Literature submits to montage in the feuilleton. - Walter Benjamin
1. Abandoning Action
Inaction, timelessness, nullity: these are the things that feed me.
-Julio Cortázar, Hopscotch
Recently, I simultaneously read Julio Cortázar's Hopscotch and Ana Castillo's Mixquiahuala Letters. Both are novels that subvert traditional—by which term most people actually mean traditionalist—notions of plot, action, and consequence. In both novels, the authors challenge the idea that individuals must constantly be engaged in action to assert their freedom.
Instead, both novels assert that individual subjects are most free when they abandon action. In Hopscotch, Cortázar's character Oliveira declares, "I am tired of action, of plots, of movements that only lead me to an inevitable end." Similarly, in The Mixquiahuala Letters, which is patterned after Hopscotch and shouts out Cortázar in the preface, Castillo's character Teresa remarks, "I want to sit in my chair and just be. I don't want to do anything, I don't want to think about anything, I just want to exist."
In writing characters desperate to simply be, both Castillo and Cortázar suggest that the need for action is what holds individuals back from true freedom, a tiresome grasping for control that bores me in most novels.
If the traditionalist novel and the experimental-qua-experimental novel both bore me, the writing that really grabs my attention lately tends to be writing that engages collage and/or montage. I think there is a sort of collage-mind inherent to how we think now, the way we swim in a sea of text and image, so I am more interested in writing that imitates this than in writing that tries to explain the world to me from some totalizing theory or easy simplification.
2. Subverting Traditionalist Notions of Plot
Both Hopscotch and The Mixquiahuala Letters subvert traditionalist notions of plot and character development. In Hopscotch, Cortázar presents the reader with two possible ways of reading the novel—either in a linear fashion, or by jumping back and forth between chapters in a non-linear fashion. This structure is meant to reflect the fragmented nature of Oliveira's psyche.
Similarly, in The Mixquiahuala Letters, Castillo presents the reader with a series of letters written by the character Teresa to her friend Alicia. These letters are not arranged chronologically, but rather in a way that reflects Teresa's emotional state at the time of writing. This structure allows the reader to see how Teresa's thoughts and feelings change over time, and to experience her consciousness, her travels through a world that so often feels hostile to her, with a greater sense of knowing and authenticity.
Both novels also question the idea of cause and effect, a lynchpin of traditionalist narrative. In Hopscotch, Cortázar often presents the reader with events that seem to have no clear cause or explanation. Similarly, in The Mixquiahuala Letters, Castillo's narrative often jumps back and forth in time, and both novels engage everyday absurdities, making opaque which events led to the characters' current emotional states. Both authors use these techniques to suggest that life is not always a neat, linear progression from one event to another, and that sometimes the most significant moments in our lives are the ones that seem to have no clear cause or explanation.
One thing that kept occurring to me as I read both Hopscotch and Mixquiahuala Letters is that both books challenge the idea that action and forward momentum are necessary for liberation. Instead, the novels suggest that true freedom can come from abandoning action and embracing a more reflective and introspective approach to life. As Borges suggests, most directly in the story “Borges and I,” there is not a unitary self. Our sense of self is shaped not just by our actions but also by the people we encounter, the language(s) we speak, and the stories we absorb. “I am not sure I exist, actually,” Borges reflects. “I am all the writers that I have read, all the people that I have met, all the women that I have loved; all the cities I have visited.”
As Oliveira abandons his bohemian life in Paris for an absurdly rendered re-entry to Buenos Aires, and as Teresa writes to Alicia about the travels of their youth that have shaped both of their lives, they are attempting to reckon with the selves they once were, the loves and hatreds, confusions and travels that have propelled them onwards toward the people they have become.
4. Collage Mind
I'm very fond of this phrase: Collage is not a refuge for the compositionally disabled. If you put together the pieces in a really powerful way, I think you'll let a thousand discrepancies bloom.
- David Shields
As Hopscotch hopscotches around, playfully weaving philosophical writing, lyricism, and a sort of biography of a character called Morelli, a writer and, it could be argued, authorial stand-in, whose work is beloved by Oliveira’s bohemian friends in Paris. Cortázar does not make clear to the reader whether the book is meant to have been authored by Oliveira or Morelli, but it is telling that Morelli advocates for a new kind of art, a “narrative that will act as a coagulant of experiences.”
The art Morelli—and, I would argue, Cortázar—argue for here is an art that both reflects the fragmented and disjointed nature of modern consciousness and creates a unity from it. By embracing this fragmented approach, both Hopscotch and The Mixquiahuala Letters, are able to more fully capture the complexity and richness of their characters’ consciousness.
5. Self as Multiplicity
There is a section from The Mixquiahuala Letters that has stuck with me. Later in the novel (although “later” is a relative term, as the order of the letters depends on which suggested order you read it in—it is really three novels in one), Teresa has had an abortion, about which her partner became enraged because he was not consulted. She writes to Alicia of the aftermath, and the complication of many selves she begins to feel, speaking of herself in the third person. Her dinner has been “a cigarette, a hard-boiled egg, and a cup of instant coffee every night that week.” "She stays up and fills blank notebooks..." “She frames a photo of a drawing she had made once when he had stayed out all night. It is of a woman whose eyes bulge comically and whose hair is aflame...” “She makes decisions, takes her life back into her own hands…” Then she returns to the “i,” lower-cased. “Oh, Alicia, if i were back in that miserable hotel in the ancient city where gods, warriors, and women all fell beneath the blows of imposing invaders but what killed them was their disparate energies, i wouldn’t deny to you again that i understand why you hated yourself.”
This page is absolutely brilliant. If Castillo’s novel itself is a collage of letters, this page collages selfhood, history, indigeneity, modernity, sexual politics, art, and abjection into a mix of myriad selves that forms Teresa in this moment of pain and confusion.
Recently, I have also been reading Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone De Beauvoir’s letters, and in one exchange, from early 1940, they grapple over what it means to be French—by this, they mean to be French and not some other nationality. Sartre is serving in the French military at this time, defending against the ongoing Nazi invasion, and he writes, of a day he was bored in the barracks, “today I was feeling my historicity.” De Beauvoir writes back, encouragingly, that this is an existentialist idea, that a self intersects the world at a particular moment, brought about by forces we (largely) cannot control. The modern self is fragmented from birth, and Sartre defines himself as French even as he is suspicious of national and nationalist identification. He wants to be free, more than anything, but he also knows that he is irrevokably bound by the actions of long-dead people, and the nation he did not ask to be a part of, along with the collection of selves that has led him to the self that is serving in the French military, collecting weather readings, working on his novel, and writing long, tender letters to De Beauvoir.
And when I read this page of Teresa’s letters to Alicia, I think that Castillo is working in a similar vein, showing the self as multiplicity, not only of selves but of historical and cultural movement. “I am not sure I exist, actually.” Or, as Susan Sontag put it in an essay called “Why I Write”:
I write — and talk — in order to find out what I think.
But that doesn’t mean “I” “really” “think” that. It only means that is my-thought-when-writing (or when-talking). If I’d written another day, or in another conversation, “I” might have “thought” differently.
The Buddhist perspective might suggest that there is no “I” at all. “I” am not sure that “I” believe that, but it has become clear to me lately that Sontag is right. The “I” of today is not the same as the “I” of yesterday. What “I” loved yesterday, “I” may disdain today, or vice versa. The “I” that writes this now may read it later and think very differently. “My” mind is not a unity except in that I am able to remember. And even then, all is collage, all is fragment, all is shards of language and image that, every morning, coalesces into a new human being as I shake off the dust of my dreams and sit down to write.