Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 721
José Lezama Lima 1910–1976
Cuban poet, novelist, short story writer, essayist, and critic.
The following entry presents an overview of Lezama Lima's career. See also Jose Lezama Lima Criticism (Volume 4) and Jose Lezama Lima Criticism (Volume 10).
José Lezama Lima is considered one of the greatest twentieth-century Latin American writers. His first and most famous novel Paradiso (1966) is the culmination of his lifelong work as a literary theorist and poet. In Paradiso and its sequel Oppiano Licario (1977), Lezama Lima embraces themes of sexuality and friendship, mythology and religion, to create an aesthetic world of his own: erudite, baroque, and rich in symbolism and allusion. When Paradiso was first published Lezama Lima's unorthodox depiction of family life sparked controversy in Fidel Castro's Cuba and led to official efforts to repress the work. However, the praise of other Latin American writers brought Lezama Lima's work to international attention.
Lezama Lima was born on December 19, 1910 in a military camp near Havana, Cuba. His father was a military officer who died at a young age in 1919. This haunted Lezama Lima throughout his life and served as a preoccupation of his writing. Lezama Lima formed an unusually close relationship with his mother and lived with her throughout her life. Chronic problems with asthma led him to spend much of his childhood reading in solitude. He studied Spanish literature before entering the Universidad de la Habana to pursue legal studies. The student protests against the dictator Gerarado Machado awakened his political consciousness and the school shutdowns which resulted from the protests led to a four-year hiatus during which Lezama Lima read widely and began to develop his interests in Cuban intellectualism and culture. In 1927 he began to write poetry and in 1937 he published his most important poem, Muerte de Narciso (Death of Narcissus). From 1937 through the 1950s he edited a series of journals devoted to literature, politics, the arts, and culture in Cuba. At odds with the Batista regime, Lezama Lima became director of the department of literature and publications of the National Council of Culture after Castro's rise to power. In 1964, following his mother's death, he married Maria Luisa Bautista Trevino, an old friend of the family. The publication of Paradiso two years later brought trouble: authorities labeled the book pornographic due to its homosexual content, and in 1971 Lezama Lima was accused of antirevolutionary activities. He died in 1976, alienated from his friends and the Cuban culture to which he had devoted his life.
Lezama Lima's two best known works, the novels Paradiso and Oppiano Licario, build on his early work as essayist and poet. In poems and essays such as The Death of Narcissus, Enemigo rumor (1941; Enemy Rumors) and La fijeza (1949; Persistence) he explores themes such as the role of poetry and the poet, life, death, God, and religion. In La expresión americana (1957; The American Expression), Lezama Lima claimed that American culture, in contrast with that of Europe, creates an environment where neo-baroque aesthetics, ecstasy, joy, and magical realism converge to produce a uniquely American literary hermeneutic. In Introducción a los vasos órficos (1971; Introduction to the Orphic Vases) the author contended that the poet is the intermediary between God and humankind and alone can express the unlimited possibilities which exist in life. The somewhat autobiographical Paradiso follows the life of Jose Cemí as he comes of age in pre-Castro Cuba, exploring issues such as the connection between the material and spiritual worlds and the nature of family life. Cemí is taught by his friend and mentor Oppiano Licario that he must live his life through the eyes of a poet. Oppiano Licario and a collection of poems, Fragmentos a su imán, were published posthumously.
Lezama Lima has been labeled a "difficult writer" because of his use of arcane language and obscure imagery. However, many critics praise his aesthetic innovations, both in his poetry and his novels. Paradiso sparked negative comments from some critics in the United States—Michael Wood called the book "less a modern novel than a garrulous, old-fashioned treatise about a modern novel which hasn't been written yet"—but Latin American writers such as Julio Cortazar, Mario Vargas Llosa, and Octavio Paz argue that Lezama Lima's work represents some of the finest of twentieth-century writing and that he deserves to be considered one of Cuba's greatest writers.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 147
Muerte de Narciso [The Death of Narcissus] (poem) 1937
Enemigo rumor [Enemy Rumors] (poetry) 1941
Aventuras sigilosa [Secret Adventures] (poetry) 1945
La fijeza [Persistence] (poetry) 1949
Analecta del reloj [Analecta of the Clock] (essays) 1953
La expresión americana [The American Expression] (essays) 1957; enlarged edition, 1969
Tratados en La Habana (essays) 1958
Dador [Giver] (poetry) 1960
Paradiso [Paradise] (novel) 1966
Orbita de Lezama Lima (selected works) 1966
Posible imagen de José Lezama Lima (poetry) 1969
Poesía completa (poetry) 1970
La cantidad hechizada [The Bewitched Quantity] (essays) 1970
Esgeraimagen: Sierpe de don Luis de Góngora; Las imagenes posibles (poetry) 1970
Introducción a los vasos órficos [Introduction to the Orphic Vases] (essays) 1971
Obras completas, 2 volumes (collected works) 1975
Cangrejos, golondrinas (selected works) 1977
Fragmentos a su imán (poetry) 1977
Oppiano Licario (novel) 1977
Cartas (1939–1976): José Lezama Lima (letters) 1979
Imagen y posibilidad (selected works) 1981
El reino de la imagen (essays) 1981
Juego de las decapitaciones (short stories) 1982
Cuentos (short stories) 1987
Relatos (selected works) 1987
Confluencias (essays) 1988
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SOURCE: "A Sentimental Realism," in Review, No. 74, Fall, 1974, pp. 46-7.
[In the following essay, Alonso contends that while Lezama Lima's realistic writing style was influenced by the works of Ruben Dario and Maria Eugenia Gongora, Paradiso is sincere but unconvincing in its realism.]
Perhaps, as the dust jacket claims, Paradiso was met with "unqualified enthusiasm" in Italy and France. But this was not the case here, and it is easy to see why.
Although comparisons can and have been made between Paradiso and Ulysses and Remembrance of Things Past, Lezama's book owes much more to the poetry of Dario and Góngora than to the novelistic breakthroughs of Proust and Joyce. Not surprising, perhaps, since Lezama is known as Cuba's premier lyric poet. However, this also means that Paradiso is rooted in precisely those literary traditions that, more than just foreign, have long been regarded in English with an open hostility as downright alien. They are considered, I think it is fair to say, decadent and in the worst of taste. It is true, of course, that Spanish literature has also struggled against this tendency, but it is not for nothing that the term Gongorism has an even more unforgivingly pejorative ring in English than it ever does in Spanish. In Latin America, however, this baroque strain has tended to remain alive, even gaining a new respectability with Alejo Carpentier, for example, declaring in the recent past that the baroque is a natural and legitimate mode of Latin American expression.
Therefore, quite within this baroque tradition, Lezama continually sacrifices narrative pull for the sake of stopping to display his lyricism. His style is an openly Dandyish cult of cultivations, unashamedly filled with long, elliptical sentences featuring a distinctly self-congratulatory inclination for the most learned if not arcane choices where simpler ones seem quite possible. And thus it parades itself for more than four hundred pages, dripping with all the junk jewelry left over from Modernismo, and then some, with the very charm of the book depending on it. Unfortunately, rendered into English, I believe it only succeeds in offending a puritanism that has progressively been dominating English writing since the days of the Royal Academy of Science and its battle against the Metaphysicals.
But what makes Paradiso truly off-putting here, I believe, is what has caused it to receive a bad reception wherever else it has, which includes many quarters of the Spanish-speaking world. I refer now to Lezama's underlying but obvious protest of aristocracy which is at the heart of his distended and heavily cosmetized ornateness. Herein lies the reason why his characters, be they children, grandmothers or illiterate cooks will compulsively talk in floods of classical (n.b., European, quintessentially white) erudition, displaying familiarity not only with the supposed best of everything—anywhere—but especially with supposed European aristocratic customs. This is also why Lezama is continually making parallels between what is happening in, say, the daily family life he describes and something or someone grand out of classical antiquity or fabled histories. And here too, I regret, lies the key to those supposedly humorous incidents which have to do with race (e.g., how a Negro looks when frightened by a ghost or how a pompous Black traffic cop in a resplendent white uniform nevertheless "smells," etc.) or with the ignorance of less erudite people.
A simple protest of spiritual aristocracy would be one thing. Unfortunately, Lezama's heavy load of ornamental erudition, much like the ownership of jewelry and furs in many cases, ultimately means to signal the Cemí family's claim to actual sociological aristocracy, the kind once supposedly assigned by God. It means to say, as is obvious from the constant parallels, that these people, despite having to live in the leveling confusions of the New World, would find themselves quite at home in the fanciest courts of Europe that they can imagine. The regrettable result is an impression of very vulgar snobbery, the worse, of an unremitting provincialism which tends to embarrass more than offend.
From my point of view, however, Paradiso does not fail because of its hierarchical view of the world. And certainly not for being within that most highly literary tradition that includes such great Decadentists as Góngora and Darío. What I find fundamentally wrong here is what Lezama does with this tradition. Góngora, for example, with all his extraordinarily structured ornateness, pretended only to be making what the French sometimes call "mere literature" and sometimes "pure literature." His best work was indeed what Ortega called "a higher form of algebra done with metaphors," abstraction as well as a cult of Beauty. And as for Darió, with his fairy tale Versailles populated by Princesses and literary swans, we know he intended to create an artificial paradise in an attempt to escape from the world, which he confessed to detesting in his Palabras liminares. In fact, he not only said he disliked his moment in history, but just about everything else that had been his lot, despite his "manos de marqués." Lezama, however, seriously pretends to convince us that his Paradiso was not any such artificial paradise, some purely literary realm, but rather the world it was his to experience, filtered for us by his love for it. In a word, reality.
Therefore, despite his Gongorist, Decadentist plumage, Lezama turns out to be merely a kind of sentimental Realist. If Lezama had not initially pretended to anything other than presenting the reader with a loving fantasy, it might all have been different. This is the initial advantage that makes, for example, One Hundred Years of Solitude a viable fiction, which Paradiso is not. But, of course, such an early decision on the part of Lezama must have been out of the question, considering that his intent was to convince the reader of exactly the opposite.
Lezama, to me, is thus neither convincing as a Realist nor as a Decadentist. Rather, his use of Gongorist cultivations as a social status-symbol while remaining essentially within a Realist intent strikes me as a perversion of two perfectly noble traditions which is condemned to being without the virtues of either. This fundamental flaw, however, is not caused by any lack of sincerity on Lezama's part. I am very confident he is that, and that he is so fervently. What Paradiso lacks as a work of art is the one difficult virtue which Gide congratulated himself for having, as an artist, at least, when he said he found himself much too honest to be sincere. Whatever else might be murky, this all comes through its English translation with an often painful clarity.
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SOURCE: "Confluences," in Review, No. 74, Fall, 1974, pp. 6-16.
[In the following excerpt, Lezama Lima discusses his theory of poetics and philosophical views in regard to the creation of the plot and characters of Paradiso.]
I saw night as a descent, as if something had fallen over the earth. Its slowness kept me from comparing it, for example, to something descending a staircase. One tide atop another, and so on incessantly, until it came within reach of my feet. I united the fall of night with the sea's unique extension.
The cars' headlights shone through in zigzagging planes and the "who goes theres?" began to be heard. The voices skipped from one sentry box to the next. The night began to be peopled, to be nourished. From afar, I saw it crossed by ceaseless points of light. Subdivided, fragmented, pierced by the voices and lights. I was far off and could only sense the signs of its animation, like a secret parley inside a closed brocade in the night. Distant and garrulous, master of its pauses, night penetrated into the room where I slept and I felt how it spread through my sleep. I rested my head on a wave that reached me in a wrinkle of ungraspable buoyancy. To feel myself as if resting on smoke, on rope, between two clouds. Night gave me a skin, it had to be the skin of night. And I, tossing and turning inside that immense skin; and while I revolved, it stretched out as far as the mosses of the beginning.
As a child I always waited for night with undeniable terror. Of course. For me, it was the room that does not open, the trunk with the lost key, the mirror in which someone appears at our side, a kind of temptation. It was not the challenge of an adventure, nor the fascination with the horizon line. I did not ride the night astraddle as it withdrew, nor did I have to reconstruct, for the other, diurnal, sleep, my fragments which the skin of night had left scattered on the bed.
The immense skin of night would leave me with numberless sensations for numberless comparisons. The dog that during the day had passed my side time and again almost without my noticing, now, at night, is at my side dozing, and it is then that I watch him most closely. I attest the wrinkles of his skin, how he flicks his tail and paws to drive off nonexistent flies. He barks in his sleep and angrily bares his fangs. In the night he has invisible enemies who keep bothering him. His earlier reactions of anger do not depend on the homology of his diurnal motivations. He does not depend on motivations in the night, but rather, without knowing it, he is generating innumerable motivations in the skin of night that covers me.
Night has reduced itself to a point, which begins to grow until it is night again. The reduction that I attest is a hand. The position of the hand within night gives me a time. The time in which that can happen. Night, to me, was the territory in which the hand could be recognized. I would say to myself, it cannot be waiting, that hand, it does not need my witness. And a weak voice, which must have been very far removed from some little fox's teeth, said to me: stretch out your hand, and you will see how night is there, and your unknown hand. Unknown, because I could never see a body behind it. Wavering in fear, then with inexplicable firmness, I slowly moved my hand forward, like a nervous passage across a desert, until I found my other hand, the other. I would say to myself: it's not a nightmare, and then more slowly: yet it could be that you're hallucinating, but at last my one hand corroborates the other. The evidence that it was there lessened my anguish until my hand returned once more to its solitude.
Now, after almost half a century, I am able to illuminate and even to separate into different moments my nocturnal search for the other hand. My hand fell upon the other hand, because the latter was waiting. If that hand had not been there, the failure, a fear of course, would have been greater than the fear generated because the hand was there. One fear hidden inside the other. Fear because the hand is there, and possible fear of its absence.
Afterwards I learned that Rilke's Notebooks also contained the hand, and afterwards I learned that it was in nearly all children, in nearly all manuals of child psychology.
There, already, was the becoming and the archetype, life and literature, the Heraclitean river and the Parmenidean unity. Does one withdraw the hand, lessen one's terrible experience because another has already suffered it, convert a decisive, terrible experience into a simple verbal game, into literature? The time that had gone by taught me a solemn lesson: the conviction that what happens to us, happens to others as well. That experience of the hand on top of the hand would go on being extremely valuable even though all the outstretched hands might encounter all the hands
It was so crucial an experience that although the same thing is part of child psychology, there are still nights of the other hand, the ghostly one. There will always be nights when the other hand comes, and other nights in which the hand remains stiff and unvisited.
I expected not just the other hand but also the other word, which inside us shapes a continuous doing and undoing by instants. A flower that shapes another flower while the dragonfly lights upon it. To know that by instants something comes to complete us, and that by the expansion of breathing a universal rhythm is found. Inspiration and expiration, which are a universal rhythm. What is hidden is what completes us; it is the fullness in the length of the wave. The knowledge that it does not belong to us and the ignorance that it does belong to us comprise, for me, true wisdom.
The word, in the moments of its hypostasis, the whole body behind a word, a syllable, a pursing of the lips or an unexpected irregularity of the eyebrows. The residue of the stellar in each word was converted into a momentary mirror. An ink-sanding that left behind letters, directions. A solitary word that came to resemble a sentence. The verb was like an overly sweaty hand, an adjective was a profile or a face-to-face stare, eyes upon other eyes, with the tension of a buck's alert ear.
Each word was to me the boundless presence of the fixity of the nocturnal hand. It's bath time, let's have lunch, go to sleep, someone's at the door, were for me something like inscriptions that brought forth unceasing evaporations, the unchangeable and obsessive sketches of novels. They were the larvae of metaphors, developed in an undetainable chain, like a farewell followed by a new guest.
The expectation and the arrival of the hand began the verbal chain, or in the endless unfolding, the nocturnal hand was encountered. At times, waiting for the hand was fruitless and this separated one syllable from the next disproportionately, one word from its shipmate. It was a momentary void of distance that had sprung up in a wistful wait as much as in a paradoxical absence of good counsel. It was like a move overturned, or should I say precipitated, on an unfamiliar game-board. A disquieting verbal play, for something moved ahead, something challenged, threw out its call, over a net that sported a lone fish eager to befriend all the other fishes.
Thus, in each word I found a seed germinated by the union of the stellar and the verbal and, as at the end of all time, the pause and filling up of each instant of breathing will be occupied by an irreplaceable, unique word. Each word will contain a seed sown in the equilibrium tubes of the sentence, but in this world the verbal seed, as in the sequence of visible and invisible space in breathing, achieves in man the inborn surprise of a temporal coordinate. The stellar, what the Taoists named the silent sky, required the visceral transmutations of man, the oven of his innards, his secret and intimate metamorphoses to which the mysterious pineal eye was perhaps related, the extinct inner mirror reconstructed by the Greeks as being, like the Pascalian moi haïssable, like the single nature of the Alexandrians, which would later achieve its highest expression in the Augustinian logos spermatikos, each word's participation in the universal verbum, a participation treasuring breath, uniting the visible with the invisible, a metamorphic digestion and a spermatic progression exchanging the seed for the universal verbum, a complementary, protoplasmic hunger that generates the participation of each word in an infinite and recognizable possibility.
But man does not only generate, he also chooses. I would underline the resemblance between those two events, which to me are equally mysterious, for in choosing we originate a new seed, except that as it has a more direct relationship to man, we call it act. In the poetic dimension, to act and to choose are extensions of the seed, for that act and that choice are within the realm of the haptic sense of the blind, if I may use that term as a minimal approximation to what I mean.
It is an act that produces, and a choice that occurs, coded in supernature. An answer to a question that cannot be posed, that wavers in infinitude. A ceaseless answer to the terrible question of the demiurge: why does it rain in the desert? Act and choice taking place in supernature. Cities which man arrives at and cannot afterwards reconstruct. Cities built with millenial slowness and suppressed and razed in the twinkling of an eye. Made and unmade in the rhythm of respiration. Sometimes unmade by the sudden descent of the stellar and other times made like a momentary colonnade of the telluric.
What is supernature? The image's penetration into nature generates supernature. In that dimension I never tire of repeating Pascal's phrase, a revelation to me, that "because true nature is lost to us, anything can be nature"; the terrible, affirmative force of that phrase caused me to decide to juxtapose nature's determinism with the image replacing nature lost in that way: man responds with the total will of the image. And confronted with the pessimism of nature lost, man's invincible joy in the reconstructed image.
Do they live in a ruin? Are they strolling players on vacation? Is there a painter there? We observe Goya's The Grotto, one of his least known and best canvases. In the background, El Greco's livid sky and galloping clouds, contrasted with the calm flight of doves. Covered by the tablecloth, or hidden under the table, so that the doves will come closer. It is a coliseum in ruins, a deserted plaza, the crumbling wing of a convent. In front of this desolation, a coffeehouse has been set up; there, a ghost covered by a tablecloth pecked at by pigeons generates expectation and witty remarks. It is an unknown space and an errant time that will not come to rest on earth. And yet we stroll in that "here" and we move in that "now" and we manage to reconstruct an image. That is supernature.
Supernature does not only manifest itself in the intervention of man in nature; both man and nature, at their own risk, are present in supernature. Among the Tartars, dead children marry. On fine paper are drawn the wedding guests, the warriors, musicians, relatives bearing the amphorae for the libations. The witnesses sign, and their signatures are kept in closely watched archives. The relatives of both dead children join for companionship, living in the vicinity. They combine their fortunes and keep the holy days. Here is life seething up around the dead, and the dead child-couple penetrating into life. It is the answer to the assertion of the mor-phologists of the Goethian school that every species in perfecting itself generates a new species; in the same way, nature, growing with the image contributed by man, arrives at the new kingdom of supernature….
Supernature has little to do with the proton pseudos, the poetic lie of the Greeks, since supernature never loses the primordiality from which it springs, for it combines the one with the nondual one; since man is image, he participates as such, and in the end finds the total clarification of the image; were the image denied him, he would remain completely ignorant of the resurrection. The image is the unceasing complement of the half-seen and the half-heard; the fearful entredeux of Pascal can be filled only with the image.
The horror vacui is the fear of being left without images, in the epochs in which the combinatorial, pessimistic finiteness of corpuscles predominated over the spiraloid rupture of the demiurge. In numerous medieval legends there appears the mirror that will not reflect the image of a wicked or demoniacal body: when the mirror will not speak, the demon sticks out its foul tongue. The innate conviction in man of knowing that the key also opens another house, that the sword guides another army in the desert, that the playing cards begin another game in the other region. Everywhere there is the reminiscence of an absolute that we do not know, generated by a causality in visibility, which we perceive as the lost city that we once again come to recognize. In reality, every basis of the image is hypertelic, goes beyond its finality and does not know it, and offers the infinite surprise of what I have called the ecstasy of participating in the homogeneous, an errant point, an image for the extension. It is a tree, a reminiscence, a conversation supporting the river with the forefinger's tracing.
Seed, act, and afterwards potential. Possibility of the act, the act on one point, and a point that resists. This point is an Argus, a sharp-eyed one, and it cleaves through the stellar. Its tracks remain, as if endowed with an invisible phosphorescence. In all of this there is a finite possibility which the potential interprets and unravels. Man's act can reproduce the seed in nature, and can make poetry permanent by a secret relationship between the seed and the act. It is a seed act that man can achieve and reproduce. The howling, piercing unity of a hunting party, a cry of exaltation, the permanent response of the orchestra in time, the warriors in the shadow of Troy's walls, the grand armée, what I have called the imaginary eras and also supernature, form, by an interlacing of seed, act, and potential, new and unknown seeds, acts, and potentials. Since to sow in the telluric is to sow in the stellar, and to follow the course of a river is to walk parting the clouds, as in the Chinese theatre a certain movement of the legs means to ride a horse.
When the potential is applied to a point or actuated in extension, it is always accompanied by the image, the most profound known unity between the stellar and the telluric. Were the potential to act without the image, it would only be a self-destructive act without participation, but every act, every potential is an infinite growth, an excess, in which the stellar supports the telluric. In participating in the act, the image provides a momentary visibility without which—without the image as the sole recourse within man's reach—an impenetrable excess would exist. Thus man takes possession of that excess, makes it rise up, and incorporates a new excess. All poiesis is an act of participation in that excess, man's participation in the universal spirit, the Holy Ghost, the universal mother.
Man as seed marks that development in his circumstance, he matches a broad-based tree trunk with his fervor for foundations, although we, by issuing from nature, will not know what causal series produce either splendor or poverty, nor at what moment the absolute will undetainably penetrate into those causal series. In some cities of Asia, at the passing from life to death, the dead man is not taken out by way of the door but rather a wall of the house is broken through, as if to prepare it for a new causality. In other Asiatic cities, at the moment of cremation, papers sketched on by friends are thrown in, jewelry, food, as if to grant protection and companionship for a voyage presumably into a new extension.
In rare vessels of choice—that is the expression the Bible uses—their development in life proceeds as if accompanied by a prodigious anticipation of the new extension. From the Castilian wasteland springs the Theresian fundament like an oblique experience: it is reproduced in Martì, locating in the desert-like region the paradoxical seed of exile. After his imprisonment, Martì must have felt something like rebirth in the image of the resurrection, as after his death he rises up again in the flesh. The desert-like quality and his new, symbolic appearance in exile are equivalents, and for that reason in Paradiso, to propitiate the last meeting of José Cemì and Oppiano Licario, to reach the new causality, the Tibetan city, Cemì has to pass through all the occurrences and recurrences of night. The placental descent of the nocturnal, the balance pointer of midnight, appear as variants of desert (desierto) and exile (destierro), all the possibilities of the poetic system have been set in motion so that Cemì will keep his appointment with Licario, the Icarus, the new attempter of the impossible.
Paradiso, world outside time, equates itself with supernature, since time is also nature lost and the image is reconstructed as supernature. Liberation from time is the most tenacious constant of supernature. Oppiano Licario wants to facilitate supernature. Thus he moves on in his search through endless labyrinths. Chapter XII, denial of time, behind the glass case the dead centurion and boy endlessly switch faces, but finally, in Chapter XIV, the one behind the glass is Oppiano Licario himself. Denial of time attained in sleep, where not just time but also dimension disappear. I move the enormity of an axe, I achieve infinite speeds, I see the blind in the night-markets talking about the plastic quality of strawberries, in the end, the Roman soldiers rolling the astragals among the ruins, I achieve the tetractys, the four, god. Chapter XIII attempts to demonstrate a perpetuum mobile, to free itself from the spatial relative. The goat's head revolving on its pinion achieves that liberation, in Oppiano Licario's dimension of supernature, the figures of the child's past begin to reappear. It is the cognitive infinitude acquired at Licario's side, only the rhythm of the Pythagoreans is different from the systaltic rhythm, the violent one, that of the passions; they have passed into the hesychastic rhythm, into tranquillity, into sage contemplation.
Licario has set in motion the vast coordinates of the poetic system to propitiate his last meeting with Cemì. It was essential that Cemì keep this last appointment with Licario's words. The image and the spider on the body, says one of those sentences delivered the last night. His sister Inaca Eco Licario appears, proffering the poetic sentence like the promised land. The shade, the double, is what tenders the offering. The double makes the first offering, yields the first image, and Cemì ascends by the sacrificial stone to honor his name of Taino idol or image. Let us imagine a starry, Pythagorean night in 1955. I have been listening for several hours to Bach's Art of the Fugue, am drenched in the interlacings of the fuga per canon. Infinite relationships are achieved in the spiraloids of the nocturne. The constructions and expansions of the rhythm repeat themselves in each step we take and we grow while walking. We head down one of those streets that expand like paradisiacal rivers. The nocturnal lights in the funeral home must, without knowing it, detain the stroller, startling him. A merry-go-round's tune repeating keeps the stroller on a nocturnal path and urges him on. In its vertical dimension, like a maddened tree, the house hurls us the temptation of its back terrace, where, protected by the priapic god Terminus, two buffoons play chess. Here there is something like the repetition of a circular march. At the very edge of death, the coordinates of the poetic system flail out in desperation, when nature is exhausted, supernature survives, when the telluric image is broken, the endless images of the stellar begin. There, in the most untouchable remoteness, where the Pythagoreans gave the stars a soul.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3191
SOURCE: "The Text in Its Context," in Review, No. 74, Fall, 1974, pp. 30-4.
[In the following essay, Monegal compares Paradiso's themes and structure to the works of Marcel Proust, James Joyce, and Dante, focusing on the novel's literal, allegorical, and spiritual elements.]
It is easy to make the wrong assumptions when reading Paradiso. Originally published in Havana in 1966, the first and (until now) only novel of the great Catholic poet circulated almost clandestinely throughout the entire Hispanic world until 1968 when it was republished simultaneously in Mexico and Argentina. The original edition, by the Union of Cuban Writers and Artists (UNEAC), consisted of 4,000 copies, most of which never left the island. For some time, then, the novel was only known through enthusiastic and often raving supporters like Julio Cortázar, Mario Vargas Llosa and Severo Sarduy, and through polemics stirred by its many dazzling homosexual episodes. But the book did manage to circulate among the happy few who happened to get hold of a copy. Now that the book circulates freely in several languages, it may be pertinent to examine some of the traps into which the innocent reader might fall.
The most tempting of these traps is to assume that the novel is more or less autobiographical, like Proust's A la recherche du temps perdu, one of its most obvious and acknowledged models. In order to practice such a reading, it would be enough to observe that Lezama Lima, like José Cemí, the protagonist of the novel, was born in Havana; that his father was also a soldier who died when the writer was barely ten; that his mother (like Cemí's) was very loving; that Lezama was a student and a rebel during the same Machado dictatorship described in the second half of the novel. The author, like the protagonist, has suffered from asthma attacks since early childhood—the first chapter of the novel, which describes the horrors of suffocation, is a baroque elaboration of lived experiences, and not only another allusion to the Proustian texts. Like Cemí, Lezama is used to feeding upon his own visions and to seeing the world through thick metaphorical lenses. Future biographers will undoubtedly find many more subtle affinities between the author and his main character. What we already know permits a reading of Paradiso as a novelistic transformation of the childhood and youth of its author.
Although it exposes the reader to many dangers, an autobiographical interpretation ought not to be entirely discarded. Paradiso contains (among other things) a delightful chronicle of Havana during the first decades of the century. Throughout the entire first half of the book, an elaborate family gallery is presented. Several portraits clearly stand out; among them, the dark virility of Cemí's father, the all-pervading tenderness of his mother, the eccentric relatives and servants. If the text existed only at this level, the level of a family saga; if it were only a refined Cuban version of Proust's Combray, it would still be remarkable. Intense family passions—less explicit than the ones García Márquez chronicles in his One Hundred Years of Solitude, but no less incestuous—the undercurrents of Oedipal links, all constantly feed a labyrinthine narrative, in which food itself, in all its stages, from the elaborate cooking to the no less elaborate and ritual ingestion, plays an essential role.
In the second part of the book, with the notorious eighth chapter which proliferates in homosexual permutations, the novel loses a great deal of its local color. It becomes more schematic and it even takes on the air of a learned treatise. Cemí has now become an adolescent and his waking hours are occupied with the world of ideas, with endless discussions about the meaning of the universe, with the search for a rational explanation of all phenomena. Friendship becomes an exercise in nonstop conversations. Cemí is also a poet (like Lezama) and his own personal visions permeate the narrative until they actually supersede it. If Proust was the model for the first part, and even for some scenes of the second part (the sudden revelation of some character's homosexuality is as abrupt as the one practiced in Sodome et Gomorrhe), the second part of the novel follows more closely the pattern of James Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.
However tempting, that type of reading runs the risk of missing much of the book's real value. Paradiso is much more and much less than a Bildungsroman.
The finger of God
In Il Convivio (II, 1) Dante postulates four possible interpretations of a given text. Using the critical vocabulary of his time, he underlines the usefulness of starting with a literal interpretation: that is, the study of "the beautiful lie" which dresses up the work superficially; what we could call today its "fiction," or "fable." The second interpretation he indicates is the allegorical, the one that searches for a "hidden truth" behind the fiction. The third is the one from which the "moral" of the story is derived, a moral which will be useful to the readers. The fourth and last is the anagogic interpretation, the one that unveils the text's "sublime things," its final spiritual meaning. It is not necessary to be a specialist in order to recognize the imprint of Dante upon a book explicitly called Paradiso. Not unlike his master, Lezama suggests by the title he chooses different and successive readings of his work. We have already examined the one that would correspond to the "literal" one. It is both the easiest and the one that permits a greater consensus among its readers. Upon practising the second or allegorical reading, the reader becomes a co-author, and disagreement settles in.
The fact that the book contains, among many other things, an apology for homosexuality, was for a while a cause of dissent throughout Latin America; some of the first commentators (like Vargas Llosa) did not even mention the subject, as if it were too minor to draw any attention; others, like Cortázar, faced it squarely. As it is well-known, Paradiso not only describes sexual relations between men with a detail which is unusual in Hispanic literature, but it also contains very detailed discussions of the legitimacy of homosexuality in which the characters support their arguments with both classical and Christian texts. The book has been compared, from this point of view, with André Gide's notorious Corydon.
Needless to say, such a view is false. Paradiso does not defend homosexuality as Corydon does: it merely discusses it. Of the three main characters engaged in the discussion (Cemí and his two friends, Foción and Fronesis), only the second is a homosexual, frustratedly in love with Cemí. His frustration extends to his arguments: he is definitely not one of the most eloquent contributors to the debate. On the other hand, the narrative presents homosexual acts with a flourish for detail and metaphor that matches anything done previously. But the book also contains some descriptions of heterosexual activities. It could be argued, however, that the former are presented with more linguistic artifice and that some of the episodes border on baroque perversity. But neither do the heterosexual passages escape from perversity. The point is that Lezama really does not make any distinction: sex (of any sort) is just sex to him. For that reason it is impossible to reduce Paradiso to a Corydon disguised as a novel.
This does not mean that the homosexual side of human nature does not occupy a considerable portion of the novel. There is indeed a constant preoccupation with homosexuality in the book and there is even an entire system of thought concerning it that has little to do with the superficial discussion of the problem. In his writings, Lezama has repeatedly referred to a stage of human nature that preceded hetero-sexuality, in which human reproduction was achieved androgynously, in a manner similar to that of a tree, whose branches fall off the main trunk and create new plants. In this and only in this sense, can Paradiso be allegorically interpreted as an exploration of the homosexual vision of the world: a vision which the Cuban author presents from the point of view of its mythical and metaphorical dimensions.
Although the mixture of extreme crudeness and poetic invention with which Lezama details intercourse seems to support the view of the book as an apology for homosexuality, in fact these same passages are the ones that hurt such an alleged cause the most because they underscore (as Saint Thomas puts it, according to Lezama) the pure bestiality of the act. On the other hand, in the discussion between the three main characters, it is possible to find a definitely allegorical interpretation of the world: an interpretation which is never made too explicit but one that holds the key to Lezama's final view of homosexuality.
Here we are indeed very far from any pornographic reading of a few selected chapters. In order to arrive at an allegorical level, one must cast off all prejudices and initiate an in-depth reading such as the one suggested (and to a certain point practised) by Julio Cortázar. By using as his point of departure a few subtle references to Jules Verne and his Voyage au centre de la terre, Cortázar did indicate an allegorical approach to Paradiso's underlying poetic system. Unfortunately, the subject is too complex to be attempted here. In the words of one of the secondary characters, Oppiano Licario, Lezama has left the key to a complete decoding of this aspect of the novel. In another passage (curiously overlooked by Cortázar) the links between homosexuality as a subject and religion, are even more explicitly presented by Lezama. In a conversation, Cemí says to Fronesis: "The Greeks arrived at the pair of all things, but the Christian can say, from flower to phallus, this is the finger of God." That is: instead of the polarity of sexes, the unity of an androgynous God.
Other types of misreading
These belong to the level Dante called "moral," which today we may call "social," in the fullest sense of the word. Because Paradiso was originally published in today's Cuba, the novel cannot avoid being read as a critical description of the island's society before 1958; or as a critique of a certain type of bourgeois mentality which the Revolution has done its best to erradicate. Some Latin American critics who have read their Lukacs and Goldmanns more than they have read Lezama's works would undoubtedly dedicate many pages to demonstrate the testimonial value of the book. Who could doubt it? But then the newspaper accounts of the same period would be of equal or greater value.
It is also possible to imagine a last type of limited analysis of the book: one that would hinge upon the most external postulates of stylistics and would attempt to analyze it from the point of view of its purely formal structure. Then it would not be possible to avoid pointing to the distribution in three parts: fourteen chapters separated in two unequal sections—seven in one, six in the other—with a middle chapter, the notorious eighth, that works as a dividing line. Analogy enthusiasts could also point out that something similar happens in Proust's novel, since its first three parts are separated from the last four by a middle one in which, as in Paradiso, the hidden homosexual activity of the main characters is suddenly revealed. Another "structural" observation would indicate that the first part is more narrative than discursive, and that the second part reverses the proportion. A third and inevitable observation: in the second part, the presentation of events—that is: the narrative of what really happens to Cemí and his friends—is contaminated by "fantastic" episodes, either Cemí's own visions or interpolated literary texts which may constitute samples of his poetic exercises.
If we choose to add to these types of "external" criticism, the one that feeds on extensive notation of textual errors, misplaced quotations and even the all-pervading misprints, it would not be difficult to foresee (as Cortázar had already done) the hasty conclusion: Paradiso is another of these literary freaks irresponsibly promoted by Latin American writers and critics.
The key to the system
So many pitfalls should not discourage the common reader. Not only because it is possible to discover a lot of good and even marvelous writing in the novel, but also because Paradiso contains sufficient clues that lead to the type of reading Dante called "anagogic": a reading that underscores the "sublime things" the book truly deals with.
But first we must again underline the obvious: Paradiso is not the only work produced by Lezama. He is not just a writer who has spawned forth from revolutionary Cuba without any previous credits. On the contrary, years before Paradiso was published, Lezama had acquired a reputation among the best Latin American readers as the author of dazzling poems and essays as well as the coeditor (with José Rodríguez Feo) of the very important avant-garde magazine, Orígenes. Therefore, in order to place the novel in its true perspective and to practice with it a type of anagogic reading, there is no choice but to refer to Lezama's previous works, something which is easier said than done. First, because many of his early books have been out of print for a long time. Second, because even when they can be obtained, some of them make very difficult reading. Nevertheless, if one is determined to follow Lezama in all his labyrinthine progression, from poem to essay, and from essay to interview, the reward will be substantial. Lezama's poetic thought has a coherence and depth seldom seen in Latin American letters.
Some of his observations on his own poetry and poetics are worth quoting. In a letter he wrote to the editor of an anthology of his writings (Orbita de Lezama Lima, 1966), he points out:
My work will always offer difficulties, the relativity of an obstacle, if you like; after various interweavings, after labyrinths that would burst out of a persecution that would make itself unceasing, after provocations at a certain point which resolved themselves in the most opposed latitudes, one would arrive at man's occupation of his own image in exile, of man without his own primeval nature. By means of the image, man recovers his own nature, he conquers exile, he acquires unity as a resisting nucleus in between that which ascends to the form and descends to the depths.
The phrase, even in its own morose and endless uncoiling, holds the key to Lezama's system: a system which has a center in the concept of salvation through poetic creation. Those who forget that Lezama is Catholic also tend to forget that he is a Catholic poet. Thus, the title of his novel is not exclusively designed to pay homage to another Catholic poet, his master. For Lezama, man has really been exiled from the paradise of childhood and is now living in exile. He can only be saved by poetry. Against the Heideggerian conception of man's being unto death, a conception which influenced so many of the poets of his generation (Lezama was born in 1910), he holds his own deep conviction that man's being is unto resurrection by means of poetry.
Poetic creation for Lezama is not, then, a simple literary activity, a production, as it is called. For him it is a road, a way. The poet's system, according to one of his best readers, is based on "the profound impression of childhood upon him," which "becomes the poetic; the poem burst forth from this, and poetry from both of them together; therefore, out of their reasoned totality one can extract the system." (See Armando Alvarez Bravo, prologue to Orbita.) The experience of childhood, Lezama's conversion of that experience into a poem, and then into poetry: such is the real, underlying way into Paradiso and all of Lezama's works. Thus the importance of the mysterious Oppiano Licario, the character who finally reveals the poetic (orphic) gift to Cemí.
In an interview with Alvarez Bravo, also included in Orbita, Lezama points out his ultimate conception of what the poem is and does:
I believe that the wonder of a poem is that it ends up creating a body, a resisting substance nailed down between a metaphor and a final image which assures the survival of that very substance, of that Poiesis.
According to this general interpretation, Paradiso is a poem, and because it is a poem, it is also a substance (a metaphor) that moves toward the final, unreachable, image. As such, the novel can only be understood in the full context of Lezama's work.
At this very point the anagogic reading begins: but it is also here where difficulties proliferate. Lezama himself has stated that "only the difficult is stimulating," and in the margins of a quotation by Pythagoras he adds:
Long ago, Pythagoras made clear to us the different types of words there are. There is a simple word, the hieroglyphical and the symbolic. That is to say, the verb that expresses, that hides and that signifies.
Starting off with this statement it is possible to see how misleading can be a reading of Paradiso which takes into account only the words that express (to follow Pythagoras' distinction) and which excludes the words that hide or signify.
In one of the best essays included in his book, Analecta del reloj (1953), Lezama anticipated some of the difficulties of a complete reading of Paradiso. He says:
On a Persian rug, a lion is roaring at a prawn which is shielded by a sheet of water in an artificial pond. What is our reading of such a paradoxical combination? Are we to imagine, maybe, the shivers of the lion if the end of his whiskers were to touch the sheet? Our reading is ironic and contains a pervading sensitive delight before such a grouping, whose expression must have been originally perceived as symbolic and theocentric, and which now shows us the relative and pessimistic nature of any reading that belongs to a cultural cycle. And it is painful and tearing to know that the pessimism of such an impossible reading begins with poetry.
These words were written by Lezama in an essay on Góngora. In reading his work, we have no choice but to recall the Persian figures in the carpet, in all the Jamesian implications of the formula. Before Lezama's text, and trying to place it into a context, it is impossible not to recall the absurd fate of Pierre Menard, the French symbolist poet who attempted to become the author of Don Quijote. Borges has already described his madness, underlying his one and only achievement: the perhaps involuntary discovery that every reading of a text is a writing of it.
In attempting to summarize the possible different readings of Paradiso perhaps we have also discovered the obvious: that without an ironic reading of its text, the book has no valid meaning. This is a modest conclusion but the kind which ought to be reached more frequently.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 10226
SOURCE: "The Sensorial World of Lezama Lima," in Major Cuban Novelists: Innovation and Tradition, University of Missouri Press, 1976, pp. 53-79.
[In the following essay, Souza discusses the structure of Paradiso, focusing on Lezama Lima's symbolic use of characters and the story's themes, which include time, chaos, and freedom.]
Carpentier's and José Lezama Lima's works are often considered by critics as baroque, that is, complex and ornate. When used in this general sense, particularly with Lezama Lima, the term is an appropriate one, for Paradiso is the most complex novel ever published in Cuba. Indeed, it is perhaps the most intricate novel in Spanish America, and the author's imaginative genius both attracts and baffles the readers. This explains in part the mistaken proclivity of some to consider Lezama Lima as the Cuban answer to James Joyce. The works of both authors are complex, and Lezama Lima and Joyce reflect an amazing ability to use language in unusual and unexpected manners, but the essence of their art is different. Lezama Lima's work is as much an affirmation of one cultural context as Joyce's is a denial of another. Lezama Lima was relatively unknown in Spanish America before the publication of Paradiso in 1966. As with Carpentier, international fame and recognition came to him late in his career. Prior to the appearance of Paradiso, Lezama Lima was mainly known to those interested in Cuban literature for his poetry and to those outside of Cuba for his distinguished editorship of the literary journal Orígenes (1944–1956). Paradiso won quick acclaim, for it gained the praise and support of writers such as Julio Cortázar, one of Argentina's and South America's most eminent and internationally accepted writers. The novel also received a great deal of notoriety for its frank and explicit exploration of homosexuality, a theme practically unheard of in Spanish-American letters. However, the homosexual theme has been greatly overemphasized, for it is not the most important motif in the novel. Rather, it is only one of the many ways the author explores an adolescent's movement from multiplicity to unity.
Lezama Lima narrates in Paradiso the fortunes and destiny of the Cemí family, a process that examines several branches of the family tree. In this respect, the novel represents a search for meaning in the past and a quest for significance in origins. The main events in the work take place between the waning years of the nineteenth century and the third decade of the present. A series of characters occupies central stage in Paradiso, but José Cemí, who is only five years old when the work opens, emerges as the main subject in the novel. Many of the excursions into the past that transpire in Paradiso investigate the origins of people who greatly influence José's life. His parents, important relatives, and intimate friends inspire or govern decisive phases of his development, and by the end of the novel José is ready to enter into the world alone and to embark on adventures of his own. Thus, Paradiso can be considered as a compendium of forces that move through time and space to converge on the living entity formed by José. Like Carpentier, Lezama Lima deeply respects the influence that the past has on the present and the future.
Paradiso opens with José desperately struggling for air as he experiences a severe attack of asthma. His frantic efforts to breathe attract the attention of Baldovina, a servant who has been left to care for him while his parents attend an opera. Terrified and uncertain of how to cope with the situation, Baldovina seeks the help of two other servants. They respond to Baldovina's plea by performing a ritual that involves the formation of crosses on the sufferer's body. When they complete this strange ceremony, they suddenly and without explanation depart, leaving Baldovina to handle the situation as best as she can. She rubs José with alcohol and pours hot drops of wax on the welts that have appeared on his entire body. When José's parents arrive later, the attack has subsided, and after being informed as to what has happened, they conclude that their son "estaba vivo por puro y sencillo milagro."
There is much in the content and presentation of the introduction to Lezama Lima's novel and the way he creates and moves through it. After presenting the reader with José's critical situation, he gives an elaborate and poetic description of the Cemí family's home. It is not a description that is designed merely to give an objective picture of a certain material reality, but one that also captures the essence of the people who live there and their relations to one another. Baldovina, for example, is fearful of the consequences of her responsibility to care for José, and in her mind she has already suffered through the questioning that experience tells her she will be submitted to once again. Her feelings on the matter and her relationship to José's father, an army Colonel, are conveyed in a striking passage that uses sound and space as the basis of most of its images:
Después llegaba el Coronel y era ella la que tenía que sufrir una ringlera de preguntas, a la que respondía con nerviosa inadvertencia, quedándole un contrapunto con tantos altibajos, sobresaltos y mentiras, que mientras el Coronel baritonizaba sus carcajadas, Baldovina se hacía leve, desaparecía, desaparecía, y cuando se la llamaba de nuevo hacía que la voz atravesase una selva oscura, tales imposibilidades, que había que nutrir ese eco de voz con tantas voces, que ya era toda la casa la que parecía haber sido llamada, y que a Baldovina, que era sólo un fragmento de ella, le tocaba una partícula tan pequeña que había que reforzarla con sus nuevos perentorios, cargando más el potencial de la onda sonora.
We are left with an impression of a timid and almost mute Baldovina, contrasted with the strength and loquacity of the Colonel and his authority. She is like a small echo of an autumn leaf whose destiny is controlled and ordained by the capricious nature of the wind.
As noted, the author opens the first chapter with José's attack of asthma and then pauses in the midst of it to describe the home. The description does not close in on itself but proceeds from a specific reality and then moves outward in a continual movement of expansion. For example, the author goes beyond merely enumerating the books in the Colonel's study, he evokes all the mystery and excitement of their contents. When his attention falls on some papers on the Colonel's desk, a whole new world is created. The Colonel is an engineer who uses his mathematical skills in the practice of artillery, a complex manipulation of time and space that the men under his command do not understand.
They are simply mystified by his ability, and their attitude toward the Colonel's domination of this enigma is captured in a masterful exercise of the imagination. "Sobre el pupitre, cogidos con alcayatas ya oxidadas, papeles donde se diseñaban desembarcos en países no situados en el tiempo ni en el espacio, como un desfile de banda militar china situado entre la eternidad y la nada." In one brilliantly structured sentence, Lezama Lima has humorously synthesized the preciseness of the Colonel's knowledge with the mystification that his ability produces in the soldiers under his command.
After such digressions, the author returns to the narration of José's attack of asthma. He has moved his reader's attention from a specific occurrence to the totality of the world of his characters. This is a creative process that he uses continually throughout the novel. It is something like circles that emanate when an object is dropped into a pool of water—a specific occurrence can open up one's awareness to a much greater area of reality. Lezama Lima continually moves in concentric circles, both in the process of exteriorization and interiorization, and once the reader has grasped this fact, his participation in the novel becomes more meaningful. Lezama Lima creates an entire world, and he does so, in part, by his attempts to portray the total essence of his characters and their surroundings. The reader feels somewhat as if he were blindfolded and on a snap-the-whip at an amusement park. He never knows when the movement will suddenly throw him outward from the center, or when it will cease and bring him back. But the experience is an exciting and stimulating one, as it is a creative process that continually challenges and expands the reader's awareness of the world in which he lives.
José's suffering and the symbolism of the crosses that are placed on his body are significant, for they set the stage for much of the novel's meaning. Paradiso can be taken as the narration of José's search for a basic understanding of the world and the universe. The association of his difficulty breathing during the attack of asthma with the application of the symbol of the cross to his body reveals human existence as a painful struggle, a struggle in which a search is made for a conjunction or synthesis of opposites. The servant's use of the cross represents an appeal to the spiritual world that contrasts vividly with the world of phenomena of José's illness. The crosses can be taken as a symbol of the conjunction of life and death and of the earthly and celestial worlds, a symbol of the mystery and suffering of existence. José's recovery is regarded as a miracle, and no explanation is ever given of his sudden and spontaneous recovery from his bout with death. The setting for José's attempts to penetrate the mystery of life in the novel is really the narration of his process of becoming, his slow movement from a self-awareness that closes in on itself, to an appreciation of all that is exterior. It is a movement from unawareness to awareness, from multiplicity to unity, from chaos to form and order, and its narration is as fascinating to watch as a slow motion film of a blossoming flower. The act of creation mystifies and enchants and fills us with a sense of awe and appreciation for life that is difficult to convey except by means of art. The creative process of the novel is as important as the end result, and Lezama Lima constantly delights his reader with his startling and imaginative images.
The Colonel emerges in Chapter 1 as the center around which all the other members of his family revolve. He is a picture of strength and vitality, a man who knows how to enjoy life to its fullest. He fills the house with sound, and his jovial and forceful loquaciousness is only matched by his gastronomical feats. As the novel progresses, the sickly José, much to his dismay, discovers he cannot live up to his father's expectations. The Colonel finds it difficult to accept that his only son is asthmatic and not athletically inclined.
During the First World War, the Cemí family departs for Jacksonville, Florida, where the Colonel receives advanced military training. While there the Colonel is weakened by a virulent influenza and is hospitalized. His wife Rialta becomes terror stricken as the possibility of his death enters her mind:
Había cobrado pavorosa conciencia de la magnitud del hecho familiar que se avecinaba. Empezaba a comprender lo que para ella resultaba incomprensible, la desaparición, el ocultamiento del fuerte, del alegre, del solucionador, del que había reunido dos familias detenidas por el cansancio de los tejidos minuciosos, comunicándoles una síntesis de allegreto, de cantante alegre paseo matinal.
The Colonel slips into an indescribable loneliness that he associates with death. "Estoy entrando en una soledad, por primera vez en mi vida, que sé es la de la muerte." Although afraid of his approaching death, he dominates his fear and refuses to have his family called to his side, as he does not wish to frighten them. As a result, he dies alone in the most abject loneliness, and Rialta is notified of his death by telephone. "De pronto, como una campanilla que se dilata el rocío de las hojas nocturnas, el teléfono pinchado desde el hospital, pareció querer hablar como un estrangulado." The news of his death and her loneliness remain in her memory and are associated with the sound of the windblown pine trees outside their Florida home. "Así como el coronel José Eugenio Cemí había muerto en la soledad sin término del hospital, Rialta recibía la más sombría noticia de su vida rodeada de extraños, alejada de su madre doña Augusta, oyendo como un hacha el viento lento del enero americano recorrer los pinares."
Rialta returns to Havana with her children and begins to reconstruct their lives, and she finds that she must now take the place of her dead husband. The image of the center and circle is often employed by Lezama Lima in Paradiso. It is perhaps the most significant image in the novel, and he uses this imagery in various ways. Often it is used to connote an individual who is the most important figure in another person's life, and during the novel we see the process of time and change at work, as we witness the dissolution of one circle and the emanation of another. This is the case when the Colonel dies and Rialta is forced to take his place. In another episode when doña Augusta, José's maternal grandmother, feels that she may die, she advises her children that "cada uno de aquellos fragmentos, de los que ella ocupaba el centro, tendría que comenzar en un nuevo centro con nuevas irradiaciones." In a sense, Paradiso can be considered as a set of spirals converging in a circle. Reading the novel is like tracing the course of several spirals, as they move through time and space and slowly come together.
The wedding of Rialta and the Colonel represents the circle image of the formation of an everlasting unified entity:
José Eugenio Cemí y Rialta atolondrados por la gravedad baritonal de los símbolos, después de haber cambiado los anillos, como si la vida de uno se abalanzase sobre la del otro a través de la eternidad del círculo, sintieron por la proliferación de los rostros de familiares y amigos, el rumor de la convergencia en la unidad de la imagen que se iniciaba.
Rialta is pictured as the person who will form the center of a "trenzado laberíntico" during a period of fifty years, in a reference the reader does not fully understand until the Colonel dies. "Comenzaba un extenso trenzado laberíntico, del cual durante cincuenta años, ella sería el centro, la justificación y la fertilidad."
At other times rather than being a symbol of unity, the circle is used as a means of conveying the search for meaning that each individual must experience in his life, with its attendant confusion and chaos. In a fit of rage against a worthless son, Abuela Munda, José's paternal grandmother, states, "Eres un viejo accidente ya entre nosotros, y eso quiere decir que debes ir a buscar tu centro al extranjero." In a more complex manifestation of the circle image, we see José at the age of ten leaving school with a piece of chalk. As he walks he drags the chalk on a wall, and as he does this someone attempts to grab the chalk. Behind the wall there is a large circular patio partially surrounded by small dwellings, and as José nears the end of the wall he is greeted by the shouts and taunts of a child who wants to harass him and to take the chalk from him. The sudden appearance of his tormentor startles him, and the transition is described as if the wall had disappeared and a circle had emerged. "Le parecía a Cemí aquello un remolino de voces y colores, como si el paredón se hubiese derrumbado e instantáneamente se hubiese reconstruido en un patio circular." The taunts of the child continue until an elderly woman recognizes José as the Colonel's son and rescues him. The association of the wall, a straight line, with the circular shape of the patio can be interpreted as a process of interiorization or search that José is to experience in the future. The shouting child could represent the confusion of the exterior world through which José must move; and the chalk, a writing instrument, his means to impose order on chaos—the written word.
The circle image also can represent a momentary escape from time and a return to unity. It is usually presented as a geometrical progression that begins with a square that changes to a circle. Thus, the multilateral shape of the square becomes a unified circle, an image of the movement from multiplicity to unity, from space to spacelessness, from time to timelessness. This progression is skillfully handled in an episode that evokes the memory of the dead Colonel. Rialta is watching her three children playing with a ball. They have formed a circle, and as they play the element of time is introduced:
Los tres niños estaban tan abstraídos que el ascender de la pelota se cristalizaba como una fuente, y la fijeza de la mirada en el esparcimiento de los yaquis, los extasiaba como cuando se contemplan, en demorados trechos de la noche, las constelaciones. Estaban en ese momento de éxtasis coral que los niños alcanzan con facilidad. Hacer que su tiempo, el tiempo de las personas que los rodean, y el tiempo de la situación exterior, coincidan en una especie de abandono del tiempo, donde las semillas del alcanfor o de las amapolas, el silencioso crecer nocturno de los vegetales, preparan una identidad oval y cristalina, donde un grupo al aislarse logra una comunicación semejante a un espejo universal.
Rialta joins her children in the game, and the four figures form a square that begins to change into a circle. "El cuadrado formado por Rialta y sus tres hijos, se iba trocando en un círculo." The movement of the ball, the spontaneous mood of happiness the game produces, and the unity the formation of the circle gives them, produce an almost hypnotic state that momentarily erases time, and the memory of the Colonel becomes a living entity:
El contorno del círculo se iba endureciendo, hasta parecer de un metal que se tornaba incandescente. De pronto, en una fulguración, como si una nube se rompiese para dar paso a una nueva visión, apareció en las losas apresadas por el círculo la guerrera completa del Coronel…. Y sobre el cuello endurecido, el rostro del ausente, tal vez sonriéndose dentro de su lejanía, como si le alegrase, en un indescifrable contento que no podía, ser compartido, ver a su esposa y a sus hijos dentro de aquel círculo que los unía en un espacio y en un tiempo coincidentes para su mirada. Penetrando en esa visión, como dejada … por la fulguración previa, los cuatro que estaban dentro del círculo iluminado, tuvieron la sensación de que penetraban en un túnel; en realidad, era una sensación entrecortada, pues se abría dentro de un instants, pero donde los fragmentos y la totalidad coincidían en ese pestañeo de la visión cortada por una espada.
The momentary spell makes Rialta feel her solitude even more intensely than usual, and she buries her face in her arms and cries. The spell is broken and the children scurry off.
The geometric progression from a square to a circle also appears during the sexual encounters of some of the other characters in the novel. It is used to convey the attempted movement from inner confusion to inner unity, or the movement from a pluralistic to a unified state. The sexual act becomes then one of many manifestations of the search for meaning in life and the control over chaos. Its appearance in the novel is mainly associated with friends and acquaintances of José during their adolescence. Two of José's closest friends during this period of his life are Fronesis and Foción, and the circle image appears in their lives as they struggle to free themselves from some fear or obsession.
Fronesis has difficulty having sexual intercourse with a young girl during one of his first exposures to sex. His inability to function adequately is related to some vague and illogical fear that he cannot express, or even bring to the awareness of his conscious mind. He resorts to a tactic that restores his virility. He cuts a circle of cloth from his undershirt; then, in this round piece of material he cuts a hole large enough for his penis and uses the piece of undershirt as an intermediary between his body and his partner's. When Fronesis leaves, he takes the shirt with him, and its presence constitutes a heavy psychological burden for him. He walks down to the sea wall that surrounds Havana, throws the undershirt into the sea, and watches it slowly disappear:
La camiseta misma antes de anegarse, se fue circulizando como una serpiente a la que alguien ha trasmitido la inmortalidad, pero al mismo tiempo en las concavidades gordezuelas del cuerpo del hombre fue apareciendo la serpiente fálica, era necesario crear al perder precisamente la inmortalidad. Así el hombre fue mortal, pero creador y la serpiente fálica se convirtió en un fragmento que debe resurgir. Fronesis sentía que los dos círculos de la camiseta al desaparecer en el oleaje, desaparecerían también de sus terrores para dar paso a la serpiente circuncidada. Desaparecían las dos abstracciones circulares, también desaparecían los yerbazales, las escoriaciones, los brotes musgosos, donde el nuevo serpentín del octavo día se trocaba en un honguillo con una pequeña corona planetaria en torno al glande de un marfil coloidal.
Fronesis has used the circle as a means of dominating and bringing under control psychic forces that threatened to destroy his masculinity. He experiences a fear of losing his identity by associating the sexual act, which can lead to a momentary loss of identity, with death. He successfully dominated these fears and is now ready to sublimate and direct them toward creative ends. He has imposed form on psychic chaos and has brought negative forces under control by the image of the circle. This enables him to begin the transition from adolescence to manhood and from potentiality to creativity.
Foción, José's other friend, is confronted with a problem similar to Fronesis's, but in his case it occurs after he has married. Foción proves impotent, and his father's ill-directed efforts to help him cause him to be influenced by a homosexual. As a result, Foción becomes a participant and exponent of this sexual practice. Fronesis explains much of Foción's background to José, "Foción tenía, por el abstracto desarrollo de su niñez y adolescencia, el complejo de la vagina dentada, veía la vulva de la mujer como una inmensa boca que le devoraba el falo." Foción's sexual orientation is presented as a chaos that he cannot dominate, "pues la naturaleza le regaló un caos pero no le dio la fuerza suficiente para luchar contra él. Se siente destruido, pero no tiene fuerza destructora."
Foción becomes, in effect, a symbol of primordial chaos, and his bisexual activities reveal the anarchy that precedes the organization of all creative forces. This is the basic meaning of the homosexual theme in Paradiso, for Foción's activities are a symbol of all the forces of the creative process. His anguish conveys the turmoil and confusion of formlessness, and his struggle to move from this state represents the movement from anarchy to order. Therefore, the treatment of sexuality in Paradiso is not an affirmation or denial of any particular sexual activity. Rather, sexual acts are exterior manifestations of inner conflicts or goals and the means by which the characters resolve their problems. Lezama Lima employs the homosexual theme as another way of dealing with the creative process.
Foción is greatly attracted to Fronesis to the extent of obsession. "Fronesis era para él un arquetipo de lo inalcanzable, cosa que sólo existía porque comenzaba por ponerlo a horcajadas en un punto errante que oscilaba en un claroscuro inmenso." His attraction toward Fronesis eventually allows him to escape from his inner chaos. José recognizes that the friendship between Foción and Fronesis is related to Foción's attempts to escape from his state of confusion and tells Fronesis, "Es un caos, el de Foción, que tú dominas, ordenas, distribuyes. Es un caos que tú necesitas para las hogueras de tu cosmos." Cemí's statements reveal that Fronesis has gained control over his own chaos, whereas Foción has not. Yet, Fronesis needs Foción in the sense that his own creative acts represent his imposition of form over the chaos that Foción represents.
Fronesis's father attempts to terminate his son's relationship with Foción. It is an effort that nearly provokes a rebellion in Fronesis, but his stepmother resolves the conflict between father and son. For the first time in her life, Fronesis's step-mother speaks freely of Fronesis's mother, who was her sister. This frank appraisal of origins restores harmony to the family, and Fronesis agrees to take a trip abroad.
This episode is followed immediately by one in which José visits a clinic where his grandmother, doña Augusta, is dying. While at the clinic, he discovers that Foción is a patient there:
Al lado del álamo, en el jardín del pabellón de los desrazonados, vio un hombre joven con su uniforme blanco, describiendo incesantes círculos alrededor del álamo agrandado por una raíz cuidada. Era Foción. Volvía en sus círculos una y otra vez como si el álamo fuera su Dios y su destino…. La enorme cuantía de círculos que sumaba durante el día, la abría en espirales, tan sumergidos como silenciosos, mientras la nocturna lo acogía.
José concludes that the tree represents Fronesis. The next time he returns to the clinic, he discovers that a bolt of lightning has destroyed the tree and that Foción has disappeared. "El rayo que había destruido el árbol había liberado a Foción de la adoración de su eternidad circular."
The tree is a dual image. On the one hand, it represents Foción's obsession with Fronesis, and, on the other, it could represent the tree of life that embodies all the positive and negative aspects of existence. Foción's incessant circling of the tree reveals his attempts to control the chaos in his life and, by extension, to resolve the enigma of existence. It is significant that the circle image is combined with the spiral, for the spiral indicates evolution, growth, and the movement from multiplicity to unity. Foción's motion is circular and spiral, suggesting a progression toward a solution to his problems. The bolt of lightning that releases Foción indicates the sudden gaining of an illumination and insight that frees him from his obsessive anguish.
Of all the characters in the novel, Foción represents, more than any other, multiplicity and chaos. His sexual activities are indicative of the disunity and formlessness that precede ordered creativity. His tumultuous emotions are like a primordial chaos, the earliest stage of disorganized creation. There is much in the novel to suggest that Lezama Lima regards the creative impulse as one of the underlying principles of existence.
The friendship that exists between Foción, Fronesis, and José is related in many ways to creativity. To a certain extent, it is possible to regard each one as a separate phase of the creative process. Foción represents primordial chaos, Fronesis the most elemental imposition of order on formlessness, and José the observation and refinement of the first two phases. When José visits his dying grandmother in the clinic, she comments on his ability to observe and remember "impresiones":
Tu memoria les da una substancia como el limo de los comienzos, como una piedra que recogiese la imagen de la sombra del pez. Tú hablas del ritmo de crecimiento de la naturaleza, pero hay que tener mucha humildad para poder observarlo, seguirlo y reverenciarlo … la mayoría de las personas interrumpen, favorecen el vacío, hacen exclamaciones, torpes exigencias o declaman arias fantasmales, pero tú observas ese ritmo que hace el cumplimiento, el cumplimiento de lo que desconocemos….
This conversation takes place immediately after Fronesis's decision to terminate his relationship with Foción and just prior to Foción's liberation from his obsession with Fronesis. After these events, Fronesis and Foción no longer appear in the novel, and José moves toward a fuller comprehension of his direction in life. A particular phase in José's development has ended, and he moves to another. Fronesis and Foción, having served as points of reference on his journey, now fade into the past as José's life embarks on a new path.
There are two other characters in Paradiso who have a decisive influence on José and his commitment to creativity. They are his Uncle Alberto and the shadowy and mysterious Oppiano Licario. Alberto resembles the Colonel, in that he is a strong-willed and assertive individual who is a picture of strength. On one occasion, he sends a letter to the family, and one of José's relatives invites José to listen to it,
acércate más para que puedas oir bien la carta de tu tío Alberto, para que lo conozcas más y le adivines la alegría que tiene. Por primera vez vas a oir el idioma hecho naturaleza, con todo su artificio de alusiones y cariñosas pedanterías.
Although José does not display any reaction, the letter greatly impresses him and introduces him to the potentialities of language.
Alberto dies suddenly in an automobile accident, and his death, like the Colonel's, causes shock and consternation. It is hard for those who are left behind to comprehend why such young and active individuals should die suddenly. However, although the significance of death is not revealed, there are suggestions that it has meaning within a larger context that is unknown to the participants. In the last two chapters of the novel (13 and 14), Licario emerges as the central figure in José's reasoning of the enigma of death, for Licario knew Alberto and witnessed the death of the Colonel.
Death and time are the central concerns of the chapter that immediately precedes the reappearance of Licario. Chapter 12 represents an unusual flight of the imagination, for its contents are bizarre and, at first reading, much removed from the main content of the novel. There are four separate stories in the chapter, and they are presented in alternating segments that make it difficult for the reader to follow the sequence of events. The reader goes through the first segment of each story, and then the sequence repeats itself as the reader moves through the second part. The last three stories take place in Havana, but the first narration goes back to the exploits of the Roman general, Atrio Flaminio, in the second century B.C. The chapter begins with a specific historical orientation and moves to a highly imaginative realm. At the same time, however, the author moves his reader toward a consideration of time and eternity, and the separate stories converge on one point. Therefore, on one level he expands his reader's awareness, and, on the other, he focuses the attention on a certain problem of existence. In one of the stories, there is a vase that is broken into many fragments, reassembled, and later replaced. To a great extent, the vase parallels with what the author is doing in the chapter. He takes a subject, in this case, which is time, and breaks it down into several components or fragments and then rearranges them into a new form. Again, it is the process that is emphasized rather than the end result.
The first story narrates the exploits of Flaminio and his struggle and conquest over rational and irrational forces. His bearing depicts an open disdain for death. At one time, he announces to his troops, "Nada más que sabemos vencer, desconocemos a la muerte, que tendrá que esforzarse hasta cansarse para reconocer a uno solo de nosotros." And his troops reply, "si se acerca la muerte la decapitaremos." Flaminio is the astute and courageous conqueror who lives so close to death that he seems to defeat it. His fondest wish is to die in battle, but he succumbs to an illness and loses the opportunity to die on his own terms.
In the second story, a small child breaks a large vase while he is cared for by his grandmother. The broken vase produces a great deal of concern, and the grandmother picks up the fragments and carefully puts them aside. The event is significant, and it is apparent that the vase is a symbol of wholeness and the integration of the morning of life (the child) with its evening (the grandmother). After the vase is broken, the child and the grandmother feel vaguely threatened, as if a unifying force in their lives has been destroyed. The child reappears in the third and fourth stories and serves as one of the several bridges that connect the four sections.
In the third story, an anonymous narrator relates his encounters with invisible forces in his home and the things he sees as he wanders through Havana. This section of the chapter conveys, better than any of the others, the mystery of existence and the secret working of forces that are only vaguely recognized. During one of his walks, he sees a man on a bench sewing. The man extracts an ivory egg from a stocking he is using, and he holds it up so it can be seen better. Soon after this, the narrator observes a sailor with a knife in his chest being removed from a bar.
The act of sewing could symbolize creation, as it is a process of accumulation and growth; and the egg, the mystery of life or the egg of the world. They are symbols of positive forces that are under control. The egg is contained in a stocking, and sewing requires the mastery of the materials being used. The shape of the egg suggests an organized reality that can be grasped and understood, and, therefore, one that has established limits. The dying sailor, however, is the victim of a knife wound, indicating the unleashing of primary and instinctive forces that are destructive and not under control.
Although the phenomena observed are open to interpretation, it is clear that the narrator has come in contact with forces or laws that govern existence, and that a definite organization and order exist. The geometrical progression from a square to a circle is also present in this section and attests to the narrator's movement toward an apprehension of the keys of existence. During one of his walks, he sees a child within a circle, and he attempts to approach him, as he wishes to see his face. He fails and the child disappears. We later discover that this child, and the one that appears in the second story, are the same.
The fourth story concerns an aging music critic, Juan Longo, whose young wife tries to impede the effects the ravages of time have on her aged husband by putting him into a cataleptic trance. His wife places him in a glass urn and carefully watches over him. As the years pass, she slowly becomes insane and is obsessed with the preservation of her husband's body. Longo's colleagues become curious about what happened to him, and they visit his home. His wife partially revives him, enough so that he can babble some nonsense that is taken as profound pronouncements. The delegation of music critics leaves, and Longo's wife dispatches him back to the world of dreams. The delegation unexpectedly returns and becomes fully aware of what is transpiring, and a decision is made to place Longo on public display. He is regarded as the "gran vencedor del temporal" and "el burlador del tiempo." Sensational statements are made about his unusual feat, and people flock to see him.
At this point, the four stories begin to merge, for among those who come to see Longo is the anonymous narrator of the third story. When he peers into the crystal urn, however, he does not see Longo but the child in the second story. And when Longo's wife glances into the urn, she is shocked to see a Roman warrior who is, in effect, the Atrio Flaminio in the first story:
Al poner su rostro en la urna, se oyó tal chillido, que bastó también para astillar la noche y hacer que la cuidadora del sueño infinitamente extensivo descendiese al tenebroso Erebo. ¿Qué vio al asomarse a la urna? El rostro de un guerrero romano, crispado en un gesto de infinita desesperación, tratando de alcanzar con sus manos la capa, las botas, la espada de los legionarios que pasaban para combatir en lejanas tierras. El rostro revelaba una acometividad gimiente e impotente, lloraba por la desesperación de no poder sumergirse en el fuego de la batalla. En su lecho de paja, el rostro encendido por la piedra, cuando había jurado el devenir y las alas de las tropas transportadas hacia las pruebas de la lejanía, sentía que la sangre se negaba a obedecerle y se le enredaba en el rostro, formando falsos círculos negados a la movilidad. En lugar de un crítico musical, rendido al sueño para vencer el tiempo, el rostro de un general romano que gemía inmovilizado al borrarse para él la posibilidad de alcanzar la muerte en el remolino de las batallas.
Longo's wife begins to scream and disturbs him in his trance, causing him to die.
Ya el crítico percibe las gotas de lo temporal, pero no como el resto de los mortales, pues la muerte, no el sueño, comienza a regalarle, ahora sí de verdad, lo eterno, donde ya el tiempo no se deja vencer, ha comenzado por no existir ese pecado.
Atrio Flaminio, Juan Longo, and the child represent different aspects of time. Flaminio is the past; Longo is the present; and the child is the future. They all die, but it is important to realize that death is presented as a means of passing from the realm of the temporal to the realm of the eternal. The temporal is an imperfect world ruled by change or time. Flaminio and Longo's wife attempt to control time by either suspending it or dictating how it should flow. Their error is in trying to control a realm ruled by change, and their attempts only result in the perpetuation of imperfection. Flaminio becomes a victim of suspended imperfection, encased in a moment that can only produce frustration. And Longo's victory over time is only an illusion that is easily destroyed by the disharmonic intrusion of reality. Their attempts to attain perfection in a realm of imperfection are doomed to failure, for they mistakenly regard death as their enemy, when in reality it is their passport to eternity. And eternity represents a realm in which time and imperfection do not exist. They have wronged in attempting to suspend the process of becoming, for it is a course that must be experienced on the road to being.
Chapter 12 ends with a vignette that is not directly related to any of the prior content in the chapter. The sketch is open to interpretation, but it is related to the creative process. Two centurions arrive at the ruins of a Christian temple, which was built over the remnants of an academy for pagan philosophers. They plan to entertain themselves with a game of dice. As they prepare to play, a bust of a geometrician holding a compass falls from one of the decaying walls. They pick up the bust and casually throw it aside, and it becomes wedged in an iron support that holds up the railing of a cupola. They begin to play with the dice, and the first numbers that appear are a two and a three. At this point, the bust of the geometrician falls again, and the point of the compass strikes a die showing the number three, causing the die to tumble over by the other one and both now show the number two. "El cuatro aportado por los dos dados, uno al lado del otro, como si las dos superficies hubiesen unido sus aguas." The two centurions cover themselves with a single cape, leave, and the sketch ends.
The numbers used in the vignette have symbolic meaning and most likely refer to the artistic organization of reality. The compass itself is symbolic of the creative process because it is the instrument with which circles are drawn. The number two most likely stands for duality or separateness, whereas the three denotes synthesis and unity. The creative act breaks down an image into its diverse parts and rearranges the different components into a new form. The unity symbolized by three is destroyed by the compass, and the formation of the four indicates the orderly arrangement of a new form. Therefore, a chapter that deals with man's war against time and his thirst for eternity ends with affirmation of the creative process. It can be surmised that daily and continual change is related to an overall process of creation. Birth and death, growth and decay are only aspects of this process, and man can live his life to its fullest by his own creativity. The essence of life then is to create rather than to preserve what was.
Chapter 12 brings into consideration questions concerning the structure of Paradiso, for the contents in this chapter are well removed from the main development of the novel. For the most part, Paradiso follows a traditional chronological approach and demonstrates great cohesiveness as it explores the Cemí's family tree. However, José's life has little to do with Atrio Flaminio or any of the other characters who appear in Chapter 12. Nevertheless, the chapter's theme can be related to the development of José's appreciation of time and death and his concern with creativity. These matters are presented as being common to all men at all times, and Lezama Lima succeeds in presenting a universal view that is valid in any setting. The chapter also serves as a good example of a technique used throughout the novel. The author begins with widely dispersed factors and unites them into a cohesive whole. He takes characters and events that are separated in time and space and telescopes them into a unified view of reality. As a result, the reader experiences a movement from multiplicity to unity as the fragments of the mosaic swirl into place.
The same technique is used in the presentation of Chapter 13. A disabled bus in Havana is the setting for the introduction of a number of people of diverse interests and backgrounds, and it serves as an ideal site for chance encounters. One of the persons that boards the bus is an old coin collector who turns out to be Licario. During a conversation in the bus, Licario states, "la vida es una red de situaciones indeterminadas, cada coincidencia es algo que quiere hablar a nuestro lado, si la interpretamos incorporamos una forma, dominamos una transparencia." Although life is viewed as a series of chance occurrences, it is asserted that it has form and can be understood. There is system and order in the apparent chaos of life that is accessible to those who will observe and reflect on what they see.
Shortly after the above statement is made, José boards the bus, and Licario notices the initials "J.C." on his wrist. Licario recognizes José as a descendant of the Colonel and concludes that he "ya no se moriría intranquilo, incompleto. Se había verificado el signo que le permitiría recorrer su último camino, con expresión para su pasado y con esclarecimiento para su futuridad." José, of course, does not know Licario, but fate brings them into contact. One of the passengers, Martincillo, picks Licario's pocket only to discover that he has stolen some ancient coins. Not knowing what to do with them, he decides to put them in another passenger's pocket. José witnesses the whole operation, takes the coins from the passenger, and returns them to Licario.
The following day José notices a note in his pocket from Licario. Licario thanks José for returning the coins, invites him to visit, and explains past events that link Licario to José's family:
Conocí a su tío Alberto, vi morir a su padre. Hace veinte años del primer encuentro, diez del segundo, tiempo de ambos sucedidos importantísimos para usted y para mí, en que se engendró la causal de las variaciones que terminan en el infierno de un ómnibus, con su gesto que cierra un círculo. En la sombra de ese círculo ya yo me puedo morir.
The purpose of Licarió's life is closely linked to the destiny of the Cemí family. Having witnessed the death of the Colonel, he now has the opportunity to participate in José's development from adolescence to manhood. Since he knew Alberto, he is also aware of the great talent that was lost to the family by Alberto's untimely death, and he is greatly relieved to be in a position to preside over José's emergence into a full awareness of creativity. Vital creative forces that have been momentarily suspended by death are about to surface, and Licario feels that his destiny is to be fulfilled.
José enters Licario's apartment building and is "mistakenly" taken to the seventh floor by an elevator operator. As he is walking down the corridor, he runs his hand along the wall, an act that reminds the reader of José's episode with a piece of chalk in Chapter 2. He stops and looks out of a window and sees Licario several floors below. Licario is with some of the people who were on the bus, and they are involved in a strange game involving many of the arts. It is a scene of great diversity and confusion. For example, Martincillo, the pickpocket of the earlier part of the chapter, is present and is using a piccolo to poke a crab that is howling like a dog. Licario is presiding over the whole affair as he strikes a bronze triangle and exclaims "estilo sistàltico." The elevator operator says he has made a mistake and that Licario lives down-stairs. They descend to the lowest floor, and Licario opens his door before José has a chance to ring and gives the impression he has been waiting for him. None of the individuals José had seen from the seventh floor are there, and, except for a table and the triangle Licario had been striking, everything is different.
Oppiano Licario presentaba un pantaleón negro y una camisa muy blanca. Mientras se prolongaba la vibración exclamó:—Estilo hesicàstico." Cemí replies, "Veo, señor … que usted mantiene la tradición del ethos musical de los pitagóricos, los acompañamientos musicales del culto de Dionisos." Licario immediately comments, "Veo … que ha pasado del estilo sistàltico, o de las pasiones tumultuosas, al estilo hesicàstico, o del equilibrio anímico, en muy breve tiempo.
The episode conveys a movement from chaos to order and from diversity to unity. The reference to Dionysos is significant, as it is a deity that represents the unleashing of uncontrollable and immense creative energy. This explains Licario's use of the term "estilo sistàltico" during the ritual and his later reference to it as a symbol of "las pasiones tumultuosas." His "estilo hesicástico" refers to order and psychic equilibrium. José has gained control over his inner passions and is now capable of imposing order on chaos. He has, therefore, escaped from the dangers of self-annihilation and dissolution and can now affirm life and existence. This is the symbolism of the white shirt and black trousers, for they are symbols of the positive and negative. Black represents the chaos that precedes organized creativity, that is, the initial stage of the creative process. And white can be the purification of these forces through the imposition of guidance and form. The two colors form a duality in which white (the shirt) is the upper and superior force. Now that this equilibrium has been attained, José is ready to embark on his own career, and Licario ends the chapter with the comment "Entonces, podemos ya empezar."
Licario is a very important factor in José's development, as he connects both José's past and future. His acquaintance with the Colonel and Alberto represents an appreciation of the past that operates as a kind of self-knowledge for José, and his understanding of the creative process helps José to become more fully aware of the potentialities that the future can hold for him. A section of the last chapter in Paradiso is devoted to Licario's past, once again reflecting Lezama Lima's approach to the novel by examining the past so that an appreciation of the present can be gained. Reading Paradiso is like tracing the paths left by several spirals as they wander and swirl through space and slowly converge to form a circle. To a certain extent, Licario represents knowledge of the past in a cultural and historical sense and, therefore, is endowed with the aura of mystery and authority that such wisdom imparts.
Near the end of the novel, José takes a nocturnal walk. His strolling in the night is an allegory of his attempts to penetrate the mysteries of life. The enigmas of existence are presented as a challenge that must be answered and struggled against, for they are riddles that can only be unraveled by great effort. Much of what happens to José during his walk parallels the call to adventure, which is an integral part of the presentation of the hero archetype. José feels that some strange force is compelling him to struggle against the night, and he senses that he is being called to accomplish some feat:
Cemí siguió avanzando en la noche que se espesa, sintiendo que tenía que hacer cada vez más esfuerzo para penetrarla. Cada vez que daba un paso le parecía que tenía que extraer los pies de una tembladera. La noche se hacía cada vez más resistente, como si desconfiase del gran bloque de luz y de la musiquilla del tiovivo. Le pareció ver un bosque, donde los àrboles trepaban unos sobre otros, como el elefante apoyando las dos patas delanteras sobre una banqueta, y sobre el lomo del elefante perros y monos danzando, persiguiendo una pelota, o saltando sobre un ramaje, para caer de nuevo sobre el elefante. La transición de un parque infantil a un bosque era invisiblemente asimilado por Cemí, pues su estado de alucinación mantenía en pie todas las posibilidades de la imagen. No obstante sintió como un llamado, como si alguien hubiese comenzado a cantar, o un nadador que después de unir sus brazos en un triángulo isósceles se lanza a la piscina, más allá de la empalizada. Era un ruido inaudible, la paràbola de una pistola de agua, una gaviota que se duerme mecida por el oleaje, algo que separa la noche del resto de una inmensa tela, o algo que prolonga la noche en una tela agujereada por donde asoman su cabeza de clavo unos carretes de ebonita. Era un pie de buey lo que pisaba a la noche.
The ox is usually a symbol of cosmic forces, and apparently it is used in this context in the above quotation. José is moving into a state in which his awareness of these entities is expanding. The process of becoming is greatly accelerated, and an apprehension of being is more accessible to him. The reference to "todas las posibilidades de la imagen" is important, because it indicates that the poetic image can become a challenge that must be approached with a keen sense of intuition combined with the force and strength of intellectual discipline. Lezama Lima gives the impression that these are the implements that are necessary to gain insight into existence, and that this process is re-created every time one approaches a poetic image. The poet then becomes a leading exponent and glorifier of life, continually challenging his listeners to participate fully in it by increasing and expanding their own awareness.
José continues to move through the night, and among the many things he sees is a mosaic of the Holy Grail located in the center of a circle formed by King Arthur's knights. This is another example of the circle image in the novel, for the quest for the Grail represents the search for the mystic center. José's wanderings finally lead him into a room where a wake is in progress and Licario's sister is waiting for him. Licario has died and as José contemplates the significance of this event, memories of his father and other members of the family come to him. Licario's sister hands him a poem that Licario wrote shortly before dying.
The poem concerns Licario's impending death and its significance to José. It expresses belief in an existence after death and affirms the importance of the spiritual in man's life. The last line reads, "Vi morir a tu padre; ahora, Cemí, tropieza." José is confronted by life's greatest enigma—death—with a poem written by Licario. The word re-creates the enigma of life and also indicates that José's time of trial and tribulation is at hand. Both his father and Licario are dead, and he must now make his own way in the world. However, he is armed with a basic understanding of life's challenges and a definite sense of belonging as he feels that he is part of a tradition formed by those who came before him. José has been bequeathed the most precious of gifts, a spiritual inheritance.
José leaves the wake and stops for a drink in a coffee shop. He begins to idly tap his glass with a spoon, and the sound reminds him of Licario saying "ritmo hesicástico, podemos empezar." With these words the novel ends, marking José's emergence from adolescence and his readiness to venture into the world. One cycle has drawn to a close and another begins.
Paradiso is a remarkable novel, complex, and difficult but extremely rewarding to the reader who expends the effort the novel demands. The world that Lezama Lima creates and his unique way of viewing it leaves an impression that lingers indefinitely, and with the passage of time the novel's magneticism has a persuasive influence on the reader. The world is not quite as terrifying after having read Paradiso, for the novel encourages its reader to see life in its totality. And the view that emerges from this perspective is one of cohesiveness in which there is meaning and purpose. In this respect, Lezama Lima's outlook is not unlike Carpentier's, as both present a panorama that captures essential truths of human existence. Both are very much aware of the vast cultural currents that are operating in human society and of the debt that each individual owes to the past. And both tend to view history as a struggle against formlessness in which man continually battles to impose order on chaos.
However, their emphasis is quite different, for Lezama Lima considers how all these forces focus on the individual, whereas Carpentier's concern is to integrate the individual into the currents that engulf him. The individual is much more a master of his fate in Lezama Lima's view than in Carpentier's. All of the characters in El siglo de las luces, even the formidable Víctor Hugues, are dominated and swept along by the forces operating around them. The characters in Paradiso, on the other hand, discover that true freedom involves the control of one's own inner passions, and that they are victims of themselves as much as by exterior forces. Carpentier's characters struggle to transcend themselves by attempting to create a more perfect social order and world. Lezama Lima's search for an adequate expression of their creative impulse and their integration with life is seen as a celebration of the creative act. Creativity and its relation to time and eternity is a main theme of Paradiso.
The two writers show intellectual discipline in their writings and control their creations. Lezama Lima is more imaginative, and his language is more suggestive than Carpentier's. Conversely, Carpentier's control of form is more polished than Lezama Lima's, and it is unlikely that Carpentier would ever have included a chapter such as Paradiso's Chapter 12 into his works.
Lezama Lima's imagery tends to weaken the structure of his novel at times and would involve him in difficulties were it not for his remarkable control. Paradiso contains indications, however, of a development toward a free use of creative language at the expense of novelistic structure. The control he exercises over the creative process enables him to present his reader with a fairly uniform creation. It is not as cohesive a product as Carpentier's, but it is considerably more structured than Cabrera Infante's Tres tristes tigres, which was published one year later in 1967.
Paradiso and El siglo de las luces explore the workings of time in the historical process and the human psyche, and both works consider chaos to be a definite threat to human existence. It is fair to surmise that both authors are fascinated with, yet somewhat threatened by, the diffusion that chaos represents. Carpentier sees this breakdown of order as part of a cyclical pattern that creates and destroys a countless number of social forms. For Lezama Lima, the process is related to the creative impulse, but one senses a resistance to the destruction of a creative entity once it has come into being. In some respects, the baroque nature of their art seems to be a way of resisting the destructive diffusion caused by the flow of time, an intricate series of bulwarks that guard against the penetration of time's erosive forces. Carpentier finds solace in man's collective unconscious and Lezama Lima in the hermetic image. They both look to the past with nostalgia, when there existed a freshness of spiritual and psychic energy that has become more diffuse and weakened with time.
Although El siglo de las luces and Paradiso do not focus on the contemporary period, their struggles against formlessness reflect some of the basic dilemmas of the present, an era haunted by the specter of complete and total disintegration. It remains to be seen whether man's need for constraints can be balanced with his desire for complete freedom and self-expression. A degree of control is necessary for the orderly progress of humanity and the conservation of a sense of decency, but it can easily degenerate into cruel and stifling repression as in the case of Víctor Hugues. Personal and collective freedom are desirable goals, but it is difficult to ascertain where freedom ends and chaos begins. Foción's avowals of sexual freedom bring him to the brink of chaos and self-destruction, and Sofía's unrestrained desire to transcend the inequities of a social order results in the senseless deaths of Esteban and herself.
There has been a gradual breakdown of form in all the arts in the twentieth century, and in the novel the constraints of structure are weakened by the impulse of creative language. Signs of the beginning of this transition are seen in the novels under discussion in the movement from the presentation of chaos merely as the thematic content of a work to its incorporation into the artistic fabric of a novel. Carpentier considers the problems of formlessness by using them as a major part of the content of his work in his study of the revolutionary process. Formlessness is also a topic in Lezama Lima's novel, but in addition it finds expression in images and becomes partially incorporated into the novel's form.
Cabrera Infante's Tres tristes tigres represents an almost complete embodiment of formlessness into the very language and structure of the novel. This novel creates a world that seems chaotic and without any apparent form, a universe ruled by chance. I will attempt to ascertain whether its chaos is absolute or if there is a new order being created from the ashes of the old.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7300
SOURCE: "Reader's Guide to Paradiso," in Review, No. 29, May-August, 1981, pp. 47-54.
[In the following essay, Fazzolari discusses the sequential development of Paradiso's storyline, focusing on Lezama Lima's use of a "poetic system" that utilizes metaphorical images and language, and symbolic characters and events.]
José Lezama Lima, the outstanding writer to appear in Cuba in this century, began his career as a founder of literary magazines. Verbum, Espuela de Plata (Silver Spur), Nadie Parecía (No One Appeared), and Orígenes (Origins) form a chain of magazines that rescued Cuba from aesthetic mediocrity and attracted the best Cuban talent of the period—in literature, art, and music—while at the same time introducing the public to the most significant innovations occurring in the arts and letters of the rest of the continent and Europe. Orígenes, which enjoyed the greatest prestige and the longest life, gave its name to the two generations of Cuban authors who gathered around Lezama's editorial ventures. These magazines also carried his first works. Verbum published Lezama's first poem, "Muerte de Narcisco" ("Death of Narcissus"), which already manifests one of the poet's great obsessions, the Fall. Veiled in precious and enigmatic expressions, the perfect and spiritual man of the poem's first lines loses his homogeneity and acquires a body. Fall and materialization lead to time, sex, sickness and death, provoking a devastating anguish only consoled in artistic creation.
This theme and its accompanying anguish persist in Enemigo rumor (Hostile Murmurs), Lezama's first poetry collection, which introduces his other two basic themes: resurrection and the felix culpa or fortunate sin, the two experiences that reconcile the poet with the world and its horrors and lead him to see the unity of the opposites good and evil, light and shadow, fall and resurrection. Artistic creation, which had been a consolation, now becomes a way to salvation as well.
In Aventuras sigilosas (Quiet Adventures), his second volume of poetry, Lezama presents a kind of poetic autobiography, almost a novel, with a plot, personification of abstract principles, conflict, confessions, dialogue, and action. This poetic cycle prefigures Paradiso. The fictionalization undergone by the metaphors of Aventuras sigilosas suggested to Lezama his two novels about the apprenticeship of the poet—Paradiso and Oppiano Licario the first dealing with the family and life experiences that lead the poet to poetry, and the second, with the poet's learning of his craft.
The last prose poem of Aventuras sigilosas initiates a new project for Lezama, the search for a "poetic system" that claims to explain the universe through poetry and such poetic elements as the image and the metaphor. This system is developed most completely in the essays of Analecta del reloj (Clock Analect), Tratados en la Habana (Havana Treatises), and La cantidad hechizada (The Enchanted Quantity). For its part, La expresión americana (American Expression) proposes an interesting theory of artistic expression in Latin America, praising the baroque as the most authentic and original style for the continent, triumphant over other styles and even over the European baroque. In two other collections, La fijeza (Fixity) and Dador (Giver), appear some of Lezama's best poems, such as "Arco invisible de Viñales" ("The Invisible Arch of Viñales") and "Para llegar a Montego Bay" ("The Approach to Montego Bay"), whose hermeticism is matched by the brilliance and abundance of their metaphors. In his posthumous book, Fragmentos a su imán (Magnet Fragments), Lezama returns to the simplicity and anguish of the poetry which he left behind with Enemigo rumor.
The Paschal Lamb
Paradiso is, as we said before, an apprenticeship novel. Here we can find the family, life, and expressive circumstances that surround the child and form the poet. The innocent family stories recounted in the first half of the novel conceal a symbolic foundation beneath their relative simplicity, while the symbolism is much more obvious in the complexity of the second half.
José Cemí, gasping with asthma, his small body covered with a rash, is the first image we see. Subjected to a brutal cure and a cabalistic exorcism by Baldovina and two other servants, he awakes the next day completely restored. The two illnesses set the future poet apart from infancy. His asthma indicates a subtle sensibility, a breathing that seeks wider spaces, as if struggling to keep time with a far-away rhythm that only the poet can perceive, the rhythm of the universe. This struggle will translate into an ever-greater opening out of his life, first from the family circle to the world, in his school and university years, and then, when he becomes a poet, to the stars. The rhythm imposed by asthma will mark his poetry as well. From his first article, Lezama used skin as an emblem for poetic sensibility. On several occasions thereafter, he said that "the forces of attraction between men and things do not take hold between one pore and another, but between the pores and the stars." Hence, the delicate yet tough skin of the child prefigures communion with the stars. The spell cast by the three servants, an allegory of the trinity, confirms the transcendental meaning of the illness, which can only be cured by a sacred rite. The greatest significance of asthma lies, however, in the death and rebirth of the child in each attack, a process that forces on him the poetic rhythm par excellence: for Lezama, poetry is "the image of a resurrection that man can achieve."
Food, as corporeal and spiritual nourishment, also possesses a significance that transcends the trivial plot. Culinary conflict conceals a struggle between the forces of tradition, represented by Rialta and doña Augusta, Cemí's mother and grandmother, and the forces of innovation, headed by the cook, Juan Izquierdo. Colonel Cemí, arbitrator of the conflict, solves it by appealing to the memory of José's Basque grandfather, in the moment in which the old man took symbolic possession of his new homeland, until then obstinately rejected. The drama unfolds under a poinciana tree:
Beneath those intermingled reds and greens a lamb was sleeping. The perfection of his sleep extended throughout the valley, led by the spirit of the lake. Sleep made me stumble and trip, obliging me to look around to find a resting place. Motionless, the lamb seemed to be dreaming the tree. I lay on his stomach, which moved as if creating a rhythm favorable to the waves of the dream. I slept the whole day long.
When I got back, the family was searching for me, trying to follow my tracks, but all marks had been wiped out.
The lamb-symbol is obviously derived from Christianity, and the dream indicates a time different from human time, a time of origins, that belongs to the divine order. The Colonel, inspired by his Father, rehires Juan Izquierdo. Thus, the child is able to learn from the strictness and perfectionism of his grandmother, the creative innovation of the cook, and his father's flexibility in taking the best from each.
The grandfather episode serves as one of the corner-stones of the novel, for it takes place at the axis mundi, a sacred place where an overlapping of levels makes communication possible between earth, heaven, and hell. In the first part of Paradiso, the axis mundi takes the form of José Cemí's family tree, where the terrestrial element—the strong trunk—is represented in the Basque grandfather, the celestial element in the mother and the infernal element in Uncle Alberto.
In the second chapter, Cemí learns the lessons of the language of the people and explores the by-ways of "American expression." The "slum rooming-house" episode satirizes the literary world of Havana, setting it on a carnival stage across which parades a long line of picturesque characters. The piece of chalk symbolizes Cemí's poetic destiny: the child's arrival causes the scandal and disturbance that Lezama's own arrival must have caused in the Cuban literary scene, and the accusation made against him: "Here he is, the fellow who deprived us of a clock" alludes to the atemporal, hermetic, religious quality of his writing.
As part of "American expression," Lezama allegorizes the baroque, "America's first master," split into the figures of Tránquilo and Luba. While the former cleans a cut-glass lamp at the top of a stairway, the latter, teetering on a bench, scrubs vigorously at a mirror whose frame is decorated with tropical vegetation. The two reflect the vertical and horizontal movements which, according to Orozco, work together to balance the baroque: the ascending line or yearning for infinity which kindled the Counter Reformation, and the horizontal path, the curiosity about humanity and nature, dating from the Renaissance. Nevertheless, this is a European balance; in America it breaks down, to be reorganized and replaced by a new unity. As the author of La expresión americana puts it: "First, there is a tension in the baroque; secondly, a Plutonism, an originating fire that breaks the fragments apart and reunites them." The tension emerges between Luba's aggressivity and Tránquilo's elusiveness; the Plutonism, in the resulting disorder and damage, expressed with Lezama's usual stylistic brilliance:
Suddenly the unstable balance between Tránquilo's cautious ascent and Luba's fierce and jolly horizontal expansion was lost. The lamp fell, shattering on the top of the ladder, and simultaneously the animals and plants in the mirror frame, liberated from the bombardment of paper and alcohol, recovered their lost natural aspect and primal temperament.
The strange alloy that results is broken by Captain Viole's satirical tirade, in which he reproaches Tránquilo for his magical powers and his unorthodox method of taming horses. Tránquilo symbolizes the poet, as he spends his days on horseback drinking in the sun and his nights absorbing dew:
His nocturnal porous opening up caused distance and starriness to reach into his marrow, giving him a secret and silent security.
Tránquilo works as a horse-breaker because, for Lezama, the "winged horse" is the emblem of poetry, tamed by an unlikely method that ends "with a soft copulative violence."
In contrast to Tránquilo's absorbent pores, the skin of Doctor Copek, who forms part of the staff sent with Colonel Cemí to Jamaica, rejects the sun and prevents it from penetrating to his bones. This rejection leads to a tragicomic episode in which the Doctor is possessed by a roguish divinity who lodges in his left armpit, from where he can be expelled only with a magic rite. Lezama has been accused of racial prejudice for introducing black culture in this way; but the main thrust of the satire here is directed against Doctor Copek's extremely white skin. If black odors are seen as a capricious demon, the excessive whiteness of the Doctor's skin, his inability to absorb the sun's rays, betray a lack of sensibility. Here there is neither white nor black racism, but rather allegoric necessity.
Indian expression—in the Colonel's trip to Mexico—is chthonian, subterranean, and diabolic; here the devil of the Christian tradition forms an alliance with the lords of Xibalbá, from the Popul Vuh, sacred book of the Maya. In a society of hidden, unshared pleasures, a Mexican diplomat keeps an enormous diamond in his watchcase; Taxco dancers conceal their faces behind masks assigned to each one from birth; and a blind man in Cuernavaca, who repeats "for the love of God" incessantly, whether or not anyone is passing by, seems "to be sitting there measuring the time of another eternity by a different standard." In this episode, the forces of light, personified by the Colonel, and those of darkness, symbolized by the Mexicans and Vivo (one of the Taxco dancers) lock into an allegorical struggle. Out of this conflict comes the above-mentioned Plutonism—"that breaks the fragments apart and reunites them"—forming the Mexican baroque, which attained such brilliance.
Chapters III and VII are dedicated to family history. This is the part that recalls Proust most strongly. Lezama has often been compared to Proust, not withstanding the fact that Proust recounts events which he has witnessed, while Lezama acts rather as listener to family stories, most of which took place before his birth, in order to retransmit the stories charged with symbolism to his readers.
While Proust tries to recapture a time once lived, with its accompanying sensations, and to fix it forever in his book, Lezama seeks to give his family's history, whether or not he witnessed it, a transcendent meaning. If, in doing this, he manages to write a magnificent chronicle of Cuban life at the turn of the century, so much the better.
During the War of Independence, Lezama's mother's family emigrated to Jacksonville, Florida. To this period belongs the vivid image of the child Rialta clinging to the topmost branches of a tree, reaching for an inaccessible nut. Second branch of the family-tree, Rialta puts it into communication with the sky. Rialta is a bridge to the divine:
[she] stretched out along the branches that creaked loudest, to reach the aged shells filled with double concave foreheads, muzzling each other softly…. Suddenly the light began to pour in around her, safeguarding her once more in her secure earthly landing.
But the word used by Lezama, here translated as "landing," is neither "atterizaje" nor "caída," but "levitación"—"levitation"—the opposite of "descent." If the reader does not understand the role played by the little girl in the tree, the word "levitation" makes no sense nor will the other unlikely events which occur in this novel, which depends on symbolic meaning rather than verisimilitude.
The conversation between doña Augusta and Mr. Squabs, which follows, deals with willpower and illuminates one of the pillars of Lezama's poetic system—"oblique experience." The concept is based on the mysteries of the will as illustrated by this verse from Matthew's Gospel: "I reap where I sowed not, and I gather where I have not strewed." "Oblique experience" results when will is added to chance. Lezama has compared it to the act of a man who "flicks the light switch in his apartment and starts a waterfall in Ontario." Through connections that link things with no apparent relation, man can influence the supra-terrestrial world. But the gods are wilful: instead of lighting up our room, they may send us a waterfall, but in Ontario. Thus when dona Augusta asks Flery to describe the mouth of a canon on the evidence of his slippers, the girl replies without hesitation: "Small and very red." A poetic answer is thus extracted from a silly girl:
"Perhaps he wasn't like that," Augusta pondered, "but you can see now, Florita, how the act of giving those slippers produces miracles, so that your daughter can reconstruct his figure perhaps in the shape that the good canon wanted for the final appointment in the Valley of Jehoshaphat."
Lezama's verbal extravagance combined with his gift for observation deepens into metalanguage: this episode is riddled with comments on the magical power certain expressions have for the family. The verbal fertility overflows in the hermetic description of the orgies celebrated by Elpidio Michelena, the boss of Cemí's grandfather, Andrés Olaya. Out of the impenetrable obscurity emerges an impression of superabundant vitality, which is reflected, in its turn, by a superabundance of words. And behind the orgiastic vitality is the pathos of the death of Andresito, the first in a long chain of deaths in the novel: tragic and grotesque deaths, quiet and catastrophic deaths, expected and unexpected deaths, deaths that redeem and others that condemn; each different from the others and all part of the same death that leads to rebirth in light or darkness but always in accordance with the same fruitful mechanism.
The family history of Cemí's father parallels that of the country in its counterpoint between the Basque husband and the Creole wife, echoing the counterpoint of sugar and tobacco. This fragment reads like a poetic commentary on Fernando Ortiz' famous book, in which tobacco becomes the badge of the Indian and sugar-cane that of the Spanish conquistador:
When your father packed us up and took us to the Central, he never imagined that he was ruining our whole family. We were used to the gentle labors of Vuelta Abajo, tobacco and honey. We had that refinement of inlanders devoted to the cultivation of the finest leaves and to divining the exterior signs of the insects in relation to the seasons…. One day the whole Méndez troupe arrived at Resolución from Pinar del Río, and those scandalous, foul-smelling expanses of green, those fields of vulgar cane, an effusion of nature to us who were used to a more varied panorama, at first disturbed us, but finally we succumbed to its overwhelming extent. Underneath it all lay the submission of my whole family to your father's brutal decision.
The response to doña Augusta's words about will-power can be found in the improbable dining-hall scene in José Eugenio's and Alberto's boarding school. The Director cuts the bread and throws the pieces at the students from his table, thus forcing them to concentrate on their work while remaining alert to whatever an unpredictable chance or grace might send them. This awareness of "the sudden" forms another pillar in Lezama's poetic system, complementary to "oblique experience." The "sudden" is the instantaneous achievement of poetic knowledge, comparable to Christian revelation or the concept of grace, or to Romantic inspiration.
Although the first half of Paradiso corresponds to innocence, this closed world potentially harbors both good and evil, light and darkness. These possibilities unfold in Chapter V, divided between José Eugenio who represents light and uncle Alberto who represents darkness. The process begins in the school toilets where Alberto has been sent as a punishment, with a hermetic, dream-like scene in which the boy feels the attraction of Angra Mainyu, the force of evil and darkness, the Ahriman of Persian dualism. Alberto escapes from the school and spends the night out in a series of adventures that add up to an initiation into hell:
All around, those not under the infernal spell, those who rock their heads in the perfume of the blessed air, hear songs, the creaking of wheat carts. Only the furtive one, in the little hell of that neighborhood, hears the stony bell, the rotten clapper, the mosquitoes who scratch the stone to bite the archangelic horse of the blacksmith, its mouth full of fine sand.
These adventures include Alberto's sexual initiation by the girl with the cactus flower and his meeting with Oppiano Licario, the personification of poetry. The latter, however, is not named, for, although artistic creation results from the Fall and can be a way to salvation, Alberto's fate is already determined and there is no salvation for him.
The Birth of the Image
Chapter VI, which begins with the celebration of the wedding of José Cemí's parents and ends with the Colonel's death, is full of anecdotes about the protagonist's childhood. Although the Colonel is frequently described as joyful and surrounded by a halo of clarity, the figure which emerges is neither as attractive nor as sympathetic as that of the demonic Alberto. The father is a strong man who strives for perfection and has little patience with the weaknesses of others, especially with that of his children. His lessons, his healing methods, and even his jokes are harsh and counter-productive to the point of cruelty, as in the episodes of the boat, the bathtub, the swimming pool, Demetrio, and the running joke of death behind the door. The Colonel only succeeds in terrorizing his entire family, including himself.
The boat episode prefigures the separation of death, and, indirectly, the break-up of the family. Julio Ortega has said that "the father's finger seems to repeat the gesture of God the Father giving form to Adam." The motifs of the finger and water multiply in Cemi's nightmares, and the boy seeks salvation first through the fish of Christianity and, later, through his mother. In this way, he is able to reconcile his own helplessness, his terror at his father's jokes, his illness, and his mother's role as intercessor. The answer lies in poetry:
Then a broad fish swam up in ingenuous Christmas pinkness, moving its iridescent fins as if combing itself. The fish eyed the forsaken finger and laughed. Then it took the finger into its mouth and began to afford its protection. Towing him by the finger, it brought him to a patch of floating moss where the carefully calculated rhythm of his new breathing began. Then he no longer saw salvation in the fish, but instead his mother's face.
Here the pattern of "Muerte de Narciso" is repeated: separation, anguish, and salvation through poetry, the latter symbolized by "the carefully calculated rhythm of his new breathing." Another prophetic incident is the one of the grindstone and the student. The father shows the child two images, which the latter transposes; asked another day, "What is a student?", the boy answers with metaphors alluding to the grindstone, making his father marvel at "his son's rare gift of metaphor, his prophetic and symbolic way of understanding a profession." Prophetic and symbolic," Julio Ortega has commented:
because, for Cemí, as his destiny unfolds, the opposition between the two images turns out to be false: he integrates them through language, thus replacing his father's didactic finger with his own transposing one.
At his father's death, José Cemí discovers his poetic vocation. From that moment on, he lives in the presence of an absence, his eyes alert to every appearance of the "image"—as Lezama calls the ineffable mysteries—and his ears sharpened for any expression—in Lezama's system, any "metaphor"—that can capture this image and embody it in round, solid words.
Thus "Image" and "metaphor" join the other two pillars of the poetic system, "the sudden" and "oblique experience." The "image" is a thread from the hidden and the invisible made palpable in "the sudden"; the "metaphor" is material things breaking their specific limits through "oblique experience" and making contact with the absent and invisible in such a way as to allow the "image" to show forth. Cemí receives his initiation into the secrets of the "image" and the "metaphor" in stages. The first stage is the game of jacks, a ritual in which the Colonel's image appears to his family, called up by the children's intense concentration, the presence of Rialta—bridge to the supernatural—and the sacred power of the home. Rialta, the children, the jacks, the ball, and the pavement serve as metaphors which, in a series of changing combinations—squares, circles, vertical movements of the ball, horizontal hand gestures for sweeping up the jacks, and, no less important, the symbolism of the numbers—summon up the presence of the absent father:
Suddenly, in a flash, the cloud broke up to make way for a new vision. On the tiles imprisoned by the circle the full tunic of the Colonel appeared, a darkish yellow that grew lighter, the buttons on the four pockets brighter than copper. Above the still collar, the absent face, smiling from a distance, happy perhaps, partaking in some undecipherable contentment that could not be shared, while he watched his wife and children inside that circle that united them in space and time under his gaze.
The second stage comes with Cemí's initiation into poetic language, into "language made nature." It includes two key moments: Alberto's letter on fish and the chess game. A hallucinatory description of tropical fish abounding in sexual allusions and humor, the letter erases the symbolic meaning given to the fish by Christianity and replaces it with a sexual one. Acting as officiant, Alberto, the family demon, here presents the option of salvation through sin, deeply rooted in the symbolist tradition:
"'The north coast is protrusive, promontorial, phallic, the south coast is concave, like a woman's ass. Dry and damp, flute and horn, a grassless glans, a grassy vulva.'"
But the battle for salvation is not truly joined until later, in the chess game, through a brilliant outpouring of images. Lezama once described warriors as:
a group of men who, in victory or in defeat, achieve a unity in which the metaphor of their bond produces one total image.
It follows that the chess game is an image of the image achieved by warriors in battle, and, in Lezama, the image is always linked to resurrection. In this sequence, Alberto suggests the Orphic descent which will make the struggle for salvation possible.
The dinner-table scene brings the family together only to disperse it afterwards. As a farewell to childhood and innocence, it is loaded with dark omens: the beet-juice stains on the table-cloth resemble blood stains, the conversation turns to vultures and leprosy, sexual insinuations abound. However, the general tone of the scene is happy, centered around the joy of eating together. Alberto's unexpected death comes only after a long series of ominous and symbolic events. Dr. Santurce announces doña Augusta's grave illness and probable death; the news crushes Alberto. Oppiano Licario tries to approach him, but fails, leaving him to his fate. Fate takes the form of a Mexican guitarist, emblem of death and the devil, who appears to challenge Alberto. The musician's first defeat is only temporary, for Alberto finds him death in the company of another guitarist during a car trip to Marianao. On the road the condemned man sees visions of glory arising from the counterpoint between the landscape and the guitar-player's songs:
Some blue flamboyants under the waxing moon built arches beneath which the carp of the first-born were to pass, homage of the nobility to the progeny of the sainthood, blue created to intensify the passage of a fish on a tray of hammered copper.
Soon the vision changes into one of "a little worm with malignant horns," then into "Satan's hosts," and finally into "the plants that need fire to reach man." Diabolic allusions multiply, until the last song declares Alberto's fate: to spend eternity in darkness and to burn in the fire of hell. Of course, the prediction is indirect, for Lezama believed that "only the difficult stimulates" and tended to be more oblique as the ideas he wished to express became more transcendent.
Alberto's turbulent death drags the young protagonist to his fall and introduces him to a world of sex tinted in the most vivid colors. The adventures of Laregas and Farraluque, two exemplars of virility, run the gamut from simple exhibitionism to homosexuality, covering a range of nuances that includes the ridiculous and culminates in a grotesque absolute with the episode of the charcoal warehouse, an image of hell.
The results of the Fall are the break-up of the family after the trip to Santa Clara; Cemí's awareness of time, identified with the line of the horizon and the fragmentation of self. In Santa Clara, Cemí makes friends with Fronesis, and, on returning to Havana, with Foción. The three friends represent three archetypes, the three parts of the human soul, according to the German mystics: Foción stands for instinct; Fronesis, as his name indicates, for reason; and Cemí, for the divine spark which still burns in man after the Fall.
The axis mundi, personified in Rialta, the Basque grandfather, and Uncle Alberto, in the descent toward the Fall, now—in the second half of Paradiso—centers on these three figures, Foción, Fronesis, and Cemí, who participate in the ascending movement that culminates in poetry.
The story of Godofredo the Devil is the most tragic and absurd episode in this infernal chapter, and also the only one to end in punishment, a terrible one: madness, the loss of an eye, and death. Curiously, it is also the only story in which sexual contact plays no part. The villains are desertion, alcoholism, intrigue, infidelity, and sadomasochism. Lezama's attitude is neither that of an ascetic nor of a libertine but rather that of a humanist who looks upon the sexual excesses of youth with an understanding smile and condemns only those who allow cruelty to prevail over natural bodily attraction.
According to a principle similar to that of the fruitfulness of death, any chaotic situation, whether revolution or orgy, can open the way for a new revelation; that is why the revolution in Chapter IX has a special significance. When Cemí reaches home after the riot, his mother, who has awaited him anxiously, tells him:
Don't reject danger and always try what is most difficult…. When a man throughout his days has tested what is most difficult, he knows that he has lived in danger, and even through the succession of its waves has been peaceful, he knows that a day has been assigned to him in which he will not see the fish inside the current, but the fish in the starry basket of eternity.
Son of a soldier and grandson of patriots, Cemí feels his ancestors urging him toward action. Yet his temperament, his tastes, and his experiences point him toward meditation and poetry. His mother's words force him to make a choice, to confirm his destiny as a poet. Suetonius' chapter on Nero warns Cemí against a vocation without talent, but his poetic ambitions are reaffirmed when he recognizes himself in Goethe's Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship.
Now Cemí faces another decisive crossroads, the question of sexual identity. It is posed in a scandalous episode that takes place in the university, in a long discussion about homosexuality, and in the two visions that frame the two incidents. In the debate, Fronesis maintains that homosexuality is an ancestral memory of the mythic age when man reproduced through dreams, without needing carnal union. Foción accuses him of justifying "something that can't be justified, because it's deeper than justification." Foción concludes that homosexuality is a "hypertely" of immortality, a yearning to create something beyond the flesh or even the spirit, something totally new and unknown. He cites several famous homosexuals in support of his belief that artistic works embody a mystery that no normal man can achieve. Fronesis' answer ends with a beautiful hymn to man and to the diversity of the senses:
His body, the carrier of all impulses, reopens in the diversity of the senses, but vice and repugnance reach him only when he picks up a shred of the breeze, and his experience turns to powder when he emphasizes a particular sense.
The discussion is cut short by the arrival of Lucía—a living example of "the diversity of the senses"—who comes to tempt Fronesis. He accepts the challenge more out of courtesy and the will to perform what he considers his duty to explore this diversity, than out of true pleasure. Cemí sees homosexuality as a trap set by the devil, creating "another fall within the fall." He concludes that sin lies in seeking out and persisting in vice, but vice is forgivable as long as it is treated as a stage to be overcome.
After the discussion, as he goes down the University steps, Cemí sees a cart with an enormous phallus and "facing it the vulva of an opulent woman" decorated with a large black bow. Two genies comically point the phallus toward its destination. The black bow links the fear of women to fear of death, two fears which, once overcome, lead to the creation of a new being in carnal union with a woman. This creation in turn becomes the emblem of literary creation and resurrection, the union of contraries, flesh and spirit, a true hypertely of immortality.
Fronesis, representing reason, avoids the pitfall of homosexuality in the episode with Lucía. He exorcises his fear of the vagina dentata by cutting two circles out of his undershirt—the circles of Ouroboros, symbol of immortality—and using them to cover Lucía's vulva. On his way home, he walks along the Malecón mourning the loss of his innocence, and throws the shirt into the sea:
Before sinking, the undershirt coiled itself like a snake on which someone has conferred immortality, while at the same time in the fatty concavities of the man's body the phallic serpent was appearing; it was necessary to create precisely in order to lose immortality. Thus man was mortal, but creator, and the phallic serpent became a fragment that had to rise again.
Here, unfortunately, the translation betrays us. Immortality, in the original, is not lost with creation but regained, since creation is a substitute for surviving in children or works. However, the allusion to resurrection is spelled out in the image of man stripped of his intemporal homogeneity, becoming "a fragment that had to rise again."
By using a collage technique, Lezama is able to intercut scenes from the encounter between Lucía and Fronesis with Fronesis' family history and Foción's adventure with the redhaired boy. Fronesis' mother is presented as a two-headed dragon: the fleshly mother, tangled in the chaos of her instincts, manipulating, unscrupulous; and the spiritual mother, kindly and serene. By contrast, Foción is the product of an uncertain paternity shrouded in a fog of drugs and madness, and a mother who represents pure materiality, hopeless chaos. Foción's encounter with the red-haired boy, in which the former sinks deeper into his desperate chaos, contrasts with Fronesis' struggle with and final defeat of his fears. Fronesis' sacrifice, implying an acceptance of the Fall, allows him to understand creation. This theme will grow in importance and lead to Cemí's discovery of poetry. That is why, in a conversation on Nietzsche the next day at the University, Cemí tells Fronesis, "Ego te absolvo": the sacrifice has acted as a felix culpa or redeeming sin.
The fibrous heart tumor—"a dragon run through by a lance, by a ray of light"—for which Cemí's mother is operated sums up this sacrifice and symbolizes the union of contraries. Since "mother" and "matter" have the same root, the tumor becomes an emblem for poetry.
Lezama has called any combination of matter and image monstrous, especially when it occurs on a high level, as in poetry and orchestral music. The mother's operation repeats a sacrifice that opens the way to a new life, the first step toward literary practice.
"The ascent of number put to song," which Cemí and Fronesis achieve in the University, is the first example of this practice. Numbers, along with fractions and multiplication, pertain to the fallen man, and the Fall led to the sanctification of numbers practiced by Pythagoras and his disciples, and continued by the two friends. The dragon motif—symbolizing matter—has gradually changed its shape and now appears in the form of a chorus of students who surround Cemí and Fronesis, passing through successive transformations until they become a symbol of resurrection:
But once again St. George with his miraculous spurs will alert his courser to jump and tire the dragon. Urged on by the terrestrial explosions of that day of resurrection. St. George, now astride Pegasus, will fall upon the constellation Draco, breaking his chains of stars, his ember head, his maw fattened with febrile moon.
St. George, astride Pegasus, is an emblem of the poet, for as he pursues the image of resurrection, he fulfills the function assigned to the poet in Lezama's system. Resurrection in the flesh, a Christian concept that overcomes the duality between matter and spirit, provides the model for this duty to unify which Lezama imposes on the poet. He proposes to rescue the flesh from the contempt in which it has been held and to present it as an integral part of the totality created in resurrection and in poetry.
The three young men redouble their literary exercises. Fronesis dedicates a poem to Cemí; Foción dedicates another to Fronesis; and Cemí experiments with images and space-time groupings like the one of the bacchante, the Cupid, and the silver cup from Puebla, and makes an important verbal discovery in the word tamiela, which he analyses into ten different meanings, two of which, 'treasure' and 'latrine,' are complete opposites:
The site where one guards both the most valuable and the most insignificant or abjured, but which, nevertheless, favored the course of the seasons with its demoniac, sulphurous aid to the earth. This warns us to beware distinctions. It commends to us the great One, the treasure of excretion and the excretion of treasure.
This discovery by Cemí corresponds to Fronesis' conjuration and is inverted in Foción's incestuous and homosexual adventure in New York, when he, in his own way, manages to unite the contraries "sun, earth, and moon." Foción sinks into madness, Fronesis disappears, and dona Augusta's death marks Cemí's arrival at poetry.
The Destruction of Time and Space
In the ecstasy of the poet, as in that of the mystic, time stops flowing and eternity takes its place, gathering all moments into one. Lezama expresses this passage of time into eternity and its contrary movement through a story with a spiral structure consisting of four anecdotes which illustrate four alternative ways to defeat time: by fame, in the story of Atrius Flaminius; by repetition, in the anecdote of the child and the vase; by insomnia, in the one of the wakeful man; and by sleep, in the story of the music critic. Two of these characters, the child and the insomniac, seem to be alter egos of Cemí's, part of another effort to cancel time by showing the same person at different moments in his life. But all of these attacks on time are literary. Time is finally and definitively destroyed only in death, where "that sin no longer exists," and that is why all of the characters in the story die: Atrius Flaminius, the child, the insomniac, the music critic, and his guardian. Their deaths are emblematic: they die to the world and submerge in the divinity reached through poetic or mystical ecstasy.
Space also disappears in the ecstasy of creation. Lezama annuls it in the perpetual motion of a magical omnibus guided by a bull's head rotating on a steel wheel. Like those medieval ships that carried the dead to their final port, the magical bus takes poets to poetry, personified by Oppiano Licario. Thus the Havana literary world left behind in Chapter II reappears with its almost forgotten characters. The stalled omnibus represents a literature paralyzed by routine. When it acquires a new bull's head and new passengers, it starts on its way again. Inside, Oppiano Licario—Icarus of the word—forms the center of a heterogenous group which lacks neither a Judas—Martincillo, who robs the treasure of poetry (Licario's coins) and abandons it when it proves worthless to him—nor a saviour, Cemí, who restores the treasure to its rightful owner. Here Adalberto, Vivino, and Martincillo represent the systaltic or tumultuously passionate style, while Cemí exemplifies the hesychastic alternative, spiritual equilibrium.
Oppiano's coins are stamped on one side with a Pegasus, emblem of poetry, and on the other with an Athena. The goddess testifies to the intellectual and balanced character of poetry, what Lezama has called "aristia," or "Athena's protection in the whirlwind of combat." The stolen coins belong to the elect, for, in the end, only those who have been chosen enter Oppiano's house.
The last chapter of Paradiso shows a complexity capable of upsetting any attempt at interpretation. Here we find Oppiano Licario's daily life, his poetic method, and the traps which he lays to lead Cemí into his mortuary chamber. Oppiano's poetic method is based on a magic in which words control reality. By means of "the shock of the poetic syllogism," his answers provoke a reality which can be either future, historic, or recent, because his words aim at the center of eternity, the very source of time. Just as the poet once transposed the student and the grindstone, so now he transposes places and epochs. "Oblique experience" and "the sudden" govern this poetic syllogism.
Sometimes the poet's sentences emerge incomplete and seek their complements. At other times, they burst out with overwhelming force and impose a complete picture of a situation or an epoch. Historic incidents are incessantly transposed with recent events—such as those following Cochrane's party—in order to illustrate Oppiano's method. The resulting stories—allegories of the struggle against the devil, Salado, the Salty One, the Destroyer—emerge from emptiness or from a phrase. For example, the story of Baron Rothschild and Kamariskaya is born when Oppiano reads a mysterious inscription in an empty vitrine "Pieces belonging to a service marked with the kirimon or trifoliate paulownia of the Imperial Family of Japan, lost during the Baron's lifetime." The anecdote of the Venetian senator's murder may come from The Venetian Gazette or from the Compilation of Notices for Amsterdam Merchants. The story of Logakón derives from the phrase "next to him on the left" and from three empty spaces: the neighboring seat at the Opera during a performance of Faust; the room next-door at the boarding house; and the neighboring table in the café. The magic of these apparently simple words manages to call a man out of eternity and to give him flesh. His name, Logakón, comes from Logos, 'the word.' He is the word incarnate, although the reference is not to Jesus but to the poetic word that acquires its dazzling prestige through the reverberations of analogy.
After Logakón's suicide, Licario imagines his last adventure. He will plant himself head-down in the earth, sending forth roots, branches and leaves like a tree: an image of resurrection (from an aerial perspective) which prefigures Licario's own death and resurrection.
From death, Oppiano spreads the nets that lead Cemí into his funeral chamber. As he strolls through the night, Cemí sees a three-story house with all the windows lit (lost nature); then a playground and, on the merry-go-round, a caretaker looking like "the helmsman of some infernal machine" (fallen nature); and, lastly, a forest "where the trees climbed up over each other" surrounding a house which suggests the supernatural. Cemí enters the deserted house and on the terrace finds many emblems:
And every trefoil showed a key as if nature and super-nature had been united in something meant to penetrate, to jump from one region to another, in order to reach the castle and interrupt the feast of the hermetic troubadours.
This is poetry, the crown of Lezama's system: an enchanted castle where the invisible and the palpable—what Lezama has called causality and the uncaused—lock in combat, from which there emerges a new "causality that unites man and divinity, or death and the circle." Cemí reaches poetry by closing up "the space of the Fall," for his encounters are punctuated by the same songs that followed Uncle Alberto to his death. Only one testimony remains from that overwhelming encounter: the poem which Licario's sister delivers to Cemí in the funeral chamber:
Reason and memory by chance
will see the dove attain
faith in the super-natural.
In the funeral chapel, the rhythm of poetry makes itself felt together with the rhythm of the universe and the lack of response, for the poet shoots his arrow into the infinite without hope of any response, without any assurance of hitting the mark. Poetry is a stumble, a kind of madness which Cemí must now assume under the lead of his master Licario, whose last words—"rhythm of hesychasts, now we can begin"—belong to the ceremonies of initiation he will perform in the pages of the novel Oppiano Licario, where the three friends meet again in order to achieve a new and definitive unity.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 425
Cascardi, Anthony J. "Reference in Lezama Lima's Muerte de Narciso." Journal of Spanish Studies 5, No. 1 (Spring 1977): 5-11.
Discusses the poetic style, structure, and thematic content of The Death of Narcissus.
Cortázar, Julio. "An Approach to Lezama Lima." Review, No. 74 (Fall 1974): 20-5.
Remarks on his reactions to Paradiso.
Firmat, Gustavo Pérez. "The Strut of the Centipede: José Lezama Lima and New World Exceptionalism." In his Do the Americas Have a Common Literature?, pp. 316-32. Duke University Press, 1990.
Discusses La expresión americana, focusing on the role of American culture as a "landscape" in which neo-baroque aesthetics encounter worldly ecstasy, wonder, and joy, and converge to create a "uniquely" American hermeneutic of literary expression.
Goytisolo, Juan. Review of Oppiano Licario, by José Lezama Lima. The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4627 (6 December 1991): 14-15.
Remarks favorably on Oppiano Licario.
Irby, James. "Figurative Displacements in a Prose Poem of Lezama Lima: A Commentary on Peso del sabor." In Essays on Hispanic Literature in Honor of Edmund L. King, edited by Sylvia Molloy and Luis Fernández Cifuentes, pp. 123-39. London: Tamesis Books, 1983.
Discusses the "apocalyptic" themes and structural elements of Peso del sabor.
Lutz, Robyn R. "The Tribute to Everyday Reality in José Lezama Lima's Fragmentos a su imán." Journal of Spanish Studies—Twentieth Century 8, No. 3 (Winter, 1980): 249-66.
Examines Fragmentos a su imán, focusing on the themes, structure, and literary devices used in several poems, including "La mujer y la casa," "El esperado," and "El pabellón del vacío."
Pellón, Gustavo. "Portrait of the Cuban Writer as French Painter: Henri Rousseau, José Lima's Alter Ego." MLN 103, No. 2 (March 1988): 350-73.
Examines the influence of the French painter Henri Rousseau on Lezama Lima's writings.
Pérez Firmat, Gustave. "Descent into Paradiso: A Study of Heaven and Homosexuality." Hispania 59, No. 2 (May 1976): 247-57.
Discusses homosexuality in Paradiso.
Schwartz, Ronald. "Lezama Lima: Cuban Sexual Propensities." In Nomads, Exiles, & Emigres: The Rebirth of the Latin American Narrative, 1960–80, pp. 24-33. Scarecrow Press, 1980.
Examines the plot and characters of Paradiso and suggests that in spite of the novel's elaborate literary style, it remains "a linguistic tour de force."
Siemens, William L. "The Birth of the Author in the Recent Cuban Novel." In La Chispa '87: Selected Proceedings, edited by Gilbert Paolini, pp. 291-96. New Orleans: Tulane University, 1987.
Examines the development of the novel in Cuba since 1868.