Weird #40: “Axolotl” by Julio Cortázar (1956)

Photo by Nathan Guzman on Unsplash

In Julio Cortázar’s “Axolotl,” a man develops an unexpected bond with an amphibian at the Jardin des Plantes in Paris, to the point where he becomes—and realizes he has always been—an axolotl.

The axolotl has eyes that tell the narrator of “a different life, of another way of seeing.” He stares for so long into its deep, golden eyes that the identities of the narrator and creature switch, so that the narrator remains in the tank, while the man, watching him through the glass, moves on with his life.

Surrealism’s influence on Cortázar’s imagination is apparent in how he does not let reason dictate his tale. He follows another logic: one predicated on what Martin Buber might call an I-Thou relationship. The narrator loses himself in contemplation of the other, until the axolotl’s Otherness becomes a Selfness—it becomes, in fact, the narrator. The way Cortázar’s achieves this switch—one might even speak of a metamorphosis—is subtle. The only identity switch like it that I have read is in Jorge Luis Borges’s “The Form of the Sword,” which handles it quite differently.

Cortázar’s narrator is not alone in his ability to self-identify with an axolotl. It’s a fairly common reaction. There is something inherently charismatic in the ugly cuteness of these creatures — in today’s culture, they are internet famous. The reason for their fame, I believe, has something to do with why Cortázar’s narrator is able to identify so completely with the little amphibian.

I’m not sure what Cortázar would make of the axolotl memes being shared over the internet these days, but the meme creators must know how uncannily human they seem. One meme, “Finn the Axolotl” compares the face of this cute-but-ugly amphibian to Finn the Human from Adventure Time. The meme suggests that the cartoon-like blank face and black lines in an axolotl’s visage encourage human identification with the creatures.

Scott McCloud, in Understanding Comics, explains that the simple lines used to represent a human face in a cartoon or comic facilitates the audience’s identification with the character. The simpler the face, the easier it is to identify with it; likewise, the more complex or realistic the face, the less easy.

This is why realistically-drawn human faces with blemishes and five o’clock shadow tend not to be as universally charismatic as a circle with two dots for eyes. Finn the Human has a neutral looking face so anyone (especially kids) can project their own identity onto him.

The netural face of an axolotl works the same way. As creatures, they already resemble cartoons, which makes them appear not only meme-worthy but “human” to us: not because their eyes actually resemble an anatomically correct human eye, but because the simple lines allow us to project our identity onto them, like Cortázar’s narrator projects himself.

The effect can be so strong, it can be like looking in the mirror. One can feel like one is actually looking out from the eyes of a cartoon character — just like Cortázar’s narrator see out of the eyes of an axolotl.

This cartoon-like quality of the axolotl’s face is arguably what has made these critters into such popular memes, and it is also arguably what encourages the narrator to not only identify with but become the axolotl.

Cortázar’s narrator states, “In no animal had I ever found such a profound connection to myself.” In blurring the line between self and other, Cortázar uses the techniques of surrealism—and the inherent strangeness of the axolotl as a subject—to tell a story of a weird metamorphosis.

Next week, I will be discussing “A Woman Seldom Found” by William Sansom (1956).

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