There Is Only One Creativity

600full-julio-cortazarI called this blog “between the lines” in order to evoke an intersection of two domains that have been dear to me  for most of my life: reading and basketball, though for most of my life they’ve been kept — at least consciously — separate from one another.  In the past couple of years, I’ve undertaken a conscious effort to integrate them and so, to integrate those dimensions of my nature and my desire.

So “Between the Lines’ is meant in part to suggest the lines of a basketball court and so to point to my efforts to deepen my understanding of what goes on between those lines.  But also, “Between the Lines” is also meant — as part of the phrase “Reading between the lines” — to suggest reading in general, and a way of reading deeply and practically that seeks to establish a relationship with writers and their writing as equipment for living.

“Between the Lines” means approaching both basketball and the written word with a close, critical attention to the concrete, formal details that comprise those things so as to open up pathways connecting each of those domains to the worlds beyond them (including the worlds within myself) and, from there, to practical insights that help me (and my students or those who read me) get along a little better in life.

As I’ve turned my attention as a writer more and more towards basketball, I notice my mind drawing upon writers I have cherished who never — so far as I am aware — cared, thought, or wrote about basketball.  Sometimes I’ve made these connections explicit, but more often they just rest there quietly unactivated in my mind.  I want to work on developing that integration more explicitly.  Hence this post on one of a few writers — Julio Cortázar — that a few years ago became very, very important to me for the lessons he taught me about creativity as invention.  I want to introduce you to him and, in the process to begin to shed light on the avenues by which I move between basketball and writing.  Or, better yet, to show you the lenses by which very often they are one and the same place to me: home.

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A little over one hundred years ago, around the time of the invention of basketball but before the invention of the automobile, the men who ran Argentina were completing the process of consolidating the nation: violently clearing the fertile grasslands of the last roaming Indians and gauchos, stabilizing its borders with its South American neighbors, centralizing political power in Buenos Aires.  As they did so, they thought of development and their thoughts turned abroad, especially to Europe which they believed would provide the three things Argentina needed to join now the ranks of civilized nations: immigrants, capital, and markets.  Diplomatic missions were dispatched. Charged with publicizing the interests and promise of the young nation to Europeans, they hoped to lure Europeans and their money to Argentina and to coax open European ports to Argentine goods.

Though perhaps falling short of their dreams of rapidly creating a new United States, the results of the project were nonetheless impressive. By 1914, the Argentine economy was among the most dynamic in the world:  about one-third of the population of nearly eight million was foreign-born and another quarter had descended from immigrants in the previous two generations; half of the country’s stock of capital consisted of foreign investments, especially in railways, urban utility companies, and meat-packing plants; and the nation ranked consistently near the top of the world’s exporters of cereals and meats.

Meanwhile, as the clock rolled over into the 20th century, the new game of basketball was spreading like wildfire across the globe on the twin engines of imperialism and Christian evangelism.  So it was that in 1912 the Canadian professor Paul Phillip began training young men at the YMCA in Buenos Aires in the new sport.  The game quickly gained popularity and established itself, especially, in the cities of Córdoba and in Bahía Blanca, hometown of Manu Ginobili.

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Now, among the nations in 1914 to which Argentina sent delegates promoting commercial relations was Belgium.  And it was in Belgium, in Brussels specifically, that one Julio Cortázar, and his very pregnant, twenty year-old bride María Herminia Descotte, was stationed as a commercial attaché to the Argentine legation in August of 1914.

Bad luck.  For on the 4th of that month, a couple of hundred thousand German troops poured across the Belgian border.  The King and the Parliament of Belgium, whose neutrality Germany, along with Britain, France, and Russia, had promised to safeguard, had the day before refused Germany’s demand of free passage for its armies attacking France.  Germany wanted to attack France because Russia was angry with Austria-Hungary.

The antagonism between Russia and Austria-Hungary had come to a head in July, 1914 over events precipitated by the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand by a Serbian nationalist.  Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia on July 28.  Russia, which could not accept Austro-Hungarian dominance in the Balkans, mobilized fully two days later, hoping to intimidate Austria-Hungary.  Germany mobilized two days after that, likewise hoping to call Russia’s bluff.  But German mobilization followed a military plan calling first for a rapid offensive against France, Russia’s ally to the West of Germany, before turning troops back to the East to face Russia.  Accordingly, Germany declared war on Russia on August 1 and on France on August 3.  The rapid offensive against France required passage through neutral Belgium and so, following the Belgian refusal of free passage, the Germans invaded on August 4.

By August 20 the German army had seized Brussels and for the next several days, hundreds of thousands of German troops marched through Brussels en route to France.  The German occupation made life difficult for the residents of Brussels.  For several weeks there was no public transportation, no telegraph, telephone, or postal service, no newspapers.  Tales of unprovoked German atrocities filled the information vacuum.

Particularly unsettling to Julio Cortázar, of the Argentine legation, must have been news of the murder of the Argentine vice-consul during the German massacre of hundreds of Belgian citizens at Dinant on August 21 and 23.  But he might have felt equally alarmed by the city’s food supply, dwindling to almost nothing within a couple of weeks of the occupation.  After all, he was the father of a new baby boy, born August 26, and named, like his father, Julio Cortázar.

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“GERMANS RENEW ATTACK; ALLIES’ LINE HOLDS; FRENCH WITHDRAW FROM ALSACE TO FRONTIER; NEW BATTLE LINE IS TWO HUNDRED MILES LONG”: that was the headline in The New York Times on the day Julio Cortázar, the writer, was born; that was the birth of the Western Front.  Along that Front, which would grow still longer in the next few months, millions of young men would die in the greatest slaughter history had ever known.  A new kind of warfare was born in those days: trenches, artillery shells, machine guns, advances across blasted, corpse-strewn muddy terrain, only to face, and probably fall before, a wall of indiscriminate machine gun fire; and a seemingly inexhaustible supply of bodies to start the process all over again.

Zeppelin bombs fell in Antwerp the night before Julio’s birth.  This was new too: air attacks on civilian populations; new also were tanks, wireless telegraph communications, railway timetables facilitating logistical support, and submarines.  Henry Ford, shortly after an aborted peace mission to Europe, switched gears and retooled his brand new auto assembly lines in Highland Park to produce steel helmets, ammunition boxes, armor plating, airplane engines, tractors, gas masks, and submarine chasers.  He made perhaps $30 million in profits from the war.

The world had never had such enormous technological, economic, and demographic resources to place at the service of war.  Nor had the stakes ever, at least in geopolitical and absolute economic terms, been so high, with the spoils for the European belligerents including raw materials, labor, and markets in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.  This war no doubt was born of the combination of uniquely nineteenth century European technological, economic, political and diplomatic energies, but equally certainly the war unleashed those energies against the society that had brought them forth.  The nineteenth-century order of things would be among the ruins into which Cortázar was born in Brussels, during those oddly sunny last days of August, 1914.

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Some fourteen months later, in October of 1915, the Cortázar family found itself, like many others seeking refuge from the carnage, in neutral Zurich, Switzerland.  Over the next year or so, walking the streets of Zurich with their toddling son and newborn infant daughter, the Cortázars might have strolled down the Kreuzstrasse and seen a young Irish couple, James and Nora Joyce, moving their things into the third floor flat at Number 10. Young Joyce was a relatively obscure writer then working to complete the manuscript for a novel he would call Ulysses.

Or, had they made it to the Spiegelstrasse, they might have passed a curious group of young artists and writers  – who called themselves “Dada” – entertaining themselves and curious and sometimes outraged patrons in the newly founded Cabaret Voltaire. They might even have seen there at Cabaret Voltaire, or at his house across the street, or at the Café de la Terasse, a young anti-war Russian emigré named Vladimir Lenin, at that time very busy working on an essay tracing the European crisis to capitalist imperialism, jockeying for position among the leaders of an opposition political party called the Bolsheviks, and studying German philosophy.

If Brussels in 1914 had been the epicenter of the bloody end of the 19th century and the birthplace of the darker sides of the 20th, then Zurich in 1915 and 1916 was a hothouse in which would flourish any number of experiments and alternative visions of what the 20th century might bring, now that the order of the 19th had revealed its savagery and moral bankruptcy.

The outbreak of World War One, the birth of Dada and the historical avant-garde in the arts, Joyce’s Ulysses and literary modernism, Lenin and the Russian Revolution: these are the stars making up the constellation under which Julio was born.  Mass war, imperialism, artistic experimentation, the confrontation between capitalism and socialism: this is as good a set of terms as any to define the twentieth century within which, along which, against which, Julio Cortázar would grow up and live and write. Nobody can say for sure what it meant to Cortázar to have circulated among these elements in his infancy.  He certainly never mentioned them as such in any published interview.

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About ten years ago I went to Paris thinking that I would write a novel about Julio Cortázar.  I was sitting in the café of the Hotel Jarry in Paris.  Alfred Jarry, after whom the street after which the hotel is named, invented pataphysics, the study of exceptions to laws. I was sitting a stone’s throw from where Julio lived out the last years of his life.  I have always loved this kind of moment.  I loved the first time I stood in front of Pablo Picasso’s “Guernica” and felt the rush of standing in exactly the same relation to the canvas as Picasso himself had stood.  There’s a magical opening of time for me in such physical spots where suddenly I can say, standing in front of Van Gogh’s “Starry Night”: “his eyes once looked at this canvas from the same relative position as my eyes now are.  This I share with Vincent Van Gogh.”  “This I share with Da Vinci.”  But also, “this I share with some anonymous Zapotec stone carver across thirteen centuries of time” or  “Here is the paper on which Naismith wrote down the original 13 rules of the game.”

Julio loved Jarry.  I was staying in the 10th arrondissement because that’s the neighborhood where Julio lived out the end of his life.  He died in a hospital a few blocks away.  But I was staying at this particular hotel, on this street, because he loved Jarry. Julio loved, like Jarry, to imagine and to play with bits of reality as if he held the world like a kaleidoscope in his hands.

Turn it one way, and the bits make a new pattern, some bits that were far apart slide together and fall into a new place – Germans invade Brussels, Argentine diplomat has son in Brussels, family flees to Zurich, where Lenin, Joyce, and Dada are already there scheming the 20th century.  Off on the sidelines of the First World War, in the United States of John Dos Passos’ Nineteen-Nineteen, the bits were colliding and coalescing.  Henry Ford was among the Americans who made millions in that war, once he stopped opposing it, and who emerged from it, like the country he symbolized, in the driver’s seat.  War, mass production, revolution and repression, mass consumption, experimental art, inventions and invention:  these are the forces mixed impersonally into this century and Cortázar is something like a ripple in the brew, brought to the surface by forces within it, but also altering those forces in turn through his writing.

Around the time that Cortázar moved for good from Argentina to Paris, also around the time that he published his first collection of short stories, the Argentina he was leaving became host to and then won the first FIBA Men’s World Basketball Championships, in 1950.  But Cortázar was, insofar as he cared about sports, a boxing fan, and a soccer fan.   “Many times,” Cortázar once wrote, “I have felt that a thunderous soccer combination play (especially one by River Plate, a team I followed faithfully in my Buenos Aires days) could provoke an association of ideas in a physicist in Rome, unless this very association is what has given him birth, or, even more staggering, that the physicist and the soccer were elements in another process that culminate in a cherry bough in Nicaragua, and from these three, in turn…”.

“The poetic act par excellence” Julio (borrowing the words of Antonin Artaud, mad French poet and actor) called this unexpected combination of things; this way of seeing the secret, generative, subterranean connections. “Par excellence”, I think, because it is the zone where poetry – whose roots lie in making –  lies mingled most intimately with the operations of life itself.  I think it must be something like what Chris Paul is seeing when he brings the ball up the court.

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Julio was, like the game of basketball, a phenomenon very much shaped by an shaping the twentieth century.  Like the game with which he coincided but never noticed, he drew into himself from that century the chaotic, inchoate raw materials for making something new.   And like basketball, he played with those raw materials, insistently experimenting and reconfiguring until he could find provisional arrangements by which the potentially (or actually) nefarious or deadly could be transformed, if just for an instant, into a life-giving universe of open possibilities.

As I say, this was just an introduction, and a rough one I know.  But I hope with it to authorize myself to draw upon and write more freely in this space of Julio Cortázar and his ways of understanding invention and creativity, as well as of other writers and thinkers, and from there also to make more explicit and fluid the connections between creativity in writing, creativity in the game, and creativity in life.  For there is only one creativity.

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