The Maternal Figure as Object of Desire
in the Short Stories of Julio Cortázar
Writing/ Fantasizing/ Desiring the Maternal Body
in the Short Stories of Julio Cortázar

Cynthia Schmidt-Cruz
University of Delaware

Copyright (c) Cynthia Schmidt-Cruz. All rights reserved. No part of this work may be reproduced; any quotations must acknowledge the source.

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I. Introduction

I suspect that one of the reasons why Cortazar's stories hold such a strong grip over many readers is because they often portray seemingly unnatural or "perverse" instinctual urges which threaten to unravel the very fabric of our civilized society, but which are ultimately kept in check by their status as literary fantasies which call attention to their fictional nature. The incestuous desire to seduce or be seduced by the mother, which may be considered the anti-civilized urge par excellence, and the self-conscious fantasizing of the narrator are two themes which intersect in the stories "Deshoras" (Deshoras) and "Historias que me cuento" (Queremos tanto a Glenda). In each of these stories, through his fantasies, the narrator reveals his primordial desire to regress to the maternal womb.

The Freudian theory of human civilization rests on the incest taboo or successful resolution of the Oedipus complex, the function of which is to deny the child his (or her) primordial love object--the mother. Thus Freud maintains that civilization itself depends on the male subject's detachment from and transcendence of the mother. Yet, as Madelon Sprengnether argues in her work, The Spectral Mother. Freud, Feminism and Psychoanalysis, Freud was never able to integrate the preoedipal mother, meaning the figure of the mother in the earliest phase of the child's development,[1] with the Oedipal construct.[2] "If anything," she insists, "the dyadic mother-child relation threatens to subvert the triangular Oedipal structure. The concepts of repetition compulsion and the death instinct appear to give lie to the progressive model of development based on the paternal threat of castration and the male child's renunciation of desire for his mother."[3] Sprengnether argues that in Beyond the Pleasure Principal and Inhibitions, Symptoms and Anxiety, which focus on questions of origins (infant separation from the mother) and conclusions (death), Freud undermines his own progressive model of human civilization, and at the same time, of Oedipal masculinity, by exposing the undertow of regressive urges focused on the desire to return to the maternal body.[4]

Emblematic of this contradictive stance is Freud's characterization in Beyond the Pleasure Principal of a game invented by his one and one-half year old grandson The child tied a wooden reel to a piece of string and draped it over the side of his bed. He would repeat Fort! (go away) at its disappearance and greeted its reappearance with a joyful Da! (there). Sprengnether points out that while Freud initially presents the game as the efforts of a small child to gain mastery over the condition of separation from his mother, the game enacts not only the child's desire for control over her departure, but also his wish for her return.[5] "The fort/da game, based on a little boy's memorialization of his loss of his mother, institutionalizes both the act of renunciation and the impulse toward repression that inheres in it."[6] Throughout his work, Sprengnether maintains, Freud is never able to come to terms with this seductive preoedipal mother because she is too threatening to his theory of patriarchal authority.

The message of "Deshoras" and "Historias que me cuento" seems to affirm the powerful undertow of the urge to regress to the mother. The fact that in these stories the narrators' desire is deflected from the actual mother onto a mother-figure or surrogate mother reflects the power of the taboo while at the same time attesting to the strength of the attachment to the maternal object. Through their fantasies, the narrators articulate their longing for an unattainable reunion with the maternal body. The narrators' fantasy has the power of evoking the absent mother and bringing her under their control, much as the child's game described by Freud. Both pursuits strive to master the separation anxiety at the same time that they memorialize the loss of the mother.

II. "Deshoras"

In "Deshoras" a man's evocation of his childhood is motivated by his desire to reunite with a beloved mother figure from the past. The childhood events are framed by the present time of the adult as he puts his memories down in writing and reflects upon his purpose for transcribing these recollections. When the narrative switches from the present of the adult to the evocation of past events, the narrative person changes from first to third, and the narrator refers to himself as "Aníbal."[7] Although the narrator begins by denying any motivation behind his memories: "Yo no tenía ninguna razón especial para acordarme de todo eso" (470),[8] he soon admits that it is the image of Sara, his playmate Doro's older sister, that draws him to the task. Because Doro's mother was an invalid, Sara was obligated to take care of Doro, to become "una joven madre de su hermano." (471). The narrator describes the games Aníbal played with Doro, and vividly recalls his obsessive but unrequited love for Sara. As the story continues, he recounts his family's move to Buenos Aires which occurred shortly before Sara's marriage, two events that marked his separation from her. Many years later, as an adult, Aníbal sees Sara on the street. The two have a drink, recall old times, and end up in a bedroom where they consume their mutual passion. At this moment, the story returns to the scene of writing, and we realize that the encounter with Sara did not really occur, but was fantasized by the narrator through his writing.

As the narrator's tale transports him to his world of memories, he establishes Sara as his surrogate mother by stressing the bond between himself and Doro--"Tan inseparables habíamos sido...Verlo [a Doro] era verme simultáneamente como Aníbal" (470). However, a major and painful difference between the boys as far as Aníbal is concerned is his access to Sara's attentions and affection. Aníbal learns that Sara takes care of Doro as a devoted mother would, caressing, bathing and curing him when he is sick. Aníbal feels excluded from the bubble of nurturance between Sara and Doro, which he seems to idealize as a lost paradise.[9] At night he fantasizes that Sara comes into his room to care for a cut on his leg:

A la hora en que cerrando los ojos imaginaba a Sara entrando de noche en su cuarto, acercándose a su cama, era como un deseo de que ella le preguntara cómo estaba, le pusiera la mano en la frente y después bajara las sábanas para verle la lastimadura en la pantorrilla, le cambiara la venda tratándolo de tonto por haberse cortado con un vidrio. La sentía levantándole el camisón y mirándole desnudo, tocándole el vientre para ver si estaba inflamado, tapándolo de nuevo para que se durmiera. (473)

In this fantasy, Aníbal's reception of Sara's attention is predicated on illness, a state of dependency. In his description of Sara's ministrations, the distinction between care of his injury and seduction becomes blurred--his need for medical attention veils his desire to be seduced by Sara.[10] As the passive recipient of Sara's care and gentle reproach, Aníbal is feminized and infantilized. Sara, as his fantasized mother/ nurse, becomes as powerful figure--she possesses the power to heal, the power to shame, the power to seduce. In this way, questions concerning seduction--perhaps too dangerous and disturbing to be accrued to his real mother--can be projected onto the figure of Sara as substitute maternal object.[11]

In a curious role reversal, Sara herself enforces the incest taboo, and puts an end to Aníbal's fantasies of her. When the boys fall into a muddy ditch, they must clean up in Doro's house, and Sara walks in while they are bathing. Aníbal is deeply humilliated because she has seen him naked, and subsequently can no longer evoke her in his nocturnal fantasies. Implicit in Aníbal's feeling of humiliation is the fact that Sara has the authority to walk in and look at him because he still has the penis of a child. Her gaze forces him to acknowledge that, first of all, that she has beheld his bodily immaturity, and secondly, that he cannot be her lover because his penis is too small. This enactment of the castration complex functions at two levels. On one level, Aníbal experiences the anxiety men feel in sexual intercourse associated with the fear of loss of potency and incapacity to perform sexually in the company of a desirable woman. At another level, in the absence of a father figure, [12] Sara performs the normative and prohibitive function of the castration complex--namely, the denial of the child's access to the mother as a sexual object--which is traditionally carried out by the paternal authority.[13] As a result, Aníbal must confront the fact that a union between them is impossible, and he must orient his desires toward other women.

The years pass. Aníbal has his sexual initiation with other women, takes on adult responsibilities, and looses touch with Doro and Sara. One day he suddenly spots Sara walking down the sidewalk and goes to her encounter. Aníbal confesses to Sara that he loved her and fantasized about her as his "mamá joven" (478), and tells her how mortified he felt when she saw him naked in the shower. Sara reveals that she did it on purpose, implying that she, too, was attracted to him, but had to cure him of his sexual fantasies of her. She ends her confession saying, "Y ahora sí otro whiskey, ahora que los dos somos grandes." (479). Her admission that she repressed her reciprocated love for Aníbal in the past because of their age difference, and her allusion to their mutual maturity in the present signals the lifting of the prohibition. The sexual union occurs as soon as is logistically possible for the two:

la casi inmediata, furiosa convulsión de los cuerpos en un interminable encuentro, en las pausas rotas y rehechas y violadas y cada vez menos creíbles, en cada nueva implosión que los segaba y los sumía y los quemaba hasta el sopor (479)

The consumation of the erotic union with the maternal object, the return to the womb, is thus described by the narrator as an incredibly overwhelming sensation of bliss. Now that the written words have arrived at their desired outcome, the narrator lays down his pen, and the scene shifts abruptly to his present reality. The narrator admits that, up to a point, the words had represented "una memoria fiel" (480), but that when they spoke of the recent meeting with Sara, "mentían ..nada era cierto" (480). He elaborated this fantasized encounter with Sara because it was the only way to reunite with her.

But the fantasy cannot continue: "pero cómo seguir ya, cómo empezar desde esa noche una vida con Sara cuando ahí al lado se oía la voz de Felisa que entraba con los chicos y venía a decirme que la cena estaba pronta... y los chicos querían ver al pato Donald en la televisión de las diez y veinte." (480) The voice of Felisa--presumably his wife--and the evocation of his children rescue him from engulfment in the alluring maternal womb, and draw him back into quotidian reality where he is the husband of a woman other than his mother--in other words, a union sanctioned by society-- and the father of her children. Just as Sara enforced the prohibition when he was a child, now it is the role that he has taken on as paternal authority which "rescues" him from the forbidden bliss of the maternal womb, brings him back to civilized society, and puts everything back into its rightful place. Yet his written words remain to memorialize his longing for the unattainable union.

III. "Historias que me cuento"

While the narrator of "Deshoras" appears to master, at least momentarily, his regressive desire, in "Historias que me cuento," the façade of a man's fantasy life of heroic adventures and manly conquests is rent asunder to expose the radical instability of his masculine identity. The narrator is a self-described "Walter Mitty porteño" who indulges in an extremely active fantasy life.[14] From the few details he offers about his real life situation we learn that he often sleeps alone when his partner, Niágara, works the night shift at the hospital, and that he considers himself incompetent in his own job. His fantasies are characterized by "un intenso dramatismo muy trabajado" (401), and he is almost always in the central role. One of his favorite fantasies that of a trucker: "Ser camionero siempre me ha parecido un trabajo envidiable porque lo imagino como una de las más simples formas de la libertad, ir de un lado a otro en un camión que a la vez es una casa con su colchón." (402)

He relates in detail a fantasy in which he, as Oscar the truck driver, picks up Dilia who is hitch-hiking by the side of the road in a deserted mountaneous area. In his description of the fantasy, he stresses Dilia's helplessness,and the difficulty of the route: "vi la frágil silueta de Dilia al pie de las rocas violentamente arrancadas de la nada por el haz de los faros, las paredes violáceas que volvían aún más pequeña y abandonada la imagen de Dilia" (402-403). While he often picks up women and makes love to them in his trucker fantasies, they are always unknown women he has seen in a movie or a picture, so he cannot understand why Dilia has appeared in this fantasy, and puzzles over the question many times: "Ver a Dilia fue entonces más que una sorpresa, casi un escándalo porque Dilia no tenía que hacer en esa ruta...Dilia y Alfonso son amigos que Niágara y yo vemos de tiempo en tiempo...seguirlos de lejos en su vida de matrimonio con un bebé y bastante plata." (403) Unlike the other fantasized women who are often cold or timid, Dilia is a willing and even seductive sexual partner, and the sensuous story of their fortuitious encounter lasts all night.

Some time later, the narrator and Niágara are invited to dinner at the home of Dilia and Alfonso, and, to his astonishment, the narrator learns that his fantasy had paralleled an episode that actually occurred. Dilia's car broke down "en pleno sierra," she was alone and terrified at night, and a trucker finally came by and picked her up. Alfonso remarks "Se ha quedado traumatizada. Ya me lo contaste, querida, cada vez conozco más detalles de ese rescate, de tu San Jorge de overol salvándote del malvado dragón de la noche." (407) To which Dilia replies "No es fácil algo que vuelve y vuelve, no sé por qué." (407) Dilia does not know why she cannot forget this episode, but the narrator realizes that "en el otro lado" the daydreamer materialized as Oscar the trucker to rescue Dilia, and they shared a night of tender love.

To his amazement and also to his horror, the narrator begins to desire Dilia "de este lado." The baby cries, Dilia runs upstairs to get him, and takes him into the bathroom to change him. The narrator follows her in "para hacerle compañía. Y era como si de algún modo ella superia cuando le dije Dilia, yo conozco esa segunda parte" (407), meaning that he knows what she hasn't told Alfonso--that she slept with the trucker who rescued her. Now, the narrator's desire for Dilia intensifies, and he focuses on her breasts as if he had a right to them: "Sentí mis ojos como dedos ...buscando los senos...El deseo era un salto agazapado, un absoluto derecho a acercerme a buscarle los senos bajo la blusa y envolverla en el primer abrazo." (408) Here, the narrator's sudden urge to lunge at Dilia's breasts equates him to her suckling baby. But Dilia is changing the baby's diaper. The narrator gets a whiff of "el olor de un bebé que se ha hecho pis y caca" and hears Dilia calming the baby to stop him from crying. In the story's surprising final image, the baby has replaced the narrator as the object of Dilia's attention:

Vi sus manos que buscaban el algodón y lo metían entre las piernas levantadas del bebé, vi sus manos limpiando al bebé en vez de venir a mí como habían venido en la oscuridad de ese camión que tantas veces me ha servido en las historias que me cuento. (408)

This scene is startling because the narrator realizes that the baby, not Dilia's husband, is his rival. But in another sense it is even more unsettling: the image of Dilia's hands cleaning the baby's genitals instead of touching the narrator as they did in "el otro lado" superimpose the baby in what was the narrator's place. An infantilized vision of himself as a helpless baby flashes before the eyes of the narrator, and this mental image undoubtedly constitutes for him a shocking realization about the meaning of his desire for Dilia, and of the truth behind his daydreams. Does he desire Dilia because she is the mother of an infant son? Was his desire for Dilia actually a desire to return to a state of oneness with the mother? In his fantasies he may be the virile male rescuing a damsel in distress, but "en este lado" he sees himself in the passive role of an infant whose condition of radical dependency requires that his mother calm his wailing and clean his excrements. This is so startling and threatening to the narrator that he immediately invokes his "camión" and his "historias" in an attempt to regain control and protect his ego from the condition of helplessnes, and then falls silent.

The last words of the story, "en las historias que me cuento"(408), echo the opening line: "Me cuento historias cuando duermo solo" (401). In this circular construction, life appears to be going backwards. The narrator remains trapped in his daydreams because if he lets go of his fantasies of virile feats, he fears re-engulfment by the maternal womb. The narrator's desire for Dilia has led him to a strange but familiar place,--the site of the uncanny--the mother's body.[15] Mother, the child's point of origin, is also its goal and destiny, but will only be realized in death, thus, the mother is a focus of dread as well as longing.[16]

The narrator's daydreams of conquering outer space collapse to expose the desire to retreat, and the urge to tell these stories turns out to be an attempt to defend himself from the strong regressive drive to return to the preoedipal mother. Thus the Walter Mitty fantasies may provide an illusion of self-sufficiency and mastery, but in so doing, they encode the trauma of infantile helplessness they seek to control. Finally, the Walter Mitty syndrome speaks of the instability of a carefully constructed masculine identity which threatens to unravel when confronted by the the sensation of helplessness brought on by the lure of the preoedipal mother.

IV. Conclusion

"While civilization still rests on the incest taboo, it is a precarious construct, subject to the undertow of regressive urges focused on the desire to repair the first rupture from the mother's body."[17] The message of Cortázar's stories attests to the truth of this observation, as his narrators bear witness to the seductive and threatening nature of the preoedipal mother. Through their depiction of the persistence of the primal urge to regress to a state of oneness with the maternal body, the stories point to the instability of masculine identity. In "Deshoras," the fact that this regressive drive is contained and controlled through the fantasy is a way of acknowledging its impossibility and allowing for a "safe return" to "civilized," quotidian reality. However, in the unsettling conclusion of "Historias que me cuento," the image of the virile male is virtually effaced by the siren call of the preoedipal mother. Lurking as they do beneath the façade of self-mastery, the incestuous desires of the Cortazarean protagonists expose the power of the maternal bond as well as the primal fantasies which structure the imaginary life of the adult.

Works consulted:

Abdala, Marisa, "Secuencia y temporalidad en 'Deshoras' de Julio Cortázar," Hispanic Journal 1986 spring v 7 (2) p. 115-120.

Benjamin, Jessica. The Bonds of Love. Psychoanalysis, Feminism, and the Problem of Domination. New York: Pantheon, 1988.

Brooks, Peter. Body Work. Objects of Desire in Modern Narrative. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993.

Cortázar, Julio. Cuentos completos / 2 (1969-1982). 7th edition. Madrid: Alfaguara, 1994.

Freud, Sigmund. Beyond the Pleasure Principal.

__________. Civilization and Its Discontents.

Irigarary., Luce. The Irigaray Reader. Margaret Whitford, ed. Cambridge, MA: Basil Blackwell, 1991.

Laplanche, J. and J.-B. Pontalis. The Language of Psychoanalysis. Donald Nicholson-Smith, tr. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1973.

Rank, Otto. The Incest Theme in Literature and Legend. Fundamentals of a Psychology of Literary Creation. Gregory Richter, tr., Peter L. Rudnytsky, Introductory essay. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992.

Sprengnether, Madelon. The Spectral Mother. Freud, Feminism and Psychoanalysis. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1990.

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