Julio Cortazar opens his short story axolotl with this paragraph:
There was a time when I thought a great deal about the axolotls. I went to see them in the aquarium at the Jarden des Plantes and stayed for hours watching them, observing their immobility, the fain movements. Now I am an axolotl.
There is no doubt this story takes on characteristics of the Aztec myth of a Xolotl. Xolotl is the god of death and misfortune in Aztec lore. Depicted as a sleeping dog in one of Frida’s paintings (below), he is the guardian of the underworld much like Virgil in Dante’s myth. In some stories Xolotl is the “larval form assumed by Quetzalcoatl in the Land of the Dead, from which he is later spiritually born.” Quetzalcoatl is the god of the Aztecs, often associated with learning and knowledge.
For science this creature is Ambystoma mexicanum often called the Mexican walking fish. Not actually a fish but classified as an amphibian which puts it closer to a frog or toad. Genetically the creature is interesting; 28 chromosomes, 14 from the mother (egg) and 14 from the father (sperm), however during meiosis ’cross over’ takes place which creates many random variations that can come from the parent’s parents. Also, this creature has the ability to completely regenerate limbs. Lastly the axolotl remains in a neotenic state.
Neoteny is the retention of juvenile characteristics within an adult species. Cortazar makes note of this when he writes, “They were larvas, but larva means disguise and also phantom. Behind those Aztec faces, without expression but of an implacable cruelty, what semblance was awaiting its hour?” Cortazar often uses adjectives describing the “affect” of the creatures: indifference, immobility, inexpressive features. This moment of lucidity marks the transitory or even illusory nature of life. It is very similar to the moment in Clarice Lispector’s novel The Passion of G.H. when the narrator crushes a cockroach.
This intrusion in the banality of the everyday is something Martin Heidegger wrote about and called augenblick. Once the narrator looked at the crushed insect, she become guilty, fascinated, and even a bit enlightened. Here Clarice writes like a great existentialist:
Now I’ll tell you how I entered the inexpressive, which was always my blind and secret quest. About how I entered what exists between the number one and the number two, about how I saw the line of mystery and fire, which is the secret line. Between two musical notes another note exists, between two facts another fact exists.
Clarice writes that her protagonist G.H. begins to think about her comportment towards the future (again Heideggerian) which of course this future is always in a dialectical interaction with her past, not only in a psychoanalytical way of compulsion to repeat but in a very ontological way of creating dasein or existence itself by leaving now other possibility. This brings us to the other writer who is fascinated by the axolotl.
Giorgio Agamben writes, “Every conception of history is invariably accompanied by a certain experience of time which is implicit in it, conditions it, and thereby has to be elucidated. Similarly, every culture is first and foremost a particular experience of time, and no new culture is possible without an alteration in this experience.” This is exactly what Clarice writes about through her character G.H. and Cortazar eludes to when asking the question are the axolotl the remnants of the fallen Aztec?
All these questions are bound up with what Aristotle first asked about; potentiality. He defines this as, “a principle of change by which a thing is acted upon or acts upon itself.” Agamben takes his cue from this idea and states that potentiality must also imply the negation of potential which would mean impotential. An act must also be able to not not be which would mean that once I finish and stare at this post then I am not not thinking of the post, you may ask then what are you doing, my answer would be, “breaking from the dictates of an incapacity in capacity”.
Here we need to get back to the star of this show, the axolotl. Agamben finds this creature interesting just like Cortazar (for slightly different reasons) because of its neonetic larvic state. The amphibian remains in a state of potentiality because it is not impossible for the larval state to evolve into an adult state, then the aquatic creature becomes a fully adult salamander (this is rare but it is not impossible–if the creature is fed iodine it will change into an adult). For Agamben this is the paradigm he is looking for, “(speaking of a child now)who so adheres to its lack of specialization and totipotency that it refuses any destiny and specific environment so as to solely follow its own indeterminacy and immaturity.” What we see here is what Cortazar is writing about, the border between creatures falling away, the idea of categories dissolving, impotential as an act that is just as potent as actuality, “possibility suspended between occurrence and nonoccurence or as Lispector alludes to finding the space between the number 1 and 2.