Thursday, January 01, 2009


Originally uploaded by Seeking Tao
I went by the woman in the mercado who sells medicinal herbs and asked her what was good for sore throats. She sold me a bottle of something called Jarabe de Ajolote.
It turns out that Jarabe just means syrup, but Ajolote (which at first I thought was a version of ajo or garlic) is actually this reptile!

I received this email from Mexico, and while Ajolote is actually a salamander, my friend’s sore throat had led her right into the mythic.

And that face! Hadn’t I seen it before?
Ajolote translates as axolotl. Ah, yes!
Axolotl are famous in biology for incredible powers of regeneration. Chop off a limb and it will grow right back.

But my friend was adamant. The animal is pre-Columbian and mythic in Mexico. And I'm beginning to believe her.

Enjoy this short story by Julio Cortazar which I excerpt here (or better still, read the unedited original):

There was a time when I thought a great deal about the axolotls. I went to see them in the aquarium at the Jardin des Plantes and stayed for hours watching them, observing their immobility, their faint movements. Now I am an axolotl.

I got to them by chance one spring morning when Paris was spreading its peacock tail after a wintry Lent… I decided on the aquarium, looked obliquely at banal fish until, unexpectedly, I hit it off with the axolotls. I stayed watching them for an hour and left, unable to think of anything else…

That they were Mexican I knew already by looking at them and their little pink Aztec faces and the placard at the top of the tank… I found their Spanish name, ajolote, and the mention that they were edible, and that their oil was used (no longer used, it said) like cod?liver oil…

I began to go every morning, morning and afternoon some days. The aquarium guard smiled perplexedly taking my ticket. I would lean up against the iron bar in front of the tanks and set to watching them. There's nothing strange in this, because after the first minute I knew that we were linked, that something infinitely lost and distant kept pulling us together…

I saw a rosy little body, translucent (I thought of those Chinese figurines of milky glass), looking like a small lizard about six inches long, ending in a fish's tail of extraordinary delicacy, the most sensitive part of our body. Along the back ran a transparent fin which joined with the tail, but what obsessed me was the feet, of the slenderest nicety, ending in tiny fingers with minutely human nails. And then I discovered its eyes, its face. Inexpressive features, with no other trait save the eyes, two orifices, like brooches, wholly of transparent gold, lacking any life but looking, letting themselves be penetrated by my look, which seemed to travel past the golden level and lose itself in a diaphanous interior mystery…

Once in a while a foot would barely move, I saw the diminutive toes poise mildly on the moss. It's that we don't enjoy moving a lot, and the tank is so cramped we barely move in any direction and we're hitting one of the others with our tail or our head - difficulties arise, fights, tiredness. The time feels like it's less if we stay quietly.
It was their quietness that made me lean toward them fascinated the first time I saw the axolotls. Obscurely I seemed to understand their secret will, to abolish space and time with an indifferent immobility…

Above all else, their eyes obsessed me…The golden eyes continued burning with their soft, terrible light; they continued looking at me from an unfathomable depth which made me dizzy…

It would seem easy, almost obvious, to fall into mythology. I began seeing in the axolotls a metamorphosis which did not succeed in revoking a mysterious humanity. I imagined them aware, slaves of their bodies, condemned infinitely to the silence of the abyss, to a hopeless meditation. Their blind gaze, the diminutive gold disc without expression and nonetheless terribly shining…

They were not human beings, but I had found in no animal such a profound relation with myself. The axolotls were like witnesses of something, and at times like horrible judges. I felt ignoble in front of them; there was such a terrifying purity in those transparent eyes. 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?

…there was nothing strange in what happened. My face was pressed against the glass of the aquarium, my eyes were attempting once more to penetrate the mystery of those eyes of gold without iris, without pupil. I saw from very close up the face of an axolotl immobile next to the glass. No transition and no surprise, I saw my face against the glass, I saw it on the outside of the tank, I saw it on the other side of the glass. Then my face drew back and I understood.

Only one thing was strange: to go on thinking as usual, to know. To realize that was, for the first moment, like the horror of a man buried alive awaking to his fate. Outside, my face came close to the glass again, I saw my mouth, the lips compressed with the effort of understanding the axolotls. I was an axolotl and now I knew instantly that no understanding was possible. He was outside the aquarium, his thinking was a thinking outside the tank. Recognizing him, being him himself, I was an axolotl and in my world…

Or I was also in him, or all of us were thinking humanlike, incapable of expression, limited to the golden splendor of our eyes looking at the face of the man pressed against the aquarium.

He returned many times, but he comes less often now. Weeks pass without his showing up. I saw him yesterday, he looked at me for a long time and left briskly. It seemed to me that he was not so much interested in us any more, that he was coming out of habit…

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. I believe that all this succeeded in communicating something to him in those first days, when I was still he. And in this final solitude to which he no longer comes, I console myself by thinking that perhaps he is going to write a story about us, that, believing he's making up a story, he's going to write all this about axolotls.
from The End of the Game by Julio Cortazar

For a while the other night during our coven meditation, I turned into a minotaur. Such a strange beast he was! Not at all like the monkey or lion or mythic bird that have transformed me in the past and that the Taoists call “the lower higher self.”

So who are you? Are we? And where?

Happy New Year.

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