Julio Cortázar’s “INSTRUCTIONS ON HOW TO CLIMB A STAIRCASE” operates like this: it closely reads into the act of climbing a staircase, magnifying the moment with meticulous description, and in doing so it isolates each step required to walk up a flight of stairs. This does a few things: first, it forces the reader to wonder how a person could ever climb stairs given the complexity of the event (even though it seems, in everyday life, to be easy, or perhaps not even worthy of consciousness: beyond easy). The second thing it does is remove any kind of pre-conceived notion that the reader might have about the event, from the event, so as to see the event as it really is. For Cortázar, in this essay, the mundane masks the truth: the reader accepts the ease in which he walks up and down stairs, and through description, through a close reading the event, Cortázar wishes to understand what it’s actually like to climb those steps—but he also has another goal: to show the reader how amazing it is that he can even do it in the first place. This creates humor, obviously, because we are not accustomed to people thinking hard about walking up steps, but we get the sense that this humor is not intended or forced: it’s a simple product of questioning the foundations of the things we consider most steadfast and true. Through description and really through description alone (which I think is wonderful: I don’t think I’ve read an essay where description works harder than this one), this essay questions the very reality (and by reality, I mean reality as conceived through ourselves—our conception of it) of our everyday lives. While this essay may appear to be merely “instructing” us, it is also questioning our ability to see anything clearly—to understand our ability to perceive the actions we perform every day, to understand the things that we consider to be most us. The givenness of the event limits our ability to see it clearly, or perhaps, at all.
A common notion today is that if one strips a subject down to its component parts that the subject will lose any kind of meaning that was once attributed to it, that it will cease to be beautiful or “special.” If we, for example, think of a human being as a mass of atoms, as a strictly scientific being, in other words: as a mere product of matter and chance, the notions of love and family and the seriousness of being human become merely symptoms of a scientific accident, or worse, they become self perpetuated illusions that perhaps never existed at all. That’s what I like about this essay. Instead of losing meaning through the isolation, description, and evaluation of component parts, “INSTRUCTIONS ON HOW TO CLIMB A STAIRCASE” produces the opposite effect: through isolation of the mundane it creates meaning, allowing us to wonder and be amazed at the complexity of ourselves.
Cory Aaland is a MFA student at the University of Arizona