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A Mobius Universe

A small cronopio was looking for the key to the street door on the night table, the night table in the bedroom, the bedroom in the house, the house in the street. Here the cronopio paused, for to go into the street, he needed the key to the door. -- Julio Cortazar, "Story"

Unfortunately for critics of the "Post-Modern," the term has gained enough currency to be included in Humanities surveys. Indeed, the last chapter of a text I use in a Humanities class deals with the Post-Modern Age. Indeed, I teach  the course with this last chapter in mind. It seemed necessary for students to know the soil from which they have sprung, even if they had difficulty understanding the definition of Post-Modern or the very works defining this period. 

As I suggested, defining Post-Modernism was difficult. My students barely knew what the Modern was! I found various pages and charts which pointed to some qualities. To these I tried to find various works, especially television shows and movies, they may have been familiar with. For example: Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Seinfeld. Twelve Monkeys. Twin Peaks. The works of Cristo. Then I distributed what were to my mind quintessential post-modern works -- given the short time I was given to conduct the class, I tried to find the smallest works to illustrate my points. 

First, I passed around John Barth's Lost in the Funhouse and had them look at the "Frame Tale," a cut-out story which when joined became a mobius strip with the words

A neat trick. Then I presented M.C. Escher's Mobius Strip II, with the giant ants crawling along the surface. Another neat trick. Then more examples of Escher's art, including Liberation and Ascending and Descending, to show how an artist can illustrate a single theme in various ways. 

Next we would observe the same principles on a slightly larger scale with Julio Cortazar's story "Continuity of Parks" (it can be found on several web sites). A well-to-do man returns to his den to finish a novel that he had begun a few days before: "Word by word, licked up by the sordid dilemma of the hero and heroine, letting himself be absorbed to the point where the images settled down and took on color and movement, he was witness to the final encounter in the mountain cabin." A married woman and her lover meet here and plan her husband's death. The man advances to the woman's estate, sneaks into the house and proceeds down a corridor and up a stairway. He enters the salon to kill the husband, who is in a red chair reading. It is the same chair in which the man at the beginning of the story sits himself. 

It takes some time before the students understand what has happened. At least a third of them have not connected the story's end to the beginning. Most of the rest made the connection but are unsure of its meaning. How could this have happened? Is the husband in the book? What's real life and what's the book? Their questions and puzzlement are what Cortazar expects from readers. Few students, however, dare to extend the story's logic to their own reading experience. That is, they too have magically undergone a process sewing them into the story such that the connection between the real and unreal disappears. (This last aspect troubles Post-Modernism haters because they extend the apparent dissolution of boundaries to morality and project the end of civil society and/or equate the dissolution with everything they believe has gone wrong with the world.) I try to show how one of the many possible meanings of the story can be conceived as a metaphor for storytelling. The link between the "real" and "unreal" becomes indiscernible within the telling of the story itself. For the reader, the suspension of "belief" regarding the story versus reality replicates a process similar to the author's when creating a fiction. Further, the metaphor I've described can be projected beyond the story to life itself and the relationship between the individual and society. 

In the latter instance, I supply a small story, "Games," from an anthology titled Anti-Story, an appropriate tome to introduce a student to dozens of post-modern fiction types. "Games" ably describes social integration:

Two gentlemen make an appointment, but in addition to that each sends a friend to a given place. These friends of the friends also walk up to each other at the proper time at the given place. 
New appointments are kept and made until "the town is humming, a stranger who driving through it says: 'This is a friendly town.'"


Just when students reach the brink of despair over the unraveling of customs and usages they have taken for granted on an elementary level, I turn to the beginnings of western literature. One of my goals is to show Post-Modern elements in literature and art throughout the length of western civilization. The seeds of the Post-Modern existed from the beginning, not because literature has a self-destructive instinct, but that the truth Post-Modernism magnifies proves essential to understanding the basis of our existence. 

One of the first works they read is Sophocles Oedipus Rex. Amidst their repulsion over Oedipus' marrying his mother and being brother and father to his children, they cannot understand why he's blinding himself at the end. We'll get to that, but first they might note the circular nature of the story and how any attempts to evade the prophecy that Oedipus will kill his father and marry his mother merely pulls him more tightly to that fate. In effect, knowledge alone won't save us. For the Greeks, his tragedy resided in the fact that the best of men couldn't see what was happening to himself. 

Finally, the story twists back on itself as Oedipus himself leads the investigation to find who was responsible for the kingdom of Thebes plague and famine as result of a crime against nature itself. Almost sounds like the plot of some films whence the investigator finds himself, knowingly and unknowingly hunting himself or returning to a past experience: The Big Clock (and its remake No Way Out), Angel Heart and Chinatown. When Oedipus makes his discovery, he blinds himself, at once acknowledging his guilt for being blind to reality, as well as taking on the burden of human guilt for always being blind to the reality of our motives and actions: our original sin.



Heraclitus wrote in one of his fragments: "The beginning and end are common," and in another: "The way up and the way down are the same." Both literally anticipate Escher's paintings. More subtly, in the first, we detect its truth in more than just, say, the circumference of a circle coming back to itself. When he says "common" he is not saying "the same." The aphorism suggests that humans begin enclosed in the womb and end, enclosed, in the tomb. Similar states, but not the same. Apply this to Cortazar's "Continuity of Parks," we find suggested that the book the husband is reading is full of life and danger, yet the same book ends as his tomb. 

The social implication taken from Lettau's story, "Games", would have the structure of society starting artificially and becoming real. The individual born into this society wouldn't know the difference between authentic and inauthentic actions. In effect, our lives start in ignorance, formed initially from usages, customs, signs, and symbols. From this assemblage of artificiality we might begin to discern who we really are. At the least, humans can find out who and what they are not. The ignorance with which we started in life changes drastically as we grow and mature, but in the end we go to the tomb relatively ignorant of ourselves and our society. 

Like Oedipus. 

Only his problem, and the eventual complex, is below the surface, in the human unconscious. Beyond the reach of even the best of us. Our Ur-ignorance. We might have an inkling of it there but even then what can we do about it? How can we tell when the unconscious deliberately drives our behavior? Stuck in our minds we end up like the cronopio looking for the key to the street door. Trapped in our own constructs of reality we become immobilized by the prospect that to get to the key we have to enter the house in which we are already in. Trapped in our own Escher painting. Climbing and falling down.


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