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I walk into aquariums and think of Julio Cortázar’s “Axolotl.” The story’s eerily matter-of-fact narrator observes the axolotl, Mexican salamanders, in reverent and apprehensive detail. He imagines them “aware, slaves of their bodies condemned infinitely to the silence of the abyss, to a hopeless meditation.” His consciousness draws excruciatingly close to the axolotl’s—until his mind presses through the pane of reality, and his body passes through the aquarium glass. He is the axolotl, trapped in the tank, watching his human face outside.
Shedd Aquarium’s axolotl tank is mercifully empty when I visit. Next door, a pig-snouted turtle lies at a 45-degree angle, the water around it stagnant and green like the street pall in Hopper’s “Nighthawks.” I stand, waiting for it to move and restore itself to some semblance of autonomy. It floats, waiting for me to realize better and leave. A disembodied voice tells the legend of the Amazon’s river dolphins, “boto,” who transform into beautiful men and seduce the “ribereños’” women.
Before his transformation, Cortázar’s narrator muses: “It would seem easy, almost obvious, to fall into mythology.” And the narrative of human and animal as “one”—both in genetic parity and some empathy with even grotesquely foreign-looking creatures—seems to have weakened with use and industrialization. We overfish and poach and pollute. The axolotl, at the end of the story, laments accordingly: “…the bridges were broken between him and me…I am an axolotl for good now, and if I think like a man it’s only because every axolotl thinks like a man inside his rosy stone semblance.”
But that last sentence contradicts itself: If the axolotl thinks like a man, and man’s thought is his defining mark, the entanglement remains unresolved. Cortázar implies that man and axolotl share their doom, the “final solitude” behind the glass.
A stingray surges silken and calm beneath my palm, only to suddenly spurn me with the twitch of a fin. I resent it. After its neighbor glides up to nip at my hand, I want to set a salted fingertip on my own tongue. Tangled lampreys suction their mouths to their tank, baring concentric rings of angled teeth. I find my face tensing, prepared to swing my jaws open too. The motion promises to be soothing, somehow, bloodless as the opening of a window.
I swim along the aquarium tunnels with schools of people as varied as the fish on display: toddler cheeks and Yakuza arms, football jerseys and saris, all in respectful observance before the tanks. The axolotl forces me to press my nose to the tenuous glass of human consciousness. We blink at our own visages, distorted just enough to be new again, and wonder what we are really about. Idle, carnal, facetious, parasitic. Wonder whether we are here or there, outside or in, warden or prisoner; wonder, as Cortázar did—and perhaps this is the key to all the “oneness”—whether, in the end, the distinction really matters or exists at all.
Emily Zhao '19 is an Applied Math concentrator living in Cabot House.
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