Literature Class
by Julio Cortázar.
New Directions, 2017.
Paperback, 280 pages, $19.

The question of whether or not creative writing is something that can be taught isn’t a perennial one, at least not explicitly or directly. The American MFA program, with its tens of thousands of students, customers of a $200 million industry clamoring for something halfway between institutional bureaucratic comfort and the cool affectations of a purchased bohemianism, is a beast unique in history. Made possible by the confluence of neoliberal credentialism and self-actualizing pop-psychology, the project often fails on its own boring terms, unable to to produce a literature distinct enough to be measured by data-crunching algorithms. But the pedagogical questions lying just under the issue’s cloying meritocratic veneer are old ones. There’s always the question of how people learn at all. And a compelling alternative to the image of a listless twentysomething buying a degree in creativity is the Platonic notion of anamnesis—the possibility that knowledge is intact within us, waiting to be remembered. It’s an alternative that complicates the corporatized higher education safe space with a subtle epistemology. It also happens to be the pedagogical method of Julio Cortázar in his 1980 lectures delivered at University of California—Berkeley and published earlier this year by New Directions as Literature Class.

If Cortázar’s fiction is any indication, one wouldn’t expect his lectures to be straightforward or didactic. After all, this is the man who wrote the novel Hopscotch, described by Dustin Illingworth in The Atlantic as a “dense, elusive, streetwise masterpiece that doubles as High Modernist choose-your-own-adventure game.” If the masters of twentieth century South American fiction could be reduced to bumper stickers, Borges might be “cultivating gardens of original forgeries” and Marquez “the angel and the dictator are both real,” then Cortázar would be something like “what didn’t happen also happened.” The Argentine writer’s entire corpus, from his poetry to his more “realistic” fiction to his complex literary gamesmanship to his tender nonfiction, is a celebration of potential. A feast of alternatives.

As he explains in Literature Class, “When you reach the very peak of research in mathematics and physics, a territory of uncertainty opens up where things can be or not, where the mathematical laws don’t apply as they do on the lower level … but it interested me a lot because it’s exactly the same process that occurs in certain literature and poetry: just when you reach the limits of expression—whether it’s the expression of the fantastic or the lyrical in poetry—just beyond begins a territory where everything is possible and everything is uncertain.” This is uncertainty elevated to not just an aesthetic ideal, but a perspective. This is an embrace of reality as a shifting catalogue of alternatives. And if there exists in all possible worlds a reality where Cortázar lectures in a vein of rational didacticism, then it’s one that we’ve surely yet to experience.

These lectures, originally given in Spanish and translated by Katherine Silver, more resemble casual conversation with a gifted friend than rigorous college lectures. Hegel this is not. Cortázar can’t be said to have a method beyond an almost extemporaneous (“I want you to know that I’m cobbling together these classes very shortly before you get here,” he announces charmingly before his first lecture) riffing on his own experiences as a reader, writer, and person. There might be general topics that he roams within—“Musicality and Humor in Literature,” “The Fantastic Short Story: Time,” “The Ludic in Literature”—but roam he does. One of the artistic influences he cites is jazz, specifically Charlie Parker, and in the dignified meandering of his thought, Cortázar does resemble a bop musician riffing on a melody. Stretching it, distending it, coiling it into a plaything, and warming it to life with his own idiosyncratic personality. When poet John Keats described his concept of negative capability in a letter, he framed it almost as a mark of character. And indeed, how could it be anything else? He wrote that it is “when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” But prizing creativity over coherence only really “works,” is only really able to be communicated as artistic merit, if the artist himself already has impeccably well-ordered and refined taste. And Cortázar has that in spades.

These lectures, meandering as they do between memories of Che Guevara and Parisian bohemian enclaves, present only the pretense of rigor. Which is, of course, wonderful. I’m not sure what a “rigorous” Cortázar lecture would be like, but I’m certain that I wouldn’t want to hear it. These gentle conjurings of negative capability serve as a sort of acknowledgement of the impossibility of teaching creativity as such. Cortázar can only stand before the group, speak, and serve as an example of a creative person. A sort of living, breathing, objective correlative.

You can’t really say that Cortázar ever presents an argument as such in his lectures. Nothing beyond a broad appeal to keep the creative mind unfettered, but this sort of counterintuitively gives his statements a sense of finality. I began to read him aphoristically, jotting down one-liners in a separate journal that could be published as a book of its own. A few of my favorites are:

“If there is something that I defend, for myself, for writing, for literature, for all writers and all readers, it is the sovereign freedom of the writer to write what his conscience and his personal dignity tell him to write.”

“Why not look at the paintings from Solentiname first, for they are also life, for it’s all the same.”

“Taking a step from the fantastic to realism isn’t as easy as it seems once we no longer know what reality is, exactly.”

“I feel like a frustrated musician.”

“Humor can be a great destroyer, but it destroys as it constructs.”

And so on.

It’s a sweet irony that Cortázar’s presence in the classroom is an indictment to the teaching of creativity, at least in so far as we understanding “teaching” in the age of student as customer. In his fourth class, entitled “The Realistic Short Story,” Cortázar says that a student wrote him a letter suggesting that Cortázar sees “a writer’s fantasy and imagination as somewhat secondary, an accessory. I have the impression that those of you who have listened to all my previous classes must think—as I do—that it’s exactly the contrary. I believe that a fiction writer’s most basic weapon is not his subject matter, not even how he writes about it, whether better or worse, but rather that capacity, that way of being that determines his devotion to fiction rather than, say, chemistry; this is the basic, dominant element in any literature throughout the history of humanity.” Creative writing, at its highest level, cannot be taught because it isn’t a craft. Of course you can learn which subject matter to chose and how to better write about it, but to achieve something permanently relevant requires a “way of being.” And the development of an entire person is something that most modern universities, as well as our society writ large, see as both irrelevant and beyond the scope of their responsibilities.  

Scott Beauchamp is a writer and infantry veteran whose previous work has appeared in the Paris Review, The American Conservative, and Bookforum, among other places. He lives in Maine.