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Switch Back Effect

"I don't usually watch movies about the war," a Vietnam veteran told my students at the end of a discussion. He continued, "There was one, though, that I thought captured the experience well." He paused. "I always had a fear that I would wake up and find myself back in Vietnam."


This twist from present to future, future to present, Vietnam to the home front and back, reminded me of the doomed motorcyclist in Julio Cortazar's story "Night Face Up." A man crashes his motorcycle and an ambulance takes him to the hospital. On the surgery table, in slight shock, he dreams he is being chased in the jungle, captured, and taken to an altar on top of a pyramid to be sacrificed. The Aztec dream usurps narrative control. Only by force of will does the motorcyclist bring himself back to the ambulance racing through the streets of Paris. Yet, he slips into semi-consciousness and finds himself back in the jungle on the run. Finally, just as he is being tied died and the high priests mark his chest where he will be cut open, he cannot return to the present. The reality, it seems, is the Aztec world and the dream, his riding "on an enormous metal insect that whirred away between his legs."

Cortazar's reckless imagination daunts many readers of conventional fiction. His other stories, "Continuity of Parks" and "Axolotl," resemble "Night Face Up" in their seamless mesh of antipodal realities. Indeed, as a literary enterprise, his switch back fiction partially defies the reader's sense that such things could happen. How does the sacrificial victim know anything about motorcycles, streets, and lights when, in the case of transportation, the Aztecs had not invented the wheel?

A much different stylist than Cortazar, Raymond Queneau delves into dreams and surreal plots and images to create his own magical and reckless fictional worlds. His last novel, The Flight of Icarus, deals with a character escaping from a novel and the novelist's determined attempts to retrieve him. Queneau also has written an example of "switch back" fiction, The Blue Flowers, in which the Duke of Auge, a thirteenth century knight , dreams the life of a contemporary Frenchman, Cidrolin, who lives on a barge in the Seine River, and Cidrolin dreams the life of the Duke. Neither world dominates the story, unlike the Aztec part of "Night Face Up," and the active Duke advances in one hundred and seventy-five year jumps toward the present until he and the passive Cidrolin meet.

The meaning of the mirrored realities seems more elliptical in Queneau's than in Cortazar's fiction. Cortazar creates an unsettling mood or resolution in which terror prevails. A key moment in the story linking western and Aztec civilization develops when the motorcyclist is about to get surgery: "The man in white came over to him again, smiling, something gleamed in his right hand." (59) The doctor and Aztec priest become one. Both put subjects under the knife, one to save and one to sacrifice a human life. Cortazar suggests a mechanistic, brutal underpinning of the modern western world against the cruel surface of the Aztec's.

Modernity has created the instruments of destruction, which have in turn increased the speed with which we necessarily advance. In modern Paris, a man darts through the city on a motorized carrier. An "involuntary relaxation," as he enjoys the ride, "possibly, kept him from preventing the accident" (57). Our machines free us and mangle us. The doctor-surgeons repair the victims of this machine age relaxation. The body itself becomes likened to a machine, body parts become replace-, even interchange-able. Speed, trying to make up for some phantom lost time, propels our civilization forward. We, as McLuhan once wrote, proceed only to figure out where we've been by looking in the rear view mirror. To slow down or stop would bring civilization to a halt: our world would fall apart. Likewise, the Aztecs sacrificed humans to appease its god, Huitzilopochtli, for without the sacrifices they believed the universe would collapse.

The Blue Flowers' dreams comically contrast to those of "Night Face Up." The Duke and Cidrolin have things in commonñfirst name, three daughters--but why the Duke surges through time to save Cidrolin remains elusive. Both seemed trapped in historical doldrums. Early in the novel, Cidrolin's friends debate the difference between news and history. At which moment does an event become history? Eventually, part of the conversation gets repeated verbatim, like a television rerun, but only Cidrolin notices. (49-51) Although he claims not to be bored, many of his own actions in the novel are repetitious. Each day, for instance, he whitewashes his fence because a graffiti artist keeps writing vulgar things about Cidrolin's pastñwe find out that Cidrolin is the one writing the graffiti!

The past, meanwhile, weighs heavily on the Duke at the novel's start. "So much history, said the Duke of Auge to the Duke of Auge, "so much history[....] I think it is pathetic. Shan't we ever get away from it." (1)

His movements from the time of Louis IX to the present day act as both his liberation from the "historical situation" and as an attempt to liberate Cidrolin from the torments of the present. The Duke's dreams collide continually with momentous events: crusades, the Hundred Years War, the French Revolution. However swift his historical momentum, life percolates slowly. Queneau gives the impression of a world caught in an eternal present. Despite the Duke's activities, both dream worlds do not differ stylistically. Whence Cortazar's Parisian motorcyclist traverses time and place in his dreams, Cidrolin, the Parisian barge owner, dreams a world similar to his own. There's no anxiety, no terror, save for the terror of everyday life, the revenge of the blasÈ.

In the aforementioned conversation, Cidrolin's friends define History as the moment when the news is no longer new. Television content, especially the news, embodies the presentism of Cidrolin's world, a ceaseless stream if not flood of events, washing over the landscape and leveling all time. History, when it no longer is news, simply ignores the banality of everyday life. Not just the news nor a compilation of what's happened, History describes an escape from the everyday. Conventional wisdom would have us accept entertainment as the escape, while History (and other serious professions) draws our most serious scowl. The Blue Flowers turns this on its head. What can we take seriously in Queneau's? Man in the modern world, flattened by that world (in his first novel, Le Chiendent, his main character is first described as "the flat entity"), accommodates Cortazar's thematic inferences in "The Night Face Up." Cidrolin's dreams bind him more to everyday banalities. The arrival of the Duke, among other events, doesn't upset him, barely changes his life. The Blue Flowers, a land of dreams, ends with a flood, washing the Duke back to his own time while Cidrolin clings to the surface of life and waits for the day to pass, waits for nothing in particular. Not even the imminent confrontation with his own dream seems to restore his vitality.

Tom Stoppard's Arcadia, uses the switch back effect to explore the historical implications of individual actions more deeply. In the play's literary mystery, the past reluctantly and slowly reveals its secrets to the present. Any small action or banal event can set off a chain of events or actions leading to something momentous. The switch-back effect setting in Arcadia points to this beginning and ending to a line of actions, equating the events of a particular day in 1809 to those of the next day or century or millennium. The potential for all action resides in all we do...only if we can recognize it. Chaos theory takes on a residual historical significance, and not coincidentally Stoppard introduces an aspect of the theory, Thomasina Coverly's New Geometry of Irregular Forms, to underline the relationship between past and present.

The switch-back device makes apparent Stoppard's intention relative to both Cortazar's and Queneau's, in other words: "[T]he primary effect on the audience is not the result of the dramatic action itself but of the experience of our expanded perspective"(Alwes, page 4). Stoppard explicitly uses his play's content as a means for escape or transcendence for those who want it, whereas"Night Face Up" and The Blue Flowers traps its readers along with the characters. Cortazar's sacrificial victim cannot escape his fate. The Aztecs superstitiously sent thousands to their death to insure that the universe would not cease. Cidrolin's indifference protects him from Modernity. In our time we "know" the world to death, chronicle every instant, each escapade, so that no fact can escape our attention. When Cidrolin writes the awful graffiti about himself on his fence, it acts his self-incantation to repel anyone in the world who might disturb or upset his life. The Aztec human sacrifices and Modernity's crushing of the soul represent two responses to the world.

Arcadia lets us know that we don't have to worry about what is missed or has been passed over historically speaking. Septimus, Thomasina's tutor, comforts her after she laments the lost plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripedes:

You should no more grieve for the rest than for a buckle lost from your first shoe, or for your lesson book which will be lost when you are old. We shed as we pick up, like travellers who must carry everything they can, what we will let fall will be picked up by those behind. (38)

Worrying about what will or will not be history amounts to a superstition, one very difficult to overcome. Stoppard uses the audience's privileged position to create a modicum of comfort within our irregular existenceña position lost to readers of Queneau's unceasing comic vision and Cortazar's periodic horrors.


Works Cited

Alwes, "Oh, Phooey to Death': Boethian Consolation in Tom Stoppard's Arcadia," Papers on Language and Literature, Fall 2000, Volume 36, issue 4.

Cortazar, Julio. Blow Up and Other Stories, translated by Paul Blackburn, New York: Collier Books, 1968.

Queneau, Raymond. The Blue Flowers, translated by Barbara Wright, New York: Athenium, 1967.

Stoppard, Tom. Arcadia, London: faber and faber, 1993


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