"The Longing for the Self in Axolotl" by Isaac Walker, Grinnell College
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.