- Inventing AutonomiesMeditations on Julio Cortázar and the Politics of Our Time
"Our possible truth must be INVENTION" (Cortázar 1966, 384). So declares the narrator near one of the possible beginnings of Julio Cortázar's novel Hopscotch. In this essay I will argue, essentially, that our possible truth, today, must be invention as well. Or, at least, that in reexamining Cortázar's notion of invention we would add a valuable tool to those we already have with which to think the possibilities of transformation in our time. In the pages that follow, I will develop this argument by first, elaborating Cortázar's notion of "invention," especially as it functions in a few of his literary works; second, examining its operation in his own political discourse; and finally, reflecting a bit on how the notion and practice of invention might engage not only the politics of our time, but some of the other conceptual tools we have to think about that politics.
"The poet," Cortázar once wrote, "if she cannot connect them by intrinsic features, does what everyone does when looking at the stars: she invents the [End Page 1] constellation, the lines linking the solitary stars" (Cortázar 1996, 300). He wrote this around 1950 in a long study of the British Romantic poet John Keats that would not be published until after Cortázar's death. Cortázar was around 35 at the time, had yet to publish the first of his eight volumes of short stories or any of the novels that would secure his fame as a writer. But "invention" and its derivatives run like a subterranean vein throughout his works, never central to any of them but never absent. Thus, at the end of his life, in a chronicle of a road trip he had made with his wife Carol Dunlop, Cortázar expressed his hopes that the work "will have opened for you some doors too, and that in you germinates already the project of some parallel freeway of your own invention" (Cortázar and Dunlop 1996, 44; my translation).
In that first passage, Cortázar identifies invention with the creative activity of the poet. The poet-inventor connects, and in connecting constitutes new relationships among otherwise "solitary" elements of the given. Prior to the creative activity of the poet, the stars simply are. There may well be an intrinsic relationship among them, and perhaps that is available to human understanding. But failing that availability—and its failure is the emphasized premise of the poet-inventor's creative activity—the poet must constitute new relations in a given field of elements. Here appear already the basic elements of Cortázar's notion of invention. Invention, throughout Cortázar's writing, comes to mean the process by which we can make something new—a word, an experience, a world, a self—by rearranging the elements and the relationships that constitute a particular, received situation: the night sky, for example.
This may be illustrated with another example. If we think of a word as a situation, like the night sky, then we might see that this situation is made up of elements—like the "solitary stars"—called letters, configured in a given way according to certain rules. There would be, of course, many different ways of making a new word from that given word. We could subtract letters or add new letters. We could, at least for certain given words, reverse the order of the letters, as in a palindrome. But in Cortázar's fiction, the privileged way of making a new word is always the anagram, whereby the given letters are shuffled into new relationships, with nothing added and nothing subtracted in order to make something new. "The problem with [End Page 2] palindromes," says Lozano, the protagonist of Cortázar's story "Tara," is that "you are left the way you started" (Cortázar 1995, 32). A palindrome, which offers you only the mirror image of the given, "has no strength because it doesn't teach you anything new." But anagrams are a different story. The young girl protagonist of "The Distances" makes...