous’s, Mercado’s female protagonists give because giving fills and fulfills them. Giving, they evolve while involving themselves in relationships that include both men and women. Men are very much present in the fiction, and even when portrayed as objects of pleasure they are never disparaged. Canon de alcoba is not a work of vindication. Instead of seeking to chastise the opposite sex—and like many Mexican woman writers with whom she can be readily compared—Mercado seeks ‘‘to understand male mechanisms at work in given situations but not with rancor or rage like those felt by women from other generations but with tenderness, humor, curiosity, trying not to untie the bonds of friendship with the other sex’’ (Hülsz, El cuerpo del deseo, 70). 220 Body of writing

Most of what Cixous writes about the Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector is equally applicable to Tununa Mercado: her ‘‘openness,’’ generosity, and, above all, her capacity to endow words with their essential meaning (‘‘L’Approche,’’ 410 n. 7; 412). Endowing words with their essential meaning invites us to consider the relationship between gender and perception. Isn’t it evident that what is essential to one gender is not to the other? Or, stated otherwise, that the perception and expression of signs are gender-determined? After centuries of conditioning, however, most women describe the world abiding by hegemonic patriarchal canons. Their vision, as Gilbert and Gubar never tire of saying, is either borrowed from patriarchal literature or a reaction to that literature. Either way, until very recently, women authors had not endowed words with meaning from the perspective of their own femininity but allowed themselves to be penetrated, instead, by the phallic probings of masculine thought. Even in feminist works as radically subversive as Nicole Brossard’s Amantes, Le sens apparent (both 1980), and Le désert mauve (1987), masculine thought colors the fiction and determines the nature of the writing project. Like Mercado, Brossard assimilates the process of writing to the release of sexual desires, but these desires stem from a fundamental rejection of males as sexual partners. Brossard’s descriptions of lesbian love are beautiful in terms of the writing but they close the door, quite adamantly, to the other sex. Her portrayals are su≈ciently categorical in their exclusion to suggest that anger—one that is certainly understandable—is orientating her writing agenda. Scarred in gender politics, Brossard’s body seeks jouissance but also revindication. I wouldn’t want readers to misinterpret what I am saying regarding Brossard, however. I am in no way condemning the nature of her writing project; my point is that its vengeful and justificatory orientation implies the presence of an Other from whom one seeks to be exonerated. The presence or, at times, the contrived exclusion of this Other paradoxically taints feminine expression. In other words, if men were neither irritants nor sore points, authors like Brossard and Monique Wittig would not be so defensive about portraying them, and would define feminine identity in ways that were not blatant reactions against the male gender. As Luce Irigaray once put it, if women’s struggles ‘‘are to be waged other than by simply putting forward demands, if they are to result in the inscription of equal (but necessarily di√erent) sexual rights before the The body of pleasure in Mercado’s Canon


law, women . . . must be allowed access to another identity. Women can only take these rights if they can find some value in being women, and not simply mothers. That means rethinking, transforming centuries of socio-cultural values’’ (‘‘Equal or Di√erent?’’ 31). Rethinking and transforming centuries of sociocultural values about women is exactly what Tununa Mercado sets out to do in Canon de alcoba. The sex that is one Traditionally defined by the Other, most women spend their lives in a state of alienation. Festering in the creative imagination, this alienation often bred monsters in the novels of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, monsters (like the abusive village priest in Clorinda Matto’s Aves sin nido [Birds without a Nest] and, even more obviously, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein) that embody a consuming rage, and share the stage with angelic creatures. This alienation lasted well into our century when, profoundly influenced by the writings of Simone de Beauvoir, some among the first generation of feminist authors (Erica Jong in the United States, Monique Wittig in France, Rosario Castellanos in Latin America, for example) began writing works in which anger was much more openly voiced and taken so far, in some instances, that one whole sex was portrayed waging war against the other, the ‘‘weak’’ pitted against the strong. In Wittig’s utopian Les guérillères (1969), for instance, the action takes place in an Amazonian society in which women finally win the war against men. Told like Canon de alcoba in a series of fragments or vignettes, this story o√ers no individual characters, no psychology, and no recognizable experience with which the reader can identify. What it does o√er, instead, are long lists of women’s names printed in capital letters in the middle of otherwise blank pages. These pages alternate with poems, the fragments in which the Amazonian society is described, and a drawing (whose symbolism is rejected as a form of inverted sexism at a later stage in the book) of three large circles representing the vulva. Seeking to come to terms with Wittig’s work, feminist critic Nina Auerbach imagines a unitary voice responsible for the ritualistic chanting of the women’s names in Les guérrillères. As far as she is concerned, these names ‘‘seem a human joke, since they are attached to no character we come to know,’’ and, although they ‘‘take on their own incantatory

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life, the empty resonance of their sound is also the death of the real people we used to read novels to meet’’ (Communities of Women, 190–91). Auerbach’s point is that when the novel ceases to portray specific individuals cast as the source of language and experience, humanist feminism must lay down its arms. Once this page of the struggle has been turned, she hopes for better days in the future of feminism: ‘‘Perhaps once women have proved their strength to themselves,’’ she writes, ‘‘it will be possible to return to the individuality of Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy . . .’’ (191). What Auerbach doesn’t seem to recognize is that before a return to individuality can take place and before the role of women within a social dynamic can be clarified, the feminine ego has to be recognized and defined from a feminine perspective. Such recognition and definition must prevail over the present ones, which are fictitious constructs designed by a foreign culture and imposed on, in the words of Irigaray, ‘‘the sex that is not one.’’ Woman’s budding sense of self can be compared to the infant’s at the onset of the mirror stage when it perceives its image as unitary and whole while its inner sense of self, as Peter Brooks points out, ‘‘remains incoherent, unformed, incompletely separated from its surroundings’’ (Body Work, 14). Until very recently, the ego recognized by woman was, like the infant’s, not identical with the self but an imaginary identity that was a reflection of man’s (and not woman’s) idealized projections. Be it woman’s or the infant’s, ‘‘an imaginary identity’’—as Brooks reminds us—‘‘is always other, while the other is always an alter ego ’’ (emblematic of the law, of the Name of the Father, of patriarchal authority, 14). Also like the infant’s during the mirror stage, feminine identity is a priori alienated, the product of the gaze in a society that has traditionally gendered spectatorship as male (14). No wonder, then, that Mercado places such emphasis on the eye, and seeks to define the ego as a quilting point where many gazes—both male and female—cross over. ‘‘Who is woman?’’ is the essential question she seeks to answer by opening up to spectators what is traditionally veiled: feminine dreams and fantasies of wish-fulfillment. The reader’s knowledge about the sex which, until now, has not been one must evolve from self-knowledge (both the characters’ and our own), a knowledge that can be acquired, in reading, through vicarious experience. It makes sense, therefore, that the epistemological project of feminism should be conceived as a stage, as a

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scenario, in which fantasies are acted out under the watchful gaze of both characters and readers. The multitude of roving eyes in Canon de alcoba all seek experience, which is to say, they are after knowledge, and specifically knowledge about themselves. ‘‘Antieros,’’ the first vignette in the book, sets the selforiented tone that characterizes Mercado’s search to define the feminine ego. A busy housewife cooks a meal with such ardor that the smells, colors, and textures of the foods she lovingly prepares end up arousing her. Her communion is so consuming that she begins to react like the herbs and bones that simmer slowly in the stockpot: like them, she too finishes ‘‘stripped of her essence’’ (15). Once she is down to bare essentials, stripped to the marrow, as it were, her communion becomes an epiphany in which ‘‘each detail begins to take on its own particular meaning of object unto itself, of object endowed with its own particular, even prodigious, existence’’ (15). After losing her own unbending outer shell—the armor-plated crust of the dutiful bourgeoise—she finds herself like the green outer leaves of the leeks she is cooking: softened in a slow, allconsuming ‘‘mijotage’’ (15). Only at that point, after losing her protective exogenous hardness, can she come into her own, find an existencia propia (15). In ‘‘Antieros’’ Mercado allegorically portrays the transmutation that needs to take place in order to reach the essence of being. In a process very like psychoanalysisΩ (of which the author herself was both passive victim and active recipient),∞≠ the tough outer skin—bruised and beaten in the long arduous process of growth—is slowly tendered until it peels away, and leaves the inner core free to become integrated with others like it and ultimately produce a profound chemical and physiological reaction. The meat and vegetables in the stockpot are the living ingredients that, like men and women, must slough o√ outer layers before they can find ‘‘a life of their own’’ (15). The process Mercado describes in this first vignette is dramatically di√erent from the male reaction of closure that Octavio Paz so insightfully sketches in The Labyrinth of Solitude, one that the well-known Mexican ranchera or country song sums up in one sentence: ‘‘¡Ay Jalisco, no te rajes!’’ (in other words, don’t let any cracks mar your surface, don’t let the outside world see the vulnerable inside). The ranchera warns men to clam up. It is as if by closing up the body to feelings and to expression

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we could preserve all the precious essences within us. Not so much loss itself as a sense of loss scars the male psyche to such a degree that the typical reaction of our sex is to thicken up the tough outer layer in order to preserve the tender core. What Mercado makes clear in her book is that, if the core is never revealed, never entered into the ‘‘mijotage’’ of life, the stock will have no flavor, no essence, no meaning. Everything in the recipe her protagonist prepares in the kitchen culminates, therefore, in opening, in outflow, in release—responses which, culturally speaking, are more representative of women than they are of men. For instance, the garlic, ‘‘propelled from its skin with the edge of the knife allows a larval substance to issue forth’’; blood ‘‘seeps from the beef, and produces a correlative distillation of saliva in the mouth’’; the lemon ‘‘spurts its juices’’; the skin of the chickpeas ‘‘slips between the fingers,’’ and ‘‘the grain is propelled into the platter’’; the egg ‘‘dribbles out from its shell while unfolding the yolk’’; under the tender pressure of the fingers the squid ‘‘spurts a see-through nail from its very center’’; the lettuce ‘‘spews forth its heart’’ (15). The woman in ‘‘Antieros’’ lives in tune with exudation, with the seepage of animated substances, with the outpourings of vital matter. It is not long before life’s vivifying wave sweeps her in its wake. As she handles the food and watches it give way under the gentle pressure of her fingers, the loving tongues of the heat, and the embrace of the cooking juices, she, too, begins to seek release. Slowly unbuttoning her blouse, she exposes her breasts; with her index finger dipped in oil she rubs the round rim of each until her nipples become hard to the touch. Alternating back and forth between each breast, coating her finger now with oil, now with fresh dill, now with sage, she fluctuates between cooking down the stock, and exuding her own juices until, finally, her body and the essences of life are fused together: ‘‘Let the fires burn, the cauldrons bubble forth their water and their juices. . . . Turn them o√ and, enveloped in silence, become neatly aware of the sounds of transforming matter’’ (15). Manifestly, the matter that transforms itself, that yields to the pressure of the hand and the e√ect of the heat is also her own, physically opening itself up to the outside, to the steam in the kitchen, to the reader. The sense of self as an exclusive, shuttered body dissolves as a preamble to the adventure of reading Canon de alcoba. To enhance this sense of a missing I, of a vanishing consciousness, the entire first vignette is written in the

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impersonal infinitive tense—the only voice that accuses no person behind it, no agent. However, in Spanish the infinitive tense can also function as a command so that, ‘‘To leave the fires burning’’ can (and should) also be read as, ‘‘Leave the fires burning!’’ (15). The reader is enjoined, nay, commanded, to ‘‘let him [or her]self be invaded by the ultimate culmination amidst the sweat, and the smells’’ (16). Mercado does not simply transform the commonplace routine of a housewife; she adds to its sense, empowers it and all women involved in such activities by letting her character be(come) one with what she is doing. In a life in which every activity enters into a ‘‘mijotage’’ with oneself as ingredient, all acts generate sense because they are processed through and incorporated into the body. This includes not just cooking but even the most routine of daily tasks—making the bed, waxing the furniture, sweeping, scrubbing the floors—which the woman in ‘‘Antieros’’ performs with as much zest as sweating onions and caramelizing juices. The title ‘‘Antieros’’ suggests that these activities, traditionally perceived as part of women’s daily drudgery, dull the senses. But the only character in Mercado’s first episode purrs with pleasure in her kitchen, and rejoices in the soothing sheen of table surfaces. To her, domesticity is not drudgery, it is delight. She is not swept away by the demands that life and others make upon her; she commandeers and indulges in her daily occupations. Dusting furniture and boiling stock perhaps out of habit but also literally finding her own jouissance, she ends up appropriating her daily tasks and being possessed by them until even the peeling of an avocado becomes an intense erotic adventure. The tower of subservience to which woman has been traditionally relegated turns into a pleasure palace. Domesticity is colonized as is writing, traditionally man’s domain. As the character’s casa in ‘‘Antieros’’ quickly becomes her cosa, Mercado—breaking away from the strictures of the canonical bourgeois novel—makes writing her thing. Taking Myra Jehlen’s advice quite literally in this one regard, Mercado wants women’s stories to become the ‘‘investigation, from women’s viewpoint, of everything’’ (‘‘Archimedes and the Paradox of Feminine Criticism,’’ 577). Revising the perception of everything from house chores to making love, she rewrites the canon, searching to pinpoint ‘‘the di√erence between women’s writing and men’s that no study of only women’s writing can depict’’ (584). Since she is looking at life not from what Jehlen calls ‘‘the universe of masculinist assumptions’’ but from the woman’s viewpoint, 226 Body of writing

one of the things she considers with most insistence is the male body, specifically focusing on its center, the cosa housed in that casa.

The illustrious prisoner desabrocha la hebilla, desliza el cierre que ilustre prisionero guarda. Desata las agujetas que voy a navegar en tus aguas —Kyra Galván, from Alabanza escribo

I can’t find a better way to sum up Mercado’s attitude vis-à-vis the body than to say her erotic portrayals are a joyous celebration of both maleness and femaleness. Diametrically opposed to Wittig’s warring vision of the sexes or to the Marquis de Sade’s portfolio of ramming penises that destroy and vilify the bodies of women, her portrayals frame what is best described as happy sex. The second vignette in the section titled ‘‘Mirages’’ brings this portrayal to the fore in the story of an arrestingly dressed black man who wears a long, open coat lined with lambskin, no shirt, and trousers that are barely held up by a string around his waist (21). The man is all up front: trousers unbuttoned, ‘‘fly wide open,’’ an ‘‘enormous, dark gray sex organ’’ peeking through the opening (21). ‘‘Bouncing to and fro like a pendulum,’’ the man’s penis keeps time with his owner as he struts up the hill under the admiring gaze of ‘‘ecstatic’’ passersby who seek to freeze the picture in their minds or to leave behind, ‘‘in that oscillating sex,’’ ‘‘the promise of a love to come’’ (21). Oblivious to everything and everyone, the man walks onward, and onto a hanging bridge from where he straddles the city and ‘‘looks over his dominions . . . like a king’’ (21). In this witty, tongue-in-cheek episode Mercado demonstrates a skill at creating polyvalent images that we soon come to recognize as one of her trademarks. Clearly, what we are confronting here is not the conventional male character of a mimetic novel. The he-goat in ‘‘Mirages II’’ has no personality, only essence; he is an incarnation of maleness, a walking penis that keeps showing its face throughout her book. His outlandish outfit (he is both dressed and undressed, wrapped in his clothing and hanging out of it, the epitome of an erotic object as Barthes defines it)∞∞ is a case in point of intentionality disguised as nondesign. Almost naked The body of pleasure in Mercado’s Canon


under a loose lambskin coat that practically covers him from neck to foot, he is a metonymy of the very thing that draws all gazes. Like the ‘‘oscillating sex,’’ his whole gangly body has a cadence to it as he walks, a ‘‘paso cadencioso,’’ and is covered by an outer sheath that is suggestive of the foreskin (21). As the episode unfolds before our eyes, the man is objectified while his penis is personified: we see not just a single character but ‘‘a penis and a man’’ (in that order) who ‘‘climb onto’’ the parapet of the bridge (Mercado intentionally uses the plural form of the verb: subían, 21). In keeping with this personification, the first time the word king is used, the noun is in the plural form: ‘‘penis and man . . . like kings,’’ but in the last sentence of the episode, when they both tower over the city from the heights of the bridge, penis and man are assimilated into a single essence, ‘‘like a king, looking over his dominions’’ (21, my emphasis). In ‘‘Mirages II’’ Mercado suggests the primacy of the phallus as well as the relevance of the penis, which, as the episode makes clear, towers over everything. Its exalted status is not just a figure of speech or a topographical accident, moreover. Mercado’s admiration for the ‘‘one-eyed hero’’ knows no bounds; in a later vignette we learn it has ‘‘a sharp and intelligent head’’ coveted by ‘‘every tongue’’ in the book and is considered to be ‘‘a beautiful trophy’’ with ‘‘the most beautiful texture,’’ ‘‘delicate,’’ ‘‘an object of worship’’ (111). However, the penis is neither the exclusive plaything of men nor an emblem of male power in Canon de alcoba. True, it is an appendage of men’s bodies, but women use the men who wield that appendage while availing themselves of it—as if of a tool, to give themselves pleasure. It is also relevant to keep in mind that each and every fantasy in Canon de alcoba is engineered by a woman who—because she concocts the di√erent scenarios, and decides the action to follow—wields the ultimate power; she (and not the male sex organ) is the phallus in a work of fiction in which the penis is personified but has no identity other than the one provided by its primary sexual function. In other words, Mercado is not bent on portraying men’s subjectiveness as companion for the penises she pictures. In her fiction the penis is not cast as the appendage of Tom, Dick, or Harry whose personalities and petty power struggles accompany them into the fiction. The penis, as Mercado paints it, is not a power tool but a pleasure instrument, on occasion personified, but with no psychology or motivation, its function no other than to provide jouissance. 228

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It follows then that the penis can be a construct of the mind, a fertile figment to entertain the gaze and tickle the imagination. In ‘‘Mirages III,’’ for instance, a woman stares at a tall man who holds his penis in his hand in a crowded subway car. Once again, as in the earlier fantasy, the male organ is personified: it has a ‘‘single eye,’’ ‘‘a very smooth body’’ and a ‘‘head’’ which ‘‘seems to say . . . this is what I am all about’’ (22). The penis has an identity while the man in the subway has none: ‘‘One would not be able to say what sort of face he had,’’ we are told, ‘‘nor what sort of clothes he wore . . . nothing [about him] could be defined with any degree of certainty’’ (22). The man is so lackluster or, more exactly, his role as man is so insignificant in Mercado’s fantasy, that he is completely overshadowed, erased from the page by the force of his own penis: ‘‘it would have been interesting to examine other features of the man . . . but he was in no condition to project’’ distinctive features of his personality or physique ‘‘due to the sheer strength with which that uncovered sex organ predominated over his person’’ (23). Like the black man in ‘‘Mirages II,’’ the faceless fellow in the subway (it is no coincidence that all characters in Canon de alcoba are nameless, with no personality other than the one their sex provides) is a nonentity; his penis, on the other hand, ‘‘exerted such a powerful attraction that it was impossible to steal away or avoid staring at its head peeking through the fingers’’ (23). The true hero of the tale does not even need to engage in action to become endowed ‘‘with an almost immanent light’’ by the woman’s gaze: ‘‘Once its shape, weight and sheen had been assessed by that stare, it didn’t need to dress itself up; all it had to do was simply make a statement about its existence; its image penetrated easily and found its own place and resonance in the retina’’ (23). The penis’s locus is not so much in the man’s body (the man ‘‘exists’’ in the fiction but is as quickly dispensed with as a banana peel) as in the gaze of the observer, in ‘‘the retina’’ of the woman. Seen or imagined, the penis becomes her possession, her thing; in fact, the bond between one and the other is ‘‘as strong as the one that can link together . . . two equals who discover each other’’ (23). This bond is based on a shared communication predicated on pleasure, just like the act of love, but a pleasure acted out in the viewer’s imagination. The penis in this story, we soon discover, is a construct of the mind designed to titillate both the woman in the metro and the reader. As the story comes to an end, once the woman has had her fill of The body of pleasure in Mercado’s Canon


gazing at the ‘‘portentous organ,’’ the man stands up and the bulbous object in his hand turns out to be a pear that he puts in his pocket before getting o√ the subway, its mission fulfilled, its potential energy discharged not by the pear—a mere stimulus—but by the woman who imagines everything and uses her imagination—titillated turned titillator—to goad herself and, via her creation, the reader (23). This is why, later in the book, Mercado describes dreamers as artists, and demiurges who spew forth pigments or phrases, and then pull away from the canvas or page, ‘‘hiding away the hand that had not hesitated to strip away all sense of propriety a few minutes earlier, and turn it into lust’’ (106). For Mercado, all voyeurs are creators; hence they play a fundamental role in a book where she is doing the upmost to come to terms with the meaning of the creative act. Like readers, voyeurs get pleasure from images rather than from doing things themselves. This analogy becomes the basis of her innovation. If instead of writing closed, linear stories based on enigmas that are slowly revealed to the reader she were to compose by means of tableaux that could be read in a variety of ways, like paintings, she could introduce a more open, less determined, freer alternative to orthodox reading and writing. Her pictorial language would of course need words to be translated from the page to the reader but it would be one step closer to semiotic language and more akin to poetry, to the polyvalent use of signs and symbols that we find in the work of Artaud, Joyce, Mallarmé, and Sarduy. In other words, Mercado’s aim (contrary in every sense to that of patriarchal texts) is to write without imposing herself on anyone, allowing and even inviting alternatives. Thus her tableaux are filled with options: horses that gallop by during a walk through the forest are simultaneously described as ‘‘what is seen, what is not seen,’’ as cantering both ‘‘nearby’’ and ‘‘in the distance’’ (53).∞≤ So too, in the love scenes she describes, the partner is often either or both he or she (el otro, la otra, 78) or of undisclosed gender so that the naked bodies caressing each other in the dark become whatever the reader wishes them to be. If Mercado’s—let us call it—feminine stance is predicated on not imposing her view (which is another way of saying on not imposing her authority), then her works can be described as open constructs allowing readers to make choices. This is also why her stories don’t come to an abrupt, categorical end. Instead, images fade out as they do in the movies when objects or people move beyond our field of vision: the two horses in 230 Body of writing

‘‘Pero todavía vibra’’ (‘‘It’s still shaking’’), for instance, ‘‘grew smaller and smaller until the image ran out’’ (53). Above and beyond the choices she provides and her fade-away endings, Mercado’s main contribution to an alternative form of writing is the introduction of what she refers to as imágenes palabras (‘‘word-images,’’ 50). At this point in her career these ‘‘word-images’’ are the only way she wants to write, her only andadura posible (65). The pictures she paints are almost without exception like those described in a vignette titled ‘‘The House of Love’’: ‘‘libidinal fragments, messages as desperate as tongues’’ (65).∞≥ The libidinal element is obvious to all her readers but, given Mercado’s penchant for ambiguity, don’t we need to question what she means by tongues? Is she referring to anatomy or to linguistics? In fact, as she soon makes clear, she has both in mind when, and as, she writes. Because in her writing words serve to picture the body, they become analogous with it.∞∂ This postulate is not unique to Mercado, of course. In a well-loved short poem, Emily Dickinson went against the grain: ‘‘A word is dead / When it is said, / Some say. / I say it just / Began to live / That day.’’ Sistering herself in more ways than one to Dickinson, Mercado wonders more than a century later, ‘‘What if we were to think that the word is the body?’’ (or, in other words, that uttering sounds endows them with a density and reality of their own). Born from the body, she maintains, writing gushes forth as a live and, in her own hands, erotic secretion: ‘‘as if the amorous substance flowed out from the finger itself to wet with its touch the folds of the skin’’ (110). The problem is that even if they emanate directly from the body, as soon as they are printed on the page words freeze over; they become calcified, rigid, inflexible. Once frozen, the open reading that images or concepts suggest before becoming signifiers is no longer possible, dooming to failure, it would seem, Mercado’s own revolutionary design. Feminine writing? In a section entitled ‘‘El próximo recodo’’ (‘‘Around the Next Bend’’) Mercado considers the dichotomy between words and images, and the implications of this dichotomy for herself and for the kind of writing she wants to produce. Simultaneously describing lovemaking and the endless possibilities of language (‘‘words where anything is possible,’’ 111), and The body of pleasure in Mercado’s Canon


once again showering much praise on the penis (which she describes as ‘‘the hero of the day,’’ and ‘‘an object of worship,’’ 111), she points out how, once lovemaking is over and the male organ lies at rest, vulnerable and unaware of the words that have described it and engraved its many names on the page, the concept that was heretofore beautiful and alive because it was free loses that life because it is translated into symbolic language: ‘‘The design of writing [and here Mercado is clearly referring to her own] is to remain neutral [meaning nondeterminative, polyvalent, semiotic], but little by little that intention has become compromised’’ (111). ‘‘The limits of matter,’’ she goes on to say, ‘‘of an erotic matter that wished itself free of symbols, one that sought to be formless, vast and multiple in its desire, have become frozen into an ivory dildo, painfully perfect’’ (111). As an image that ‘‘allowed itself to be subjugated by every eye in the room,’’ the penis ‘‘was everywhere . . . a beautiful trophy between the legs’’ (111); described with words, betrayed by signs, that same image becomes lifeless, bridled and girthed by the writer. This is why ‘‘the design of writing [i.e., ‘to remain neutral’] has become compromised’’ (111). But does this necessarily mean that the project of creating feminine writing has failed? ‘‘Recovering words that are lost, betrayed’’ is ‘‘quite a task,’’ Mercado recognizes (59). Is it really feasible to recover words betrayed by the patriarchal, symbolic model in order to create a feminine language? Years ago, going against the grain of feminism, Kristeva argued that even though a characteristically feminine semiotic register existed, there could not be a feminine language per se (‘‘Questions à Julia Kristeva,’’ 23). Before the presymbolic articulations of the semiotic could be transmitted and understood, Kristeva observed, they would have to be voiced through signs and symbols and fall, therefore, under the aegis of the Name of the Father. Feminism could not simply reject the symbolic phallogocentric order since the total failure to enter into human relations such rejection implies would, in Lacanian terms, make us psychotic. In other words, we have to accept our position as already inserted into an order that precedes us and from which there is no escape. There is no other space from which we can speak: if we are able to speak at all, it will have to be within the framework of symbolic language. This is the argument that Mercado takes up when she contrasts the flesh-and-blood penis to the ivory dildo in ‘‘El próximo recodo.’’ The first point she makes is that describing the former in writing turns it into 232

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the latter; what both Kristeva and she call a ‘‘stammering,’’ a balbuceo simply become ‘‘words inscribed on the page’’ (110). Words transform both the throbbing, living organ and the concept into symbols that can no longer be ‘‘object[s] of worship’’ because they are inert (111). Mercado’s next point—the next ‘‘bend in the road’’ to which her chapter’s subheading doubtlessly refers—is that the concept’s inherent life can be preserved if portrayed within the context of jouissance. This notion is also something Mercado borrows from Kristeva. We know from Polylogue that the revolutionary subject, male or female, is one able to allow the jouissance of semiotic motility to disrupt the strict symbolic order (43). Examples of this kind of revolutionary activity can be found in the writings of Lautréamont, Mallarmé, and Joyce. Since the semiotic can never take over the symbolic, however, one may ask how it can make itself felt at all. Kristeva’s answer is that the only possible way of channeling the semiotic drive into the symbolic is through the predominantly anal activity of expulsion or rejection (Révolution, 113–14). In textual terms this translates into a negativity masking the death instinct (a negativity that we have already witnessed in the work of Severo Sarduy, for instance), and that Kristeva sees as the most fundamental component of the semiotic drive (27–28). The most fundamental, perhaps, but not the only one. It is at this juncture that Mercado parts ways with Kristeva. As we have seen in the first four chapters of this book, the anal activities of expulsion and rejection are characteristic reactions of male writers. These activities are also present in works written by women—in Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea, in Wittig’s Les guérillères, in Albalucía Angel’s Las andariegas. As pointed out, reactions to the patriarchal establishment are part of the motivating forces behind these texts, however.∞∑ They are the kind of angry responses that usher in Gilbert and Gubar’s ‘‘madwoman in the attic,’’ responses that suggest an unresolved attachment to the patriarchal establishment, and to the models imposed by patriarchal literature. Insofar as women do not experience the sense of loss that comes with castration, there does not appear to be an inherent tendency to reject or lash out in feminine texts that are free from the grip of patriarchy, that are truly a manifestation of the feminine (Kristeva, Révolution, 43–44). But are there many of these? The fact is, rejection and expulsion are conspicuously absent from Canon de alcoba, nor can signs of negativity be detected The body of pleasure in Mercado’s Canon


anywhere in this book. Since the anal activity of expulsion is absent from Canon, are we to believe that the semiotic has not found its way into Mercado’s project, or has she perhaps found other means of opening the sluice gates that would allow it to flood her text? Keeping in mind how jouissance—which is characteristic of the semiotic motility—is one way to disrupt the strict symbolic order, what would happen if a book were designed as a vehicle to communicate not simply jouissance but, specifically, the jouissance of woman? Luce Irigaray has not been alone in pointing out how little we know about this kind of feminine enjoyment (Ce sexe., 88–89).∞∏ Isn’t it time that literature began to hold a mirror to women, a mirror that reveals not just the angry face of the displaced stepmother but the fulfilled one of the castaway who has found, at last, a room of her own? What if this project we are talking about—Mercado’s project—were designed as the means to voice this seldom heard, hardly known, unique form of jouissance? In addition, what if feminine jouissance could be conveyed through images that were sketched the only way we know, by means of signs, but signs that were left open and ambiguous (such as a penis that turns out to be a pear, a man that is a metonymy of the penis, a woman who exudes her own juices like the meats and vegetables in a stockpot)? Wouldn’t we have, then, a new kind of writing? Not, surely, in terms of the composition itself—of the form—but in its content and scope? This writing project need not just be an exposition or revelation of feminine jouissance, moreover. It could also be an overarching reflection on the nature of femininity and, by means of such a reflection, a search for the place of the feminine subject. As Mercado points out, referring to her own sex (and echoing the Irigaray of the late seventies, who wrote Ce sexe qui n’en est pas un), ‘‘we don’t occupy the space that we should naturally occupy among humans’’ (61).∞π In fiction that space has to be defined in the inherently masculine symbolic language, but neither the fantasies portrayed nor the characters themselves need to be reflections of those described in patriarchal literature. Words are also women’s domain. We are reminded of it in Canon de alcoba when an unnamed character, calling a political meeting to order, admonishes everyone in the room: ‘‘let the comrade speak . . .’’ (dejemos hablar a la compañera, 59). The compañera speaks but no one understands her. She starts to ‘‘tie herself in knots, to fall down a cli√ ’’ (enredarse, desbarrancarse, 60). Her discourse teeters painfully close to a stammer, threatens to tear itself in shreds until a voice 234 Body of writing

interrupts her to say: ‘‘Comrades, that’s enough pussy-footing about . . . nothing is being said here, we have stopped saying.’’∞∫ At that point, male authority comes in to ‘‘close shop, put the lid on, batten down the hatches’’ (60). Mercado’s reaction to such obstruction is to tear the patriarchal novel to pieces, to stab and poke stillborn signifiers in conventional novels that have only one constricting, overpowering meaning. Brandishing her imágenes-palabras sin contornos, she begins revealing feminine dreams and fantasies emblematic of that other voice, constitutive of that other literature (50). Eros, not Thanatos That other literature is di√erent because its scenarios have nothing to do with oppression and control. According to Mercado, ‘‘desire is not a function of Eros . . . the self-governing’’ and ‘‘power plays no part in love’s agenda’’ (95, 98). Jouissance rules in her novel but even this notion has been refurbished. By refurbished I mean that Canon de alcoba is not The Story of O. For a start, there are neither exploiters nor exploited; in the breathless atmosphere of the bedroom as well as in the spirited ‘‘mijotage’’ of the kitchen, all ingredients get fired to the same temperature, and sweated to the same degree. When two women make love to each other, a third, eavesdropping from the next room, is thankful to be listening to women because their lovemaking, ‘‘will not sound like a struggle, or suggest an obstinate persistence, or a culmination in which no one will ever know who came out the winner, or a hoped for simultaneity that went awry although mutual concealment attempted to mask it in the last pantings of love’’ (33). Lovemaking with men, it is suggested, gets easily confused with a combat in which some triumph, and, presumably, some lose. Women, on the other hand, don’t need to overpower anyone. Another di√erence between the sexes is that men strive toward culmination while women linger on each caress, focusing on the moment, heightening sense awareness to the utmost. Almost as if giving a prescription for continuing good health Mercado advises: ‘‘Well then, never reach a climax, leave things in midair, get them to the point of ripeness, cut in only in the initial stages during the evolution of a given element, and then foresake it to its own inertia, neither precipitate nor impede its reaction, these were the laws of that obsession which sated all my obsessions and defined all my longings’’ (En estado de memoria, 36). The body of pleasure in Mercado’s Canon


Over and over in the stories composing Canon de alcoba we are told there is no need to consummate sexual activity. This savvy Kama Sutra makes clear that women find puntos de goce (‘‘pleasure points’’) without end while men gallop blindly ‘‘across open fields,’’ reach the starting line, and pull out falos brillantes (‘‘shiny phalluses,’’ 93). Clearly, ‘‘warring [phallic] love . . . brandishes its weapon much too soon,’’ ‘‘trampling down the grass’’ with ‘‘giant steps,’’ not realizing ‘‘that longing cracks its door open ever so gently, hardly drawing a breath, barely touching the handle or making the hinges squeak’’ (78). There is no recrimination for such male behavior on Mercado’s part, however; such behavior is simply taken down as a statement of fact. After mapping out the di√erence between men and women concerning puntos de goce (women are sensitive; men, rough), the female narrator of ‘‘Las Amigas’’ appraises with tenderness the ‘‘firm texture of testicles soft like the skin of a fruit,’’ and the three women involved with each other in the same episode long for the presence of a man even though, we are told, ‘‘they need no one’’ (93). The sexual activity portrayed in Canon de alcoba is di√erent in yet other ways from that in works written by men. Bataille, for instance, speaks of a negativité sans emploi as the motor force behind his compositions, while everything in Mercado has an emploi—a reason for being, a potential use (Bataille, ‘‘Lettre à X., charge d’un cours sur Hegel . . .’’ Oeuvres complètes, 5:369–70). For her as for Bataille jouissance is a form of dépense or expenditure, but since her own brand of jouissance is not geared toward culmination, pleasure—as she portrays it—heightens itself and each partner in the act of love like a miraculous machine that recharges its own energy without ever spending itself. From the perspective of women there is no waning, no abatement in love, only fanning out in unceasing crescendoes. Consequently, there is no sense of loss needing to be resolved or palliated, no unsatiable hunger, no feeling of incompletion because love has come to an end and parting ensued. For man, on the other hand, ‘‘dew turns into tears,’’ time ‘‘runs out’’ while galloping across measureless plains ‘‘hell-bent on exterminating,’’ ‘‘pulverizing petals with his hoofs’’ and, above all, ‘‘very distant from the body that is o√ered to him’’ (79). Once his ‘‘love’’ is shot, ‘‘ejected through the eye without sockets’’ like an arrow he, ‘‘the combatant . . . remains very lonely’’ (79). Spent, like a Bataillean hero, he feels an incurable, desperate sense of deprivation, a ‘‘little death’’ he tries to overcome by charging anew, seek-

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ing to conquer what is unconquerable because he can neither see nor understand it: ‘‘a bull’s eye that is further beyond and has little to do with the love underlying his charge’’ (79). Bound to a death in life by a loss he can neither forget nor forgive, man tears down and tramples, cursed with anger, condemned, like a modern-day Sisyphus to eternal solitude and waning desire after love. In contrast to man’s waning desire, Mercado’s heroines are perpetually aroused because they don’t bank on the notion of consummation. As far as they are concerned, desire need not ever end; because of such flow, all of life becomes infused with a sense of celebration. As love is an endless adventure, so is language. We have already seen how, for Mercado, words and the body are analogous to each other, her prescriptions for lovemaking undistinguishable from her norms for writing, the ‘‘canon for the bedchamber’’ one and the same as the canon on which her écriture feminine is based.∞Ω For instance, her stories—like love in these same stories— have no climax. ‘‘What writing is saying,’’ claims Mercado, ‘‘is an imaginary game of perpetual search like an organ that does not reach a climax [or] sex without penetration when the flames of desire are perpetually fanned’’ (119). Furthermore, and perhaps most importantly, the perpetual state of intensification brought on by making love without ever reaching a climax or by writing without ever coming to a dénouement is a way ‘‘to dismantle the precedence, the potency, the power of the phallus’’ (119).≤≠ The phallus seeks to control and conclude, erecting its version as the one and only with any sort of validity. By suggesting that neither lovemaking nor story-telling needs to reach a culmination, Mercado gives precedence to a noncategorical, unprepossessing voice which she contrasts with ‘‘the power of the phallus’’ (109). She advocates, in other words, ‘‘love that does not seek power’’ (el amor sin ninguna ambición de poder), and seeks to portray a polymorphic sexuality which, like Virginia Woolf ’s Orlando’s, transforms itself as it goes: ‘‘appearing, sometimes, in feminine guise, but becoming predominantly phallic as it goes’’ (68, 70). This androgynous subject, like the unprepossessing voice that does not seek power, counterbalances the preeminence of the phallus: ‘‘and the penis simultaneously penis and vagina, and during penetration no one penetrating or being penetrated but one single, perfect fusion’’ (110).≤∞ Despite her portrayals of androgyny, it bears to keep in mind that, unlike some of the more fire-eating feminists, Mercado is not advocating

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the extermination or obnubilation of men. Her aim is to o√er an alternative to phallic power, to the kind of love it champions and to the sort of writing it produces. The phallic attitude that consists of ramming, seizing, and finishing up quickly in order to start up all over again leads humanity forward in short spurts. Mercado proposes an alternative philosophy predicated not on culmination but on making things last; she invites us to think that a deseo sin final (a ‘‘desire without end’’) might make human beings develop in a more expansive, unlimited fashion. Such desire would be more akin to human nature, which she compares to a quilting point or stitch which, when allowed to unravel, reveals—like her own writing—‘‘myriad other texts hiding beneath the folds’’ of its ‘‘multisignifying thickness’’ (119). Desires are also like ideas and, as she sees it, we are perpetually just two steps away from the ‘‘vertigo of knowledge’’ that a phrase can bring on (109).≤≤ She goes on to compare ideas to fields and trees observed from the window of a moving train, scenes that erroneously make us think all there is is what lies in front of our eyes as we fail to consider how, besides the trees and fields, the window reflects our own face, those of other passengers, and even, across the railway car, another window opening up to other vistas and, beyond that, to the ‘‘dark pits of night’’ at a time when ‘‘not a ray of light has yet begun to insinuate itself on the horizon’’ (109). Like the scenes one watches from a moving train, life is not just the rapid succession of events that flash in front of our windows; it is also ‘‘the permanent assault of what’s di√erent’’ (109). That is why ‘‘edges between words,’’ and ‘‘di√erences between terms . . . have gone up in smoke’’ in Mercado’s novel, a text that leaves itself open to uninterrupted stimulation, like the ‘‘erect nipples of two sweaty bodies rubbing against each other’’ (110). Words must be free to invite alternate meanings, not shackled to a single destiny; stories must be free to suggest other voices, not restrained by a terminal conclusion; bodies must be free to choose the pleasure they seek; pleasure must free itself to continue its perpetual search. Like the fire and the rose which, in T. S. Eliot’s phrase, become one once ‘‘the tongues of fire are infolded,’’ the image of the erect organ with which Mercado concludes ‘‘El último recodo’’ ‘‘is sure that the sex in which it is about to lodge itself is simultaneously all and one: dark channel, luminous gate . . . welcoming bay’’ (110). That ‘‘welcoming bay’’ is also the alternative space Mercado has been carefully crafting, the answer


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to the patriarchal novel: her masterful Canon de alcoba, a novel that introduces a feminine body unencumbered by the shackles of patriarchy, the body of a new kind of jouissance which, like Mercado’s writing, lies invitingly open, suggesting, in its generous pliancy, endless and heretofore unsuspected vistas to the reader.

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Conclusion i

In literature the body is never alone. Robinson Crusoe had Friday and, even before running into his sidekick, a whole carnival of characters roamed within his head. Defoe’s star players—whether in Robinson’s imagination or wending their way across a desert island—are never unwarranted. In all works of fiction leading protagonists, even supernumeraries, have a mission to fulfill. Considered from the reader’s perspective, this mission is to amuse and edify, but characters also come alive to fulfill personal needs. They play a key role and serve a fundamentally cathartic function because all literature portrays relationships that reflect the dynamics of foundational ties between parents and children. These ties are acted out in works of fiction, turning behavior and settings into mirrors that reflect an author’s innermost longings and fears. What I set out to understand is how these longings and fears speak themselves into literature, how they inform characterization and plot. As writers listen to an inner voice when they write, I listened to the writers themselves, paying particular attention to both the ways in which they imagine and symbolize bodies, and to the traces their own bodies leave on the page. I began by considering the body, in the words of Brooks, ‘‘as an object and motive of narrative writing—as a primary, driving concern of the life of the imagination,’’ and my aim throughout this book was to explore how Spanish American authors turn it into a key symbol, a token in their writing (Body Work, xi). Since many of my discussions of the body draw on psychoanalysis, I chose to focus on stories written by contemporary authors for whom psychoanalysis was likewise a concern. Some, like Julio Cortázar and

Severo Sarduy, believed that writing was therapy; others, like Tununa Mercado, forged their projects as a reaction to personal discoveries made in analysis; each and every one of them assumed that, again in the words of Brooks, ‘‘psychic process and literary process are mutually illuminating,’’ and some went as far as to include theoretical discussions regarding this interchange in the books they wrote (xii). In fact, in one way or another, all of them weave together story lines and lines concerning how a story is woven. Even Cortázar, who doesn’t bring theory into his short stories, portrays sublimation and catharsis as integral elements in many of his plots. The photographer in ‘‘Blow-Up’’ stops a potentially traumatic incident from scarring an adolescent, an action that brings him both a spiritual renewal and a release of tension, and the hero of ‘‘Unreasonable Hours’’ clinches the incestuous liaison that has been plaguing him all along not in bed but by writing about it and tricking the reader—for a time, at least—into believing that his guiltiest wishes have been fulfilled at last. Readers of this and other stories by Cortázar feel a sense of malaise. At the same time, we are encouraged to identify with the plight of his perpetually frustrated heroes, wishing for them what they wish for themselves. Our study of Cortázar’s cunning plots revealed that the motifs he repeatedly relies on in his stories—severed hands, fear of open, well-lit places, of animals that burrow, and of large carnivores—work as a lead wall that prevents readers from seeing the real object of both longing and dread hiding behind his elaborate pageant. When we read his work what we see is not what we get, and, curiously, what we don’t get is what is upsetting, the reason for the malaise his stories provoke. Even without understanding what gives rise to this malaise, readers are aware, however, that the heroes’ desperate longing for shelter or to have intimate contact with women who remain inaccessible is ruled out in and by the fiction. Shelter will not be recovered once it is left behind, and impossible women will acquiesce to the hero’s longing only if—like Aníbal in ‘‘Unreasonable Hours’’—he pictures their downfall in writing. Reasons for this inaccessibility are never given; in most cases the fiction simply hinders the hero from fulfilling his longing. Looking behind this hindrance we found the epitome of all proscriptions rearing its head. Well concealed beneath the cunning camouflage of voracious tigers and chocolate-covered roaches, incestuous feelings informed the action of Cortázar’s short stories. What is downright perverse is that, given our Conclusion 241

strong identification with the heroes’ plight, we espouse their longings in these stories without understanding their origin. It is from the conflict that pits our wishes for their success against our own guilt—since we are well aware at some level that their wish is forbidden—that the unbridled strangeness of Cortázar’s scenarios is born. What we think of as strange is, in fact, a thorn in the flesh—in our own flesh—because, soliciting our complicity, Cortázar forces us to sympathize with a behavior that is fundamentally transgressive, and the conflict launched by this identification ushers in the uncanniness that is his trademark. The pernicious role of transgression and guilt, not just in Cortázar’s stories but in all works studied in this book, substantiates how the body is, above all things, a body in crisis, perpetually struggling to come to terms with its own essence and make its existence more bearable. Part of this struggle is determined by early attachments that emblazon the body with meaning and program it as a perpetual wanderer attempting to recover what it has lost. Because the original scar in all bodies is similar, because we share a sense of irrecuperable loss, we find many points of comparison in the work of authors who, geographically, historically, and aesthetically speaking, are dissimilar from each other. Even though their backgrounds, plot lines, and narrative goals are di√erent, the work of Cortázar, Cabrera Infante, Sarduy, García Márquez, and Castellanos springs forth from similar sources and reacts to a shared sense of severance. I chose to study their work in particular because, in spite of the sources they share, each of them figures the body in a di√erent light or from a di√erent perspective. It is true that other authors could have been included, but Body of Writing would have become a Faustian book about books, so I was forced to make choices. The same applies to the many other theoretical sources that could have been researched. Perhaps some will find my choices objectionable, or not su≈ciently representative. I suggest they be viewed as a sample pool, as the fieldwork of a literary anthropologist who doesn’t pretend to explore a whole mountainside but focuses on a circumscribed plot, and makes deductions about the surrounding terrain from the findings in the site chosen for the study. Other researchers might care to add to these findings; may such complementary readings become other books that look to this one as a point of departure and inspiration. My study of the way the body is figured in the literature of Spanish America has no pretensions to be all-embracing, although my conclu242 Body of writing

sions are broad-based enough, I feel, to encompass other bodies in other books. I say this because one of the two most striking features I discovered was a thematic continuity between authors, a continuity that suggests their obsessions are, if not generic, at least representative. The other feature was the loyalty authors have to these obsessions and how systematically and consistently they condition the way in which the body is figured. For instance, there are frequently adolescents in Cortázar’s stories, and these adolescents are always threatened by circumstances or hurt (in ‘‘Blow-Up,’’ ‘‘Nurse Cora,’’ and ‘‘Bestiario,’’ to name three instances). Hurt is also present in the work of Severo Sarduy, but in his case pain is the consequence of severance, which is ultimately what his characters are after. Diametrically opposed to Sarduy’s sadistic parodies is Tununa Mercado’s portrayal of jouissance in a novel from which aggression is totally absent. The contrast between these two authors is so dramatic, in fact, that it provides a turning point for my conclusions. Aggression is a strong component—a key building block, one might say—in stories written by men. Characters insult each other, harm, and kill each other in the work of Cortázar, Cabrera Infante, García Márquez, and Sarduy. A break in thematic continuity occurs when we read Rosario Castellanos and Tununa Mercado. The latter paints a picture from which sadism and pain are preempted, while the body in Castellanos’s masterful Oficio de tinieblas is as injured, lame, and abused as it is in Infante’s Inferno. It is from such an aggressive core that the action of these masterplots spreads forth as points of a star growing out from its center. In addition, with the notable exception of García Márquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera and Tununa Mercado’s Canon de alcoba—and usually tucked away under the thick veneer of humor and mystery—fear and anger lurk behind every page we read. The sources of such fear take many forms—from an elusive tiger in Cortázar’s ‘‘Bestiario’’ to an absorbing vagina that engulfs the narrator of Infante’s Inferno with greedy ‘‘forward and back’’ contractions. These two authors are the most explicit in portraying the sources of anguish dramatized or alluded to in the works we studied. The heroes of Cortázar’s short stories repeatedly dramatize what amounts to a chronic fear of leaving behind dark, enclosing surroundings. For instance, the Moteca warrior in ‘‘The Night Face Up’’ sweats, pants, shivers, and screams at the thought of getting through a dark tunnel with blood dripping o√ its walls (Relatos, 81). Repeatedly waking up and Conclusion 243

dropping back into a world described as a terrifying nightmare, he delays exiting until finally, unable to put it o√ any longer, he reaches the mouth of the tunnel while letting out a hoarse yell, and realizing the amulet that had kept him alive until then has been yanked o√ from his body. Like the Moteca warrior, the protagonist of ‘‘Don’t Blame Anyone’’ has a massive anxiety attack, halted breathing, and cold sweats as he is about to emerge from the encroaching dark folds of a ‘‘prison,’’ which, in this story, turns out to be the embrace of a tight sweater hugging his nose and mouth. Surprisingly, once his head begins to emerge from the sleeve he has mistakenly plunged into and he begins to see light, his one free hand grabs the o√ending sleeve and pulls it up over his face once again. As in ‘‘The Night Face Up,’’ leaving the safety of the dark, enveloping space is threatening, and analogous to death. Like the narrator of ‘‘Don’t Blame Anyone,’’ Lucho in ‘‘Throat of a Black Kitten’’ seeks to get back into the very space from which he has been evicted. The warm, engulfing maw in this story is no longer depicted as a sweater but, more explicitly in terms of revealing Cortázar’s design, as a woman’s private quarters. Naked, cold, and covered with blood, Lucho bangs at her door, begging to be allowed back in, complaining to himself, ‘‘it’s always the same . . .’’ (Octaedro, 164). Bang all he will, the woman will not let him back, will not open the door. After loving him and hurting him (by almost yanking o√ his genitals), she pushes him out (162); isn’t she unforgivable even if her actions—like Valmont’s loathsome behavior in Dangerous Liaisons—are ‘‘beyond her control’’? Isn’t being outside a fate worse than death, the beginning of a threatening existence in a cold, lonely world? The protagonist of Guillermo Cabrera Infante’s riotously funny saga fares better than Cortázar’s heroes when faced with similar circumstances. In the epilogue to Infante’s Inferno he manages to crawl inside a woman’s dark, enveloping ‘‘soft cave’’ (404). He floats in a tumultuous sea before ending up in an alluviated area where he glides across a pool of a mudlike substance until everything around him turns red, the ground begins to shake, the whole basin boils over like a pressure cooker about to explode, and he is ‘‘thrown out, expelled, rejected, vomited, spat into the air’’ to bask in the amniotic fluid of memories from which he draws the inspiration to write Infante’s Inferno (410). After so many scenes of eviction, so many thwarted hopes (in the form of wishes to stay in dark comfortable tunnels and enveloping rooms), it 244 Body of writing

is no wonder that Cortázar’s and Cabrera Infante’s—not to mention Sarduy’s—heroes should be so angry. Havoc has been wreaked on their lives; they have been cast o√ from the gratifying place where, in all appearances, they wished to stay. Who or what is to blame for such harrowing exile? Very simply, when not explicitly portrayed as Circes, Medusas, child molesters (in ‘‘Blow-Up’’), one-breasted Amazons (Margarita del Campo in Infante’s Inferno), white-haired Regentes who enslave young men (in Colibrí ), and aloof crowned goddesses who let heroes pine away for love (in Love in the Time of Cholera), then enveloping tunnels emblematic of the estrecho dudoso through which these unpardonable shrews evict their victims. Guillermo Cabrera Infante’s genial fantasy of an omnivorous vagina that swallows up the hero and sends him for a fallopian spin before spitting him out again sums up, much more explicitly than any other work in this study, a picturesque if hardly reassuring tradition of lethal genitals that spans centuries and cultures. Murderous females appear in Greek mythology, medieval French poems and Nahuatl lore. The fear of woman thus seems endemic and permanent. It is born of man’s early total dependence on his mother, and his longing, frustrated love for her, his defenseless lassitude after intercourse, and the frightening aspect and portentous implications of the female genitals. The Medusa and all the dangers to man’s virility she stands for are a very old story, one that we see recast in each and every tale we read with the exception of Tununa Mercado’s Canon de alcoba. What to make of it? Are these novels and short stories acts of revenge designed to vent anger or are they meant to heal? Addressing the issue of female subordination, Freud, Horney, Beauvoir, Wolfgang Lederer, and, most recently, Dorothy Dinnerstein have explored, in the relationship between the sexes, what it is that makes men want, figuratively speaking, to ‘‘kill’’ women. What Horney called male dread of the female is a phenomenon to which Lederer has devoted a long and scholarly book. As Horney and Dinnerstein have shown, male dread of women, and specifically the infantile dread of maternal autonomy, has historically objectified itself in vilification of women, while male ambivalence about female charms underlies the traditional images of such terrible sorceressgoddesses as the Sphinx, Medusa, and Circe (which Cortázar brings to life in his eponymous short story).∞ One of the most idolized goddesses we looked at in our reading was Conclusion 245

Fermina Daza in Love in the Time of Cholera. It came as no surprise that when this adored and feared woman (whom Florentino doesn’t dare even address for many months) finally opens the door of her house to the man who has been pining for her for fifty-one years, nine months and three days, his reaction to her invitation is to have a fecal explosion of such magnitude that his chau√eur cannot help thinking that he, too, has succumbed to cholera. Centuries before García Márquez and Freud, Swift had emphasized the connection between idealization, anality, and human aggression that is so masterfully described in Love in the Time of Cholera, one which translates in literature what could be termed the male plight.≤ Feeling rejected or abandoned at the resolution of the Oedipal phase, men project their libido not forward in the direction of genital development but backward, regressing to the anal stage characterized by defiance, mastery, and the will to power (Brown, Life Against Death, 192). Spurned and despondent, men steep in their own rage, a feeling that becomes objectified in a vilification of women and shows its face in all the portrayals of the body read in this book, with the exception of Mercado’s. The interconnection between human aggression, the will to mastery, and anal organization that García Márquez depicts with such gusto provides the seedbed, likewise, from which the compositions of Severo Sarduy spring forth. Strange though it may seem at first, the designs of both authors have much in common. Both use wit to mock ideas they hold seriously. García Márquez makes the hero of Love in the Time of Cholera a comic embodiment of the repressed, anal personality, and shows how, screening anal eroticism behind an idealization of the fair sex, men condemn themselves to a life of solitude.≥ Showcasing lives of lies to dramatize truths about the way we relate to one another, Florentino’s, Juvenal’s, and Jeremiah de Saint-Amour’s stories are roguish exempla designed to teach men to stop denaturing women in order to persuade themselves of their own superiority. In his kitsch melodramas Sarduy also transforms the nature of women and dramatizes triangular relationships, but, fascinated with Freud’s, Lacan’s, and Bataille’s theories from the days of his involvement with Tel Quel, he focuses on Oedipal discord, and writes a trilogy on the nature of desire. Spiking his sources with his own version of Cuban choteo, Sarduy willfully misreads the tale of Oedipus but cannot avoid falling prey to the truths it encapsulates. Rewriting Freud’s version of this tale to suit his 246 Body of writing

own ends, he parodies the gurus worshipped by Tel Quel, and unveils truths about the self, the nature of attachments, and the creative act. His characters bleed, decompose, and cut o√ their sexual organs in a sadomasochist frenzy that can only be compared to those of Artaud and William Burroughs in the history of literature, and to Francis Bacon and James Rothko (two of Sarduy’s own favorites) in the history of painting. The Cuban author’s portrayals of mutilation and defilement are literally written on the body because his fantasies chart—very tongue in cheek, it is true—the licentious evolution of a bawdy artist in quest of freedom. His parodic design was every bit as didactic as García Márquez’s. When exposing the macabre machinery of sadomasochism, he sought to show that man was in a bind because, like a bird caught in a net, he was involved in largely unresolved relationships to figures of authority. In his novels these authority figures are usually women or parodies of women: transvestite owners of nightclubs, bloated Big Mamas, androgynous shrews who rule over the hero. In Colibrí, the string of termagants is finally superseded, and the hero ends up taking the place of the boss. His empowerment is meant to be seen as the final step of an arduous process that leaves behind a sea of severed heads, rivers of blood, and vales of tears. Perhaps what all the problematic relationships and all the anger and anxiety portrayed by Sarduy, Cortázar, Cabrera Infante, and García Márquez reveal is that—melodramatic though it may sound—the victims of the human drama are men, not women. Brawnier, and no brainier, males react to what are clearly self-imposed limitations by victimizing, exploiting, and controlling the ‘‘weaker sex,’’ and women, identified with patriarchal authority in order to develop a self-image that is socially empowering, abide by the ridiculous terms of a sick social contract. Every male author studied in this book depicts human beings writhing in timeless torture; only García Márquez makes clear that women are spared from such self-induced pain although victimized by the unleashed rage and idealization which seem to be men’s revenge for having been evicted from their first home and then estranged from their first love (who, to compound matters, consented to the separation). An albatross hangs around the neck of men, while women, such as Fermina Daza, can pretty much go about their business. True, as depicted in Love in the Time of Cholera, they may still need to hide in the bathroom to catch a forbidden smoke, but aren’t they inherently spared from the self-imposed death in life that hounds men? Conclusion 247

How is it, then, that women in fiction—women like Isabel Zebadúa and her daughter Idolina pictured in a novel written by a woman—can express such loathing of their own inexorably female nature? Identifying with the canonical images of patriarchal society, women have traditionally spurned the reality of their own bodies and sought to accommodate their mental and physical images to the dictates and fantasies of male authority (casting themselves as weak, pale, helpless creatures, for instance).∂ So too, since the dominant patriarchal ideology traditionally presented artistic creativity as a fundamentally male quality, the dominant literary images of femininity have been rife with male fantasies. Gilbert and Gubar point out how women were denied the right to create their own images of femaleness and sought, instead, to conform to the patriarchal standards imposed on them (Madwoman, xii).∑ These standards were reproduced in books written by both sexes from Jorge Isaacs’s María (1867) to Clorinda Matto de Turner’s Aves sin nido (1889) (Birds Without a Nest). By the 1930s this tradition of weak, angelic heroines who were a reflection of patriarchal models began to be superseded in Spanish America by authors such as María Luisa Bombal. The protagonist of Bombal’s dreamlike La última niebla (1935) (House of Mist) is a total misfit. Neither angel nor demon, she tries to fit into a social context she has neither defined nor engineered. Unlike her earlier counterparts, she fails miserably and cannot become a reflection of the dead woman her husband would like her to be. By the time we reach the 1960s, authors such as Rosario Castellanos have perfected Bombal’s model, radically revised patriarchal images, and are beginning to introduce heroines like Catalina Díaz Puiljá who take authority away from their husbands and seek to carve a future for themselves. But Castellanos was too intelligent and realistic, and much too committed to the cause of feminism, to portray a ridiculous chimera that did not echo what was really happening out on the streets. She wrote a revolutionary novel, not a fairy tale. This is why women in Oficio de tinieblas fight wars but lose battles. As recently as the 1960s the only winner in a feminist novel could be authors who used writing as a didactic tool to describe the plight of the feminine condition, authors who used writing as the means to bring about social change. When she writes Oficio de tinieblas (1962) Rosario Castellanos ‘‘makes paper speak’’ just like her character Pedro Winiktón when he grasps the power of words (58). One of her aims in writing was to show women how 248 Body of writing

unreasoned their behavior was, how mistaken they were to use their bodies as a lure. Identifying with the ruling structure of patriarchy, and feeling physically and mentally inferior to men, women have traditionally sought to access power by becoming temptresses (Cleopatra), murderesses ( Judith), or mothers (Mary). Rather than engendering power themselves, they have scented it out and brought it into their homes. They have not imagined they could shine with a light of their own and have sought, instead, to become the reflection of the men in their lives. Casting women as satellites has long been a literary tradition: Jane Eyre looks up to Rochester, Elizabeth Bennett to Darcy, Emma Bovary to Rodolphe, Marisela to Santos Luzardo, even when the authors have made clear that the women in these couples are morally, spiritually, or mentally superior to their male counterparts. Attributing power to men did not mean women were not interested in it. Although, from the perspective of their own deflated self-images, they could not conceive of themselves as doers. The Mariselas in works of fiction have always whiled away their time darning Santos’s socks. The ‘‘angel’’ has lurked in the shadows in life as well as in literature: Camille Claudel sculpted, some say, as well as Rodin but he ended up being the genius, she the madwoman; in the able hands of Elena Poniatowska, Quiela (the Russian painter Angelina Belo√ ) is a sensitive artist who feels incompetent while attributing every bit of genius to Diego Rivera, the man who abandoned her; and, in her letters to Ricardo Palma, Castellanos repeatedly claims (after she has published two of the most beautiful books ever written in Mexico) that she cannot write. Coerced by the establishment or burdened by their own self-image, women disempower themselves in both society and fiction. Disempowering themselves did not mean power was out of reach, however. Women’s method for obtaining it became contingent on their ability to use men as agents; if they succeeded, they could glow, thereafter, with borrowed light. The body turned out to be the best bait to catch the sort of mediator that empowered women and acted in their stead. This meant that Lady Macbeth did not have to kill the king; she waited outside while her husband did the job. When women wished to change the course of their lives, they never took direct action (they couldn’t, after all, since their hands were tied); they didn’t pack up their bags and run o√ to Rouen; they stayed in Yonville and waited for a Léon Conclusion 249

or a Rodolphe to transform their boring existence. To catch a Léon or a Rodolphe, to draw them into their lair, they resorted to their charms, they sold out the body because they had always been taught it was their only weapon. In Oficio de tinieblas Castellanos shows how, even if temporarily successful, using the body to gain access to power leads nowhere in the long run. Women like Isabel Zebadúa and Julia Acevedo lure Leonardo Cifuentes into their beds but he eventually runs o√ to find someone new.∏ The power women derive from their all-consuming guests is not lasting because—perpetually dissatisfied, perpetually deprived—men are always after new chimeras. Arousing us to come in does not mean we will stay around when the fire dies down. Deaf to this sentence, women have deluded themselves; they have identified the symbolic emblem of maleness with those who control, and latched on to the opposite sex in order to be ruled and defined by its wishes. Women, Castellanos is saying, cannot continue to be all flesh and no voice if they seek power, if they mean to move into a room of their own. They must learn to articulate their own language since language, as is made plain in Oficio de tinieblas, is the instrument of the law, the ‘‘arma de conquista’’ (9). And so Castellanos writes an indictment that gives literary expression to women’s greatest error of judgment: seeking power by selling out the body. Borrowed power such as Idolina’s can be smothered at the slightest whim of patriarchy. The invalid’s story serves to convey this message, and if she ends with her face to the wall, paralyzed, and unwilling (or unable) to speak, it is to drive home Castellanos’s point: women cannot master the power of their own bodies because they themselves are mastered. The only power that endures and to which women have access is the auctoritas with which the word is invested, the auctoritas that Castellanos herself deploys to make clear women’s need to use it. The body that she puts forth for our perusal is the body of language, and her literary contribution is a reminder that women, not men, give birth to gods. It takes almost thirty years for Castellanos’s message to transform feminine literature in Spanish America. Tununa Mercado’s Canon de alcoba (1989) signals the birth of a new kind of writing, the birth of a feminine language with its own thematic perspective, one from which power struggles, violence, and sadism are excluded. Of course, women actively responded to Castellanos’s message in the twenty-odd years between the publication of Oficio de tinieblas and that of Canon de alcoba, 250 Body of writing

but their work of protest was, for reasons that are evident, radically angry. Keeping pace with the French feminists of the sixties, women in Spanish America recast in literature manifestoes of enraged feminism comparable to Monique Wittig’s Les guérillères—works that were militant in design and aggressive in method, works that, as it turns out, use power struggles as ingredients to the same degree as the canonical works of patriarchy. Like men, feminists of the sixties, seventies, and eighties were angry, but their anger was not predicated, as is men’s, on an irremediable loss. As Gilbert and Gubar explain in The Madwoman in the Attic, what women sense and portray as a loss is not a body to which they were once united but power, a sense of self, and the power that comes with that sense of self. And since the dominant patriarchal ideology presents artistic creativity as a fundamentally male quality, it follows that the dominant literary images of femininity have been, more often than not, male fantasies too. Traditionally speaking, and as Castellanos took pains to show in the characterization of Catalina Díaz Puiljá, women have been denied the right to create their own images of femaleness. It is this image that comes to life in Canon de alcoba. Vindicating and justifying women’s rights are viable responses to male literary assertion and coercion; they are reactions to oppression, however, another reflected voice contingent upon the actions of men. Instead of writing echoes of and reactions to the establishment, Mercado engenders what Luce Irigaray had argued for in The Sex That is Not One, a form of ‘‘womanspeak,’’ a voice and a style that do not mimic those of patriarchal literature. Delving into fantasy and breaking away from conventional strictures of time, place, and character unity, she writes a book in which visual iconography comes to the fore and draws in the reader, happily obliged to occupy the locus of voyeur. Tearing away the classic unities and modifying the typically passive posture of readers are not the only features Mercado alters in her iconoclastic revision of the novel. Even the wall that traditionally stands between the sexes topples in the act of love as she portrays it: ‘‘penis and vagina simultaneously one and the same’’ (110). Erasing di√erences and bringing about a fusion by means of erotic love is the key to an innovation whose highly poetic imagery introduces a fresh way to envision the relationship between reader and writer. Mercado feels the time has come to get rid of words in order to focus on the tasks of the body. The bodies she portrays are focused on physical Conclusion 251

pleasure, on jouissance; their genders and the roles they play are not explicitly defined. There may be three women together, or two women and a man, or a woman who gazes at a man and freely fantasizes on the basis of what she sees or thinks she sees. The reader is privy to these activities designed as tableaux and meticulously described. Given the high degree of ambiguity concerning genders and situations, the reader, like the characters in the fiction, ends up actively relying on his or her imagination and freely engaging with a text that has forsaken the coercive strictures of traditional prose fiction designed to plant a single image in our minds. For instance, Mercado begins by exploding and expanding the normally restrictive and eminently phallic relationship between signifiers and signifieds. The images she portrays are purposefully ambiguous— horses simultaneously move away and toward the viewer, galloping and walking at the same time; the arousal of a woman is akin to the slow and continuous ‘‘simmering’’ of a stockpot in which all manner of vegetables and essences of meats and marrow sweat and melt together until a state of fusion is attained; a half-naked man walking down a street becomes indistinguishable from his own penis in the way he moves, in the way he is described, in his attitude; edges between words, and di√erences between terms, ‘‘go up in smoke’’ (110). The penis enters Mercado’s fiction often and insistently. But it is not a sex organ that trails a personality behind it. Mercado repossesses it, lays a claim on it, turning it into an erotic plaything, seldom taking time or space to describe the bodies to which it is attached. In her fiction the penis is an organ of pleasure that does not impose its will on women. In fact, nothing and no one imposes a will of any kind in Canon de alcoba. Preoccupied with neither power nor control, women focus instead, ‘‘on the tasks of the body’’ (61). These tasks fall to them because the feminine body is open by nature, and ‘‘will not be filled by any presence whatsoever’’ (61). Unlike Isabel Zebadúa’s, and Idolina’s, and Marisela’s, the body of a woman today can be free if it chooses to be; it no longer needs to turn to a man for instructions on how to behave. Those days, Mercado is saying, are behind us. Realizing and a≈rming this truth ushers an extraordinary sense of celebration into her portrayals; it is not surprising that she entitled an earlier work Celebrar a la mujer como una pascua (1967) (Celebrating Women as if They Were Christmas). Rethinking and transforming centuries of sociocultural values, Mer252 Body of writing

cado finds her own room and her own view. She realizes that if literature is a mirror of the body and the body a source and locus of meanings, once we witness the grief, fear, and violence in the pictures painted by the likes of Cortázar, Cabrera Infante, García Márquez, and Sarduy, we will be forced to conclude, along with García Márquez himself, that men (who both wrote and acted in these dire visions of life) are indeed ‘‘condemned to one hundred years of solitude,’’ and belong to a race that may not have ‘‘a second opportunity on earth’’ (One Hundred Years, 383). Mercado’s vision of a world where power plays no part presents as tempting an alternative to the putrid place of patriarchy as her answer to the hegemonic novel. Both her vision and her answer give the body free reign and suggest, like the Gordian knot with which she concludes her book, that a new scheme is at hand and that since writing, like love and life, always introduces new threads, what she has nurtured may well transform the multisignifying pattern we call the world.

Conclusion 253

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Notes i

1. Julio Cortázar’s perpetual exile 1 These are far from being the only characters who have trouble breathing in Cortázar’s stories. As Antonio Planells reminds us, Nico in ‘‘Cartas de mamá,’’ Claudio Romero in ‘‘Los pasos en las huellas,’’ and Torito in the eponymous story die of tuberculosis (Cortázar, 92–93); in ‘‘Bestiario’’ Isabel is sent to the country because she su√ers from ‘‘delicate lungs’’ (20), and the narrator of ‘‘Reunión’’ has a condition described as ‘‘a hellish asthma,’’ and is persistently troubled by ‘‘coughing and a wheezing sound in his chest’’ (470, 475). Many of Cortázar’s characters su√er from lung ailments like Cortázar himself, who, as a child, spent long periods in bed plagued with asthma and pleurisy (Prego, La fascinación de las palabras, 25). However, suggesting—as does Planells—that Cortázar was obsessed with breathing disorders simply because he su√ered from asthma as a child does not get to the bottom of the problem (92–93). 2 Freud assures us that all anxiety ‘‘has . . . separation from a highly valued object as its content’’ and is directly related to the trauma of birth (The Problem of Anxiety, 76). 3 As Gregorio Kohon observes, ‘‘what makes sexuality in human beings specifically human is repression, that is to say, sexuality owes its existence to our unconscious incestuous fantasies. Desire, in human sexuality, is always transgression; and being something that is never completely fulfilled, its object cannot ever o√er full satisfaction.’’ ‘‘Reflections on Dora,’’ 371 (Kohon’s emphasis). 4 In the subway scene with which the story opens, Dina, the black protagonist, wears the fur-trimmed coat alluded to in the title, ‘‘Cuello de gatito negro.’’ When the story was translated, the word cuello was changed to ‘‘throat.’’ A literal translation of ‘‘Cuello de gatito negro’’ (‘‘black kitten collar’’) would have been misleading; however, by changing collar or neck to throat, the translator unwittingly removed the ambiguity of Cortázar’s original title (Dina—wrapped in a coat with a mangy fur collar—is black herself and, like a cat, she scratches. In short, she behaves like a gatito negro). 5 According to Otto Rank and pertinent to our understanding of ‘‘Axolotl,’’ the widely dispersed legends of the water of life correspond to the birth waters (The Incest Theme in Literature and Legend, 252).

6 One needs only to recall Lucho’s entreaties to Dina to let him back in, and his insistent reminders about ‘‘how everything was going so well’’ when they were together within the same dark room, to get some idea of just how dreaded this separation from ‘‘the maternal hiding place’’ really is (‘‘Cuello de gatito negro,’’ Octaedro, 164). 7 Rank’s explanation sheds light on many of Cortázar’s animal stories, most conspicuously those which feature swallowing—‘‘Circe,’’ for instance. The confections prepared by ‘‘Circe’s’’ protagonist, Delia Mañara, are perverse as well as profoundly disturbing: disturbing in a way that seems disproportionate on a conscious level with the act of swallowing chocolate-covered animals. In and of itself, after all, feeding on animal tissue is not considered dreadful by most people. But let us think for a moment about the kind of animals that Delia chooses for her repugnant alchemy. These include spiders (135; all the page numbers here and after come from Relatos), rabbits (135), a live mouse (139), a centipede (142), roaches (144), ants (145), and a goldfish (146). All of them fall within Rank’s category of animals that can completely disappear into small holes. What we seem to be witnessing in this story, then, is the dread of being swallowed, which extemporizes birth trauma at its most explicit level. The link I suggest between small animals, swallowing, and birth trauma may seem far-fetched to some, but Cortázar provides enough clues to leave no doubt that this is what he intended. For example, before Rolo—one of Delia Mañara’s hapless boyfriends—commits suicide, the Mañaras’ neighbors reveal that his crying had been like ‘‘a choked up howl, a scream between the hands that wanted to strangle him,’’ and it is not surprising—in view of Cortázar’s narrative design—that he should end up asphyxiated (136–137). We have already considered choking and shortness of breath as symptoms associated with birth anxiety. What we need to recognize at this point is how the fear of swallowing or vomiting animals might set o√ primal anxiety by evoking in the reader the ‘‘wish to return into the maternal hiding place as completely accomplished’’ that Rank refers to (Trauma of Birth, 14). I believe this is the anxiety that explains the feeling of horror in stories like ‘‘Circe’’ and ‘‘Letter to a Young Lady in Paris.’’ The small burrowing animals portrayed in both instances materialize, in fact, the wish to crawl back into mother. That chimera is painful for the very reason that it is unrealizable. Cortázar’s stories dramatize an impossible longing, therefore, an unfulfillable dream. This unfulfillability explains why his characters are often viewed as existential outsiders or descolocados, in the phrase of Fernando Ainsa (‘‘Las dos orillas de Julio Cortázar,’’ 426). 8 Graciela de Sola, Julio Cortázar y el hombre nuevo, 49. Also Malva Filer, Los mundos de Julio Cortázar, 35. 9 ‘‘Don’t forget,’’ Cortázar once told Picón Garfield, ‘‘that an author usually attributes to some characters in his books the realization of his own desires, his own dreams’’ (Cortázar por Cortázar, 80). 10 The idea of being eaten by the father belongs to the primal stock of childhood ideas. Analogies from mythology—Kronos, for instance—readily come to mind. Freud tells us ‘‘that the idea of being eaten by the father is the regressively debased expression of a

256 Notes to chapter one







tender passive impulse which craves to be the object of the father’s love in the sense of genital erotism’’ (Problem of Anxiety, 34). Antonio Planells mentions ‘‘the lack of characters that might represent the father, a leader, or a role model’’ in the work of Cortázar (Cortázar, 31), and Joaquín Roy observes, ‘‘in the world inhabited by the protagonist of ‘Bestiario,’ the absence of the father is blatant. So many children portrayed by Cortázar live in similar circumstances’’ (i.e., without a father) (Roy, Julio Cortázar ante su sociedad, 81). There is no doubt that Cortázar goes to great lengths to make fathers conspicuous by their absence. For instance, in Los reyes he transforms the legend of the Minotaur in ways that are highly revealing. Plutarch describes Theseus as a son who dreams of coming home to please his father, and Aegeus jumps into the sea when he sees the black sail, raised by mistake, which was the agreed-upon signal to let him know his son had died in the Labyrinth. In Cortázar’s transformation of the legend, however, Theseus scorns his father’s ineptness and old age, and blames him for their country’s military failure. Discussing what Cortázar refers to as ‘‘el complejo de la Arcadia, el retorno al gran útero, el ‘back to Adam, le bon sauvage,’ ’’ Ainsa suggests that the ‘‘idea de un paraíso perdido o de la isla paradisíaca aparece burlonamente referida, pero buscada con igual tenacidad’’ (‘‘Las dos orillas,’’ 437 n. 28). I am not so sure that Cortázar was referring to the lost paradise as ironically as Ainsa pretends. ‘‘The high narcissistic value attaching to the penis,’’ explains Freud, ‘‘may refer to the fact that the possession of this organ contains a guarantee of reunion with the mother (or mother substitute) in the act of coitus. Deprivation of this member’’ (symbolically speaking, of course) ‘‘is tantamount to a second separation from the mother (as in the case of birth)’’ (Problem of Anxiety, 78). Anguish remains a constant feature of Cortázar’s stories until he writes ‘‘Cuello de gatito negro.’’ By the time Queremos tanto a Glenda, appears in print, however, the obsessive material (i.e., the figuras) depicted in his earlier work has conspicuously diminished. It is interesting to note that the spellbinding quality of his earlier work has, likewise, sadly diminished. Doing his own analysis through writing, it seems, Cortázar freed himself from the demons that haunted him and made his work enthralling in the first place. As Planells rightly suggests, ‘‘if there would be such a thing as a winner (in ‘‘Letters from Mother’’), it would be the mother (who is also, one might add, the one and only winner in ‘‘The Health of the Sick’’) (Cortázar, 98). In spite of its overall accuracy, one of the problems I see with Ana Hernández’s explanation is that Jungian concepts, being archetypal, apply to humanity as a whole. Jung does not take the individual psyche su≈ciently into account, and his symbols are attributed indiscriminately. In studying the development of a person’s artistic consciousness, it is important to proceed through a process of individuation, examining one by one the obsessions that bolster anxiety. In the case of Cortázar’s fiction, for example, hands, ants, and a humid pit below a pyramid are not archetypes but, rather, manifestations of a phobia.

Notes to chapter one


17 As Freud makes clear, ‘‘the striking coincidence that both birth anxiety and the anxiety of the infant alike claim separation from the mother as their prerequisite needs no psychological interpretation.’’ It is simply enough explicable biologically, he feels, ‘‘by the fact that the mother, who in the beginning had satisfied all the needs of the fetus through her body mechanisms, continues after birth as well to exercise in some measure the same function although by other means’’ (The Problem of Anxiety, 77). 18 The child begins to feel hostility against his parents, Klein explains, as soon as he wants ‘‘to achieve genital union with his mother and destroy his father’s penis which he supposes to be inside her body’’ (Contributions to Psychoanalysis, 133). A sadistic aggression develops that is soon intensified by the ongoing libidinal frustration. Klein argues that ‘‘the destructive cravings which are fused with the libidinal ones and cannot be gratified’’ will probably ‘‘lead to a further intensification of sadism and to an activation of its methods’’ (130). 19 This identification is plain in a story like ‘‘Las babas del diablo’’ (‘‘Blow-Up’’). Here, the young, innocent boy is clearly set up to be the sacrificial victim, while the woman—acting out the role of the mother—is ready to sell him out, to torment him because she gives in to the wishes of the father-substitute in the story. The father figure, by the way, is the dark presence behind the wheel of the car, unseen until the last minute. Roberto Michel, the story’s narrator, rescues the child from becoming the victim. In other words, he obliterates the primal scene and the trauma that comes with it when, in the role of voyeur and photographer, he freeze frames the terrible preamble between a boy, a man, and a woman—and prevents its aftermath from taking place. By intruding into the triangular relationship before fulfillment of an unspoken and unspeakable act is committed and allowing the boy to run o√ without having to come to terms with the painful truth that results from primal scene trauma, Michel rescues himself by foisting a personal anxiety onto a substitute whom he saves, unscathed, from a potentially destructive confrontation. 20 It is far from gratuitous, moreover, that Marcial should be an anesthetist, a specialty that connects him with the act of breathing and brings us back to Cortázar’s obsession with respiratory disorders, disorders that are usually linked with death in his stories. The rival in ‘‘Nurse Cora’’ is a father-substitute willing to wage war at all times (as his name attests), and an attendant at Pablo’s death. We could further explore the symbolism of ‘‘Nurse Cora’’ by suggesting that death comes about as a result of having the boy’s little appendage cut o√ from his body. 21 Cortázar was conscious of his own problems and, on at least one occasion, he admitted to Evelyn Picón, ‘‘I don’t trust myself. I corroborate many of Freud’s claims in my own reactions’’ (Cortázar por Cortázar, 71). 22 In Spanish the preposition ‘‘por’’ in the phrase ‘‘por él’’ ambiguously suggests both ‘‘for him’’ and ‘‘for his sake.’’ 23 For the unconscious, ‘‘the room [is] the space which . . . symbolizes the female genitals’’ (364). 24 The first story containing veiled references to Oedipal trauma is ‘‘Bestiario,’’ pub-

258 Notes to chapter one

lished in 1951; incest—or, more exactly, a symbolic enactment of incest—is finally carried out in ‘‘Unreasonable Hours,’’ published in 1984.

2. More than meets the I: Guillermo Cabrera Infante’s La Habana para un Infante difunto 1 Unless otherwise indicated, all parenthetical page references throughout this chapter are to the Spanish edition, La Habana para un Infante difunto (Barcelona: Seix Barral, 1979). 2 This literally translates as ‘‘The vision of a nearsighted voyeur’’ but the title of this chapter in the English version of the novel is ‘‘Vigil of the Naked I.’’ Because Infante’s Inferno (trans. Suzanne Jill Levine and Cabrera Infante, New York: Harper and Row, 1984) is both a translation and a transcription of La Habana para un Infante difunto, I will alternate between both versions whenever the one in English adds a nuance to the one in Spanish. The English version will be identified as I.I. 3 We know from Christian Metz’s insightful Le signifiant imaginaire (Paris: Union Générale d’Editions, 1977, 88) that for the voyeur the object of desire is by definition untouchable, a fixation informed by primal scene fantasies in which the child always casts himself in the passive position of observer. 4 A General Introduction to Psychoanalysis, 201. 5 Metz, Le signifiant imaginaire, 88. 6 Ibid. 7 Joseph Cotten spends most of the movie trying, unsuccessfully, to get near Alida Valli. It is not surprising that the hero of Infante’s Inferno likes The Third Man so well since this movie, like his own tale, is a recasting of the Oedipal scenario: two men love the same woman but she prefers one to the other. 8 For instance, after staring at the beautiful naked body of Etelvina, he walks away without touching it and wonders: ‘‘I don’t know how I managed to leave the room, how I was able to leave so much potential bliss behind . . .’’ (79). He also fails at the brothel, a scene described on page 325. 9 The dead infant is clearly the narrator-cum-author who is no longer a child. A pavane is a musical composition that has a duple rhythm just as the word infante has a double meaning in Cabrera’s saga. On the one hand, ‘‘infante’’ is the child the hero no longer is and, on the other—capitalized this time—Infante is the maternal name with which he clearly identifies, so much so, in fact, that the whole novel can be read as a declaration of love. 10 The lost paradise in the work of both authors is always a symbolic—and often ironic— allusion to the womb. 11 Rodríguez Monegal, ‘‘Cabrera Infante: La novela como autobiografía total,’’ Revista Iberoamericana 47 (1981): 265–71. 12 Problem of Anxiety, 34. 13 The painting’s o≈cial title is Rendition at Breda.

Notes to chapter two


14 I refer readers interested in this question to Gérard Pommier’s L’exception féminine (Paris: Point Hors Ligne, 1985). When discussing the notion of infantile desire, Pommier feels, like Lacan, that the male child readily identifies not just with the mother but with the object of her longing, which, he argues, is the phallus (26). Lacan argues along the same lines in ‘‘La métaphore paternelle’’ and ‘‘Les Trois Temps de l’Oedipe,’’ Le Séminaire, Livre V: Les formations del’inconscient, 161–96 and 182–83.

3. The excremental vision of Gabriel García Márquez 1 Gabriel García Márquez, El coronel no tiene quien le escriba (Mexico City: Biblioteca Era, 1984). All page references are to this edition; all translations of this novel quoted in this chapter are my own. 2 Peter G. Earle, ‘‘El futuro como espejismo,’’ in Gabriel García Márquez: El escritor y la crítica (Madrid: Taurus, 1981). Graciela Maturo, Claves simbólicas de García Márquez, 2d ed. (Buenos Aires: Fernando García Cambeiro, 1977). 3 Earle relies on J. E. Cirlot’s A Dictionary of Symbols (New York: Philosophical Library, 1962, 49) in order to interpret the role of the rooster in No One Writes to the Colonel. 4 See pages 7, 8, 10, 20, 27, 28, 29, 32, 33, 38, 51, 53, 66, 69, 71, 72, 78, 86, 89, 90, 99, 101, 102, 104. 5 Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World, trans. Hélène Iswolsky (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1968), 370. 6 George R. McMurray, Gabriel García Márquez (New York: Frederick Ungar, 1977). 7 Kristeva has been studying the relationship between rejection and creativity continuously from the time she worked on Mallarmé and wrote La révolution du langage poétique, but she dwells most particularly on this relationship in her more recent Pouvoirs de l’horreur (Paris: Points, 1980). 8 Rama takes this word purely as an expletive forgetting, it seems, that the colonel most emphatically expresses a distaste for cursing when he visits Alvaro. The last word in García Márquez’s novella is used with a great deal of forethought and has meaning on di√erent levels, as we shall see. 9 García Márquez says as much himself to Mario Sergio Conti in ‘‘A New Epic from García Márquez,’’ World Press Review (October 1986), 60. 10 In a rare interview García Márquez told Marlise Simons that aging had made him realize ‘‘that feelings and sentiments, what happens in the heart, are ultimately the most important.’’ ‘‘García Márquez on Love, Plagues, and Politics,’’ New York Times Book Review, 21 February 1988, 23–25. 11 Writing about El amor en los tiempos del cólera in December 1985, Francisco Lemos Arboleda declared that the novel portrayed ‘‘a series of repugnant and sick sexual passions’’ (El País, 3 December 1985, 14). 12 In an early article titled ‘‘The Motif of Voyage as Mythical Symbol in El amor en los tiempos del cólera by Gabriel García Márquez,’’ Margaret Snook argues that this author presents the symbolic voyage from one narrative space to another under di√erent guises, and that one of these guises is always the human body. As I demon-

260 Notes to chapter three



15 16


18 19


strate in this chapter, and Snook herself argues, in García Márquez’s work, ‘‘the human body [is] transformed metaphorically.’’ In her article she studies the body only as a guise for the voyage, but her intuition regarding the work of the Colombian author was certainly an inspiration to me (Hispanic Journal 10 [1], 1988, 85–91). Leona Cassiani, we are told, was the true woman in Florentino’s life, ‘‘although neither of them ever knew it and they never make love’’ (182). Ten years after she goes to work for the River Company, ‘‘She loved him so much that instead of deceiving him she preferred to continue loving him,’’ until he grasped, at last, ‘‘that it is possible to be a woman’s friend and not go to bed with her’’ (188). One critic has referred to the novel as ‘‘an encyclopedia of love’’ although, as I will show, not all so-called love relationships portrayed in Love in the Time of Cholera involve love (Mijal Heidi Gai, ‘‘Un temprano cuento de amor de García Márquez leído desde ‘‘Los tiempos del cólera,’ ’’ Neophilologus 73 [3], 1989, 385). One of the points García Márquez is making is that we need to rethink what is meant by love. With typical accuracy, Mabel Moraña writes that Love in the Time of Cholera is ‘‘a kind of frieze on which are displayed all possible stages of love’’ (‘‘Modernity and Marginality in Love in the Time of Cholera,’’ Studies in Twentieth Century Literature 14 [1], 1990, 28). ‘‘Voir ouvre tout l’espace au désir,’’ Starobinski writes, ‘‘mais voir ne su≈t pas au désir’’ (L’Oeil vivant, 13). That watching and the eye are motifs associated with Florentino and his love for Fermina is made evident in a variety of ways. For instance, the house he builds in the hope of making Fermina Daza, and no one but Fermina Daza, happy is in the Street of the Windows. Lest this reference be too veiled, García Márquez makes a point of adding, that ‘‘it was a haven that suited his way of loving, because the location was discreet despite the fact that the numerous windows that gave the street its name made one think of too many eyes’’ (164). Florentino even buys the looking glass from Don Sancho’s Inn where Fermina’s face was once reflected during what was, for him, a memorable dinner, and hangs it across from his mother’s bed (288). Unable to have the real thing, he buys Fermina’s reflection and pairs it with the bed in which, according to Christian Metz, the voyeur’s trauma begins (Le signifiant imaginaire [Paris: Union Générale d’Editiones, 1977], 288). Fermina’s centrality is further emphasized in these two paragraphs by twelve thirdperson feminine possessive objects and two reflexive pronouns. It should be obvious, from this remark, that Love in the Time of Cholera is about di√erent kinds of a√ective and/or erotic relationships that are not love. Despite what Bernard Schulz-Cruz maintains, Florentino’s and Fermina’s youthful idyll cannot and should not be compared to their mature relationship in the last chapter (Bernard Schulz-Cruz, ‘‘La vocación de la escritura en El amor en los tiempos del cólera,’’ INTI: Revista de Literatura Hispánica 31, 1990, 21–34). Later that day, when her father is taking his afternoon nap, Fermina sends Florentino a two-line note informing him, ‘‘Today, when I saw you, I realized that what is between us is nothing more than an illusion’’ (102).

Notes to chapter three


21 García Márquez defined Fermina’s role in the novel when he said, ‘‘she is the strong one, Fermina Daza. She is the novel’’ (quoted in Francisco Arroyo, ‘‘El amor, la vejez, la muerte,’’ in El País 321 [12 December 1985]: 2). 22 While men strut about convinced of their importance, women ‘‘alone knew how tiresome was the man they loved to distraction, who perhaps loved them but whom they had to continue nurturing until his last breath as if he were a child, suckling him, changing his soiled diapers, distracting him with a mother’s tricks to ease his terror at going out each morning to face reality’’ (202). Fermina Daza is the epitome of the wife-mother in Love in the Time of Cholera. This is why, for instance, after bathing her husband, she ‘‘helped him to dress: she sprinkled talcum powder between his legs, she smoothed cocoa butter on his rashes, she helped him put on his underwear with as much love as if it were a diaper. . . . Their conjugal dawns grew calm because he had returned to the childhood his children had taken away from him’’ (31). 23 Florentino succeeds in accumulating ‘‘some twenty-five notebooks, with sixhundred-twenty-two entries of long-term liaisons, apart from the countless fleeting adventures’’ by the time Dr. Urbino drops dead (152). 24 The Urbinos’ marriage seems to be such a perfect alliance when described by other characters in the novel that one tends to forget ‘‘that Juvenal’s . . . suit had never been undertaken in the name of love’’ (205). The many worldly goods he o√ers Fermina— security, order, happiness—‘‘might resemble love, almost be love. But they were not love, ’’ we are distinctly told (205, my emphasis). García Márquez also emphasizes that life without love ‘‘was nothing more than a system of atavistic contracts, banal ceremonies, preordained words, with which people entertained each other in society in order not to commit murder’’ (211). 25 As Mabel Moraña rightly a≈rms, Florentino Ariza ‘‘is committed to no project other than himself ’’ (30); it is just as true, however, that he evolves dramatically in the last chapter (‘‘Modernity and Marginality in Love in the Time of Cholera, ’’ 27–43). 26 The barrenness of Florentino’s liaisons works both ways and is never more evident than when he is voraciously snatched away by a woman with the revealing name of Ausencia. She is a woman who is ‘‘so absorbed in herself ’’ that when she ‘‘mounts’’ him she leaves him ‘‘exhausted, incomplete . . . with the impression of being no more than an instrument of pleasure’’ (178). In fact, once when he reproachfully tells her, ‘‘You treat me as if I were just anybody,’’ she doesn’t mince words. ‘‘Not at all,’’ she answers, ‘‘as if you were nobody ’’ (my emphasis, 178). 27 One of Florentino’s mistresses, Andrea Varón, attributes a distinctive sensuality to enemas and convinces him to share them with her ‘‘as they tried to create even more love within their love’’ (271). 28 After Florentino saw Fermina for the first time, his mother knew, because ‘‘he lost his voice and his appetite and spent the entire night tossing and turning in his bed’’ (61). Then, when he began to wait for the answer to his first letter, ‘‘his anguish was complicated by diarrhea and green vomit, he became disoriented and su√ered from sudden fainting spells, and his mother was terrified because his condition did not resemble the turmoil of love so much as the devastation of cholera’’ (61). When a

262 Notes to chapter three










homeopathic doctor is called in to look at Florentino, he concludes, likewise, that ‘‘the symptoms of love were the same as those of cholera’’ (62). For instance, love and excrement are brought together when Leona Cassiani is described as a ‘‘fierce black woman smeared with shit and love’’ (187). However, this is one reference that bears no relation to the grand scheme of withholding and release in which Florentino plays the main role. According to Norman O. Brown, in Gulliver’s Travels the Yahoo ritual of discharging excrements on the hero’s head, for example, symbolizes the renewal of society (Life Against Death, 190). In her shrewd article on the novel, Margaret Snook links Florentino’s spartan lifestyle to his personal austerity, suggesting that his sparsely furnished house ‘‘corresponds to the emptiness of his emotional life’’ (‘‘Lugar y espacio en El amor en los tiempos del cólera, ’’ 95–101). For studies in which excrement, the color black, and the devil are linked, I refer readers to J. E. Bourke, Scatological Rites of All Nations (Washington, D.C.: W. H. Lowdermilk, 1891), 163; Ernest Jones, On the Nightmare (New York: Liveright, 1951), 122, 203; M. J. Rudwin, The Devil in Legend and Literature (Chicago: Open Court Publishing, 1931), 45, 207, 250; and, of course, Dante’s Inferno, canto 34, 76–93. In the episode that describes the interconnection between lofty words and shit, García Márquez revisits Freud’s discussion of what is highest and lowest in human nature. In Freud’s terms, ‘‘Thus it is that what belongs to the lowest depths in the minds of each one of us is changed, through this formation of the ideal, into what we value highest in the human soul’’ (The Ego and the Id, 48). With a great deal of irony, García Márquez travels not from ‘‘the lowest depths’’ to the ‘‘formation of the ideal’’ but instead inverts the direction of Freud’s equation. Thus he taints the lofty and idealistic letter that Florentino writes Fermina with what belongs to the lowest depths. Just as significant as the bird droppings on their first exchange is the fact that Fermina’s last letter to Florentino before her father sends her away is written on toilet paper (82). We know that in literature as well as in dreams a voyage always presents an act of evolution and, consequently, rites of initiation often take the form of a symbolic journey (see, for instance, Juan Eduardo Cirlot’s Diccionario de símbolos, 460). Parallels with No One Writes to the Colonel are, once again, obvious. December is the time of renewal, and the ‘‘climate of perpetual spring’’ is the time of growth in both tales. In terms of human relations, García Márquez always puts the accent on knowing. In Spanish, the etymology of the verb to know bears out his choice. The con in conocer (‘‘to know’’) derives from cum; nocer cum literally means ‘‘to be born with’’ and implies the presence of someone else with whom we engage in a process of exchange. Other critics have noted the rich ambiguity of Saint-Amour’s name, including the connotation of lamentation and destruction associated with the name Jeremiah. Mijal Heidi Gai’s ‘‘Un temprano cuento de amor de García Márquez leido desde ‘los tiempos del cólera’ ’’ is a case in point.

Notes to chapter three


38 García Márquez’s modern-day Bible is humanistic rather than religious; consequently, his own Jeremiah is described as ‘‘an atheistic saint’’ (6). 39 Much to Urbino’s unfathomable capacity for astonishment, Jeremiah’s mistress was aware that he was about to kill himself because ‘‘he had made the irrevocable decision to take his own life when he was sixty years old,’’ and all she did was help ‘‘him to endure the su√ering as lovingly as she had helped him to discover happiness’’ (15). When Urbino suggests to her that her duty was to report him, she answers that she could not do that because she ‘‘loved him too much’’ (15). To the dismay of her emotionally impaired husband, Fermina fully understands such expressions of loyalty. When Urbino voices astonishment that Saint-Amour’s mistress did not stop him from committing suicide, Fermina explains that ‘‘it seemed to her a heartbreaking proof of love that she had helped him carry out his decision to die’’ (32). 40 This process of renewal in Love in the Time of Cholera is made clear not only through Florentino’s gastric explosion and his change from black to white clothes, but also by Fermina’s ritual cleansing. After her husband’s death, in an attempt to come to terms with her new situation and wishing ‘‘to be herself again, to recover all she had been obliged to give up in half a century of servitude that . . . did not leave her even the vestiges of her identity,’’ she burns ‘‘innumerable objects so tied to her life that by now they formed part of her identity’’ (179, 281). Fermina’s ritual burning signals the end of one era, and the beginning of another. 41 ‘‘Behold, I am bringing upon this city and upon all its towns all the evil that I have pronounced against it’’ ( Jeremiah 19:15). 42 ‘‘This whole land shall become a ruin and a waste’’ ( Jeremiah 25:11). 43 Could it be that García Márquez chose his heroine’s name because a close homograph of Fermina is femina (woman)? 44 García Márquez once declared that he ‘‘could not have written Love in the Time of Cholera when [he] was younger’’ (Marlise Simons, ‘‘García Márquez on Love, Plagues and Politics,’’ 23–25). Michael Palencia-Roth argues that the novel is ‘‘a reflection on old age’’; I feel that old age is simply the mask worn by experience, which may sound like another way of saying exactly what Palencia-Roth claims but is not (Michael Palencia-Roth, ‘‘Gabriel García Márquez,’’ 54–58). Love in the Time of Cholera is not about one age in particular; it is about learning how to love. Because learning is a process, it makes sense to portray the couple who learns to love after many struggles and setbacks as old, in order to emphasize their evolution.

4. The degraded body in the work of Severo Sarduy 1 The narrators and characters of Sarduy’s novels spend considerable time and space pondering over the meaning and practice of writing. The first few pages of Cobra are a veritable canon of the art. In Colibrí one of the narrators is named Sarduy, and the hero’s tattooed body is referred to as ‘‘the manuscript.’’ 2 This is particularly true in Colibrí, in which a father addresses one of the novel’s narrators to inform him: ‘‘you are already a grown man and a member of the Sarduy family’’ (129).

264 Notes to chapter four

3 This pint-sized version of Cobra is a white dwarf called ‘‘Pup,’’ short for ‘‘La Poupée.’’ 4 After pointing out the link between phallus and foot in Cobra, Alicia Rivero-Potter adds something I had missed in my own reading: ‘‘uno de los libros que [Cobra] lee,’’ she explains, ‘‘es sobre la reducción de testículos y Cobra intenta aplicarse el método a los pies’’ (Autor/Lector, 111). 5 I pointed this out in an article published in 1985, where I explain that Sarduy takes the term zob (borrowed from Arabic but, nowadays, of current use in French slang) as the point of departure for the Moroccan doctor’s name (Cuadernos americanos, 258, 243). To this root he adds the consonants ‘‘Kt,’’ a phonetic approximation of the Spanish verb quitar, ‘‘to remove.’’ The name of the castrating doctor in Cobra is—and I say this parodying Severo—the ‘‘signifier of his own signified’’: the zob remover. 6 I again refer readers to my article in Cuadernos americanos, where this homology is explained in full detail. 7 When the father symbolically splits up the mother and child during the Oedipal crisis, the latter’s desire for the mother or the imaginary unity with her must be repressed. Sarduy may be referring to the fusion between mother and child prior to the symbolic castration when, allegedly remembering a childhood accident, he explains to the reader, ‘‘my mother and I . . . were almost one and the same person’’ (El Cristo de la rue Jacob, 11). As J. Hillis Miller maintains, a literary text ‘‘is inhabited by a long chain of parasitical presences, echoes, allusions, guests, ghosts of previous texts’’ (‘‘The Limits of Pluralism, III: The Critic as Host,’’ Critical Inquiry [spring 1977], 446). Miller is specifically referring to artistic influences, but the past also includes an author’s personal life. Clearly, it, too, is a previous text exerting influence upon work in progress. 8 Roberto González Echevarría discusses this period of Sarduy’s life in great detail in La ruta de Severo Sarduy, 40–47. 9 Never one to do anything gratuitously, Sarduy probably amused himself foreshadowing the outcome of the couple’s liaison in his choice of profession for the Asian master in self-defense. Karate literally means empty hand in Japanese; very fittingly, the drama that Sarduy spent his life portraying was the quest for the unattainable. 10 According to legend, the Myrmidons were Thessalian soldiers who fought in the Trojan War under Achilles. Typical of his penchant for inversion, Sarduy is choosing the prototype of the macho soldier to embody the e√eminate troupe that steals his narrator’s developing tale. 11 ‘‘plastic finger bananas, glitter walnuts, a golden peach and a raspberry’’ (Colibrí, 128). 12 The writings to which the father is referring to in this tirade are, very pointedly, ludicrous parodies of homosexual fantasies in which the characters vilify each other and long for their own castration. As we soon discover, in Colibrí the body of desire is a slippery one that gets away from its author until he chooses to stand up to his father. The father described in the novel begins by putting ice under his son’s testicles, and follows the cold treatment demanding he ‘‘burn the four pieces of shit’’ (111, 129). The son disobeys him but, unlike Oedipus, he manages to keep both his eyes and his wits because, when all is said and done, Sarduy’s is a tale que pincha pero no corta. The fact is: nothing in this story is removed. The father’s wish is ignored, and the result of this disobedience turns out to be the son’s writing, including Colibrí.

Notes to chapter four


13 In an article titled ‘‘La ambiviolencia en la obra de Severo Sarduy’’ (Cuadernos Americanos 285, no. 1, 1985), I argued that Cobra was a staging of castration and the castration complex. 14 Psychoanalytic theory stresses the interconnection between anal organization and human aggression to the point of labeling this phase of infantile sexuality the anal sadistic phase. Defiance, mastery, will to power, suggests Norman O. Brown, ‘‘are attributes of human reason first developed in the symbolic manipulation of excrement and perpetuated in the symbolic manipulation of symbolic substitutes for excrement’’ (Life Against Death, 192). 15 Cobra’s great flaw marring his otherwise perfect body is to have feet so big that seeing them makes men flee (11). 16 In Cobra the hero wants to be a mirror reflection of the primary love object from which he has never established a distance; unable to fulfill this fantasy, he changes his tune. In Maitreya his wish is not to become the other but to enter her body. In other words, in the earlier novel, the hero does not di√erentiate his own image from the mother’s; in the later one he does but is fully dependent on his desire to become reunited with her. 17 The Señora in Cobra, Lady Tremendous in Maitreya, and the Regent in Colibrí are the most typical—although by no means the only—examples of ruling matriarchs in Sarduy’s work. 18 According to Hegel, the broken circle represents the incomplete status of human selfawareness, while the full circle symbolizes complete understanding which can only be divine. 19 Referring to this repossession, Roberto González Echevarría writes about Sarduy, ‘‘La ausencia, la separación, la carencia marcan su obra tanto como el deseo de una plenitud recuperada. Por eso los actos de recuperación son tan complejos y ricos, y la recuperación . . . se equipara al acto de la escritura’’ (La ruta de Severo Sarduy, 5). 20 As Dorothy Dinnerstein has proposed, male anxieties about female autonomy probably go as deep as everyone’s mother-dominated infancy (The Mermaid and the Minotaur, 5). Both Dinnerstein and Karen Horney show that male dread of women and, specifically, the male dread of maternal autonomy has objectified itself in vilification of women (Horney, ‘‘The Dread of Women,’’ in Feminine Psychology, 14–54). For a discussion of the Medusa Complex and its misogynistic message, interested readers can also see Philip Slater’s The Glory of Hera and R. D. Laing’s classic, The Divided Self. 21 In the words of Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, ‘‘Little Snow White’’ begins ‘‘when the Queen, having become a mother, metamorphoses into a witch—that is, into a wicked ‘step’ mother’’ (Madwoman in the Attic, 37). The Grimms’ sleight of hand is to substitute a bad mother for the good one, masking the Oedipal rivalry which is the bedrock of this story. 22 In ‘‘The Juniper Tree,’’ another folktale that shares a significant number of symbolic features with Sarduy’s trilogy, the young hero is transformed into a furious golden bird who sings a song of vengeance against his murderess, and ends up crushing her to death (in other words, exactly what she does to him in Maitreya). The conspicuous

266 Notes to chapter four

aggression and violence present in the Grimms’ fairy tales and—although for the most part tongue in cheek—in Sarduy’s trilogy make obvious the anger harbored by the male imagination as it transcribes the relationship to the mother. 23 A representative example of a story in which a father does everything in his power to forestall his son’s wish to replace him is the Grimms’ ‘‘The Golden Bird.’’ 24 As I trust it has become clear from this reading, whether Regent or Queen, male or female, the oppressive rulers portrayed by both Sarduy and the Grimms are thinly disguised mother figures.

5. Rewriting the body: renewal through language in the works of Rosario Castellanos 1 Neoindigenistas are a handful of twentieth-century Latin American authors who have pleaded the case of Indians in their works of fiction. Because they are not Indians themselves, their work cannot be called indigenous; as the great Peruvian theoretician José Carlos Mariátegui has pointed out, their perspective on Indian culture is that of a sympathetic outsider. However, unlike their fellow Indigenistas, the Neoindigenistas seek to penetrate the indigenous cosmic vision. Their highly stirring novels and short stories rise above the level of propaganda to become art with a mission. The great masters of Neoindigenismo are generally acknowledged to be Ciro Alegría (Peru), Miguel Angel Asturias (Guatemala), Manuel Scorza (Peru), Rosario Castellanos (Mexico), and José María Arguedas (Peru). 2 A ladino is anyone who is not Indian, including people of mixed Indian blood such as mestizos. Indians who adopt habits or fashions extraneous to village life—for instance, wearing shoes and factory-made clothes—are referred to as indios ladinizados. 3 ‘‘. . . el ayuntamiento de dos bestias carnívoras de especie diferente que de pronto se hallan encerradas en la misma jaula. Se rasguñan, se mordisquean, se devoran, por conquistar un milímetro más de la mitad de la cama que les corresponde, un gramo más de la ración destinada a cada uno. Y no porque importe ni la cama ni la ración. Lo que importa es reducir al otro a esclavitud. Aniquilarlo.’’ 4 In a memorable interview with Luis Adolfo Domínguez, Castellanos made the point that, as far as she was concerned, writing was a vehicle for self-analysis: ‘‘Lo que pasa es que yo escribo para mí,’’ she declared, ‘‘Me interesa, como lectora, aquello que yo puedo escribir. Hay una serie de fenómenos en el mundo que no entiendo si no los expreso . . . ,’’ she assured Domínguez, ‘‘y me interesa entenderlos.’’ ‘‘Entrevista con Rosario Castellanos,’’ Revista de Bellas Artes, April 1969, 14. 5 ‘‘un formidable documento vital, un testimonio de primer orden que seduce a las mujeres y a los hombres a quienes les interesa comprender a las mujeres.’’ 6 ‘‘Mi literatura . . . de combate, o como se le quiera llamar, no está hecha para las manos y los ojos de alguien que vaya a resolver la situación. Yo simplemente quiero que se haga conciencia . . . por lo menos hacerme yo conciencia, respecto de un tipo de fenómenos’’ (Interview with Emmanuel Carballo, Diecinueve protagonistas de la literatura mexicana del siglo XX [Mexico City: Empresas Editoriales, S.A., 1965], 27).

Notes to chapter five


7 The elected functionaries in these communities are called varas altas or ‘‘tall rods’’ for the sta√s they carry as symbols of rank. 8 It bears keeping in mind that caxlán, a Tzotzil word used to designate those in power and used throughout the novel, is almost homologous with castellan. 9 As Luce Irigaray points out, ‘‘Si nous continuons à nous parler le même langage, nous allons reproduire la même histoire’’ (If we continue to speak the same language to each other and to ourselves [‘nous parler’ has both meanings], then we shall reproduce the same story and the same history.’’ ‘‘Quand nos lèvres se parlent,’’ in Ce sexe qui n’en est pas un (Paris: Editions de Minuit, 1977), 205–17. In other words, feminine discourse must struggle to speak otherwise, which is exactly what we see Castellanos attempting to portray in Oficio de tinieblas. 10 Kristeva developed the term chora in order to account for the extralinguistic function, which she believes distinguishes language from other sign systems and which marks the subject’s condition in language as dialectical or double. Kristeva borrows this term from Plato’s Timaeus and uses it to refer to a ‘‘receptacle’’ that is hybrid and anterior to identity and naming. In La révolution du langage poètique she uses the Platonic term in two di√erent but related ways. First, the chora signifies a hypothetical space or phase that precedes the child’s acquisition of language and is prior to the mirror stage. Kristeva describes this preverbal chora as rhythmic, nourishing, maternal, and formed by what Freud defined as instinctual drives. In a second use of the term, she associates the chora with the extralinguistic functioning that she contends is a dimension of all signifying practice. For Kristeva, the child’s acquisition of language necessitates a rupture, which is at once a conscious-unconscious division of the emerging subject, and its detachment from the presymbolic chora. In La révolution du langage poètique, Kristeva develops the notion of language as a dialectical struggle between two poles—the semiotic (a pre- or translinguistic modality of psychic inscriptions controlled by the primary processes of displacement and condensation) and the symbolic (propositions or representations constitutive of language as a system of signs). Kristeva maintains that although language always includes both of these modalities, modern Western society has consistently refused the semiotic, thereby dissociating the subject from language and adopting a onedimensional model of language and self. Intending to challenge this unitary model, she elaborates a theory of subject identity as produced in language, in dialectical process between the semiotic and the symbolic poles. She explains how, without the symbolic intervening as order, identity, and consciousness, there would be no art or language as communication. On the other hand, without the semiotic, the symbolic would lack any form of materiality, with the result that there would still be no art or language as communication. 11 There are no coincidences in Oficio de tinieblas. The reemergence of the whip in the cave of Tzajal-hemel is no exception to this rule. We first saw this weapon associated with castilla, the discourse of power. Later in the action it appears depicted as an emblem of manliness (‘‘sign of manhood the whip with which the male overpowers the female,’’ 76); almost immediately, the whip is connected to the living embodiment of that power—Leonardo Cifuentes—whose own ‘‘punta de látigo’’ makes Mar-

268 Notes to chapter five



14 15


cela pregnant. The whip in Oficio is there to hurt, and its victims are usually women. However, this trend is cut short in Tzajal-hemel the second time around. After giving birth to the gods, Catalina annuls the power of the whip and replaces it with what could be referred to—borrowing Castellanos’s own symbols—as the power of the cave. According to Suleiman, the goal of any author seeking to redefine the position of women should be ‘‘to invent both a new poetics and a new politics, based on women’s reclaiming . . . control over their bodies and a voice with which to speak about it’’ (‘‘Re)writing the Body: The Politics and Poetics of Female Eroticism,’’ in The Female Body in Western Culture, 7). For a period of over ten years, Irigaray was vehement about the possibility of articulating a form of womanspeak. ‘‘Defined as mother-substance,’’ she argued in 1985, ‘‘often obscure, often occult of the verb of men, we need our subject, our noun, our verb, our predicates, our elementary sentence, our base rhythm, our morphological identity, our generic incarnation, our genealogy’’ (‘‘Femmes divines,’’ Critique 454 [1985], 294–308; translated by Stephen Muecke as Divine Women [Sydney: Local Consumption, 1986, 11]). Arguments in favor of womanspeak are also present in This Sex Which Is Not One, trans. Catherine Porter with Carolyn Burke (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1985) and ‘‘Women’s Exile,’’ an interview with Irigaray translated by Couze Veun, in Ideology and Consciousness 1 (May 1977), 62–76, esp. p. 64. The pre-Oedipal stage before the child acquires language corresponds to what Kristeva calls the semiotic and Castellanos refers to as inspired ‘‘stammers.’’ It is highly significant that Castellanos has named the priest who gets butchered by the Indians Manuel. ‘‘Manu,’’ the first man as well as the first king, means, at the same time, the ‘‘first dead’’ (Dumezil, Mitra et Varuna, cited in Kristeva, Révolution, 546). Castellanos’s cave scene is an allegory of woman’s powers of procreation, a power that has been reenacted in rites from time immemorial. Its ancestry can also be readily traced back to many myths, a prime example of which is the tale of Isis and her brother Osiris. Like the god Osiris, Pedro Winiktón in Oficio was the enemy of all violence, and it was by gentleness alone that he subjected his people. Out of jealousy (or, in other words, out of male rivalry) Osiris was killed and his body cut to pieces. Her wife and sister Isis found the pieces and, because of her powers of sorcery, succeeded in restoring her husband’s dead body to life. In psychoanalytic terms, Osiris’s dismemberment dramatizes man’s inherent ‘‘fear of expropriation, of separation, of the loss of the attribute,’’ while Isis’s sleight of hand discloses woman’s ability to give life anew (Cixous, Jeune née, 147). In one of his incarnations Osiris was a vegetation spirit that dies and is ceaselessly reborn. The ability to overcome death is the gift his wife gives him, as the myth makes amply clear. This ability to procreate is symbolically dramatized in Castellanos’s cave scene, but Winiktón cannot tolerate Catalina’s power because he misjudges it. He perceives it as an attempt on her part to dispossess him of power when, in fact, it is her procreative gift that enables him to brandish the Name of the Father. As Kristeva explains, ‘‘La mère détient la généra-

Notes to chapter five


17 18




22 23


tion et donc la cohérence des ensembles sociaux, mais cette fonction n’est qu’une fraction de la loi qui gère les ensembles, et dont le meurtre du père constitue la face cachée (Révolution, 547). In Oficio there is also a rivalry between men and between races; Winiktón’s nonviolence is contrasted to Leonardo Cifuentes’s ruthlessness. Beginning with the similarity of their names—Isidoro and Idolina—Castellanos makes apparent the link between them. As if to elaborate upon Aristotle’s notion that being female was in and of itself a deformity, the nineteenth-century medical establishment thought that hysteria—like many other nervous disorders—was caused by the female reproductive system. The motifs associated with Isabel and Idolina—sewing, enclosure, silence, and passivity—are key elements in the traditional lives of women, and preponderant themes in women’s writing. Significantly, in their discussion of ‘‘Little Snow White’’ Gilbert and Gubar argue that ‘‘to be caught and trapped in a mirror . . . is to be driven inward, obsessively studying self-images as if seeking a viable self ’’ (Madwoman, 37). In ‘‘Little Snow White’’ the wicked Queen is always looking into her magic mirror, doomed to an inward search that psychoanalysts like Bettelheim censoriously define as narcissism. As Mary Elizabeth Coleridge’s ‘‘The Other Side of the Mirror’’ suggests, however, this kind of inward search is dictated by the kinds of lives from which all outward prospects have been removed. In Oficio de tinieblas the one who looks into mirrors is Idolina—not the wicked Queen, but her victim. Be that as it may, what Coleridge’s poem suggests is just as applicable to Idolina as it is to the Grimms’ witch. A life from which all outward prospects have been removed is what Castellanos is depicting in her fable, the quandary facing not merely Idolina but all women. ‘‘Algún día lo sabré. Este cuerpo que ha sido mi albergue, mi prisión, mi hospital, es mi tumba’’ (from Lívida Luz). The whip of the law is only in the hands of white landowners and, ‘‘to be a landowner implies being part of a race, a language, a history that . . . Indians were incapable of improvising’’ (58). Describing his theory of poetry to Richard Watson Dixon, and after suggesting that the artist’s ‘‘most essential quality’’ was ‘‘masterly execution which is a kind of male gift, and especially marks o√ men from women,’’ Gerard Manley Hopkins went on to add, ‘‘the male quality is the creative gift’’ (The Correspondence of Gerard Manley Hopkins and Richard Watson Dixon, ed. C. C. Abbott [London, Oxford University Press, 1935], 133).

6. The body of pleasure in Tununa Mercado’s Canon de alcoba 1 Revising the notion that the pleasure of reading comes from the resolution of enigmas, Mercado teaches us that the kind of enjoyment Barthes referred to as jouissance is present at each step of the reading process in the pictures she paints to arouse and delight.

270 Notes to chapter six

2 ‘‘. . . las jóvenes poetas han empezado a romper con una tradición: la de ocultar la propia condición femenina. . . . El hecho que hayan escogido el cuerpo como lenguaje para hablar de sí mismas, me parece un desafío que se convierte en un placer extraordinario’’ (El cuerpo del deseo: Poesía erótica femenina en el México actual [Xulapa: UAM Veracruzana, 1989], 36). 3 ‘‘Ella está mirándose ahora, con esos ojos, en los ojos de la otra, extrayendo con intensidad el secreto mensaje que había comenzado a adivinar desde horas antes’’ (CA, 34). 4 ‘‘El amor que se oye es como el mar que se escucha en los caracoles. Los ojos no ven, la nariz no huele, las manos no tocan, pero ese mar levanta sus olas bravías en los acantilados o se serena mansamente sobre las playas’’ (32). 5 Luce Irigaray complains that Freud’s scenarios of sexual curiosity and di√erence are invariably visual, and indeed Schaulust or scopophilia—the eroticized desire to see—is a prime theme in Freud’s writings, and is closely tied to the Wisstrieb, epistemophilia. Speculum de l’autre femme, 53. 6 I am using jouissance (bliss) in contrast to pleasure ( plaisir) as does Barthes, although he himself assures us it is impossible to make a clear distinction between these terms (Pleasure, 14). Jouissance is, in fact, a useful term in our discussion of Tununa Mercado’s erotic work because one of its literal meanings is to come in orgasm. The term cannot be fully rendered into English although it translates well into the Spanish gozar, which means physical enjoyment. I will continue to use the French word in my discussion because, as Stephen Heath has observed, bliss is a dubious translation of jouissance since it ‘‘brings with it connotations of religious and social contentment’’ which are completely at odds with what Barthes meant in French, ‘‘a radically violent pleasure which shatters—dissipates, loses—[the] ego’’ (Image-Music-Text, selected and trans. Stephen Heath [New York: Hill and Wang, 1977], 91). 7 See Julia Kristeva, Révolution, 43–49; also, Jacques Lacan, ‘‘Subversion du sujet et dialectique du désir,’’ in Ecrits, 822. 8 Kolodny’s groundbreaking article, ‘‘Some Notes on Defining a ‘Feminist Literary Criticism,’ ’’ was first published in Critical Inquiry in 1975 (2, 1, 75–92). It was soon after reprinted in Cheryl L. Brown and Karen Olson, eds., Feminist Criticism: Essays on Theory, Poetry and Prose (Metuchen: Scarecrow Press, 1978), 37–58. 9 Significantly, Mercado refers to the cooking process as a ‘‘session’’ furthering the comparison between psychoanalysis and mijotage. She also makes a point of adding that ‘‘no one, no stranger can interrupt this session in which everything takes place according to a routine but in which each detail soon takes on a special meaning of object unto itself . . .’’ (15). 10 Among the many di≈culties Mercado encountered during her long psychoanalytic cure, some of the most poignant are described in her stirring En estado de memoria (1992). There is no doubt she belongs to what Irigaray defines as ‘‘a philosophical tradition in which psychoanalysis takes its place as a stage in understanding the selfrealization of consciousness, especially in its sexuate determinations’’ (‘‘Equal or Different?’’ 31).

Notes to chapter six


11 In Pleasure of the Text Barthes explains that desire is never predicated on revelations in full but on half-disclosures; for him the locus of erotic desire is the place where the skin peeks through the clothing suggesting—and never fully revealing—what hides beneath it. In his eyes the erotic always relies on what he calls ‘‘intermittence’’: ‘‘. . . the skin that flashes between two pieces of clothing (the pants and the sweater), or between two edges (the unbuttoned shirt, the glove and the cu√s of a shirt’’ (19). 12 Even the narrator is sometimes like the reader, presented with alternatives, claiming that the morning after dreaming images continue to run through her mind’s eye, ‘‘like a film that she sees without having to look’’ (50). 13 Like Cixous, Mercado feels that words have been translated, that speech as a whole has been emptied out of its meaning until words have become ‘‘dried, reduced and embalmed’’ (Cixous, ‘‘L’approche,’’ 412). This is why her aim is to renew language from a feminine perspective. 14 According to Mercado, words also awaken the body, reenact it, and translate it: for instance, ‘‘a pubis’s briny smell is so pungent as to almost come alive in the words’’ that describe it (101). 15 It is to these reactions that Irigaray is referring when she says, ‘‘L’etre sexué feminin dans et par le discours serait aussi un lieu de dépôts des restes produits par le fonctionnement du langage’’ (Ce sexe, 88). 16 Gilbert and Gubar highlight how women are denied the right to create their own images of femaleness, and instead must seek to conform to the patriarchal standards imposed on them (Madwoman, xii). 17 In 1967 Tununa Mercado, having left Argentina for political reasons, settled in France, where, for a few years, she taught Spanish American literature in the Faculté des Lettres of Besançon. It was an experience she recalled as harrowing. The only French she knew at the time was a fragment of Sartre’s Nausea that she had memorized in French class two weeks before leaving Buenos Aires. Nonetheless, it is clear that this stay in France had considerable impact on her life, her readings, and her intellectual development. Among Latin American authors, she is one of the most conversant with French criticism, semiotics, psychoanalysis, and feminism (En estado de memoria, 12–14). 18 It is no coincidence that the voice which calls the assembly to order should completely depersonalize the woman speaker. By telling her, ‘‘nothing is being said here,’’ he is literally erasing her as agent from the action. 19 Canon de alcoba (Canon for the Bedchamber) needs to be read, therefore, as an instruction manual for loving and writing. 20 It is crucial to note that Mercado says ‘‘phallus’’ and not ‘‘penis,’’ neatly di√erentiating between the male organ and the symbol of power, of the Name of the Father, of arbitrary (and usually intolerant) authority. 21 Unlike Cixous and Kristeva (in ‘‘Stabat Mater’’), Mercado does not propose androgyny as a panacea, however. Her proposition is truly predicated on love between the sexes, and we are reminded in ‘‘Las Amigas’’ that, even when sexually fulfilling

272 Notes to chapter six

themselves, the amigas in question go on yearning for the presence of men: ‘‘en algunos de sus gestos se percibe un clamor por la presencia del hombre’’ (92–93). 22 Jouissance is pleasure and pleasure, too, is an epistemological experience.

Conclusion 1 Karen Horney, ‘‘The Dread of Woman,’’ in Feminine Psychology, 133–46; Dorothy Dinnerstein, The Mermaid and the Minotaur, 124–54. For discussions of the ‘‘Medusa Complex’’ and its misogynistic message, see also Philip Slater, The Glory of Hera, and R. D. Laing, The Divided Self. 2 Arguably the wittiest portrayal of the excremental vision, Swift’s ‘‘A Tale of the Tub’’ dates from 1696–98. 3 That loneliness is the essence of the human condition is the subject of One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967). 4 Gilbert and Gubar explain how diseases like hysteria are caused by patriarchal socialization in several ways. ‘‘Most obviously,’’ they say, ‘‘any young girl, but especially a lively or imaginative one, is likely to experience her education in docility, submissiveness, self-lessness as in some sense sickening. To be trained in renunciation is almost necessarily to be trained to ill health, since the human animal’s first and strongest urge is to his/her own survival, pleasure, assertion.’’ Such training also explains the virulent anger we find in novels such as Albalucía Angel’s Las andariegas (Madwoman, 53–54). 5 We say this keeping in mind that, as Ellen Moers and Elaine Showalter have shown, by the nineteenth century women had a rich culture and literature of their own. As Gilbert and Gubar go on to say, this was a community ‘‘in which women consciously read and related to each other’s works.’’ However, this does not change the fact that their images in literature were still being defined by men, and that they acted out male metaphors in their own texts (Madwoman, xii). 6 Idolina tries the opposite tactic to obtain power, but she also acts it out by means of the body. Instead of putting forth, instead of displaying her charms like Julia, she withholds them. The ‘‘roan mare’’ is a passionate woman; Idolina becomes an invalid. Their approach is di√erent, but their goal one and the same: to manipulate, to gain attention and power through the body. Idolina’s scheme fails as plainly as Julia’s, however.

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Index i

Abject: in Sarduy’s work, 138, 171; as a substitute for the absent and primary source of longing, 171 Aggression: as a key element in stories written by men, 243 aids: in Pájaros de la playa, 138 Anaclitic phase: and the conclusion of Colibrí, 162, 163 Anal activity of expulsion: and the semiotic drive, 233 in Canon de alcoba, 234 Anal eroticism: screened behind idealization of the fair sex, 246 Anal fixation, in Love in the Time of Cholera, 128 Anality: in Colibrí, 158; and destructive desires, 48; epitomized in our animal body, in Love in the Time of Cholera, 127; Florentino Ariza’s inability to give, 123, 125, 133; Florentino Ariza’s surrender to the will of his body, 123, 134; parodied in Sarduy’s fiction, 157; phase of, and separation from the mother, 110; and scatological fixation in No One Writes to the Colonel, 108 Anal stage, 246; and human aggression, 266 n.14; and mutilation in Sarduy’s work, 158; supremacy of, in Cobra and Maitreya, 158 Androgyny: not a panacea in Mercado’s work, 272 n.21; subject in Canon de alcoba, 237

Anger: in Nicole Brossard’s work, 221; in feminist works of the sixties, seventies, and eighties, 251; in men, 237; vis-à-vis mother figures in Sarduy’s work, 267 n.22; vacated from Canon de alcoba, 220; voiced in stories by Cortázar, Cabrera Infante, and Sarduy, 245; in the work of the first generation of feminist authors, 222 Animals: in Cortázar’s work, 31, 36, 256 n.7; creeping, in Cortázar’s stories, 36; man-eaters, 37; phobias, 88 Antagonism: between men and women, 192, 193 Anxiety: sources of, in Cortázar’s work, 6 Arcadia: complex of, and separation anxiety in Cortázar’s work, 257 n.12 Auerbach, Nina: on Monique Wittig’s Les guérillères, 222–23 Autobiography: refurbishments in, 75 Bakhtin, Mikhail, 108 Balzac, Honoré de: Human Comedy, 113 Barthes, Roland, 1, 216, 227; on erotic desire, 272 n.11; and jouissance, 270 n.1, 271 n.6 Bataille, Georges, 246; di√erence between his notion of eroticism and Tununa Mercado’s, 216; on eroticism, 216; on Hegel, 163; on negativity that serves no purpose, compared to Mercado’s work, 236; and role of the eye, 8

Beauvoir, Simone de: and notion of woman’s fundamental otherness in relation to men, 174 Bettelheim, Bruno: on the daughter’s budding sexuality in ‘‘Snow White,’’ 205; and Oedipal di≈culties in fairy tales, 166, 167; on the role of the bad Queen in ‘‘Snow White,’’ 203 Birth, 29; and dread, 30; and Oedipus complex, 39; portrayed as a regression into passivity in Oficio de tinieblas, 201; and symbolic substitutions, 30; waters and ‘‘Axolotl,’’ 255 n.5 Birth trauma, 26, 28, 29; and dread of being swallowed, in Cortázar’s stories, 256 n.7; mastery of, 48 Black: linked with excrement in Love in the Time of Cholera, 125 Blind spot (la tache aveugle): and Hegel’s discussion of stages of spirit en route to self-comprehension, 163 Bloom, Harold: notion of poetic misprision and the work of Sarduy, 154 Bodily functions: as underlying thematic principle in No One Writes to the Colonel, 110 Body: analogous to words in Canon de alcoba, 237; awakened by words, 272 n.14; as bait, 249, 250; celebration of, 14; celebration of, in Canon de alcoba, 227; celebration of female, in Canon de alcoba, 220; in crisis, 242; and desire, 4, 7; as didactive vehicle, 113; dismembered in Cobra, 138, 139; endowed with symbolic value, 101; evolution in Love in the Time of Cholera, 124; female, as portrayed by Castellanos, 218; figured in the literature of Spanish America, 242–43; forbidden, 72; fragmented in Sarduy’s work, 136; in García Márquez’s work, 114, 260 n.12; identity in Oficio de tinieblas, 189; as it relates to the space around it, 5; vis-à-vis its surroundings, 5; kept at bay in the dynamics of voyeurism, 117; and knowledge, 7; and language, 212; limitations of, in writing, 14; as a lure, in Castellanos, 249–50; maimed, in Sarduy’s work, 173; in Mercado’s work, 251; and

286 Index

the modern narrative, 4; of the mother, and guilt in Cortázar’s stories, 73; of the mother, as lost object of infantile bliss, 4; of the mother, as object of rivalry in Maitreya, 150, 152; as object and motive of narrative writing, 240; in Oficio de tinieblas as indictment against selling it out, 211; portrayed as a symbol by authors in this book, 240; portrayed as a trap in Oficio de tinieblas, 208; and power, 212; in Diane Price Herndl’s work, 3; process dictating the dynamic evolution of protagonists in No One Writes to the Colonel, 112; scabs on, in Sarduy’s work, 10; as source and locus of meaning, 253; taking pleasure in, 12; of the tale, in Colibrí, 153; works of fiction as metaphors of the erotic, 9 Bombal, María Luisa, 11, 12, 248 Breathing: act of, in ‘‘Nurse Cora,’’ 258 n.20; di≈culties in Cortázar’s stories, 20, 21, 22, 25, 26, 244, 255 n.1, 256 n.7; stifled, 42 Brooks, Peter, 1, 4 Brossard, Nicole: on link between the process of writing and the release of sexual desire, 221; rejection of males, 221 Brown, Norman O., 127; on incapacity to accept separation from the mother, 110; on symbolic substitutes for excrement, 266 n.14 Buehrer, David, 114 Carnival literature, and the work of Gabriel García Márquez, 108 Castilla: language, in Oficio de tinieblas, 182, 209, 210 Castillos: in Oficio de tinieblas, 181–82, 183, 209, 210 Castration: and animal phobias, 41; annulment of, in Colibrí, 162; anxiety in Cortázar’s stories, 54; complex, and the uncanniness of dismembered limbs, 38; in ‘‘Cuello de gatito negro,’’ 22; fear of, 43; horror of, 28; integration of, in Cortázar’s ‘‘Los venenos,’’ 47; and man’s inability to give, according to Cixous, 196; and the mother in La Habana para un

Infante difunto, 95; in Oficio de tinieblas, 208; perpetrated by phallocratic society, 211; resolution of Oedipus complex, 39; in Sarduy’s Cobra, 139, 156; in Sarduy’s scenarios, 265 n.12, 266 n.13; symbolic, 97, 140, 156, 265 n.7 Caves: and leviathans in La Habana para un Infante difunto, 86, 87–88, 94; likened to movie theaters in La Habana para un Infante difunto, 85, 88; likened to the womb in La Habana para un Infante difunto, 85, 86, 87, 88, 94, 244; in Oficio de tinieblas, 176, 185–86, 202, 269 n.11, 269 n.16; power symbolized by, in Oficio de tinieblas, 188, 189, 191, 192, 195 Childishness: of grown men in García Márquez’s fiction, 120 Chora: as defined by Kristeva, 268 n.10 Cinema: watching and voyeurism, 81 Cixous, Hélène, 13; on androgyny, 171 n.21; compared to Mercado, 220; on feminine language, 191; on feminine writing, 13; on terror and the male libidinal economy, 13, 196; on women and their libidinal drive, 192 Confession: intentionality vs candor in, 76; Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s, 6; literature as, 8 Confessional mode: in Cabrera Infante’s work, 7; in Cortázar’s writing, 6 Confinement, 21–22, 25 Conversion reaction: in Oficio de tinieblas, 205–6 Darkness, 25, 26; in Cortázar’s short stories, 6; as desirable in Cortázar’s stories, 23 Death: analogous to leaving the safety of dark, enveloping spaces, 244; associated with return to the womb, 37; associated with thwarted longing, 73; confrontation with, in No One Writes to the Colonel, 109; death instinct and destruction, 110; in life, as lot befalling men, 247; link with eating and drinking in No One Writes to the Colonel, 104–5, 107–8, 110; in ‘‘Nurse Cora,’’ 62; wish, 27 Death drive: negative masking of the, 233

Debussy, Claude: La Mer, 79 Defilement: in Sarduy’s work, 136–37 Degradation: in Sarduy’s portrayals, 10 Dependence: in No One Writes to the Colonel, 9; and oral phase, in No One Writes to the Colonel, 110; in Sarduy’s fiction, 167, 169 Derrida, Jacques: on writing as di√érance, 13 Desire: instinctual, 28; to know, in Cortázar’s writings, 7 Destructiveness: of self, in Oficio de tinieblas, 11 Dinnerstein, Dorothy: on male fear, 193, 195; on mother-dominated infancy, 266 n.20 Don Juan, 114 Dreams: analogous with Cortázar’s plots, 42 Dwarf: as alter ego of the hero in Sarduy’s fiction, 143–45, 146, 147; compared to the hero of Colibrí, 153; master of things retro in Maitreya, 157; pursuit of Lady Tremendous in Maitreya, 161–62; as symbolic substitute for the phallus in Maitreya, 158 Earle, Peter, 102 Eating: in No One Writes to the Colonel, 103, 104, 110, 112 Ecriture féminine, 113; Mercado’s canon for, 237 Eroticism: and act of seeing, 7, 215; desire and intermittence, 272 n.11; desire and Mercado’s heroines, 23; experience and the movies, 78; fiction as metaphor of, 9 Excrement: and the anal phase, 266 n.14; and the color black linked with the devil, 263 n.32; and food in No One Writes to the Colonel, 108; in Guilliver’s Travels, 263 n.30; linked with proliferation and growth in Love in the Time of Cholera, 124; in Love in the Time of Cholera, 263 n.29, 264 n.40; in No One Writes to the Colonel, 108; in Sarduy’s work, 137; tainting Florentino’s and Fermina’s relationship in Love in the Time of Cholera, 128



Eye: in Georges Bataille’s work, 8; in Cabrera Infante’s La Habana para un Infante difunto, 80–81, 82, 84; cast as the sublimating organ in Love in the Time of Cholera, 127; evolution from upper quadrant (the eyes) to lower (the bowels) in Love in the Time of Cholera, 124; and knowledge in Canon de alcoba, 224; as locus of pleasure, 81, 96, 117, 142; as master of the house, 10; and the notion of pleasure, 216, 223; in Sarduy’s work, 160, 163, 170; as signpost of learning, 7; as symbol of absolute knowledge, 164; and visual imagery in Canon de alcoba, 214, 215, 229. See also Watching Fairy tales: and Oedipal di≈culties, 166 Family drama: parody of, in Maitreya, 147, 150 Family triangles: in Castellanos’s novels, 178 Father: absence of, in Cortázar’s stories, 257 n.11; and authority, 41; being eaten by, 256 n.10; in Colibrí, 172, 257 n.11; death of, seen as a broken pledge in Oficio de tinieblas, 199, 206; dismantling the power of, in Maitreya, 149; and fear of being devoured, 41; forestalling son’s wish to replace him, 267 n.23; identification with, in Oficio de tinieblas, 205; obscured in La Habana para un Infante difunto, 98; of oneself in La Habana para un Infante difunto, 9; role of, during Oedipal crisis, 265 n.17; and son rivalry in Colibrí, 146, 151, 153, 154; and son struggling for power in fairy tales, 167. See also Horney, Karen Feal, Rosemary, 140 Fear: as key component in works by Cortázar, Cabrera Infante, Castellanos, and Sarduy, 243; of leaving behind dark, enclosing surroundings, 243; of women, 245 Fecal explosion: in Love in the Time of Cholera, 246 Felman, Shoshana: on speaking as a woman, 190 Female: autonomy in Canon de alcoba, 12;

288 Index

body, portrayed in an unprecedented way in Canon de alcoba, 12; genitals seen as a room by the unconscious, 258 n.23; genitals as uncanny (unheimlich), 30; male dread of (according to Karen Horney), 245; passivity, 112; seen as a deformity, 270 n.18; weakness, 11. See also Women; Ecriture féminine Feminine body: unencumbered by shackles of patriarchy, in Canon de alcoba, 12 Feminine condition: writing as didactic tool to describe the plight of, 248 Feminine language: and Tununa Mercado, 250 Feminine writing: Julia Kristeva on, 15; in Spanish America, 15 Femininity: modalities of, 13; parody of in Sarduy’s writing, 13–14 Feminism: rage of, 251 Feminist critics: puzzled by Castellanos’s position on the role of women, 191 Figuras: in Cortázar’s stories, 6, 18, 241, 257 n.14 Filer, Malva, 20 Fish, Stanley, 2 Food: associated with death in No One Writes to the Colonel, 104–5, 107–8 Foot: in Cobra, 266 n.15 Fragmentation: in Colibrí, 158–59; in Sarduy’s characters, 138–39; Sarduy’s fixation on, 170–71 Freud, Sigmund, 28, 19, 109, 246; on animal phobias, 37, 88; on being eaten by the father, 256 n.10; on birth anxiety, 258 n.17; on the castration complex, 38, 39; on child’s aggression against his mother’s body, 46–47; creative interpretation of, in Sarduy’s work, 154; and the epistemophilic urge, 215–16; on the high narcissistic value attached to the penis, 257 n.13; and the infant’s libidinal development, 162; on the Oedipal crisis, 161; on Oedipal phase, 60; and psychic censorship, 60–61; Sarduy’s facetious allusions to, 171–72; Sarduy’s parody of the family drama, 145, 146, 157, 158; on scopophilia, 81, 271 n.5; on ‘‘signs of

agreement from the part of the object,’’ 82; as subject, in Cortázar’s discussions with Evelyn Picón, 258 n.21; and the uncanny, 30; on what is highest and lowest in human nature, 263 n.33 Fulfillment: as confession, 4; scenario of, in ‘‘Bestiario,’’ 33; wish for, 4, 8 Gallegos, Rómulo: Doña Bárbara, 119 Gazing: fascination with, 79, 80; impulse and the primal scene, 81; in Love in the Time of Cholera, 115, 116–17; relationships predicated on, 82. See also Eye Gender-determined signs, 221 Gilbert, Sandra, and Susan Gubar, 11, 12; Madwoman in the Attic, 174, 206, 209; on mothers and daughters, 266 n.21; on the two modes that subordinate and imprison women in patriarchal texts, 217, 218, 219, 220, 233; on women’s conformity to patriarchal standards, 248, 272 n.16, 273 n.4, 273 n.5; on women and power, 251 Ginzburg, Carlo, 3 González Echevarría, Roberto: on the act of repossession in Sarduy’s work, 266 n.19; Myth and Archive, 3; and the quest for origins in Sarduy’s writings, 167; La ruta de Severo Sarduy, 265 n.8; on Sarduy’s involvement with Tel Quel, 146; on Sarduy’s obsession with absence and loss, 171 Goya y Lucientes Francisco, José de: Naked Maja, 79 Grimm brothers, 203, 206, 266 n.21, 266– 67 n.22 Grosz, Elizabeth: critique of Kristeva’s theory of sexual di√erence, 191 Gubar, Susan, and Sandra Gilbert. See Gilbert and Gubar Guilt, 242 Hands: in Cortázar’s fiction, 19, 31, 32, 33, 43, 256 n.7; linked with death in Cortázar’s stories, 31, 32, 37–38; substituted for sexual organs, 66 Hands of Orlac, 19, 38 Hegel, Georg Wilhelm F., 266 n.18; and

configurations of spirit, 163; and intuition of the identity of ego and non-ego as portrayed in Colibrí, 164 Hernández del Castillo, Ana: on Jung and Cortázar, 257 n.16; on misogyny in Cortázar’s work, 53 Horney, Karen: Feminine Psychology, 205; on male dread of women, 266 n.20 Hysteria, 200; caused by patriarchal socialization, 273 n.4; medical notions about, in the nineteenth century, 270 n.18 Idealization: as denial of the other in Love in the Time of Cholera, 128; of Fermina Daza, 118, 119, 126; as the seedbed of unreal love in Love in the Time of Cholera, 130 Identity: and language in Oficio de tinieblas, 195 Illnesses: feminine, 3; Idolina’s, 197, 199; Imágenes-palabras in the work of Mercado, 231; invented by Castellanos, 179; typical of the nineteenth-century heroine, 197–98 Imaginary Signifier, The (Le signifiant imaginaire), 81 Imperative tense: in No One Writes to the Colonel, 106, 107 Incest, 34–35, 67–71; circumvention of, 62; and the fantasy of returning to the womb, 37; in ‘‘House Taken Over,’’ 62– 63; informing the action of Cortázar’s stories, 74, 241; in Maitreya, 161; in ‘‘Nurse Cora,’’ 59; portrayed by means of an intermediary, 66–67; and repression, 255 n.3; in ‘‘Unreasonable Hours,’’ 259 n.24; veiled allusions to, 76 Indians: deflated social status in Oficio de tinieblas, 175 Indirection: in García Márquez’s fiction, 102 Individuation: lack of, in Sarduy’s fiction, 155 Infant: casting himself as phallus, 97 Infantile behavior: of grown men in No One Writes to the Colonel, 107, 110 Infirmity: Idolina’s, in Oficio de tinieblas, 206



Invalidism: in Oficio de tinieblas, 11–12 Invalid women: and lack of power, 198; and manipulation of others in Oficio de tinieblas, 176, 200, 201; in Oficio de tinieblas, 174, 184, 197, 208 Irigaray, Luce: Ce sexe qui n’en pas un, 234; criticism of Freud’s emphasis on scopophilia, 271 n.5; on equal sexual rights, 221–22; on feminine jouissance, 234; on psychoanalysis, 271 n.10; and woman’s ability to enunciate a form of articulation distinct from phallic discourse, 190–91; and ‘‘womanspeak,’’ 190, 251, 268 n.9, 269 n.13, 272 n.15 Jehlen, Myra: on the new recipe for women’s writing, 226 Jeremiah, 131–33; in the Bible, 264 n.41, n.42; in Love in the Time of Cholera, 263 n.37, 264 n.38 Jouissance: in Canon de alcoba, 216, 234, 235, 236, 239; definition of, 271 n.6, 273 n.22; in Mercado’s Canon de alcoba, 234; in the work of Mercado, 243, 252, 270 n.1 Klein, Melanie: on animal phobias, 41; on child sadism, 47–48; and child’s hostility against his parents, 258 n.18 Knowledge: instinct for, in ‘‘Blow-Up,’’ 7; quest for, and writing fiction, 14 Kolodny, Annette, 271 n.8; on role-playing in fiction written by women, 218–19, 220 Kristeva, Julia, 15; on androgyny, 272 n.21; on feminine semiotic modality, 190–91; Mercado’s borrowing from, 233; Polylogue, 191; on the possibility of forging a uniquely feminine language, 232; Powers of Horror, 171; on purposes of writing, 170; on rejection and creativity, 260 n.7; on rejection as the mechanism of reinstatement, 110–11; La révolution du langage poétique, 146, 156; and semiotic writing, 15; on the term chora, 268 n.10 Lacan, Jacques, 246, 260 n.14; and fantasy of origins, 7; on hysteria, 184; and infant’s development of a separate identity, 140, 155; and the mirror stage, 204;

290 Index

and the Name of the Father, 98; and notion of an inverted birth, 97; ‘‘Qu’est-ce qu’un tableau,’’ 214; parodied in Sarduy’s work, 146, 154–55, 157, 163; and paternal proscription setting mother apart from the body of the child, 97; and resolution of the Oedipus complex, 155; Sarduy’s facetious allusions to, 171–72 Ladino, 267 n.2 Language: bound to behavior or performance, in Oficio de tinieblas, 181, 186–87; child’s acquisition of, according to Kristeva, 268 n.10, 269 n.14; distinctly feminine space within, 188, 190; endless possibilities of, 231; and identity in Oficio de tinieblas, 195; as the ladinos’ private domain, in Oficio de tinieblas, 184; mastery, in Oficio de tinieblas, 195; and power, in Oficio de tinieblas, 187, 189, 209, 210–11; recovery of, by Catalina Díaz Puiljá, 185, 187, 189; renewal from a feminine perspective in Mercado’s work, 272 n.13; as tool of power, 250; which seeks to remain neutral, in Canon de alcoba, 232 Lichtenstein, Roy: and Sarduy, 153 Lienhard, Martin: on Castellanos’s use of language in Oficio de tinieblas, 181; on cyclical time in Oficio de tinieblas, 177 Lispector, Clarice: compared to Tununa Mercado, 221 Literature: as the liberating medium where anything can happen, 70, 71; as a mirror of the body, 253 Loneliness: in One Hundred Years of Solitude, 273 n.3 Longing: unfulfilled in Cortázar’s stories, 241 Looking: and eroticism, 7; and fantasy of the origins, 7; and knowledge, 7; and not touching, in Infante’s Inferno (La Habana), 8. See also Eye; Gazing; Scopophilia Loss: experience of, scarring the male psyche, 225; of the love object, 13; sense of, shared by all readers, 242; and women, 233 Love: detached from power in Canon de

alcoba, 237; and excrement in Love in the Time of Cholera, 263 n.29; learning how to, in Love in the Time of Cholera, 264 n.44; linked to disease in Love in the Time of Cholera, 262 n.25; in Love in the Time of Cholera, 261 n.14 Male: and the gift of creativity (according to Gerard Manley Hopkins), 270 n.24 Marginality: of Indians in Oficio de tinieblas, 194; of women in Oficio de tinieblas, 194 Maternal body, 4, 30; longing for, 40. See also Mother Matriarchal scenario in Cortázar, 51 Matriarchs: as rulers in Sarduy’s work, 266 n.17 Maturo, Graciela, 102 McMurray, George, 108, 111 Medusa: complex, 266 n.20, 273 n.1; and danger, 7; and female genitals, 28; as symbol of knowledge, 7 Men: in Canon de alcoba, 12; victims of the human drama? 247 Men and women: di√erences in regard to lovemaking (according to Mercado), 236 Menippean satire, 77 Metz, Christian, 117, 144, 259 n.2; The Imaginary Signifier, 81–82, 85 Miller, J. Hillis, 265 n.7 Mirrors: of the body, literature as, 253; in Canon de alcoba, 214; Colibrí identifies his reflection on, 166; in Oficio de tinieblas, 203–4, 206, 207; in Sarduy’s work, 140, 141, 142, 144, 149, 150, 159, 160, 164, 168; smashed at the conclusion of Colibrí, 162; in ‘‘Snow White,’’ 270 n.20, 270 n.21; which reflect an author’s innermost longing and fears, 240 Mirror stage, 14; and infant’s inner sense of self, 223; parodied in Sarduy’s fantasies, 154–55, 156, 162; in ‘‘Snow White,’’ 166 Moi, Toril: and the language of women, 192; on The Madwoman in the Attic, 217 Mother(s): ambivalence about, in Sarduy’s novels, 162; anger toward, harbored by the male imagination, 267 n.22; as authority figure in La Habana para un In-

fante difunto, 91; being swallowed by, in La Habana para un Infante difunto, 100; body of, as object of rivalry in Maitreya, 150, 153; bond to, in Sarduy’s work, 141; and castration in La Habana para un Infante difunto, 94–95; cast as dominant in Sarduy’s and Hitchcock’s scenarios, 168; and Cortázar, 42; in Cortázar’s stories, 49–65; dependence on, 245, 266 n.16; and feelings of guilt, 28; figures in Sarduy’s and Grimm brothers’ work, 267 n.24; fusion with, 28, 43; guarantee of reunion with (according to Freud), 257 n.13; in La Habana para un Infante difunto, 84–86, 90; in La Habana para un Infante difunto compared to the mother in Cortázar’s ‘‘Letters from Mother,’’ 93; and hands, 38; having the upper hand in Cortázar’s scenarios, 257 n.15; and her ability to hurt in La Habana para un Infante difunto, 94; identification of, in El Cristo de la rue Jacob, 140–41; infant’s longing for, 265 n.7; and lack of a√ection in Oficio de tinieblas, 178; longing for, 30, 38, 117; longing for, in Sarduy’s fiction, 155; and love between siblings, 65; as primary love object, 162; punished by their daughters in Oficio de tinieblas, 201; reunion with, 37, 68; and social role (according to Kristeva), 269–70 n.16; substituted for the drive to look on, 81; as traitors in the work of Hitchcock and Sarduy, 169; and trauma of separation in Sarduy’s work, 140; turned into a colossus in La Habana para un Infante difunto, 92–93. See also Body Movies: and mother in La Habana para un Infante difunto, 95; and the womb in Cabrera Infante, 94, 98 Mutilation: in Sarduy’s writing, 170 Mystical experience: and the loss of subjecthood in Oficio de tinieblas, 190 Myth: role of, in Oficio de tinieblas, 177 Name of the Father, 98, 140, 223, 232; in Oficio de tinieblas, 211–12; and Pedro Winiktón in Oficio de tinieblas, 269 n.16; and the phallus, 272 n.20



Narcissism: in Canon de alcoba, 214; and mirrors, 270 n.21. See also Seeing Nasio, J.-D.: on hysteria, 200 Negativity: vacated from Canon de alcoba, 233 Neo-indigenista(s), 175, 267 n.1 Neumann, Eric: Art and the Creative Unconscious, 8 New poetics: based on women reclaiming control over their bodies in Oficio de tinieblas, 189 Nirvana: nixed in Maitreya, 161 Nonentities: in Canon de alcoba, 229 Non-knowledge: absolute wisdom as the definitive form of, 164 Novel: projection in, 4 Object: unattainability of, in works of fiction, 217 Object little a: in Oficio de tinieblas, 195, 205; parody of, in Maitreya, 149 Obsession(s): according to Mario Vargas Llosa, 103; in Cabrera Infante’s La Habana para un Infante difunto, 80, 83; in García Márquez’s fiction, 108; in the work of Cortázar, 6, 76 Oedipal anxiety: relief from, in fairy tales (including Sarduy’s Colibrí ), 167 Oedipal complex and feelings of resentment, 28, 60; Cortázar’s revision of, 43, 46, 48, 52–53, 61; fantasy of destroying the rival, 55; resolution of, 39, 47, 155, 156; scenario, 33, 38, 60; and tunnels, 39 Oedipal crisis: Freud’s thoughts on child’s imaginary unity with the mother, 161; role of the father in, 265 n.7; Sarduy’s rewriting of, 156–57, 158 Oedipal legend: Sarduy’s willful misreading of, 154, 158–59, 165, 169, 170, 246 Oedipal phase: and acquisition of language, 269 n.14; and men’s feelings of rejection and abandonment, 246; resolution of, 97 Oedipal scenario: in ‘‘Snow White,’’ 203, 266 n.21; in The Third Man and Infante’s Inferno, 259 n.7 Oedipal trauma: in ‘‘Bestiario,’’ 258–59 n.24; fantasy of eliminating the father,



43; and substitution of the sister for the mother in Cortázar’s stories, 65 Oral phase: associated with inability to evacuate in No One Writes to the Colonel, 112; dependence typical of, in No One Writes to the Colonel, 110 Origins: fantasy of the, 7; nostalgia about, in Cortázar’s writings, 74; tale of, as wellspring of writing, 72 Osiris and Isis: compared to roles of Winiktón and Catalina in Oficio de tinieblas, 269 n.16 Outside: horror of, in Cortázar’s scenarios, 29 Pain: as a result of separation, in Sarduy’s work, 243 Parental rejection: in Balún Canáan and Oficio de tinieblas, 179 Parody: in the work of Severo Sarduy, 150, 165 Passivity: and the denial of language in Oficio de tinieblas, 184; and Idolina in Oficio de tinieblas, 197, 201, 202; in No One Writes to the Colonel, 9, 111, 112 Patriarchal literature: Mercado’s response to, 234–35; novel, 12 Patriarchy: and artistic creativity, 251; disciplinary power of, 11; ruling structure of, women’s identification with, 249 Pavane: in Infante’s Inferno, 259 n.9 Paz, Octavio: The Labyrinth of Solitude, 224 Penis: as anxiety object for the infant, 41; associated with reptile in Cobra, 139; emblematized by the dwarf in Maitreya, 149; as emblem of maleness in Canon de alcoba, 227–28; identified with the unborn child in La Habana para un Infante difunto, 96–97; in Mercado’s fiction, 252, 272 n.20; as pleasure instrument in Canon de alcoba, 228–29, 232 Phallic: gloves, in ‘‘Bestiario,’’ 38–39; providing alternatives to, in Canon de alcoba, 238; relationship between signifiers and signifieds, in Mercado’s work, 252; symbolic phallic power, in Oficio de tinieblas, 207, 209

Phallogocentric authority: in Oficio de tinieblas, 189 Phallus: analogous with the hero in the epilogue to Infante’s Inferno (La Habana), 8; dismantling the power of, in Canon de alcoba, 237; dwarf in Maitreya as substitute for, 158; and foot, link between, in Cobra, 265 n.4; infant taking the place of, in La Habana para un Infante difunto, 8, 97; in Mercado’s work, 272 n.20; mother’s longing for, parodied by Sarduy, 155; and the pen, in Oficio de tinieblas, 209, 211; primacy of, in Canon de alcoba, 228; rivalry over, in Oficio de tinieblas, 206; as tool for woman’s enjoyment, in Canon de alcoba, 12 Phobia of animals: in Cortázar’s scenarios, 40. See also Animals Picón-Garfield, Evelyn, 18–19; on incest and Cortázar, 67–68 Pictographs: in Canon de alcoba, 214, 230 Pommier, Gérard: on male infant’s identification with the phallus, 260 n.14 (chap. 2) Poniatowska, Elena: on the frankness of Castellanos’s Cartas a Ricardo, 179; and Querido Diego te abraza Quiela, 180 Potency: symbols of, in Oficio de tinieblas, 183 Power: Catalina’s appropriation of, in Oficio de tinieblas, 194; Idolina’s loss of, in Oficio de tinieblas, 197, 207, 208; through infirmity, in Oficio de tinieblas, 201; and language in Oficio de tinieblas, 189, 208, 209; and men in Oficio de tinieblas, 189; according to Mercado, 235; in patriarchal society, 209; role of, in love novels, struggles absent from Canon de alcoba, 252, 253; tactics used by women to obtain, in Oficio de tinieblas, 273 n.6; and the whip as its emblematic instrument, in Oficio de tinieblas, 210; and women, 12, 187, 209, 235, 249 Prego, Omar, 24 Prenatal condition, 30. See also Birth; Birth trauma Price Herndl, Diane, 3; Invalid Women, 197–98

Primal anxiety, 36; and dread of being swallowed, in Cortázar’s stories, 256 n.7; reactivation of, 54 Primal scene, 58; allusions to, in Sarduy’s work, 143, 145; and ‘‘Blow-Up,’’ 258 n.19; Cortázar’s rewriting of, 43, 59; dynamics of, 117; parody of, in Maitreya, 148–49 Primal trauma, 26 Procreative powers and cave imagery, in Oficio de tinieblas, 269 n.16 Projections of the body: in La Habana para un Infante difunto, 9 Psychoanalysis: compared to cooking in Canon de alcoba, 224 Rama, Angel: on No One Writes to the Colonel, 111; on use of expletives in No One Writes to the Colonel, 260 n.8 Rank, Otto: on death and the wish to return to the womb, 62; on incest, 67; on link between rooms and the womb, 65 Reader and writer: fresh way to envision relationship between, in Canon de alcoba, 251 Regression: in Maitreya, 144–45 Rejection: of paternal authority in Colibrí, 151–52; vacated from Canon de alcoba, 233–34 Renewal: in Love in the Time of Cholera, 133 Rhys, Jean: Wide Sargasso Sea, 219 Rivalry: in Oficio de tinieblas, 203, 206–8 Rivero Potter, Alicia, 138 Sadism: and anality in Sarduy’s work, 157; in children’s fantasies, 47–48; preempted from Canon de alcoba, 243 Sadomasochist frenzy: in Sarduy’s tales, 247 Said, Edward: on the definition of author and Auctoritas, 209–10 Scatological: fixation in No One Writes to the Colonel, 108; language in No One Writes to the Colonel, 109; in Love in the Time of Cholera, 124 Scopophilia, 80; and constipation in Love in the Time of Cholera, 133; in La Habana para un Infante difunto, 7; and primal scene, 81. See also Voyeur(s)



Secrecy: in Love in the Time of Cholera, 125–26 Seeing: and the epistemophilic urge, 215; as eroticized activity, 215; physics of, in Canon de alcoba, 216 Semiotic: 233, 234; definition of, 268 n.10; language in Canon de alcoba, 230, 232; language in Oficio de tinieblas, 187, 188, 269 n.14; sphere in Oficio de tinieblas, 95; writing, 15 Separation: anxiety in Cortázar’s stories, 255 n.2; dread of, in Cortázar’s writings, 256 n.6 Sexual activity: unconsummated in Canon de alcoba, 236 Sexuality: associated with exclusion and separation in Sarduy’s work, 143; autarchic in Sarduy’s later work, 141–42 Sex without love: caricatured in Love in the Time of Cholera, 122 Sibling rivalry: in Cortázar’s stories Silence: of the gods in Oficio de tinieblas, 186; and submissiveness in Oficio de tinieblas, 185; of women and Indians in Oficio de tinieblas, 210 ‘‘Snow White,’’ 266 n.21; and Colibrí, 166; discussion of, in Gilbert and Gubar, 270 n.20; and Oficio de tinieblas, 202–3, 205 Sommers, Joseph: and misinterpretation of Castellanos’s intention in Oficio de tinieblas, 181 Stallybrass, Peter, and Allon White: Politics and Poetics of Transgression, 134 Starobinski, Jean: L’oeil vivant, 115 Sterility: consequences of, among the Tzotzil Indians, 185; in Oficio de tinieblas, 176, 194 Storytelling: sources of, in Cortázar’s work, 72 Structuralism, 3 Subject-in-process: in Sarduy’s fiction, 146 Sublimation: critique of, in Love in the Time of Cholera, 126, 130; while reading, 8; and romantic-Platonic love in Love in the Time of Cholera, 126; in the writings of Cortázar, 241 Submissiveness: associated with silence in Castellanos’s Oficio de tinieblas, 185

294 Index

Suleiman, Susan Rubin, 269 n.12; on aims of the first wave of feminism, 189 Swift, Jonathan: and connection between idealization, anality, and human aggression, 246; ‘‘A Tale of the Tub,’’ 273 n.2 Symbolic, 234; definition of (according to Kristeva), 268 n.10; dramatization in novels, 4; in Oficio de tinieblas, 188, 191; order, 223; power and sex organ, 12; prescinding of the semiotic, 195; as unavoidable space from which we can speak, 232; writing, 15 Symbols: animal, 37; in Cortázar’s stories, 5, 24, 42, 75, 76; in dream formation and the conception of plots, 42; in the movies, 85 Tel Quel: Sarduy’s involvement with, 246 Terrible Mother, 55; the Feminine as, 54 Todorov, Tzvetan: The Conquest of America, 181 Transgression, 242; in Sarduy’s writing, 153 Transvestite: in Sarduy’s fiction, 13 Truth in writing, 4 Tunnels: in ‘‘Bestiario,’’ 43; longing to stay within, 244, 245; in ‘‘Los venenos,’’ 44; 45, 46, 47, 48 Tzotzil Indians, 11; defeat of, in Oficio de tinieblas, 174, 177; priests and interpretation, 14 Uncanniness: sources of, in Cortázar’s fiction, 68, 72–73 Vargas Llosa, Mario, 103 Velázquez, Diego de Silva y: The Meeting among the Lances (Rendition at Breda), 93; Las Meninas and Sarduy’s art of writing, 135 Vilification of women: according to Dinnerstein and Horney, 266 n.20 Violencia in Colombia, 112 Visual: as master relation to the world, 6; perception as idealization, in Love in the Time of Cholera, 9. See also Eye; Looking Voyeur(s), 80; as creators in Canon de alcoba, 230; in the dynamics of pleasure

(according to Barthes), 216; as locus of Mercado’s reader, 25; and primal scene fantasies, 259 n.1, 261 n.17; readers in the position of, in Canon de alcoba, 214, 216. See also Scopophilia Voyeurism: apotheosis of, in Maitreya, 142; chasm between viewer and the object viewed, 117; dynamics of, 82; in La Habana para un Infante difunto, 85; in Love in the Time of Cholera, 117 Warhol, Andy: and Sarduy, 153–54 Watching: as motif associated with Florentino in Love in the Time of Cholera, 261 n.16 Wharton, Edith: ‘‘The Fullness of Life,’’ 179 Wittig, Monique, 221, 251; Les guérillères, 222; and vision of the sexes, 227 ‘‘Womanspeak’’ in contrast to phallogocentric language, in Oficio de tinieblas, 190, 191 Womb: in Cortázar’s work, 42; and the movies in La Habana para un Infante difunto, 84, 94, 99; nostalgia of, in La Habana para un Infante difunto, 8, 28, 89–90, 98; perfect because untouched in La Habana para un Infante difunto, 99; return to, in Cortázar’s stories, 27, 99; and tunnels in Cortázar’s stories, 39, 88 Women: authors of Spanish America, 11– 12; cast in one of three roles, 121; celebration of, in Canon de alcoba, 12; deprived of power in Oficio de tinieblas, 187, 207, 212; exempt from castration

anxiety, 196; monsters in the work of, 112; portrayed as mothers of their husbands, in the work of García Márquez, 262 n.22; and place in writing (according to Castellanos), 180; and power, 210–11, 235; punished for their ‘‘betrayal’’ by Hitchcock and Sarduy, 169; rivalry between, in Oficio de tinieblas, 202–6; and rough treatment, in Oficio de tinieblas, 183; and self-damaging actions, 207; sense of self among, 223; sociocultural values of, reconsidered in Canon de alcoba, 222; and social roles they play (according to Castellanos), 180–81. See also Female; Feminine; Feminine writing Woolf, Virginia, 12 Words: analogous to the body in Canon de alcoba, 231, 237; dried up (according to Mercado), 272 n.14; freed in Canon de alcoba, 238 Writing: as archaeology of the skin, in Sarduy’s work, 136; in Cabrera Infante’s work, 77; colonized by women in Canon de alcoba, 226; and the confessional mode, 4; and desire, 4; as di√érance, 13; as erotic sensation in Canon de alcoba, 231; and fulfillment, 4; as healing process, 73–74; and personal relief, 5; as political undertaking, 9, 14; as social project, 12; sources of, 5, 72, 89; as therapy, 4–5; used to represent absence and desire in symbolic terms, 170; as vehicle for self-analysis (according to Castellanos), 267 n.4; which searches for the place of the feminine subject, 234



René Prieto is Professor of Spanish in the Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures at Southern Methodist University. He is the author of Miguel Angel Asturias’s Archaeology of Return (1993), and coauthor with Ted Perry, Michelangelo Antonioni, A Guide to References and Resources (1986). Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Prieto, René. Body of writing : figuring desire in Spanish American literature / René Prieto. Includes bibliographical references (p. ) and index. isbn 0-8223-2451-2 (alk. paper). — isbn 0-8223-2488-1 (pbk. : alk. paper) 1. Spanish American fiction—20th century—History and criticism. 2. Sex role in literature. I. Title. pq7082.n7 p75 2000 863—dc21 99-049778

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