Teaching

Mystery Texts, Gaps in my Vast Fund of General Information, and the Case for Surrealism

This week’s “Mystery Text” in the Senior Symposium class was Julio Cortázar’s surreal short story, “Axolotl.” I love it. A man who discovers axolotls at the zoo in Paris swaps consciousness with one, and tells the process by which he finds himself trapped in the axolotl, as his former body walks away.
Students never guess the author—maybe once in twelve years, but not because they read it in our courses—just because they were cool and seeking out Latin American writers. And I give them credit if they guess Borges. He’s mid-20th century Argentinian too, and he gets taught in our world lit classes. For these purposes, he’s close enough.
I have not studied either of them, though, really. I read one Borges story and one Cortázar story in a 20th/21stcentury fiction class in grad school that I took in the summer. I was a medievalist—what did I need the contemporary stuff for?
But over the years I have bought a dozen books by these two, and another half dozen by Alberto Manguel, another Argentinian (who read in the afternoons to Borges as a kid, when Borges was going blind). I don’t know if you can call a niche of literature wildly outside one’s specialty a hobby, but I do keep buying books.
So after ten years of using Cortázar as a Mystery Text (this is an exercise for our seniors that feels like a literature practical in the style of I. A. Richards, but with the twist of using what they deduce to assess our program’s effectiveness at teaching literary traditions) and giving a cheesy internet biography to help them contextualize Cortázar at the end of class, I found myself this time really responding to Cortázar the activist, Cortázar the anti-Peron exile, even Cortázar the Parisian ex-patriate.
I started looking for a biography in English.
Because I have plenty of time right now.
(This is false. I am right in the middle of winter quarter. I’m on a search committee and have been going in two extra days a week for three weeks meeting all the candidates for my search and another position. It’s midterms—exams are piling up, and so are Chaucer translations; my partner was out of town for four days; we’re getting a new roof. I don’t have time for extra, unrelated reading.) But I’m really ticked that I can’t find an English biography of a 20th century Argentinian author.
Someday I may stop being curious. Someday I may not chase down characters and authors and practice new skills and stand in awe at things I don’t understand. But today is not that day. Today I’m imagining the kind of man who could write the bizarre “The Night Face-Up” and the lyrical collection Save Twilight, who could leave his country forever on principle and live in another language and culture and hemisphere. What pushes us to explore the surreal faster than a frustrating reality? And how long will it take me to get up to reading speed in Spanish?

(Image pilfered from Wikipedia.)

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