Severo Sarduy Essay - Critical Essays

Sarduy, Severo (Vol. 6)

Sarduy, Severo 1937–

Sarduy is a Cuban-born poet, dramatist, essayist, and editor now living in Paris. His novel Cobra, issued in Argentina in 1972, appeared in the same year in a French edition which was successful beyond precedent in avant-garde literature. Sarduy himself claims to be representative of neither the Latin American nor the French new novelists, saying that while he does not belong thematically with the first, "the unconscious mind of Spanish is very different from the unconscious of French."

Severo Sarduy's Cobra is a naked book, and as such challenges a naked response. A reviewer's first job is simply to describe. The novel (if such it is) offers little in the way of plot or intrigue, nothing in the way of character, and a great variety of locales, with South and Central America everywhere present but nowhere explicit. The book is primarily a stream of images, glittering, exotic, trite and disgusting, cosmic and squalid, grotesque and funny, strung on a set of generative puns. (p. 23)

A sort of sequence evidently runs through the book, even though the "characters" seem endowed with minimum gifts of intention or reflection. They gaze with unhooded eyes, with a cold, unwavering stare, on the passing stream of images, looking neither before nor after, passive as in the presence of a film long since recorded and loaded on the reel in an unalterable sequence. The images as they pass are generally discrete and self-generated: they are individually powerful, and so tightly packed that the effect is very high-pitched indeed. The book is, in a word, an unbroken fantasmagoria, in the visionary tradition of Lautréamont, with overtones of Genet and William Burroughs. What inner structure there is tends to be self-defeating or reflexive, characterized by circularity, repetition, mirroring, fixation, fetishism. One need not strain to note a set of latent allusions to drug-themes and drug-experiences which may even control large units of the apparent narrative. Cobra could perfectly well be, under certain aspects, the nymph cocaine.

As one would expect of a book which lays such heavy emphasis on violent and disparate images, Sarduy's tone rarely falls below the level of the shrill, and it is hardly modulated at all. What we experience, as readers, is a sinuous, glittering thread of multivalent words which dance before us almost to the exclusion of any particular thing they may remotely refer to. The book positively forbids us to read it in depth; it is a perpetually agitated rhetorical surface, a violin in a void, a very fine piece of writing. Its virtues are agility, grotesque humor, and a twist of absurdity quite untainted with the solemnity of the existentialist. (pp. 23-4)

Whether there can be much appeal for a reader in a book so remorselessly aloof from anything tainted with those old standbys "human nature" and "flesh and blood" is a question that Cobra will have to face. Not in the reviews, of course, but in places where the blunter questions get asked. As I read the book, it is a completely cold-blooded performance, a configuration of language formed as by an Unidentified Flying Object. It wouldn't be right to ignore completely the translator's suggestion, in her preliminary note, of several alternative symbolic readings, rather more extensive than a reviewer would be justified in proposing or evaluating—above all since none of them can be established as more than guesses. The fact is that Cobra, like any clear prism, will diffract under the light of different readers into a vast variety of spectra, a kaleidoscope of shifting, superimposed patterns. There may well be one or some among them which will make the book seem a less self-contained performance. But I'm not sure that their simple multiplicity, bordering on the infinite, isn't just another distancing element. The author simply doesn't care enough about any of them to hint even a provisional preference. Cobra is a glassy, evasive book, from which this reader emerged chiefly with a deep sense of astral chill. (p. 24)

Robert M. Adams, "A Shrill Chill," in Review 74 (copyright © 1974 by the Center for Inter-American Relations, Inc.), Winter, 1974, pp. 23-5.

Impossible to hold it still—what? where? which way?—this text on the run, slipping out the back way, swerving out of line with any conceivable edge of text, of land, or of water—impossible to catch hold of any thread in this flying carpet slip-stitched in gold zig-zag….

Cobra is in a class of its own, unrelated to any "serious" genre, whether encoded or codable, to any type except the one whose new genius it invents: a bizarre hybrid, a composite of snake, writings, rhythms, of a flight of luminous traces and a series of infinitesimal sparkling instants. (p. 26)

To talk about this text is to slow it down, fix it, pin it down as in entomology. And I don't feel like doing this—the text doesn't give me the urge to. What it does give the urge to do is to applaud, laugh, dance around, and ask for an encore. (pp. 27-8)

Cobra is a costume of a thousand and one nights, a night composed of a thousand and one narratives, a fabric made out of a thousand and one sumptuous, re-embroidered jewel-studded fabrics.

Following its own sweet will, Cobra is a souk, a bazaar, a drugstore, a book, a lyric theatre of castrated puppets, a brothel, an egg.

Cobra is its non-finite set of pre-cobraic and pseudonymous possibilities….

Cobra says nothing. No interpreter is allowed in. There is, however, a torrent of advice, of (false) oracles, of zany wise sayings: but these messages have precisely the property of rain. The word of the ever-wet god is a sprinkling of multifarious liquid. (p. 28)

The text is a sort of tumultuous Ganges that carries everything along with it, continually overflowing, a billowy writing always in a rush that hustles itself, propelling itself at top speed, so as to obey the orders of a rabid desire. The motorcycle, like the word, is ridden into the ground. Sentences are saved on. At times the style telegraphs. At times it haikus. Other times an incantatory nonchalance gently rocks it. You laugh all the time: everything is decodable or else mimicked. Sacred texts, the Tibetan or Egyptian Book of the Dead, suffer the fate of modernity's demolitionary texts: in the immense warehouse of rhetoric, baubles and concepts produce a tawdry music. Everything has the same value as a fetish: at once all and nothing. These nothings that are everything are Cobra's finery. It is neither parodic nor ironic.

Cobra's language plays with its words the way a baby plays with his toes. Are those mine? It's the demon of experimentation that passes, quickly spreading unknown developments in its wake. Cobra puts together her "story," her doll-like development, with the aid of several equally unforeseeable and non-human turns: turning vegetable—at best flower, at worst lichen; turning animal—reptile, cobra; turning astral dwarf, white dwarf, scapegoat; or turning corpse, fetish, etc. The vegetable, in its natural excesses, is perhaps situated in opposition to what is painted. Another "nature" invents this ambiguous vegetable kingdom, along with its "twisted seminar," its rhetorical flowers, its whole circus. (pp. 29-30)

A symbolic efficacity manipulated by the grand masters of the Signifier. Un-dressmakers and tailors, take-off artists and doctors. This tension sets the text vibrating, cracks it, ruins it: out of the fissures come trails of flowers and other signifiers. What's nightmarish about Cobra is its antibiotic aspect. (p. 30)

Stop? End? Limit? There are none, except whimsical ones. A system of nullified tensions sets up its own sweet cutoffs. Cobra nimbly inscribes its paradoxical briskness: at once preliminary and postliminary, each pleasure anticipates and recapitulates the next pleasure. That which would be "impossible" in the real world (death, etc….) here scilicet.

Cobra is snatched away from the possible/impossible opposition: dead, Cobra returns without the slightest narrative or novelistic excuse. Brazenly. Thus, the zone of the Unheimliche is pulverized: the appearances and reappearances are surprising, but they never produce anguish or fear. Thank goodness.

No uncanny effects, but rather a non-threatening exoticism full of surprises and charm. We've always been on that side, then—and without any transition! The Transition has always been made before the text, by a single flash of code. (p. 31)

Helene Cixous, "O C, o, b, r, a, b, a, r, o, c, o: A Text-Twister," translated by Keith Cohen, in Review 74 (copyright © 1974 by the Center for Inter-American Relations, Inc.), Winter, 1974, pp. 26-31.

Sarduy is a writer who is also a critic of writing, just as Levi-Strauss is an anthropologist who criticizes anthropology. Sarduy does to the old concept of "literature" (for example, the Author/Plagiarist opposition) what Levi-Strauss does to classic dichotomies in traditional anthropology. Both explode old concepts by using the "ruins" of those old concepts. Levi-Strauss uses pieces of anthropology, philosophy, history, to destroy these disciplines and create a discipline of his own, one which he continues to break down and recreate since he even uses pieces of his own writings to contradict themselves and make still another statement. Sarduy uses mutilated quotations from all of "literature," from commercial pulp to Góngora to the Cuban writer Virgilio Piñera, to his own writings. De donde son los cantantes (From Cuba with a Song) and Escrito sobre un cuerpo (Writing on a Body), to construct a new structure which is Cobra. But he also creates Cobra on the basis of mutilated quotations from Cobra, again and again breaking down the old discourse, the old concept of authorship and of fidelity to authorship, erasing the difference between the original and the plagiarized, to indicate perhaps that all texts are one: l'écriture. Writing that is never finished; a book that is incessantly written. (p. 35)

Suzanne Jill Levine, in Review 74 (copyright © 1974 by the Center for Inter-American Relations, Inc.), Winter, 1974.

A feature of Sarduy's work which runs through all neo-baroque literature is its theatricality: its insistence on the theater as the scene of action; the presentation of its characters as singers, actors, vedettes; its descriptions of the human body as dummy, marionette or doll: a space for writing or painting. Underlying these theatrical characteristics is Sarduy's crystallization of scene and action in allegory. This technique is relatively common in avant-garde and post-avant-garde literature where life often appears as theater, a representation, the repetition of a series of meaningless gestures which the actor performs, not by his own will, but at the insistence of alien, invisible forces, as if following a script which predates his actions and determines them. Life is, according to this topic, a fiction—"All the world's a stage," to invoke the Shakespearian and, ultimately, medieval commonplace. (pp. 38-9)

Gestos (Gestures), Sarduy's first novel, comes marked by the techniques of the nouveau roman, by the same obsession with a description which attempts to establish a complicity between the objects described and its own syntax. An objective, unfastened, disinterested language dances before the eyes of the reader. Except that almost all the objects described in the novel (as the text shows and as the author has pointed out on many occasions) are pictures. In other words, the novel does not reproduce an immediate reality but gives instead detailed descriptions of canvases by well-known painters and projects the action of the story upon them. Mediated by painting, the descriptions of Gestures seek the tableau vivant fixity that we will later find in From Cuba with a Song and in Cobra. It is not by chance, then, that the protagonist of Gestures turns out to be a cabaret singer. It is still more significant that Gestures repeats, in the twists and turns of its plot, the action of a well-known novel by Carpentier: El Acoso (Manhunt). Repeats and deforms it in violent parody. The story, which in Carpentier strains towards history and tragedy, reappears in Sarduy as paperback thriller: Sarduy has re-written El Acoso, inverting the point of view to that of Estrella, the melodramatic prostitute that Carpentier's two protagonists visit. There is an important relation, I think, between such parody and representation, between Sarduy's Oedipal attack on Carpentier and the theatrical and pictorial character of Gestures. Representation and rupture meet, like two beats of a gesture in a dance; parody is agression against a model, against tradition, against the memories upon which the text is inscribed. As it erases its model, its origin, its father, the novel offers itself as an autonomous being, as if it had not centered itself within the limits of this erasure. In the same way that a theatrical work unfolds before an audience, apparently independent of its author. (pp. 39-40)

From Cuba with a Song, Sarduy's second novel, radicalizes all of the theatrical elements present in Gestures. A mock-epic of the pursuit of origins, this difficult text takes the body of Spanish American literature standing before it as return, remembrance, source—a writing centered on the search for origins—and raises it to the level of theater, picture, burlesque. (p. 40)

Like From Cuba with a Song, Cobra cancels itself out with the auto-cannibalism of a serpent swallowing its own tail (recalling Octavio Paz' "Blanco," in Configurations).

The secondary status assigned to writing does not correspond to the traditional distinction between written and spoken language in which writing is relegated to an auxiliary plane, while oral expression usurps the privileges of meaning, as if it enjoyed a more immediate contact with consciousness, being and expression. On the contrary, Sarduy's emphasis on written language is an attempt to upset the balance of that duality, to declare writing the only structure capable of supporting the infinite regression of language and literature. In Sarduy's system, writing is not preceded by meaning, nor by presence, but by writing itself. And this writing or, as Derrida calls it, arch-writing, made up of negations, differences and differances (differing seen as a process in time and space), establishes itself as the absent origin producing the text by means of the rupture of its negations. A text which comes to be the ghost of something that can only be imagined as an erasure, if we accept, with Saussure, that language is a tissue of negations, or, with Lévi-Strauss, that all myths are versions of a basic myth which exists only as an absent possibility, a knot of oppositions and differences.

Cobra carries in itself, like stage directions, its own theory of literature. By examining its cosmological theories and its title, we are able to see that clues to the proper interpretation of the novel are woven into its text—ideological systems for the reading of the text as a sustained metaphor, as an allegory—and these lead us to Lacan and Derrida. Many other allegorical readings are possible, starting from the title alone. (p. 42)

Allegory has been taboo in Western literature since romanticism; it has borne the stigma of poor taste, of the literature of the masses, of popular, or vulgar, art. On the one hand it is too abstract, on the other, too concrete to allow an author to express his deepest thoughts, his most intimate feelings. It is for precisely these reasons that allegory structures Sarduy's work and lurks behind many pages of Carpentier and Lezama. Within a Western context, it is the only rhetorical device which permits the unfolding of a writing that can be theatrical in the sense I have outlined: a writing that rejects any subjection to authority, to subjectivity or to profundity. Allegory functions as an articulated series of displacements in which the signifiers stand for signifieds that are elsewhere; while these signifieds, which form complexes, rather than isolated instances of meaning, become in their turn signifiers which point to others, and so on indefinitely. The paradox of allegory rests on its power to simultaneously fix and displace the signified, postponing a moment of plenitude that leaves behind it a series of hollow, emptied signifiers—and on its ability, through this process, to represent the mechanisms of its own creation. A self-reflection that escapes irony because there is no plane of Being or present truth; this process, which ends in the solemnity of dogma for Calderón, in Cobra reveals only the production of the text and its absurdity. (p. 43)

The theatricality of the neo-baroque brands a writing which exposes the mechanisms of its own constitution and revels in its graphic materiality. Furthermore, it is a literature which, in showing these mechanisms, reveals the text as a transgression that erects itself upon unstable foundations which it attacks and denies; which it inscribes and erases. Cobra outlines the rules of this literary game; a deadly game which produces, along with laughter, its inverse—the correlative grimace of baroque mysticism, the contortions and spasms of a meaningless physical delight. Carpentier and Lezama must be re-read in the light of Cobra so that we can formulate the bases of another modernity: a true explosion of the Western values against which, ever since romanticism, Latin American literature has waged an unequal struggle. (p. 44)

Roberto Gonzalez Echevarria, "Rehearsal for Cobra," in Review 74 (copyright © 1974 by the Center for Inter-American Relations, Inc.), Winter, 1974, pp. 38-44.

Now a transvestite revue, now an orgy, now a nightmare, now a painting of parrotlike brilliance, now a voodoo ceremony, now a medical operation, now a subway trip, now an excursion with a motorcycle gang, now a sequence of homosexual lyrics, now rude, now superb, now punning and playful, now a satire of jet-age mystics, now a blank page, now an orgy, now a nightmare, now an evocation of Oriental wonders—this constantly shifting novel ["Cobra"] glorifies the principle of metamorphosis. It would be futile to try to make full sense of the figments that appear and reappear on the pages, with names like Cobra, Pup, Tundra, and Totem, and it would be impossible for one reader, at least, to pretend that he has grasped all of Sarduy's celebrated humor. (The book won the Prix Médicis in France.) The facetiousness is harsh, and much of the wordplay is untranslatable. Such order as the book possesses is largely that of self-parody. What is impressive is the rich vocabulary, the freewheeling imagination, and the utter cockiness. When, in a footnote, the author addresses us as "moronic reader," he has a certain charm. (pp. 102-03)

The New Yorker (© 1975 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), January 27, 1975.

[In Cobra, Sarduy] has no subject, only a set of excuses, of pretexts, springboards for excursions into various territories of imagination and memory….

Sarduy, in spite of his absence of subject and a style which blends solemn baroque with high camp and contemporary pop, appears to have no interest in form at all, and is really without tricks—it is as if form and manner for Sarduy were simply old hat, a couple of those uninteresting delusions that people used to entertain about the relation of a writer to his material. The real world, to use an old-fashioned phrase, is often blurred by technique in Vargas Llosa; and just as often sneaks into Sarduy's text because of the sheer recklessness and openness of the writing….

[The word cobra's various] references are not really allusions, they are not part of the meaning of Sarduy's text, not things we are supposed to have in mind as we read—as we are supposed to have Dante and Columbus in mind when reading Lezama Lima, for example. And they are not primarily indications of sources either, although of course if these meanings of the word cobra didn't exist Sarduy couldn't have written his book in this way. The references define the word cobra (the vocablo) as a sort of crazy semantic crossroads, a linguistic point where unlikely meanings intersect, and it is the intersection that counts, rather than the meanings themselves. We are invited into a magic space, into a tunnel of words, a place from which transformations sprout in all directions.

If Cobra has a theme—"Ah, because literature still needs themes," someone sneers near the beginning of the book—its theme is transformation. A transformation which takes place in language, of course (cobra into vocablo), but also in the mind and also in the world. Men become women and women become dwarfs; people die and do not die; Paris becomes Amsterdam, which in turn becomes Nepal. Cobra is a book of changes, and its title indicates not its meaning but the kind of activity it is engaged in. (p. 27)

What matters here is not the story, but the visions growing on the story, literally the pictures being drawn. Analogies to painting are strewn all over the book, but Sarduy is not painting with words, as the phrase used to go. Or rather, he is, but he is painting only those things that can't be painted with anything else, he is creating hallucinations which can't be seen and can't be described but can only be experienced as a kind of intoxication of language. Cobra is not about language; but its adventures occur within language. We move from word to word, we chase the "paradise of words," as Roland Barthes has said of this text, and reality follows after. Instead of looking at a snake and saying cobra, we say cobra and a fabulous snake appears….

There is a dizzy freedom in such writing. And while Sarduy has horrible slithers into cuteness and into sniggerings of camp, and while he is far more interested in blood and semen and leather jackets than I am ever going to be, and while it is hard to begin to imagine where he will go from here, Cobra remains a remarkable book, a nervous, flighty homage to the life of language. (p. 28)

Michael Wood, in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; (copyright © 1975 by NYREV, Inc.), March 20, 1975.