Once upon a time there was . . . by César Aira

“Once upon a time there was . . .”

A dream from Festival & Game of the Worlds by César Aira.

by César Aira

Related: César Aira

One bad antecedent I had to take into account was the dream I’d had the night before about an abstract object. According to popular superstition, this brings bad luck. I assume that comes from the era of the creation of the exhedron. This was so important to our understanding of the exterior world that it gave a very bad reputation to all other abstract objects (even the humble and cooperative cube! even the prestigious pyramid! and especially shapeless abstract objects, like the one in my dream!), which came to be seen as useless distractions, detrimental to the intellect. I don’t give much credit to superstitions, but this one hit a nerve because I clearly remembered a story my father used to tell me when I was a boy, with all the innocent affection of a father putting his young son to sleep. I asked him to repeat it night after night, neither of us conscious of the damage it was causing me. It must have come from the ongoing marketing campaign for the exhedron. It had its charm, as do all black and white struggles between good and evil, especially for children.
“Once upon a time there was . . .” an abstract object, aggressive and smug, an intruder on the plane of representational objects, which surrounded it in order to expel it. But it wasn’t so easy. They couldn’t find the right strategy: the table waited for the spoon to attack, the cup turned a blind eye, the chair impotently kicked the floor, the little Christmas tree and the comb snuck away. They’d thought they could assert themselves because the real world with each of their names had their backs, but most importantly because there were so many of them; their ranks included the entire assortment of things that existed, whereas the abstract object was only one. But their numerical advantage was neutralized by their respective natures. The representational figures were attached to what they were, hence their strength was limited (nobody could sit in the cup, the chair couldn’t hold tea or coffee), whereas the abstract object, being nothing more than itself, enjoyed perfect freedom to deploy its dark potentialities in every direction. When they saw they could do nothing to defeat it, they tried to convince themselves that it was inoffensive. But each time they said something to reassure themselves, a voice from the depths refuted them. This was my favorite part of the story; my father would dramatize it, acting out different voices.

“It can’t do anything to us because it can’t see us . . .” And the voice, bouncing and echoing off the walls: “Yes, it can!”
“But it can’t touch us . . .”

“Yes, it can!”

“Luckily it’s slow, it can’t fly . . .”

“Yes, it can!”

“It can’t give us genital herpes . . .”

“Yes, it can!”

At each response, I trembled with emotion, curled up in bed, the blanket up to my eyes, my little hands feverishly searching for the little brush to hold on to like a drowning man his plank; I was unable to understand, or accept, that there was no way to fight back against the disagreeable and incomprehensible abstract object.