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P R A E S I D I U M
A Common-Sense Journal of Literary and Cultural Analysis
13.3 (Summer 2013)
courtesy of artrenewal.org
Cortazar’s Axolotl and the Author’s Embrace of Marxism
The literary expression of a young man keenly observing a brood of salamanders in a museum wouldn’t normally transcend the simplicity of the act itself. Julio Cortazar uses this encounter in his story, Axolotl, as an allegory for the contemporary relationship between Eurocentric industrial society and the last remnants of indigenous peoples under its dominion, the latter clinging heroically to their cultural identities while sequestered by the constraints of the artificial environment constructed for them. The setting of Axolotl, of itself, is unremarkable; what is remarkable is the dimension of the work, the simultaneity of perspectives as the reality of the narrator transforms. Cortazar writes later of his story-writing technique, explaining that, “[a] story is meaningful when it ruptures its own limits with that explosion of spiritual energy which suddenly illuminates something far beyond that small and sometimes sordid anecdote which is being told” (Cortazar, 1963). This explosion, Cortazar’s intention to work “deeply, vertically, heading up or down in literary space” (ibid.), brings a far deeper meaning to an otherwise mundane encounter. The fact that this story was set in France, the cradle of Marxism, will become very relevant in short order.
Cortazar makes clear with several references that the Axolotls represent indigenous people. As the narrator observes the Axolotls, transfixed, he asks himself, “Behind those Aztec faces, without expression but of an implacable cruelty, what semblance was awaiting its hour?” (Cortazar, p. 46). The overt reference to indigenous people is further enhanced with the narrator’s observation of the amphibians’ pensive demeanor: “They were lying in wait for something, a remote dominion destroyed, an age of liberty when the world had been that of the axolotls” (ibid.). Cortazar sympathized with the plight of indigenous people, an intention deeply etched into this sophisticated story of self-realization. Cortazar captured with horrific clarity the world-view of those oppressed by Eurocentrism: “The time feels like it’s less if we stay quietly” (Cortazar, p. 45.)
If it was Cortazar’s intent for Axolotl to be an activist story, then his approach in
composition can be shown to mirror the approach of indigenous activism generally, but only haphazardly. In discussing the requirements for a successful international indigenous movement, author and academic Ward Churchill alluded to the need for native peoples to redefine reality as the foundation of their struggle for identity:
[A]s long as we define realism, or reality itself, in conventional terms—the terms imposed by the order of understanding in which we now live—we will be doomed to remain locked forever into the present trajectory. We will never break free, because any order, any structure, defines reality only in terms of itself. (Churchill, 1992)
The narrator in Axolotl makes this very leap in perspective as he discovers that in reality
he is the one who is behind the glass—a victim of a world order which has imprisoned his very humanity: “Then my face drew back and I understood” (Cortazar, p. 47). Cortazar’s writing technique, in the context of Axolotl, shows an activism apparently consistent with the kind described by Churchill. Yet Cortazar’s financial and political support of the Marxist Sandinistas in Nicaragua betrays intentions so mired by the European perspective that they become a part of the mechanism of destruction and genocide, especially when the indigenous cultures themselves fail to create a new framework for sovereignty, instead adopting the world view of their destroyers as the philosophical nucleus of their struggle.
The late chief facilitator for the Republic of Lakotah, Russell Means, spared no criticism of indigenous cultures who make the mistake of embracing Marxism as a tool of revolution. “I don’t believe [Marxism] can be separated from the rest of the European intellectual tradition,” said Means, who argued that there is only one proper way for the indigenous to evaluate the merits of an alien political philosophy:
You cannot judge the real nature of a European revolutionary doctrine on the basis of the changes it proposes to make within the European power structure and society. You can only judge it by the effects it will have on non-European peoples. This is because every revolution in European history has served to reinforce Europe’s tendencies and abilities to export destruction to other peoples, other cultures and the environment itself. (Means, 1980)
Means points out that the only difference between Capitalism and Marxism, as they have to do with industrialization, is that Marxism promises to redistribute the results; the industrial process tends to require that the value of human life and of the environment can be equivocated if they stand in the way of economic growth. Marxism is even more reliant upon doing so because of the removal of private property interests as a check on expansion. Means is very clear: “To ally with Marxism is to ally with the very same forces that declare us an acceptable cost” (ibid.).
It should come as no surprise that Cortazar inevitably succumbed to this circular fallacy in his affirmation of support for indigenous cultures. Though considered a South American writer, he was born in Belgium and lived the majority of his life in France. Cortazar cannot even claim to be a cultural Argentine, nor was his activism sourced by any measure in any true kinship with indigenous people. After Axolotl, Cortazar would later praise the Marxist Cuban revolution as a fertile opportunity for a wellspring of new literature. Speaking fondly to the Cuban intellectuals about the success of their Marxist insurgency, Cortazar said, “Obviously, the revolution offers infinite possibilities to the story writer: the city, the countryside, the struggle, work, different psychological types, conflicts of ideology and character; and all this exacerbated by your visible desire to express yourselves, to communicate yourselves as you never have been permitted to do before” (Cortazar, 1963).
It may very well be true of the circumstances in Cuba at the time, that such sweeping political changes necessitate the birth of a body of artistic reflection. But Cortazar celebrates the ends, and ignores the means of violent political upheaval. He lived at too great a cultural distance from those whose struggle he romanticized: for all the literary depth shown in the story, Cortazar sadly could not penetrate the surface of the indigenous struggle with Axolotl. Even worse, Cortazar may have unknowingly worsened the genocidal process through his open endorsement of Marxism in Central America.
Churchill, Ward, “I Am Indigenist: Notes on the Ideology of the Fourth World” ZNet, 2008.
www.zcommunications.org/contents/55078/print. Accessed April 23rd, 2013. See also: Churchill, 1992.
Cortazar, Julio, “Axolotl”, La autopista del sur y otros cuentos. New York: Penguin Group, 1996. See also: Cortazar, 1956.
Cortazar, Julio, Some Aspects of the Short Story. Champaign-Urbana: Dalkey Archive Press, The Review of Contemporary Fiction. Vol. 19, No. 3, 1999. See also: Cortazar, 1963.
Means, Russell, “For America to Live, Europe Must Die!” International Black Hills Survival Gathering, July, 1980. Speech.
 Cortazar employs both the third person plural and first person plural voices, interchanging them several times in the story until finally the narrator’s transition to first person singular is complete: See Axolotl, p. 44, La autopista del sur y otros cuentos.
Adam Kirby is an accomplished musician and songwriter who, after years of wide-ranging “real world” experience, is near to completing his Bachelor’s degree at the University of Texas at Tyler..