To be presented in: Workshop 4 // Experience and Narration (read preliminary debate here)
This presentation poses more questions than offers an answer or a systematic reading of Apocalypse in Solentiname by Julio Cortazar. The complex interplay between reality and fiction and its explicit political content make this story particularly rich as well as complicated. In this brief outline, I’d like to suggests a few possible topics to be discussed or at least considered while reading the story, although I must say that most of my suggestions are related to a general concern, for which I’m afraid I have no answer yet: the nature of visual (photographic) perception and its relationship to the notion of experience and the subsequent articulation of a political and aesthetic approach to the reality perceived.
In Apocalypse in Solentiname, for the first time and quite unexpectedly for the reader, Julio Cortázar introduces himself, the important and worldwide known Argentine writer (the historical public figure), as the narrator on the first person singular of one of his short stories. Mentioning his friends, his trips and even his own literary success referring to Blow-up, Antonioni’s filmic adaption of his short story Las babas del Diablo, Cortazar presents to the reader one of his personal experiences. However, this is not any personal experience, it is a visual experience: a photographic one. When I say that this is a photographic experience I do not intend to say that the trip, the press conference or the talking with friends didn’t take place or are not experiences. What I mean is that it is precisely the reenactment of those experiences in the form of a photographic-slide projection what leads to a different kind of experience, the one that will be particularly emphasized in the story. The nature of this photographic experience, the exceptional and unusual event related to it, allows the main character to see things that he had not seen before. Non the less, can “we” see things that we have not seen before while looking through the lens of a camera, while being there?
The possibility of seeing things that we cannot usually see, that are usually not revealed straight away, that we do not perceive or that are simply determined by some kind of contingency, is already expressed in the text by the first reference to photography while talking of Polaroid images. The reflection on the Polaroid seems to announce what will happen later on in the plot. The mutability of the images that change and conform themselves in front of our eyes implies the potential mutability of seeing: something different to what we thought to be the referent of the picture may appear in the image. Walter Benjamin called this possibility of seeing what we didn’t know to be there, the optical unconscious. Nevertheless, Benjamin’s notion of the optical unconscious is deeply linked to the material aspects of the scientific and technological optical discoveries that will allow the human eye to see better and more while helping modern men to understand a new world, a new modern society. In Cortazar’s story, seeing what he didn’t know he had experienced (had he experienced it then?) precisely reformulates his relationship to what he thought he had experienced, indeed. In this link between real and possible (contingent experiences), the interplay between reality and fiction, history and story takes place.
The optical unconscious is not the only idea by Benjamin that can be traced in this text since, in order to articulate the aforementioned interplay between reality and fiction, Cortazar also sketches an interesting reflection on the nature of art based on the benjaminian concept of aura and the connections between copies and originals. When Cortazar decides to take pictures of the paintings, he realizes that he has as many shots left as paintings he wants to photograph. This coincidence establishes an interesting relationship between originals and reproductions based on a particular notion of uniqueness: paintings are unique and unique are their photographic reproductions since only one exposure can be shot per each image. (1) Surprisingly, this relationship between the original and the copy has nothing to do with the superior quality of the former over the later because, as Cortazar says in the story, at the moment of reproduction, when the pictures are displayed as slides, he can actually make them better than the originals: Sí, le dije, me los llevo todos, allá los proyectare en mi pantalla y serán más grandes y más brillantes que éstos, jódete. The concept of uniqueness in relation to art is challenged as it is challenged the notion of experience depending on one vantage point. If there is not only one piece possibly considered to be art, as a matter of fact the original can be improved by other means, there is not one unique possible experience (of art? Life?). This realization modifies, at least forces to rethink, the relationship between art and life to which we will go back later.
Regarding the process of visualizing the images, the slide-projection on the wall at his house back in Paris, it should be argued, still following Benjamin’s ideas, that this process is a reproduction in itself where the idea of a sequence is embedded in the notion of the show. The character is going to project the images, one after the other, and this will create a system, perceived as whole, that will bring him back some memories of past experiences, of things he already saw and is willing to see again, to experience again. This experience ought to be different due to the deferment of perception implied by the whole photographic process (a picture is taken but can only be seen later, nullifying the assumption of an immediate perception), and it entails the possibility of seeing something differently. (2) This deferment also implies the possibility of distinguishing two different experiences at the same time that questions the notion of experience and the implications of bearing witness. Looking at the photographs, the main character realizes that he has beard witness to something he did not know about (which also poses questions about knowledge, what do we know, what exactly do we know, based on what do we perceive, how and what do we perceive, …). First of all, he thought it was all a mistake, a confusion, but shortly after he realized that it cannot be because he took every other picture (again, presence, witness). Then, a reformulation of a past experience takes place: seeing the photographs has altered the memory of the experience of the trip and, as it was somehow announced by the duplication of the painting by the photographs, we have now two experiences, even if one of them is determined by its own potentiality and contingency.
However, history (history in this context and for us, is a series of factual events easy to document, the trip), experience and politics have always been linked in the text since Cortazar associated them since the beginning and bound them to himself and his fiction. It seems that history-politics-himself and fiction are part of an avoidable mechanism that define the story, the writing.(3) This sequence and its connections to the story take us back to the brief reflection sketched in the story about art and its relationship to life. Moreover, the binary art/life can be considered as a re-elaboration of the tension between reality and fiction. The dichotomy art/life helps the narrator in the story (Julio Cortazar) to express out loud, in a written form, his complete disbelief of them as opposite terms. As he states, art usually takes over life, since for him there is simply no distinction. (4) Thus, is there no distinction between art and life? Between the photographic experience and the personal experience/trip? Between fiction and reality?
Finally, there is one more question that I’d like to ask, at least for now: when Claudine sees the pictures, the slideshow, she doesn’t see anything more than the paintings, the kids in Mass…etc. She does not see assassinations, death, horror, … nothing. In fact, she just looks at the analogical representation of small scenes occurred during the trip. Thereby, who sees what? Who experiences (visually) what? When? Why? What determines the effects of that experience?
(1) Nevertheless this relationship upon uniqueness can be modified since photographs can be endless reproduced as material forms –piece of paper- but also as a projection, a display, as it will happen later on the story.
(2) Benjamin’s notion of actualization is particularly relevant to understand this differently.
(3) Both Moreiras and Muñoz have noted the continuity between the reference to Blow-up and the connection to politics, although neither of them has tried to dig into why these two short stories implicitly relate to issues associated with political commitment and photography.
(4) I am sure this equality between art and life is not necessarily shared by everyone, most likely not the people/habitants of Solentiname: not because their lives are nor art, but because they do not necessarily apply that category to it. This difference forces then the question: what is it art? When is art recognized as such? This is a key question (the relationship art/life) to analyze in this story, since it is also related to the political commitment aforementioned. It is important then, following a tangent path to this, paying attention to the relationship the narrator has with the people he sees, that he interacts with in the story (aside Ernesto Cardenal and other writers). Which is Cortázar’s attitude?