Instructive Snippets and Possible Allegories (Seasoned with Some Crotchetiness)

I truly enjoyed getting through Julio Cortázar’s Cronopios and Famas, even if, as happened with Beckett, I sometimes wasn’t sure whether I possessed the necessary sophistication, let’s call it, to be able to walk away and enlighten unversed readers with a confident exposition upon the significance of every last detail. What the hell, though; the collection was fun and often insightful.

I loved “The Instruction Manual,” parts of which I read in a literature class in college, but didn’t fully appreciate until this second time around. What may seem like simple quirkiness hides telling hints of the human condition– as in “Instructions on How to Cry.” Here, we’re told that “In order to cry, steer the imagination toward yourself, and if this proves impossible owing to having contracted the habit of believing in the exterior world, think of a duck covered with ants or those gulfs in the Straits of Magellan into which no one sails ever.” (6, italics in original)

Other than that curious-yet-effective reference to the lonely gulfs in the Straits of Magellan, what caught my attention is “the habit of believing in the exterior world.” It doesn’t sound to me like any sort of anti-empiricism, but an acknowledgment, rather, that what passes for being really important (what everyone says, the year’s ten best buys– “the exterior world”) is all just a lot of bunk that distracts us from more essential things, such as self-knowledge and being at home in one’s skin. You would think that an age of “personalized experiences” and Big Data, which encourages us to glorify ourselves and our immediate wants, wouldn’t have to think twice about “steer[ing] the imagination toward yourself.” But (and I’m about to give even more evidence that once a piece of writing escapes its creator’s pen, it’s fair game for public interpretation) this new version of self-centeredness seems to be displaying a pretty sad ability to imagine anything; in addition to the consumerism that makes us believe that uniqueness comes down to which mass-produced products we choose, imaginative capacities seem to be on the wane, when faced with cradle-to-grave screen time. (Among other reports/commentary, see here and here.)

Look, too, at what many of these instructions are for: naturally occurring actions such as crying, singing, being afraid. They’re interspersed with activities, such as “dissect[ing] a ground owl,” that seem to come out of left field. The jumble of natural and artificial and just plain weird advice seems to communicate just how much our contemporary screwed-up selves are in need of assistance in differentiating our proverbial asses from our elbows.

“Cronopios and Famas,” too, was grand, with its cheerily clueless bourgeois famas, confident in their own goodwill. But what’s been sticking with me today is “A Small Story Tending to Illustrate the Uncertainty of the Stability within Which We Like to Believe We Exist, or Laws Could Give Ground to the Exceptions, Unforeseen Disasters, or Improbabilities, and I Want to See You There.” This little fictional world is filled with so many constantly productive scribes that the oceans, saturated with their output, turn to pulp, a phenomenon these hard workers then feel compelled to explain via more treatises, and so on and so forth. Whether Cortázar had academia or written output in general– or neither– in mind when he wrote this (in the early ’60s), this mushy world, in which the overabundance of the written word is so unworthy of remembrance that the pages are used for building materials, seems to be an eerily apt allegory of the Information Age the author wouldn’t live to see in its full flowering. What would he have done with the facts and sham-truths flying all over the place, accompanied by the voices of a thousand different commentators (why not include this blog in that mix?) who all feel obliged to put in their two cents, which in turn don’t really contribute anything to the conversation, and will be forgotten within a matter of hours? What for the pre-digital world were mountains of wet paper, somewhat limited by the availability of materials, has now turned into a flood of disembodied data whose continual assault both pushes everyone into panic mode, thinking they have to stay on top of and contribute to it, and burdens everyone’s spirit with the sheer, intangible weight of it all.

Admittedly, I may be feeling a little too biased toward the negative here, as my occasional book review gigs remind me of just how little of what gets hyped and fawned over will remain in the collective memory, much less continue to exercise any sort of influence one way or the other. But with such a small percentage of all this verbiage not even worth the time it takes to read it, I am heartened by the fact that Cortázar’s often wacky meditations have continued to shoulder their way past huge mounds of effluvia.

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