I’m not sure how, but in a city dominated by images of José Martí and Che Guevara, my favorite place of refuge is marked by a very different cultural figure, at least in terms of where he grew up — John Lennon. Parque Lennon, full of yellow and red flowered trees that cast shadows over the quiet square, has become the spot where I go to read my books, brainstorm ideas, think over issues or just take a break from the acute intensity that is La Habana. Maybe it’s the fact that it’s nice having a familiar face welcoming me to come and sit for a second, or just that it’s the closest park to where I am staying. Either way, John has been an integral part of my research here so far.
One issue that was fleshed out there was the general structure of my project. The idea I came down with was to analyze the praises and criticisms of Julio Cortázar’s work during the 1960-70’s in order to paint a clearer picture of the intellectual environment in Latin America at the time. What the extensive archives and incredibly helpful people at the Casa de las Américas have helped me realize was that there was absolutely nothing clear about what was going on between writers during the first two decades of the Cuban Revolution. It became obvious very quickly that trying to place these writers—who were arguing about issues like loyalty, freedom of expression, legibility, experimentation, influence and the meaning of exile—in a simple spectrum between liberal and conservative would not only be misleading but also impossible. My solution, while thought up in the shadows of John Lennon, was inspired by another musician, Miles Davis. While Cortázar might have preferred Charlie Parker, Davis actually serves as the better parallel. One of the most amazing things about Davis (according to the History of Jazz class I took as an undergrad) was that for a solid three straight decades the state of jazz music was pretty much based on whatever he felt like playing. Davis was such a central figure that music and musicians changed based on his whims, and every other musician was classified in terms of their relationship to him. Now, in no way would I say that Cortázar took over literature the way that Miles took over jazz. They had an equal amount of fearlessness, both unafraid to overhaul the very basis of their fields when they felt that the past versions didn’t fit their needs. But each time Cortázar overhauled his form, there wasn’t a rush of people following his lead. However, the enormity of his stature in the literary world (and, later on, in politics), made it impossible for others to not compare themselves to him. What I have found in my research is that Cortázar was never on the side of an argument; he had his opinions, and others were positioned in relation to him. In that way, Cortázar was to Latin American intellectualism what Miles Davis was to jazz: a point of reference.
The most important polemics that Cortázar had during this time period were those with Colombian Óscar Collazos, Peruvian José María Arguedas and two groups I have labeled “The Argentines” (Borges, Piglia and Heker) and “The Ex-Cubans” (Cabrera Infante, Arenas and Padilla). I have been able to link each one of these arguments to key questions that arose about the intellectual’s role in the Revolution, along with the Revolutionary government’s official positions on each. I have also found parallels between these issues and many of Cortázar’s most important works, which will allow me to get another perspective on the arguments through close reading and analysis. All I have to now is figure out what it all means, other than a lot more trips to see John.
Posted by Sam Ginsburg – MA Candidate at CLACS