On the Skin of the World

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On From the Observatory by Julio Cortázar (Archipelago Books)

By Mark de Silva

Julio Cortázar’s fiction is dominated by questions of knowledge: what it consists in, how we might acquire it, and what, finally, it is worth. In Hopscotch, his acknowledged masterwork, they find expression mostly at the level of form. Cortázar explains in a prefatory note that the book’s 155 chapters needn’t all be read — the first 56 will suffice. Even those chapters or any beyond needn’t be read in numerical order: Among other ways of navigating the work, we are told we may simply hopscotch through the book in any order whatever.

As a matter of authorial design, then, our path through the work is underdetermined, with the result that reading Hopscotch cannot be identified with reading all the material between the covers of the book, or with reading selected chapters in any particular order. Rather, the book breaks apart into a multitude of distinct texts, drawn from that material, all of which qualify as self-standing readings of Hopscotch — making a nonsense of the question of how best to understand the book’s intra-narrative world. The very idea of aspiring to a univocal understanding of the work turns out to be conceptually confused.

From the Observatory, published for the first time in English by Archipelago Books in August, sees Cortázar shift epistemic registers. In this short work of prose poetry, which is interspersed with black-and-white photographs, concerns about understanding pervade not just its form; they enter into its subject matter. The text, a lyrical polemic, consists solely of an unnamed narrator — a cipher for the author, given what we know of his thematic preoccupations — ruminating on what he calls, not entirely elegantly, “the sordid paradox of an impoverishment correlated to the multiplication of libraries.” Abstract bodies of knowledge — theories — are what trouble him, especially empirical ones, the sort developed from the observatory. Two cases scaffold the narrative: the life cycle of European eels as investigated by three French biologists, and the astronomical knowledge sought at two 18th century observatories built by the Indian prince Jai Singh II in New Delhi and Jaipur.

It is to the eely curves of these observatories that the book’s photographs are given over. These grainy images are most of all striking for their solemnity. The long-defunct, heavily eroded observatories, throwing crisp, rich shadows under stark skylight, have an air of the sacred about them, and in fact resemble nothing so much as temple ruins. That is fitting, of course, inasmuch as religion and science share a most rarefied aspiration, that being ultimate knowledge of the workings of the world.

In the broader context of Observatory, however, only an overreading could put the arrangement or detail of the photographs into a productive conversation with the text (the way, for instance, W. G. Sebald’s are). Aside from their ambient contribution, they neither moor interpretation of the narrator’s monologue nor act as a counterpoint to it, complicating our response. In fact, the written portion of the work would suffer nothing if the photos were collected at the front of the book as a visual primer.

But that is just to say that there is a certain gratuitousness to the interpolation; it suggests a sort of integration that is never delivered. One can, if one likes, explain the difficulty away by registering it as one more of Cortázar’s challenges to the reader. But unlike the others, it’s not an especially profitable one.

The text itself presents an immediate challenge to the critic. The extreme lyricism of the prose, the looseness of the narrator’s disquisition, can lead a reader, sympathetic or no, to declare it surreal or free associative and attend solely to the sensuous dimension of the language, its music, its conjuring of images. One may also be tempted, under the circumstances, by a largely genetic tack, skirting a marshy text on the firmer ground of history and biography. Either approach, without supplementation, does this particular work a disservice, as there is a substantive intellectual exploration taking place that they would leave untouched.

A few words on the formal aspects of Observatory. Cortázar’s unit of composition here is the tortuous periodic sentence; suspended syntax frequently remains so for pages at a stretch, so long that by the time one comes to the end of a sentence, very often no definite proposition remains before the mind, just a sweep of concepts and images. In other cases, the suspension proves indefinite; grammatical and semantic forms fail to complete, and the flow of clauses and modifiers, roiled by commas, are simply dammed up by periods. It is at these points, where the well-formed sentence finds no privilege, that Cortázar’s prose fully gives way to poetry. But the syntactic fragmentation, the semantic contortion, does not manage to break the train of thought. The storming, insistent language turns out to be the bespoke medium of an uncommonly visceral inquiry into knowledge.

The book begins with the narrator wondering about the possibility of “touching on something that doesn’t rest on the senses, a breach in succession.” He takes as his foil Jai Singh, a prince swapping “twinkles for formulae, unfathomable orbits for conceivable times,” concerned only “to conjure the unnameable and pour it onto soothing parchments,” but such is, for our narrator, merely a “barbiturate for essential insomniacs.”

Among these insomniacs are the distinguished French biologist Maurice Fontaine, his colleague, referred to only as Mademoiselle Callamand, and Madame M. Bauchot, a scientist involved in similar research, all working 200 years after the astronomers at Jai Singh’s observatories. Fontaine and Callamand, representatives in Observatory for the modern sciences, thought that the life cycle of the European eel — which remains poorly understood by biologists — ought to be explained as a “phenomenon of neuroendocrine interaction.” The 300-day drift of larvae on Atlantic currents from the Sargasso Sea to the European coast; the young eels’ fraught trip upstream into freshwater rivers and lakes (many dying along the way, in sluice gates, or through exhaustion); the return, 20 years on, to an as yet unknown spawning zone in the Atlantic, presumably near the Sargasso; and then death, shortly after — all these phases a “reaction of their neuroendocrine system.”

It is this sort of microphysical explanation Cortázar suggests, that misses much of what matters, of what truly needs explaining, about the eel and its form of life, in particular its “savage struggle” near birth and death. That is to say the life of an animal cannot be meaningfully characterized at the biochemical level; an adequate representation, our narrator plausibly thinks, requires a deployment of the concepts of instinct, desire, and sexual drive. But these notions bring intelligibility only to macrophysical phenomena — to wit, to creatures acting with some form of proto-subjectivity within the broader ecologies in which they are embedded and thrive, or not. Indeed, Jai Singh’s quest for astronomical knowledge is partly (and rather startlingly) characterized in just these arational terms. But Cortázar, in a wonderfully wrought phrase, allows that Singh’s animal nature extends further, man being “the reverser, the one who flips fate, the acrobat of reality.”

The stars too, not unlike the eels, and not unlike the self, are described as resisting “the nomenclatures, putting up a velvety unreachableness to the lens that encircles and abstracts them.” The astronomer’s attempt, then, to tame the observed world through regimentation within the languages of mathematics and physics also turns out to be misguided. It yields an understanding that is equally, and vitally, incomplete.

There are moments in the first two-thirds of the book where Cortázar appears to be leading us toward a gauzy mysticism. This lends an odd and fascinating tension to the reading experience, since one cannot quite believe the author could go in for such a naïve view. But after repeated invocations of the single-surfaced, single-boundaried Möbius strip as the appropriate model for thinking about reality, one starts to fear we are headed for a crude everything-is-everything dissolution of the thorny problems of metaphysics and epistemology.

Happily, that notion is ultimately dispelled: “So, Professor Fontaine, it’s not diffuse pantheism we’re talking about, nor dissolution in mystery: the stars are measurable.” It is here that the paradox of impoverishment through the accumulation of theoretical knowledge comes to the fore. The narrator, in a tone more pointed and tremulous, turns from a standard implicit address to an undefined reader to a direct address of the objects of his criticism: Fontaine, Callimand, and Bauchot.

The difficulty with accreted bodies of knowledge quickly surfaces: They frequently suffocate fledging ideas, ones that might, if given the conceptual space to develop, disclose facets of reality inexpressible in, or else distorted by, established theoretical orders. Combating the myopia induced by entrenched theoretical frameworks holds out the possibility of arriving at “another possible profile of man,” of avoiding “a false definition of the species.” But that would require, we are told, a “re-encounter with the whole man,” not merely the biochemical man of the natural sciences.

Natural scientific knowledge, then, can blind us to the very phenomena it is meant to explain. It can interfere with an open engagement with reality. “We have still not found the rhythm of the black serpent, we are merely on the skin of the world and of man.” But it is hardly just the natural sciences that generate complacency. The narrator offers this beautifully barbed imperative to social theorists — Marxists, in particular: “Go out on the streets, breathe the air of men who live and not the air of the theory of men in a better society; say for once that in happiness there is so much more than a quota of protein or free time or sovereignty.”

For all of Cortázar’s apparent hostility to science in this work, we come to understand, finally, that he has no deep quarrel with science as such, but rather with science as practiced. It has failed us by letting the tail of theory wag the dog of phenomenology. The narrator closes with a call for “a science of the total image” (retrospectively lending substance to the talk of Möbius strips), one in which our theoretical representations begin to answer to the full complexity of experience, even at the cost of some elegance (fabricated elegance, ultimately). This sort of science, one that “comes out into the open” and frankly confronts the world, will allow man to “occupy his position in this jubilant dance we’ll one day call reality.”

Mark de Silva works on the New York Times’s opinion pages.