[Close Reading Rainbow pt. 4] Coming to Grips with Reality in Julio Cortázar’s “The Night Face Up.”

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Sometimes reality is scarier than any nightmare we might be having. This was definitely the case for many writers in South and Central America during the 1960s and 1970s. Citizens of countries like Chile, Brazil, Uruguay, and Argentina suffered under military dictatorships that negatively impacted these nations economically, developmentally, and even academically; many of these affects are still being felt by Latin Americans today.

From 1966-1973, Argentina was rocked and shaken by the military dictatorship of Juan Carlos Onganía. Through a military coup, known as Revolución Argentina, Juan Domingo Perón, the then president of Argentina, was ousted and exiled to Spain. In the wake of this sudden shift in power, Onganía made his mark on the economic, industrial, and academic history of Argentina. Due to the Argentine University Reform of 1918, students and professors had autonomy over the university and could establish a governing body over the university that was separate from the federal government. This all changed on the night of July 29, 1966.  Hundreds of students and professors from the University of Buenos Aires were violently forced out of the university by police officers led by Onganía. Following the removal of autonomy from the university staff and students, many of Argentina’s best and brightest academics were either forced to emigrate or emigrated on their own free will to other Latin American countries, Europe, and the United States. This night would later be named “La Noche de los Bastones Largos” or “The Night of the Long Batons.” As a result of Onganía’s regime, Argentina was flipped on its head and continues to suffer the consequences of this dictatorship.

The following spring, on April 22, 1967, a story by Argentinian writer Julio Cortázar was published in The New Yorker titled “The Night Face Up.” The story chronicles the events of a night where a man crashes his motorcycle, is rushed to a hospital, receives treatment, and drifts in and out of consciousness between 1960s Argentina and “the war of blossom,” a time of ritualistic human sacrifices which occurred during the time of the Aztecs. At the time of the story’s publication, Cortázar was living in France, where he wrote and published many of his short stories and novels. Cortázar was a proponent and patron of the arts and education. His work primarily focuses on understanding the nature of reality and dreams/nightmares. According to Lois Parkinson Zamora, in his work “Cortázar is attracted to the visionary energy of the myth of apocalypse, to its revitalizing power: Its transformative vision becomes for Cortazar the central metaphor for the artistic imagination operating under extreme conditions of personal and/or political crisis” (92). Cortázar, just like many of his contemporaries, recognized the traditional and ritual-like nature of establishing military leaders, called juntas, in Latin America. Life under these regimes was nightmarish, apocalyptic, and extremely frightening, and Cortázar sought to understand the complexities of living a normal life under abnormal circumstances; living two realities at the same time. Many critics of Cortázar’s work have linked him to Bohemian writer Franz Kafka due to Cortázar’s ability to tell stories that, according to fellow Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges, “Very subtly… [attract] us to his terrible world in which happiness is impossible” (21). Borges goes on to say that the world in which Cortázar writes is “a porous” one where “human beings are interwoven with each other…. Cortázar delights in playing with the stuff we are made on, time. In some tales, two temporal series flow along and intermingle” (21). These ideas of time and two temporal and very different realities flowing together permeate his fiction and simultaneously serve as a window into the nightmare that many Latin Americans struggled through during the regimes like that of the Revolución Argentina.

In examining the combination of these two realities, Cortázar pits heavy and light imagery against one another like water mixing with oil to underscore the difficulty in straddling two alternate realities. In “The Night Face Up,” the man who “does not have a name” (66) experiences a rupture of consciousness and reality due to a traumatic near-fatal motorcycle collision when a woman steps into an intersection during a green light. On impact, the man’s “vision went. It was like falling asleep all at once” (67). He is shot into what the narrator explains later as a “a void… an emptiness he could not manage to fill” (73). The nurses and doctors in the hospital, those whose job it is to operate on his broken arm and provide him with an X-Ray, are juxtaposed with the priests and warriors bent on capture him and sacrifice him in his dream. In the hospital, his nostrils are filled with “that hospital smell” (68); smells that usually connote cleanliness, safety, and healing. Whereas, his supposed dream is marked by “a confusion, as of one drawing all his sensations, for that moment blunted or muddled, into himself” (71) and “the smell of war” (69). The smells are antithetical. The man’s senses present a duality in his perception. On the one hand, he is slightly marred by a motorcycle accident, yet is covered in bandages and awaiting treatment. On the other, he is a Motecan warrior escaping the hands of murderous priests who want to sacrifice him to one of their many gods. The heaviness in the dream state stands in stark contrast to the relative lightness of the hospital room.

This dual and entirely inverse relationship between the two realities is furthered in the way that the man interacts with people in the dream and in his perceived reality. After his accident at the beginning of the story, the men that help him “encouraged him cheerfully with jokes and assurances” (67). The atmosphere surrounding the event is not serious in the slightest. They laugh and talk about how the bike is more banged up than he is; despite having broken his arm. Though these jokes and encouragements seem to serve as a welcome reminder that this man has just escaped death, the narrator makes it clear the “Voices” from which the jokes and the encouragements were coming from “did not seem to belong to the faces hanging above him” (67). This can be seen as just a lag in perception as a result of trauma. However, people living under oppressive regimes and oppressive individuals experience similar dislodged realities. They hope that the life they were living before the coup can go on as it did without any repercussions. These dictators like Onganía, as aggressive and oppressive as they were, worked to improve the infrastructure of the country. Despite the upgraded infrastructure that comes with some oppressive military-run governments, the cons almost always outweigh the pros. The citizens under the regime also recognize, just like the students and professors from the University of Buenos Aires, that regardless of improvements in national infrastructure, the reality of these regimes is the suppression of ideas and the forceful removal of democratically granted autonomy.

Like these students and the professors, the man in “The Night Face Up” is confronted with a split reality: he is both a civilian with a broken arm in a hospital and a Motecan warrior avoiding the sacrificial altar. The pros of the hospital are that he is being taken care of through modern medicine; the con is that his arm is broken, and he has a fever. The solitary pro of being a Motecan warrior is that his right arm isn’t broken; the cons are that he is in the dark, he needs to follow a difficult path to escape, he can’t stay awake in the hospital, and the obvious prospect of being sacrificed. In the story, he doesn’t have a choice as to which reality he actually inhabits. In the end, the man finds himself drifting further into his dream, described him as being pinned at “his wrists and ankles…. staked to the ground on a floor of dank, icy stone slabs” (73). The whole night, both in the hospital and in the dream world, he is in the same position: face up. He is passive in both realities, and ultimately realizes at the end that he is not a man from 1960s Argentina as the narrator leads readers to believe at the beginning of the story. Rather, his reality is the one where he is being sacrificed, face up.

Because of the regimes that existed in Latin America during the 1960s and 1970s, many Latin Americans felt like they were face up on the sacrificial alter while at the same time trying with all their might to fight back against this reality. The terror and frustration felt by the people of Argentina during Revolución Argentina provides an important framework for Cortázar’s case study on dual realities in many of his stories. Just as Lois Parkinson Zamora states, “these episodes subtly transmute themselves into a descent to the cellars of behavior, to Its remote irrational sources, to an immutable essence – magic, barbarous, ceremonial – of the human experience that underlies rational civilization and, under certain circumstances, rises up to disturb it” (92). They allow readers to see what life could be like and ask themselves which reality is worth accepting and which is worth denying. Unfortunately, many people remained in Argentina during the seven years of Onganía’s dictatorship and suffered like the man in “The Night Face Up”; left to their fate at the hands of a nightmarish dictator who pushed citizens down as they tried to wake up and remain face up. Thankfully, people like the students and the professors from the University of Buenos Aires and people who fought for freedom against oppressive juntas were able to wake up, escape the nightmare, accept the correct reality, disrupt the tradition of military regimes, and help usher in a less terrifying era for Argentina and other Latin American nations.

Works Cited

Borges, Jorge Luis. “Preface to Julio Cortázar’s Cuentos.” Critical Essays on Julio Cortázar. Edited by Jaime Alazraki. G.K. Hall & Co., 1999, pp. 21-22.

Zamora, Lois Parkinson. “Art and Revolution in the Fiction of Julio Cortázar.” Critical Essays on Julio Cortázar.“ Edited by Jaime Alazraki. G.K. Hall & Co. 1999, pp. 92-114,

Cortázar, Julio. “The Night Face Up.” Blow Up, and Other Stories, Random House, 1967, 57-66. (Print) (Online, I used the online version for citations)

 

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[Close Reading Rainbow Part 3] Heartless Reactions to a Boy and a Buzz Saw: “Out, Out—” by Robert Frost

Robert Frost was an American modernist poet and playwright who wrote and published his work from the early 1910s to his death in the early 1960s. He is praised for his command of the English language through his use of colloquialisms (common speech) in his writing. Many of his poems are set in rural settings and describe life outside of the city. Frost’s most well-known poem is one that is used during essentially every single graduation/convocation speech: “The Road Not Taken.” Though this poem is uplifting and thought provoking in its tone and intention, some of Frost’s poetry is as thought provoking as they are violent and disturbing. One of these poems is his 1916 poem “Out, Out—”. To understand the gravity of this poem, here it is in its entirety:

The buzz saw snarled and rattled in the yard
And made dust and dropped stove-length sticks of wood,
Sweet-scented stuff when the breeze drew across it.
And from there those that lifted eyes could count
Five mountain ranges one behind the other
Under the sunset far into Vermont.
And the saw snarled and rattled, snarled and rattled,
As it ran light, or had to bear a load.
And nothing happened: day was all but done.
Call it a day, I wish they might have said
To please the boy by giving him the half hour
That a boy counts so much when saved from work.
His sister stood beside him in her apron
To tell them ‘Supper.’ At the word, the saw,
As if to prove saws knew what supper meant,
Leaped out at the boy’s hand, or seemed to leap—
He must have given the hand. However it was,
Neither refused the meeting. But the hand!
The boy’s first outcry was a rueful laugh,
As he swung toward them holding up the hand
Half in appeal, but half as if to keep
The life from spilling. Then the boy saw all—
Since he was old enough to know, big boy
Doing a man’s work, though a child at heart—
He saw all spoiled. ‘Don’t let him cut my hand off—
The doctor, when he comes. Don’t let him, sister!’
So. But the hand was gone already.
The doctor put him in the dark of ether.
He lay and puffed his lips out with his breath.
And then—the watcher at his pulse took fright.
No one believed. They listened at his heart.
Little—less—nothing!—and that ended it.
No more to build on there. And they, since they
Were not the one dead, turned to their affairs.

After frightfully watching and listening to the boy’s penultimate pulse leading to the final beat, the adults that surround him seemingly get up and go about their affairs without any real thought regarding the ill fate of the child. Upon first reading, the poem “Out, Out—” by Robert Frost seems to end leaving the reader standing in a dismal deluge of disinterest and disconnection. However, through understanding the purpose behind the tonal shift between the first twenty-two lines and the last three lines, the reader can see that the apparent apathy isn’t heartless, but rather a natural, more mature response to a very tragic death.

As a beginning move, the speaker describes a cozy, idyllic, rural scene in the opening six lines, which provides the reader with a sense of innocence and security. The saw in the yard, “drop[s] stove-length sticks of wood,” that are described as “Sweet scented stuff when the breeze [blows] across it” (ll. 2-3). The sticks produced by the saw will inevitably be used to warm the home and provide comfort to all those who reside therein. There is a calmness about the yard and the home despite the “snarl[ing]” and “ratt[ling]” of the saw (ll. 1). The voice of the saw is just noise in the background of what should be a perfectly fine day. We get the image of a rural Vermont surrounded by “Five mountain ranges one behind the other / Under the sunset” (ll. 5-6). The setting established in these introductory lines allows the reader to feel at home. There is protection. The mountains act as a natural barrier, giving the yard a safe-and-sound sort of vibe. The only image that is disconcerting is that of the saw as it “snarl[s] and rattle[s], snarl[s] and rattle[s]” (ll. 7).

The saw’s rattling and snarling hums in opposition to the calmness and homeliness of the wooded compound and creates an uneasiness that culminates in the rather forceful amputation of the boy’s hand. In accordance with the comfort of the wooded enclosure, the boy possesses a naivety that protects him from understanding the danger and gravity of the saw. This innocence can be seen in the way that the interaction between the boy and the saw is portrayed. Rather than being a grotesque and awful scene of confusion and gore, when the boy’s hand meets the saw, the whole ordeal is shown as something comparable to an animal jumping at the boy. The saw is given animal characteristics, in addition to the snarling and rattling, in that it is described as “Leap[ing] out at the boy’s hand” (ll. 16). It’s almost as if the saw is some sort of snake, lashing out at some unsuspecting passerby. Though the saw is seen as a sort of snake, the speaker interjects saying, “or seemed to leap,” leaving the reader a bit disjointed (ll. 16). This disconnect allows the reader the chance to question the perspective of the child. It also acts as a catalyst for the reader to come to terms with the reaction of the adults at the end of the poem.

The boy’s perspective, in addition to the image of the saw as a snake, gives the remainder of the poem, up until the last three lines, a tone of innocence taken away. The boy is described as “giv[ing] the hand” to the saw, almost as if it were some sort of offering (ll. 17). When the hand is accepted by the saw, the boy lets out a “rueful laugh” (ll. 19). The juxtaposition of these two words gives the reader a conflicted image. Rueful and laugh are almost absolutely opposite of one another. The “outcry” of the boy is something of a sorrowful laugh. This image, in relation to the uncertain tone that the speaker employs earlier on, shows that although the boy might have thought that he knew what he was doing when he offered his hand to saw, he really had no clue what he as getting himself into. The bucolic background bursts before the readers’ eyes. The boy holds his hand “as if to keep the life from spilling” out of the wound that now occupies where his hand once was.

The boy loses his innocence and his knowledge regarding danger and pain allows him to be like the rest of the people that end up surrounding his deathbed. He possesses, or at least seems to possess, all knowledge beforehand, yet when he is disarmed “[he sees] all—” (ll. 22).  He wanted to be a “big boy” although he wasn’t old enough to be using the saw to begin with (23). His innocence is “spoiled” and he is thrown into confusion as he cries for his sister to tell the doctor to not “cut [his] hand off—” (ll. 25). Despite his desire to keep the hand unspoiled, “the hand was gone already” (ll. 27). He is left with no hand, and the people around him show little to no emotion toward his sudden, tragic end. Although this is very tragic, the adults understand that the saw wasn’t a snake. It wasn’t something that a boy of his age should have been playing with. They aren’t sad that he is gone, but they are sad that he had to learn the hard way that when children get too close to snakes, they will get attacked.

This shift in tone from calmness and homeliness to the confusion of the boy and the subsequent apathetic attitudes of the adults allows the reader to see that the attitude seen by these people isn’t one that should be deplored. The adults understand that there is nothing that they can do to bring the child back. It is true that “No one believed” that he could pass so quickly, yet everyone knew that the saw was dangerous. As a group of rural residents, their lives are most likely based on surviving. The boy exhibited ineptitude in the realm of survival. He was dead as a result of his actions and the as a result of the adults’ awareness of such a consequence, they knew that there was “No more to build on there” (ll. 33). They understand that in nature, although one might be encircled and protected by mountains and foliage, if someone dies as a result of their own actions, it is not their affair and shouldn’t be something to trouble them further.

What are your thoughts? Are the adults heartless? Is nature unforgiving and uncaring as some writers like Frost describe it to be? What can be said about the response of the adults as opposed to the children? What does that say about innocence between adults and children? Leave your responses in the comments below! Thank you, and see you next week where I will be looking at Julio Cortazar’s story “The Night Face Up.