Study Abroad in
Isaac Walker, Grinnell College
In Julio Cortázar’s “Axolotl”, the narrator has a chance encounter with the axolotls that inhabit the Jardín des Plantes in Paris. He is immediately fascinated by them, and this fascination develops progressively from the first encounter up until his eventual transformation into an axolotl. In this essay, I propose that the relationship that the narrator has with the axolotls symbolizes that of the narrator with his own individuality. I argue that the story presents the tumultuous process of self-examination that reflects an internal disjunction of internal subjectivity.
At the end of the story, the narrator transforms into an axolotl, but there exist both similarities and a clear connection between them from the beginning. The narrator doesn’t believe that the axolotl are animals, but neither does he believe that they are exactly human; he notes that they “weren’t human beings, but in no animal had I found such a profound relationship with myself.” He feels more of a connection with the axolotls than with monkeys, whose anthropomorphized features seem to him a facade that, rather than suggesting their similarities to humans, reveals the distance that separates them from us. In contrast with the monkeys, the axolotls are definitely linked to humanity, as the narrator perceives that they could consume him in a “cannibalism of gold.” As a result, we can take the symbol of the axolotl to analyze the process of investigation of the self undergone by the narrator. This process is seen in a relationship between the narrator and the axolotls consisting of three principal characteristics: fascination, horror, and separation.
The axolotls fascinate the narrator who, after seeing them for the first time, is able to do nothing but think about them. He is fascinated by the entirety of the axolotls, as much by their physical appearance as their internal mental state. The narrator describes in detail the bodies of the creatures in an attempt to understand them. He also longs to access their thoughts, and imagines that they communicate with him through their eyes, that they transmit “a message: ‘Save us, save us.’”
This fascination, however, is unidirectional and tinged with the presence of the narrator’s own ego. He is fascinated by the axolotls, not the axolotls with him; and after his transformation into an axolotl he loses all interest in the man outside of the aquarium. Furthermore, the narrator’s fascination with the axolotls causes him to lose all interest in other things, particularly the lions, the panthers, and even other humans. The guard in the Jardín, for instance, attempts to starts conversations with the narrator, but the narrator never responds. Upon confronting himself, the narrator loses his capacity to connect with others.
The axolotls terrify the narrator: they devour him “with their eyes in a cannibalism of gold,” and he feels unsafe spending time with them without other people in the aquarium. We can think of this terror inspired by the axolotls as the result of the strong connection that the narrator feels with them; it is frightening to identify completely with a being that possesses an “absolute lack of similarity” to human beings. However, the axolotl are also more similar to the narrator than any other animal or person. Cortázar implies, therefore, an internal confusion of subjectivity; there is always distance and dissimilarity within the self.
The presence of this distance in the story is established even more strongly by the glass that separates the narrator from the axolotls. He attempts to overcome this barrier, but doesn’t manage to do so until the end of the story when he transforms into an axolotl. The eventual transformation is terrifying, and it separates the narrator from his previous self, who is now just a man on the other side of the glass. The process of transformation of the subject in “Axolotl” is represented as one characterized by disjunction and fear.
In the midst of our Spring Semester activities, arrived our new participants of the Summer Community Public Health (CPH) Program, bundled in their thick jackets and fully prepared to embrace the winter months in Buenos Aires.
They started off with a presentation of the program and a warm welcome dinner at Prosciutto Restaurant. The students’ first week was brimming with workshops, Yellow Fever vaccines in preparation for their trip to Misiones Province, language integration activities and tea with their host families. Soon after, they got to work and took their COPI exams, partook in personal interviews and started classes right away!
Although the CPH students are intensively learning about the Argentine system of health and preparing for their field work, they are also immersing themselves in cultural activities.
On May 29th, the students went to the Cultural Center of Recoleta to experience a famous, upbeat show containing acrobats, aerialists, swimming and music. After a 2-year tour around Brazil, New York, London, Moscow, Greece, Belgium, Holland, Israel, Spain, Taiwan and Manila, Fuerzabruta came back to where their incredible trip started: right here in Buenos Aires. The show was a success with the Spring Semester students, so we decided to take another round, resulting in high popularity among the CPH students as well.
On June 4th, just a few days before the start of the World Cup, the students had a chance to see the national Argentine soccer team compete against Trinidad and Tobago in Buenos Aires’ well-known River Plate Stadium. Everyone went dressed as hinchas, or fans of Argentina, harmoniously incorporated with their light blue and white surroundings.
The stadium quaked and rumbled as the students joined the rest of the crowd to cheer on Lionel Messi! It was a very exciting game and, as expected, Argentina ended up winning 3-0!
Not long after, on June 6th, the students took a trip to the city of Puerto Iguazú to see Iguazú Falls, one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World, and to visit other attractions. Iguazu Falls is located in Misiones Province in a corner of Argentina that borders both Brazil and Paraguay.
On their first day, the students went to Hospital SAMIC in Puerto Iguazú and had the chance to speak to the Chief of Medicine, who gave them a perspective on health care in the province.
They also visited Hito Tres Fronteras, or Triple Border, located in the west of the town, where the Iguazú and Paraná rivers merge to connect Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay. From this viewpoint, one can see Brazil’s green and yellow flag across one side of the river, and further away, Paraguay’s red, white and blue.
Located about 40 kilometers from Puerto Iguazú, one encounters the town of Wanda, famous for its Minas de Wanda, mines of semiprecious stones including agate, amethyst, topaz, jasper and quartz. A number of mining establishments in Wanda not only remove the stones, but also cut, polish and produce jewelry.
The students took a guided tour through the mines on the second day of their trip, where they were able to appreciate the different areas of the beautiful deposits.
They also had lunch in the National Park of Iguazú and finally got to see the waterfalls! Compared to Niagra Falls, Iguazú is a powerhouse. On the way to Iguazú, there was a huge storm and the rain continued throughout the whole trip. On any other trip, one would assume that rain is far from ideal, but when the students reached their destination, the falls were much larger than usual. The weather in Iguazú dips about five or six times a year, resulting in falls that are absolutely miraculous.
On the last day of the trip, the students visited Ruinas de San Ignacio. San Ignacio was founded in 1632 by the Jesuits in what was then called the Province of Paraguay and is now divided among Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay. The ruins, some of the most visited, are also some of the best preserved in the area.
Although they were originally built with local red sandstone, the width of the walls is around 2 meters, which has allowed for them to remain intact for centuries. In 1984, the ruins were designated as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.
After a weekend of rain and adventures, the students ended the trip with a peaceful walk along the promenade of Posadas, the capital of Misiones Province, where they boarded the plane that brought them back to the sounds of the city.
Last weekend, the students took off to their field work sites, which include Olavarría in the Province of Buenos Aires; Concepción de Uruguay in Entre Ríos; and, Montevideo, the capital of Uruguay.
When you think of Buenos Aires, most likely images of tango dancers, famous historical monuments, and world renowned museums come to mind. Buenos Aires is truly a cultural hub. However, we had an amazing cultural experience simple by taking a very off-the-beaten-path walk around the streets of this city. Through word-of-mouth, we had heard about a street art walking tour called graffitimundo, and we decided to check it out.
graffitmundo is a nonprofit organization that was started by two British travelers who were struck by the strong presence of graffiti street art in the city. They started working with local artists in 2009 with the hope of expanding the public consciousness of this dynamic and usually unappreciated art form. The organization runs tours almost every day during the week to bring people in direct contact with art and the local artists. Also, graffimundo serves as a liaison between the artists and potential clients looking to purchase framed pieces or commission works to beautify the exteriors of their homes and businesses.
Street art in Argentina is definitely unique. We learned from our extremely knowledgeable and well-traveled tour guide that this art form exploded in the past few decades as a response to various political and economic struggles that the country has experienced. While graffiti is still illegal in Argentina, as it is in the U.S., there is a much higher tolerance and appreciation for it here, as this art form is a fairly accepted method of artistic and political expression. While graffiti was originally a tool of the masses, the government has also adopted this strategy and will often higher artists to paint the streets with propaganda supporting their particular political party or candidate.
Our super cool tour guide in front of a piece called “Nestornauta,” which depicts the face of the late president Nestor Kirchner in the body of El Eternauta, a famous political cartoon that represents that resistance against the dictatorships that controlled Argentina in the late 20th century.
We were both struck by the collaborative nature of a lot of the works we saw. Rather than compete, the graffiti artists combine their unique styles to create monumental muralistic pieces, such as the two below:
Not only do both of these works combine different aesthetics, but the various artists also use distinctive techniques and mediums to establish their own styles. Before this tour, both of us assumed that most street art was created by uncomissioned “taggers” who use traditional cans of spray paint. Most graffiti art that we had seen in the U.S. consisted of one-dimensional block letters painted in one or two colors. This technique of “tagging” exists in Argentina as well, but many people commission street artists to create larger and more elaborate pieces to prevent and cover-up such tags. The works that we saw in Buenos Aires were varied in terms of mediums; some of the artists used a combination of spray and acrylic paint, while one artist in particular, whose piece is in the photo below, chose to mix his paints with dirt so that they appear more like watercolors and incorporate the local surroundings.
This piece was painted by an artist known as Jaz during a graffiti art festival in the city. The two bulls represent two local boys who died in a tragic conflict with the police.
One aspect that our tour guide constantly highlighted is the dynamic nature of the graffiti art in Buenos Aires. Depending on the size, location, and level of recognition, a piece might stick around for a few short weeks to many months or even years. Our tour guide took us to see one of her favorite pieces and was saddened to find that within the past few days, other artists had started to overtake the wall with their own pieces. “It had a good run,” as she said; this type of change is typical of the street art world.
We learned so much from this experience, and now we find ourselves pointing out to others the amazing pieces of art that we pass on the daily, recognizing the artists and discovering that art exists in our neighborhoods in places that we had never realized. The more well-known tourist attractions usually take precedence in anyone’s stay in Buenos Aires; however, for us, this non-traditional walking tour is really a must. Whatever country you are reading this from, you can get a taste of the graffiti art culture by checking out this link to the trailer for graffimundo’s documentary called “White Walls Say Nothing.” Look for its release later this year.
Ciao, from your favorite street art aficionadas!