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First Read—From “Literature Class”

by Julio Cortázar

Translated by Katherine Silver

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Julio Cortázar’s Literature Class, from the lectures the Argentine writer delivered at UC Berkeley in 1980, will be published by New Directions on March 28, edited by Carles Álvarez Garriga and translated by Katherine Silver. The following is excerpted from the section “Reality and Literature: With Some Necessary Inversions of Values.” 

In this time and place, the read­ing and writing of literature assumes the undeniable presence of the historical and geopolitical context within which that reader or that writer acts. It assumes the tragic diaspora of more than a significant portion of the producers and consum­ers; it assumes exile as a necessary condition for almost all of the significant work done by intellectuals, artists, and sci­entists, in Chile, Argentina, and Uruguay, as well as in many other countries. We live the daily paradox that a significant part of our literature today is produced in Stockholm, Milan, Berlin, and New York, and that Latin American countries of asylum like Mexico or Venezuela are seeing the publication of work that under different circumstances would have come to them from Buenos Aires, Santiago, or Asunción. An entire system of references, of intellectual certainties, has collapsed and been substituted by ungovernable and unforeseen ran­dom games. Few have been masters of their exile and able to choose the most favorable haven for them to continue to live and work. As time passes, the content and perspective of many literary works begin to reflect the conditions and the contexts within which they have been written; what might have once been an option, as it was so many times throughout our literary tradition, has now become a necessity. All of these increasingly overwhelming factors, which are relatively new, are present in the memory and the consciousness of any writer who attempts to look at his vocation with clear eyes. We have an obligation to talk about these things because only then will we really be talking about our reality and our literature.[1]

Surrounding that exile is the brute force of regimes that squash liberty and dignity in my country and so many others on the continent. Gabriel García Márquez asserted that he would not publish another literary work until the fall of Pino­chet. I think he is, fortunately, changing his opinion, because in order for Pinochet to fall we must continue, among other things, to write and read literature. And the most consequen­tial literature today is one that makes common cause with a wide range of moral, political, and physical struggles against the forces of darkness that are trying, once again, to allow Ahriman to reign supreme over Ormazd. And when I say the most consequential, I want you to understand me correctly. I am by no means favoring so-called “committed” literature, a fair and very beautiful word when it is used correctly, but one that tends to contain as many misunderstandings and ambiguities as the word democracy or even, very often, the word revolution. I am talking about literature por todo lo alto, as we would say in Spanish, for which the sky’s the limit, liter­ature that achieves the highest standards, that is demanding, experimental, daring, and adventurous, but that also comes from men and women whose personal actions, whose sense of responsibility toward their people, shows they are present in this battle being waged in Latin America on so many fronts and with a vast range of weapons. I know all too well to what extent this authentic commitment of the intellectual is often judged harshly in preponderantly pragmatic sectors of the population, for whom literature is important above all as a tool of sociopolitical communication and, in the most extreme cases, of propaganda. When I wrote A Manual for Manuel, I was subjected to the worst and most bitter attacks from many of my comrades-in-arms, people who claimed that the denun­ciation of the bloody regime of General Lanusse in Argentina through literary means did not have the gravity or the qual­ifications of their pamphlets and articles. I mention myself, because the passage of time—embodied in the readers who shared my idea of the true commitment of the intellectual—gave meaning and reason to my attempt to combine history and literature, as it will always give to writers who refuse to sacrifice truth to beauty or beauty to truth.

We must not hesitate to admit—to ourselves but above all to our readers—that many of us writers from a large part of Latin America, subjected to exploitation and violence by internal and external enemies, wake up every day in our coun­tries or in exile under the weight of a present that overwhelms us and evokes feelings of guilt. Compared to what is happen­ing in a country like my own, compared to those enormous concentration camps disguised behind world football cham­pionships and bids for hydroelectric projects, all essentially intellectual activity might seem somewhat derisory and even gratuitous, as if the undertaking of a literary or artistic work entailed a constant battle against a sense, a suspicion, that it is a luxury, an excess, a way of avoiding a more immediate and concrete responsibility. It isn’t, in fact it is exactly the oppo­site, but we often feel like it is. We have to do what we do, but it pains us in the very act of doing it. For many of us, to exercise our most authentic vocation is to feel besieged by guilt. And if this happens to intellectuals in many countries—countries where everybody has the right and the means to openly make known their points of view, what they accept and what they reject—how can we describe the state of mind of a Chilean, Bolivian, Uruguayan, or Salvadoran intellectual who struggles to continue to do his work, from the inside or in exile, with all the limitations and problems that this entails?

It is then, when I am in the middle of writing a page and am assailed, as I am so often, by that feeling of despondency and surrender, when I feel not only physically but also culturally exiled from my country, it is precisely then that my reaction seems perfectly logical according to any reasonable criteria. I never felt it more clearly than the day I heard that a book of mine—like those of so many other exiled writers—could not be published in Argentina. Along with the bitter realiza­tion that a bridge between my compatriots and me had just been destroyed, one that had invisibly united us for so many years and across so many distances, and that the true, the unbearable exile was beginning at that moment in that sol­itude of the double lack of communication between reader and writer, at that very instant I was also overwhelmed by the exact opposite feeling, by a strange impetus, a summons, an almost demented conviction that all of that would be true only if I accepted it, if I stupidly started playing by the rules of the enemy, if I hung on myself the label of chronic exile, if I sought to reorient my life in other directions. I knew that my obligation was to do precisely the opposite, that is, to step up my work, to demand much more of myself than I had until then, and above all to project in all possible ways to my Latin American compatriots—as I will continue to do for as long as I have the strength—a positive and resourceful notion of exile, an attitude and responsibility that is totally contrary to what those who physically and culturally expel us from our countries want us to do in their attempts not only to neutralize our opposition to their dictatorships but also to drown us in melancholy and nostalgia and, finally, the silence that they so greatly cherish.

My comments do not depart from the realm of literature, quite the contrary. I am looking for it, there, where today so many of its creations arise, attempting to show the value that literature in exile can bring instead of bowing to the exiling of literature as the enemy would like me to do. This positive attitude, this determination to take on in a positive way what may be viewed atavistically or even romantically as wholly negative, demands that we question many clichés, that we value self-criticism under circumstances in which self-com­passion would be the most immediate and comprehensible response. A few days ago a gentleman came up to me and said, “I am an Argentine exile.” Deep down, I was sorry that he gave priority to exile because it sounded to me like an un­conscious avowal of defeat, of his expulsion from a country, which thereby somehow receded into the background. This, which might seem like pop psychology, isn’t, not when it takes on more complex forms, when, for example, it turns into an obsessive literary subject. But here, too, the standard negative notion of exile tends to turn into a poem, a song, a short story, or a novel, and never becomes anything other than food for one’s own and others’ nostalgia. I recall something Eduardo Galeano said about exile, that “Nostalgia is good, but hope is better.” Of course nostalgia is good, in literature and in life, because it is our sad loyalty to what is absent. But in this case, what is absent is not dead, far from it, and it is there that hope can change the nature of exile, remove it from the negative and give it dynamic value: to unite us all in an effort to take back the territory of our nostalgia instead of being stuck in mere nostalgia for that territory.

If one day we achieve this, if we keep achieving it little by little in part through the literature that is emerging outside our countries, the weight of its positive aspects will make an essential contribution to the ensemble of our literary activity, which also means to our people. It’s one thing to talk about in­ternational culture acquired within a country or in the course of a trip taken abroad for training or education, and quite a different one to experience foreign realities that might be favorable or hostile but that for the person in exile is always traumatic, because it is not the result of the exercise of free will. Here it is worth remembering that traumas of all kinds have always been the principle motivation for literature, and that overcoming those traumas through transformation in a creative work is what defines a real writer. In these last several years I have seen the sometimes destructive effect this violent uprooting has had on men and women who have already done important work in their countries of origin. But there are also those who have been able to conjure the psychological and moral alchemy that strengthens and enriches the creative ex­perience, those who have been able to submerge themselves in the deepest depths of the tragic night of exile and re-emerge with something that a pleasure trip to Paris or a cultural visit to Madrid or London never would have offered them. This has begun to be reflected in what is being written far away from home, and it is a first and difficult and beautiful victory.

Beautiful precisely because the difficulty sometimes seems insurmountable. I think about my Argentine comrades adrift in so many corners of America and Europe, about writers whose stubborn efforts represent a battle against death. It is the same battle many of us wage on a daily basis so that we can continue, even when, sitting next to us, reading over our shoulders, speaking to us from the shadows, are those who succumbed for writing and speaking the truth, who urge us on every day and at the same time paralyze us, push us to pour into our lives and our struggles everything they did not man­age to finish, and at the same time hinder us with the weight of their pain and misfortune. I no longer know how to write as I used to, for no matter where I turn I come again and again upon the image of Haroldo Conti, the eyes of Rodolfo Walsh, the affable smile of Paco Urondo, the fleeting silhouette of Miguel Ángel Bustos. And I am not compiling a list of the elite; they’re not the only ones who pursue me in solidarity. Writers, however, live off others who write, and —if they are not residents of that marble tower of intellectual escapism and liberalism—they feel that those unjust and infamous deaths are the albatross hanging around their necks, that their daily obligation is to bring them back to life, to reject those deaths by reaffirming them, to spit in the face of that other death, what Pablo Neruda prophetically saw coming “dressed as an admiral.”

If all of this is not one day reflected somehow or other in the work of Latin American exiled writers, the Videlas and the Pinochets and the Stroessners will have won much more than their momentary material triumph, as hard as that may be to accept for those who still believe that we must confront the enemy culturally by using the same superficial vocabulary, by conversing somehow with him, recognizing him as a valid interlocutor and not rising above the level of the pamphlet and party slogans and the subjects that are strictly in line with po­litical reality. If we are not capable of essentially changing the negativity that is attempting to surround us and crush us, we will have failed in our specific mission and potential.


© 2017 New Directions Publishing.


[1] In the English version he read—as opposed to the Spanish version he read at the University in Veracruz, Jalapa, on September 4, 1980—Cortázar added at this point : “And I know all too well that these factors are frequently neglected in academic research and literary criticism.”


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