The legend of the axolotl and its history through culture and science.

The axolotl: from science to the imagination

It can happen that an animal has a strong symbolic evocation power not because of popular observations but as a result of scientific observations which reveal unusual characteristics of the animal. This then arouses not beliefs or myths but a literary imagination. This is particularly the case for the axolotl, larva of a Mexican salamander, barely mentioned in Aztec mythology At most the axolotl - "water dog" (atl, water, ... and today ' hui still unrecognized not only by the general public, with the exception of Mexico, but often even by cultivated people. Axolotl was at the heart of scientific controversy in the 19th century and its surprising biological characteristics inspired not popular myths but a literary motif attested in several works of fiction, from the 1950s to the present day.

Current definition:

The axolotl is the larval form of Ambystoma mexicanum, a species of salamander that lives in lakes in the highlands of Mexico. It measures between 20 and 25 cm in length, with a tail flattened laterally and gills extended to the sides of the head. It has four toes on the front legs and five on the back legs. A membranous ridge runs across its back and along its tail. The triangular head has two large eyes without lids. The axolotl is gray-brown in color for the wild variety; in breeding, axolotls are most often depigmented, even albino. In the metamorphosed state, the axolotl has lost its gills and membranous crest, it breathes and lives on land, but it has retained its tail. Axolotl rarely changes and can reproduce as a larva, a phenomenon called neotenia. The absence of metamorphosis is due to insufficient secretion of thyroid hormones due to the cold aquatic environment poor in iodine in which axolotls live. Metamorphoses have been obtained experimentally in axolotls by the injection of iodine or thyroid hormones. Spontaneous metamorphosis has also been observed in axolotls acclimatized to the warm plains. A second remarkable biological characteristic of the axolotl is its strong capacity for regeneration: its wounds heal by reconstituting the tissues and its amputated limbs grow back (tail, legs). The axolotl has become a valuable laboratory animal for experimental research in embryology and physiology. In the wild, the animal is a protected species, but its depigmented and albino varieties are allowed to be marketed as domestic animals. This knowledge of the axolotl is however relatively recent since it dates from the end of the 19th century and from the beginning of the 20th century. Gradually, in fact, science has discovered the surprising properties of this animal.

The 19th century controversy Until the 18th century, the axolotl was considered a kind of fish. The 19th century correctly classified it in the category of salamanders, but questioning its larval or definitive nature. In 1807, Georges Cuvier and Alexander von Humboldt expressed their hesitation in a booklet entitled Recherches anatomiques sur les reptiles, still regarded as doubtful by naturalists, produced on the occasion of the axolotl. In 1829, in the second edition of his Animal Kingdom, Cuvier still classifies the axolotl among the amphibians with permanent gills - "So many witnesses," he wrote, "assure him that he does not lose them, that I see myself obliged to do so. »- but it is very reluctantly because he has the intimate conviction that the axolotl is a larva of a salamander. During the first half of the 19th century, two opposing theses divided naturalists. For some, like Benjamin Barton, Johan Jacob von Tschudi, Luigi Calori or Everard Horne, axolotls are a distinct species in their final form and do not undergo metamorphosis. Other naturalists, on the contrary, such as George Shaw, Pierre-André Latreille, Carl Mayer or John Edward Gray, are convinced that axolotls, although they can reproduce, are larvae of a species of salamander which we do not has not yet been able to observe the metamorphosis in adulthood. A crucial event took place in 1865. Professor Auguste Duméril, of the Muséum d'histoire naturelle in Paris, who had received several specimens of axolotls in 1864, observed a series of births: most of the newborns developed by reproducing the form of their parents, but a few underwent unexpected transformation into terrestrial salamander after losing their gills and membranous crest. This was proof that the axolotl was indeed a larval form and not a completed form. Duméril published in 1866 a memoir entitled "Observations on the reproduction, in the menagerie of reptiles of the Natural History Museum, of axolotls, urodel amphibians with external gills of Mexico, on their development and on their metamorphoses] New Archives of the Muséum d ' natural history of .... He concluded that the larval thesis was relevant. The following year, Duméril published a second memoir to describe another peculiarity of axolotls, their regenerative power, which sometimes gives rise to anatomical anomalies: “Description of various monstrosities observed at the reptile menagerie of the Natural History Museum on the urodel amphibians with external gills called axolotls ”. By the end of the 18th century, naturalists had experimented with the regenerative capacity of lizards and newts: in the latter, a limb cut seven times in a row grew back seven times and a new eye replaced the one which had been removed. Concerning the axolotls, Duméril notes "how powerful is the force which, in these animals, repairs the losses which the tissues have suffered" It is enlightening to compare the two articles devoted to the axolotl, twenty years apart, by the Grand Universal Dictionary of the 19th century (Larousse). In the 1866 edition, Duméril's results are not yet known, the classification of the axolotl is presented as doubtful while in the 2nd supplement, published in 1888, the axolotl is clearly identified as a larva of a salamander. and mention is made of its regenerative capacity.

The laboratory animal ...

From the beginning of the 20th century, due to its characteristics, the axolotl appeared to scientists as a remarkable laboratory animal for the study of developmental and evolutionary biology. In the years 1910-1920, Julian Huxley experimented with axolotls at the University of Oxford. The metamorphoses caused artificially and the success of transplants of supernumerary limbs are sometimes ideologically exploited as proof of the superiority of the theses advocating the modification of natural species (lysenkism) over the theory of genetic determinism: "The experiment practiced on l ' axolotl allowed Soviet scientists to deal a new blow to reactionary theories ”, one can read in the Soviet Studies. The biological specificities of axolotl - possibility of metamorphosis, capacity for regeneration, aptitude for grafts, frequency of genetic mutations in the species - are of great interest for the understanding of the mechanisms of normal or abnormal development (cancer) of cells. , organs, limbs, as well as the role of hormones and genes. The effects of vitamins, X-rays, hormones, environmental modifications, transplants, genetic manipulation, etc. are tested on axolotl. A search for the word "axolotl" on Google: The most frequent terms are significant: "regeneration", "development", "evolution", "metamorphosis", "mutation". The “fantastic” dimension for a layman - is present: white, blind or albino mutants, sex changes, transplants of paws and even extra heads. NJ De Both, “Transplantation of Axolotl heads”.

Unclassability

Science has come up against the problem of the place of the axolotl in the classification of animals. As HM Smith writes, “No animal […] has been more taxonomically treated than the axolotl HM Smith, discussed its place among amphibians that have acquired their final form or in the larval state. The discovery of his neotenia made him a paradoxical animal that can reproduce in the larval state. Anthropologist Mary Douglas has shown that animals perceived as unclassifiable in a culture - for example the pig among the Hebrews, because it has split feet but does not ruminate, or the pangolin among the Lele of Africa, because it lives on earth but has scales like a fish - are necessarily invested with a symbolic charge. Obviously comes under the imaginary of metamorphosis, so present in myths, legends, tales and fantastic literature, from Ovid to Kafka. The specificity of the metamorphosis of the axolotl is to be "possible" , unlike the tadpole which necessarily transforms into a frog, and certain amphibians, such as the proteus, whose metamorphosis is impossible. The optional metamorphosis prompts a series of questions. Why is there no metamorphosis? What can trigger the metamorphosis? What is the appearance of the animal after the metamorphosis? Knowing that the axolotl is the larval form of a salamander, the symbolism of the axolotl will join that of amphibians with metamorphosis, such as the frog, that is to say animals which pass to a higher level of development, and the axolotl has all the more "merit" that this transformation is "optional". The metamorphosis of amphibians is typically the passage from a lower world (larval state, water) to a higher world (adult state, air and earth). In the frog, the abandonment of the tail, which represents animality, is strongly symbolic. This animal is a symbol of birth and rebirth after death among the ancient Egyptians and Christians. For the modern mind, the metamorphosis of amphibians is an emblematic image of the evolutionary process, whether it is about the aquatic origin of life and the aerial adaptation of species emerging from the sea, or of the human birth when the newborn leaves the amniotic fluid for the open air. Biologists have pointed out the exceptionally long duration of the juvenile period in the human species and have not hesitated to apply to humans the term " néoténie ”thus opening the way to the idea that humanity is perhaps comparable to axolotls, awaiting some metamorphosis. This motif will not fail to be exploited by the literature of the imagination.

Regeneration

The astonishing ability of the axolotl to regenerate damaged tissues, damaged organs or amputated limbs naturally evokes mythological or legendary references: the magical regrowth of severed heads, for example the hydra of Lerna confronted by Hercules, or of legs. cut; the miraculous healing of wounds that are closing. By experimenting with axolotls, science seeks to realize the dream of medical techniques allowing man to regenerate diseased or mutilated parts of his body.

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The Mexican axolotl, "aquatic monster" in the Nahuatl language, object of scientific curiosity for its ability to regenerate damaged organs such as the eye or the brain, is threatened with extinction due to the pollution of its habitat in Xochimilco, lakeside area of ​​southern Mexico.

This small creature (Ambystoma mexicanum) which can reach 30 centimeters lives, reproduces and dies between 10 and 20 years while being always in the state of larvae.

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The color of this little salamander that refuses metamorphosis can range from milky white to inky black, including olive green. The axolotl can lay up to 1,500 eggs four times a year.

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The animal fascinates biologists who study its cellular programming allowing it a strong resistance to cancer and the possibility of recreating certain parts of its brain or of regenerating an eye.

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But it is a species at risk of extinction. There are now only 0.3 axolotl per square kilometer compared to 1,000 in 1996, according to a survey carried out this year by the National Autonomous University of Mexico (Unam) in the aquatic labyrinths of Xochimilco.

This is due to the "poor quality of the water", polluted by the sewage of the megalopolis, the pesticides dumped by local farmers and the waste left by the thousands of tourists who visit this district, a remnant of Tenochtitlan, Mexico of the pre-Hispanic era, explains Cristina Ayala, expert in biological sciences.

To this must be added the introduction since the 1970s of thousands of fish intended for fishing, such as Chinese carp or African tilapia. They adore the eggs of the axolotl and are a tough competitor for its diet.

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Rescue attempt

A group of scientists from Unam have set up, under the auspices of the British University of Kent, a project to try to save the animal. This is to try to convince local farmers to give up the use of pesticides and aquaculture of foreign species, so that the axolotl can grow again in a favorable environment.

In exchange, we would give local agricultural products an ecological certification, with the added value that this can mean in the market.

For the moment, three experimental channels of Xochimilco have allowed the reproduction of a hundred animals, explains Horacio Mena, coordinator of the project, which includes laboratory breeding.

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A dozen farmers were convinced to adopt a system allowing the maintenance of the cleanliness of the canals thanks to aquatic plants.

The location of these "refuges" is kept secret in order to prevent the theft of axolotl to resell it as a domestic animal or for the preparation of medicinal potions.

The axolotl "grows in many laboratories around the world, in aquariums. Although it is thus preserved in an artificial way, it lives there a more cosmopolitan and transnational life", says with a smile the Mexican anthropologist Roger Bartra.

For him, the animal's capacity to remain a larva is a metaphor for Mexican identity after the revolution of the early twentieth century, a being "stagnant in an apparent eternal youth", but unable to move towards modernity.

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Source:

AFP

Pátzcuaro (Mexico) -

The purring of aquarium filters disturbs the tranquility of the monastery: several hours a day, Mexican nuns interrupt their prayers to take care of their breeding of achoques, aquatic salamanders that fascinate scientists for their ability to regenerate their damaged organs.

Lake Patzcuaro, in the state of Michoacan (west), is the natural habitat of ambystoma dumerilii, the scientific name for this amphibian species. But the pollution of this vast body of water and the introduction of predatory fish have caused the achoques population to drop.

So much so that this aquatic salamander with its green-brown skin spotted with black, and whose outer gills resemble a brown and spongy ruff, has been included on the red list of threatened species by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN): in the "critically endangered" category, just before the "extinct in the wild" category.

"There are very, very few achoques left in the wild", their number has dropped "dramatically" since the 1980s, Maria Esther Quintero, in charge of protected species at Conabio, a government entity, told AFP Mexican who studies biodiversity.

Like its cousin the Mexican axolotl (Ambystoma mexicanum), "aquatic monster" in the Nahuatl language, also threatened with extinction due to the pollution of its habitat in Xochimilco, a lake area in the south of Mexico, the achoque can regenerate its cells, which is of great interest to researchers, especially in the fight against cancer.

For these reasons, achoque is prized for its supposed medical virtues and consumed in soup or syrup. Nuns at the Immaculate Mary of Health Monastery in the city of Patzcuaro have been brewing and selling it for over a century.

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- "One male and three females" -

When they saw that the creatures at the origin of their livelihood were threatened, the nuns decided to act. At the instigation of a trained biologist priest, they rolled up the sleeves of their white clothes and started breeding between the walls of the monastery.

"If we did nothing, (the achoque) would die out (...) It is to be fair with nature that we have started to work to preserve this species", explains Sister Maria del Carmen Pérez.

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Over the years, the nuns of this monastery have become true experts of this salamander. They found that the results were much better in the context of reproduction "with one male and three females," Sister Ofelia Morales Francisco, who has been devoted to this species for 18 years, told AFP.

They also understood that the first female to lay eggs had to stay in the same aquarium, while the others were transferred to other jars. They fill two whole rooms of this religious building located on top of a hill in the town of Patzcuaro.

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Under the gaze of a baby Jesus and a cross placed near the aquarium-nursery, each female lays between 300 and 400 eggs at each laying.

Then comes a delicate step: "take care of the little ones because there is a certain cannibalism between them", continues Sister Ofelia, who devotes some six hours a day to the reproduction of salamanders. These feed on crustaceans, small fish and different types of earthworms.

The nuns are today at the maximum of the capacities of their breeding, which accommodates 300 individuals. But the lake remains too polluted to welcome achoques again, explains Sister Ofelia.

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- Donations and sacrifices -

"This is why we give a part of this population to the universities. The rest of the surplus achoques, they are sacrificed to make the syrups", she indicates, stressing that the nuns also regularly cook "delicious soups" in achoques base.

Sister Ofelia, on the other hand, refuses to expand on the proceeds from the sale of syrups.

For Maria Esther Quintero, the expert of the Mexican authorities in charge of biodiversity, these nuns represent "the greatest hope" to preserve this species which "has the most important genome that we know", all species combined on Earth .

The creature, which can be up to eight inches long, is "very important in research into tissue reproduction in humans," adds Quintero.

Chester Zoo, near Liverpool in England, is working in partnership with a Mexican team to determine the precise number of achoques remaining in Lake Patzcuaro.

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The achoque is the terrible twin brother of the god Quetzalcoatl, according to purepecha mythology, an Amerindian people originally from the state of Michoacan. Ms Quintero believes that if invasive species, like carp, were removed from the lake, the achoche could return to the water where, according to this mythology, it had hid so as not to be sacrificed.

The axolotl as a literary myth

Three writers have exploited in a significant way the motif of the axolotl, in the different genres of imaginary literature: Robert Abernathy (L'axolotl, 1954) for science fiction, Julio Cortazar (Axolotl, 1956) for the fantastic, Caza (Axolotls, 1982) for the fantasy Editions used: "The axolotl" by Robert Abernathy .... It is no coincidence that the word "axolotl" appears in all the titles, even in Cortazar who would have yet could use the Spanish term ajolote. The word "axolotl", regardless of its Aztec origin, has a connotation of strangeness, even "extraterrestrial", and recalls the names given by Lovecraft American writer (1890-1937) known for his stories ... to his deities ( Cthulhu, Yog-Sothoth…).

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Axolotl (1956) by Julio Cortazar: This fantastic short story by the Argentinian writer tells how a man, fascinated by the axolotls of the Jardin des Plantes in Paris, finds himself in the body of one of them, while the spirit of the axolotl takes possession of its human fleshly envelope. "I glued my face to the glass of the aquarium, my eyes tried once more to unravel the mystery of those golden eyes without irises and without pupils. I could see the head of an axolotl motionless against the glass very closely. Without transition, without surprise, I saw my face against the glass, I saw it outside the aquarium, I saw it on the other side of the glass. Then my face moved away and I understood ”p. 263 .. As the narrator claims to have become an axolotl and to be in an aquarium, the material existence of the story must be justified: Cortazar finds a clever solution to this problem by making himself the man whose mind is that of an axolotl. The narrator ends his story with the following sentence: “It consoles me to think that he [the human in whom the spirit of the axolotl has passed] is perhaps going to write something about us; he will believe that he is inventing a tale and he will write it all on the axolotls ”p. 264 .. Thus, the narrator is a man who has become an axolotl and the writer is an axolotl who has become human. The game of metamorphoses - which here is rather an exchange of bodies, or of minds - appears even more complex when the tale suggests that the axolotls, with their almost mineral immobility, their "Aztec faces [which encourage one to] fall into the dark. mythology ”p. 262., leads the narrator to "see in the axolotls a metamorphosis which could not completely renounce a mysterious humanity". The axolotls seem to bear witness to “a distant abolished kingdom, a time of freedom when the world had belonged to the axolotls”, p. 263 .. We are thus tempted to make axolotls a symbolic figure of pre-Columbian civilizations which have disappeared. The insistence with which Cortazar recalls their Aztec name, their stone face and body, but also his identification with axolotls, go in this direction. This hypothesis is confirmed by two American researchers who find this motif of the Indian “double” and the exchange of personality in another Cortazar short story, La nuit face au ciel (1956), where an injured motorcyclist dying in a hospital identifies with a warrior sacrificed by the Aztecs TJ Knight & AH Krull, "The Hidden Indian in .... The tale of Cortazar also evokes the famous Chinese apologue where the sage Tchouang-Tseu, who dreams that he is a butterfly, wonders when he wakes up if he is not a butterfly dreaming that he is Tchouang-Tseu. The axolotl, emblem of metamorphosis and unclassability, to which is added an Aztec connotation, thus inspired Cortazar for this story in which the borders separating man and animal, past and present, the White and the Indian, the living and the mineral.

Robert Abernathy's Axolotl (1954): In this story, published seven years before men were sent into space, Abernathy imagines that the first astronaut to leave Earth's atmosphere undergoes a metamorphosis that transforms him into a new being. , endowed with superior powers. The reference to the axolotl is explicit, not only in the title, but also in counterpoint paragraphs to the main text, which describe the life and transformation of the Mexican amphibian. The analogy is systematically developed. Like the axolotl, man is described as an unfinished form which has the capacity to reproduce in the larval state: “For a long time biologists have told us that man was only a retarded fetus, a sort of embryo that ages without ever really reaching adulthood. Now I know why: the conditions of maturity, the destiny for which we were created, do not exist on earth… ”R. Abernathy, op. cit., p. 57 .. Some axolotls, driven by their instinct, leave the “black mud [of] stagnant waters” to go towards air, earth and light; Likewise, the hero of Abernathy is moved by an irrepressible force which leads him to tear himself away from the Earth and its gravity, in order to reach space and the stars. During its metamorphosis, the axolotl loses its gills and the membranous crest allowing it to swim; the astronaut sees his fingernails fall, vestiges of our animality, and his lungs become useless in the space vacuum. The transformation takes place after the rocket passes through "primary cosmic rays [which are] to the unleashing of gamma rays produced by an atomic explosion what is, to the gentle lapping of a summer rain, a gust of machine gun ”p. 49 .. This precision deserves to be commented on: it again associates man and the axolotl since, in the 1950s, it was believed that space travel would be very dangerous because of cosmic rays and, at the same time, we were studying the mutagenic effects of radioactivity on axolotls. Finally, like the pale larva of the axolotl which turns into a tiger salamander, “a new creature […] with small shining eyes, covered with superb black and gold stripes” p. 52., the space man becomes a sort of angel with increased physical and psychic capacities. At the end of the news, the hero announces that all of humanity, entering the era of the conquest of space, is called to metamorphose.

Axolotls (1982) de Caza: Author of fantasy, or “mythological science fiction”, Caza draws inspiration from myths and legends from various traditions to create his imaginary worlds See J.-B. Renard, “L'aginaire mythologique de Caza .... The comic book story Axolotls mixes the influence of Abernathy's short story, according to Caza himself, with Greek and Hebrew mythological references. the Axolotls, coarse, green, flabby humanoid creatures with webbed hands, wallowing in stinking swamps. One of them, named Promez, climbs out of the original mud and, in defiance, climbs on the colossal statue of the god Zeutàn. Fire from heaven then falls on the ungodly, but causing his metamorphosis into a Salamander, under the name of Luz'ifer. While the statue of Zeutàn collapses, all the people of the Axolotls, under the effect of fire, transform into Salamanders. Unlike Axolotls, Salamanders stand upright, they are red in color, their skin is covered with scales and they live in fire.The zoological imagination of the axolotl is here anthropomorphized in the form of humanoids . There are also obvious mythological references: we recognize the Greek myth of Prometheus (Promez) stealing fire from Zeus (Zeutàn = Zeus + Wotan), just like the Hebrew myth of Lucifer (etymologically "bearer of light") who rebelled against God. As often with Caza, a comparison can be made with William Blake who, in Le Livre d'Urizen (1794), exploited this myth of rebellion against God. The metamorphosis of the Axolotl into a Salamander also recalls the Jewish legend according to which the primordial Adam was a creature without intelligence who moved by crawling: he acquired the upright posture only when God gave him a soul L. Ginzberg, The Legends des Juifs, Paris, Cerf, 1997, .... The symbol of fire allows Caza to make the link between Prométhée, Lucifer and the Salamanders, whom a magical belief identifies with “spirits of fire”. The Salamander Luz'ifer is the symbolic figure of a rebirth, even a resurrection. From the aquatic world, cold and dark, where the Axolotls live, an almost Christic call rises: “Father, have you abandoned us? We vegetate in the shadowy valleys, while your forehead touches the lights of the sky! »Caza, op. cit., p. 43. After its mutation, the Salamander becomes a Homo erectus, in every sense of the word: it acquires the vertical station, passing from enslaved animality to liberated "humanity", and its soft Axolotl penis has become a triumphant phallus. Art historian Leo Steinberg has shown that sexual erection was a frequent symbol of resurrection, from Osiris to Christ, including the ithyphallic gods of Greco-Roman antiquity L. Steinberg, La Sexuality of Christ in the art of ....

Conclusion

Taking up an idea put forward by Henri Bergson, Caillois considers that the instinctive behaviors of animals have their double in the symbolic imagination of man. What is biological instinct in the first is a mythical representation in the second See R. Caillois, Le Mythe et l'Homme, Paris, Gallimard, .... For example, the behavior of the praying mantis or of certain spiders has the corresponding the mythical motif of the demonic female devouring or castrating the man she has seduced. It is the same for the axolotl, whose neotenia, the possible metamorphosis and the capacity of regeneration correspond to the myth of the refusal to grow, to the hope of a resurrection and to the dream of self-healing. We find other illustrations of this imaginary in contemporary culture, albeit marginally, beyond the three works presented above. Thus Frank Herbert, author of the famous science fiction cycle Dune (1969-1984), named axolotl tank ("axolotl caisson") an "apparatus for the reproduction of a living human being from the cells of his corpse". the playful childish universe, marked by Japanese creations, we find an explicit reference to the axolotl in a few characters of the Pokémon, created in 1996 and Wooper is a simplified representation of the axolotl with its external gills and its flat tail. Moreover the name Wooper comes from wooper looper, English phoneticization of the Japanese words upa rupa (pronounced “oupa loupa”) which designate in Japan the axolotls sold as domestic animals. Wooper's French name is Axoloto! The creature can transform into Quagsire, which means "the lord of the swamps", hence its French name: Maraiste. It is only metaphorically, finally, that authors invoke the figure of the axolotl. In his work on Mexicans (La Jaula de la melancolia: identidad y metamorfosis del Mexicano, 1987), anthropologist Roger Bartra considers that, like the axolotl, Mexican identity is larval and as doomed to remain unfinished. . The philosopher Gilles A. Tiberghien, in Le Principe de l'axolotl (1990), makes the contemporary traveler the “place of a future that never takes place”, while the novelist Myriam Donzelot, in La Métamorphose de l ' axolotl (2004), describes the psychological uncertainties of his heroine.

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