Explosion in a Cathedral

by Alejo Carpentier

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Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 941

In seeking to write about a twentieth century Caribbean culture liberated from both the European conquerors and their allies, the plantation class, Caribbean writers such as Alejo Carpentier selected the drama of history as the terrain of cultural resistance. What is most significant in the Caribbean narrative of history is the form and design of the chronicle and the nature of its subject. In the prologue to his novel El reino de este mundo (1949; The Kingdom of This World, 1957), Carpentier comments that the American language has yet to exhaust its “mythological mine.” He views the history of the Americas as a “chronicle of magic realism.” At the heart of Carpentier’s notion of magic realism (he originated the term, which was later applied to various writers in the Caribbean and Latin America) is the belief that the West Indian language offers literary forms that resist the rationality and chronology embedded in colonial doctrines of modernism.

In Explosion in a Cathedral, the dominant European worldview is transplanted into the Caribbean islands, but its central doctrine, the Enlightenment, is systematically destroyed. The Caribbean intellectual Esteban is placed in the European “circus of civilization,” the French Revolution, to test its claim to have ushered society into a previously unknown period of freedom and happiness. He returns home, however, disillusioned with European notions of progress and the idea of modernity itself. As a result, the Caribbean man is forced to turn inward and to search for an American way of interpreting America.

Carpentier’s novel focuses on the discontinuity and retardation of European history in the Caribbean and its eventual collapse in the Antilles. The degeneration of European history is here proposed as a precondition for a new Caribbean way of life: At the moment when European models collapse, the colonized writer can rewrite American realities anew.

History is the main topic of Carpentier’s fiction, and the history he deals with is that of beginnings. He represents two spiritually contradictory worlds of the Caribbean at the turn of the eighteenth century. Carpentier’s narrative subverts the premise that reason liberates the individual and enriches everyday social life. What the Enlightenment casts as a totality of culture is exposed as a fragment suspended in a temporal void somewhere between Europe and the Caribbean.

While most of the monumental changes affecting the Caribbean in the eighteenth century—the French Revolution, the Haitian Revolution, and the Counter-Revolution—are dramatized in the novel, on a deeper level things remain the same. What is important in this context is that both past and future are cast in a new light.

Carpentier’s thematic concern with the colonization of the Caribbean is illustrated through the figure of Victor, who functions in the novel as the modern hero. In whatever role he is encountered, whether as liberator, revolutionary, or reactionary, Victor is a constant reminder that the central problem of Caribbean culture is the imposition of meanings by the European other. The contradictions that define Victor’s relationship with his age are both a reflection of the consciousness of the plantation bourgeoisie as it enters the new age and an indication of the worldview of the eighteenth century. Described as a man of “indeterminate age,” Victor is a man who rationalizes nature and attempts to impose a new system of thought in which the conflicting ideologies of the age are formalized into a rational system.

The universalism Victor exhibits throughout the novel is matched only by his desire to secure power over others and to legitimize his image as the new rational man. Victor is also a contradiction in terms, however: Although he owns...

(This entire section contains 941 words.)

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slaves in Guadeloupe, it is he who introduces the notion of equality of races into the Cuban merchant’s house. He also sets out to usurp the position of the dead family patriarch. As the narrative unfolds, Victor’s claim to originality is seen to be suspect, his blind revolutionary zeal is exposed as counterfeit, and his actions cast doubt on his integrity.

Victor also draws the reader’s attention to the problem encountered by European systems of thought as soon as they are transplanted into the New World economic system. In the novel, there is poignant tension between shattered old beliefs and the new individual who needs to order things to “know” them. Throughout the novel, the shattering of the old is dramatized by the French Revolution, which masquerades as a unique historical event. The shattering gesture has actually already been foreshadowed by the painting “Explosion in a Cathedral,” which dominates the text. The painting is variously described as the “apocalyptic immobilization of a catastrophe” and as the “illustration of the End of Time.” Nevertheless, the people who herald the nineteenth century strive to rationalize, to reorder things, so that they can establish their uniqueness in the precariousness of things.

Ultimately, Victor’s belief that revolution restores authority to the individual is questioned rigorously by a narrative voice that constantly contests the hero’s revolutionary words and their authority. While Victor and Ogé introduce revolution as a natural and inevitable phenomenon, even Esteban already knows that a gap exists between this “authorized” view of revolution and revolution itself. Esteban joins the revolution to become part of what is regarded as a natural and inevitable process, but he returns merely as a man laden with stories.

The novel underscores the notion that the corruption of the French Revolution actually enables the Haitian Revolution, which recenters Caribbean history. A basic irony, however, is that the revolution is not transferred to the Caribbean to restore freedom to the slaves but to establish a new system of regulation and exchange.