Severo Sarduy

Start Free Trial

Donald Ray Johndrow (essay date Spring 1972)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: "'Total' Reality in Severo Sarduy's Search for Lo Cubano," in Romance Notes, Vol. XIII, No. 3, Spring, 1972, pp. 445-52

[In the following essay, Johndrow examines Gestos and De donde son los cantantes, exploring Sarduy's use of "pintura gestual" as a device for representing what it is to be Cuban.]

In Paris to study art criticism Severo Sarduy fell under the influence of French authors (such as Alain Robbe-Grillet), artists and critics. Applying techniques involved in the plastic arts, he tries to lead the reader to a higher understanding of a situation by presenting him with a painting whose colors are words and whose canvas is the book, thus interpreting reality in terms of painting rather than in conventional literary ones. He tries to maintain a maximum distance from his works arguing that the new or "total" realism cries for an honest reproduction of an object (or person) as opposed to an "artistic" interpretation. An accurate view of twentieth century reality would not see a subjective man-centered world, but an object world inhabited by man. Since "todo objeto tiene un sonido interno que es independiente de su significado exterior," objects have more than utilitarian importance [Severo Sarduy, "De la pintura de objectos a los objects que pintan," Mundo Nuevo, No. 1, July, 1966].

Originally brought into a man-world for his convenience, objects which have the capability of producing yet other objects now dominate. Men, too, are the creatures and not creators of language, "condicionados por sus estructuras." Man brought language into existence for the convenience of communication only to find that now his life is dependent on language and communication. Having invented himself into dependency and subordination, he still retains the right to control the existence or non-existence of his objects and language. Nevertheless, because of the complex relationships developed between man, object and language, through destroying them man would virtually be committing suicide. At least superficially accepting the principles of the "nouveau roman," Sarduy changes traditional perspectives by placing objects on an equal footing with man and by using new systems of language.

In Paris, with the perspective of distance, Sarduy intensified his search for the meaning of Cuban culture, an intrinsic element in his fiction. He says in an interview with Emir Rodríguez Monegal:

Mientras estaba en Cuba, era algo que estaba demasiado presente; no podía saber qué era. Cuando quedó lejos, pude empezar a plantearme esa pregunta [¿Qué es Cuba?], que es la que poco a poco ha centrado mi trabajo. A saber: cuáles son las posibilidades, diria de un modo un poco presuntuoso, las posibili dades ontoláogicas, las posibilidades de ser de mi país. ["Las estructuras de la narración", Mundo Nuevo, 2, August, 1966]

The Cuban revolution intensified the quest for self-knowledge and the search for cultural identity. Believing that a society cannot form from a vacuum, the Cuban revolutionary government hopes effectively to formulate a new Cuban identity, a problem which Severo Sarduy considers in his two novels.

In the first novel, Gestos (1963), he limits himself to showing the daily routine of being a Cuban living in the twentieth century, specifically that of a Negress who washes clothing by day and performs at night. Besides being a washerwoman-singer-actress she is also a terrorist and plants bombs.

Sarduy says that the title, Gestos, refers more to the artistic technique of pintura gestual rather than a mere movement of hands: "El arte me sirvió de intermediario con la realidad, como en la segunda novela el lenguaje ha sido el intermediario" ["Las estructuras …"]. He employs this technique (

(This entire section contains 2442 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

rather than a mere movement of hands: "El arte me sirvió de intermediario con la realidad, como en la segunda novela el lenguaje ha sido el intermediario" ["Las estructuras …"]. He employs this technique (pintura gestual) so that when the reader begins a chapter in the book the impression of a drawing, usually in colors, forms in his mind. At first he is not sure of the reality being represented by the text, but details usually follow adding the needed information to form an interpretable reality.

Often this gestural drawing in words causes confusion in the mind of the reader in trying to distinguish objects from people. In one case Sarduy speaks simultaneously of a stoplight changing from red to amber to green and of a man wearing red socks and green trousers. In another part of the novel he sketches the arrival of the azules (police):

El auto azul y blanco, el auto azul con el techo blanco, el gran reflector deiante, el auto azul de la policía que suena siempre la sirena, la policía los azules bajan armados, y claro está, disparan.

Sarduy uses language very skillfully in certain parts of Gestos. Once when he switches from narration to an apparent interior monologue in which he tries to show rapidly shifting mental images his gestural technique results in an almost poetic prose in which the woman's headache forms a triumphantly coexisting counter-theme to her meditation on her daily life:

Lavar el día la cabeza cantar la noche la cabeza la cabeza qué asco de vida lavar todo el día él no ha venido la cabeza miren qué estampa la aspirina la vida es fantasía qué dolor de cabeza hasta que llegue la muerte la aspirina.

In yet another manifestation of his use of language dealing with exterior monologue Sarduy begins with two unrelated thoughts, the lesser in importance being in parentheses. As the emphasis on the thoughts switch so do the parentheses subordinating what was earlier more important:

Hoy han comenzado las bombas (deme un café). Ha comenzado la guerra en Oriente (café por favor) y ahora la cosa sí que va en serio (no joda deme un café) dicen que tienen hasta aviones (un café, coño) que van a venir en una invasión.

Un café, por el amor de Dios (la bomba de anoche). Si no le es molestia, un café (dicen que fue enorme). Yo preferiría caf, con este calor no hay otro remedio (he leído usted los periódicos). Cómo toma usted café (pero tú todavía crees en los periódicos). La C de caliente, la A de amargo, la F de fuerte, la E ¿de qué?…, ¿de hecho al minuto, no? Hoy explotó la primera bomba (hoy explotó la primera bomba). Un café.

The author, in adhering to the technique of gestural drawing, cannot give more importance to men who happen to be in the scene than to objects which often comprise a larger area of the panorama and which just as often hold more optical aesthetic interest than do men.

Sarduy never mentions the name of the protagonist, the washer-woman-entertainer-terrorist. He gives the names of two people—a singer (Musmut) and a Dolores Rondón who seems to be a character of a semi-myth known only by the author. The fact that the protagonist plants bombs interests the author and he, in apparently maintaining absolute objectivity towards all segments of this reality, shows no interest in her name.

Sarduy claims that he wrote the book impelled by a desire to search for lo cubano, but the result remains ambiguous. On the one hand, through this "total" realism he shows the universal existential situation of man who inhabits an object-world, and on the other hand he tries to make the setting very Cuban with the lottery, the bars, the daquiris, and the theaters. But, terrorism and the other actions in the book could occur anywhere. Sarduy, a man in search of cubanidad, has taken away his characters' essences leaving them on a similar plane to the objects about them, suggesting that lo cubano lies not in the people, but in their lotteries, daquiris, and in the objects and actions that surround them.

In his second novel, De donde son los cantantes (1967), he delves into the actual makeup of the Cuban and finds that he is a fusion of three cultures: Spanish, African, and Chinese. In presenting these three cultures he divides the book into four sections: "Curriculum Cubense," "Junto al río de cenizas de rosa," "La Dolores Rondón," and "La entrada de Cristo en La Habana." In the first part he presents the characters. The second part deals with the Chinese influence, and the following two treat the African and Spanish influences.

Sarduy uses deviating language structures whose meaning and coherence become so tenous that he deems it necessary to include an explanatory note at the end of De donde son los cantantes. His use of language recalls that of Jose Lezama Lima who richly embellishes his work often employing neologisms which alone are incomprehensible, but which transfer sense perception in his contextually plastic description. Using embellished language but without the baroquely elegant flights of Lezama, Sarduy utilizes altering planes and levels of language flow giving the same impression of depth and expansion as a master artist who with varying shades of similar colors enriches a painted scene.

If in Gestos Sarduy employed gestural drawing, in De donde son los cantantes he uses a technique that "… es un poco el proceso del collage, pero que no es exactamente un collage. Yo diría que es un collage en profundidad, un collage hacia adentro" ["Las estructuras …"]. The term collage is often "applied to a process which combines painted surfaces and miscellaneous material," [James A. Schinneller, Art/Search and Self-Discovery, 1968]. Sarduy's "painted surface" is the theme of his presentation, and his "miscellaneous material" comprises a vast use of metaphorical ornamentation, but, added to these, he uses constant metamorphosis, anti-chronological and non-chronological time, abstraction of essences forming synecdoches, and an enormous storehouse of culture and personal mythology. In treating each culture in the novel Sarduy develops each individual collage about a central theme which expresses the essence of lo chino, lo africano, and lo español that goes to form lo cubano.

Throughout the novel three reappearing characters provide the only unity observable. Auxilio, Socorro, and Mortal Pérez play a role in each section and are in constant metamorphosis. Mortal Pérez remains more static than the other two who are also called (among other names) las Floridas, las Piediminuto, las Siempre Presentes, and las Dueñas-de-todaposible-ciencia. While all change their roles completely in the three main parts of the novel, the latter two constantly metamorphose:

Son fluorescentes, son de acetileno, son tambores que imantan pájaros, son helicópteros, son sillas en el fondo de un acuario, son eunucos obesos con los sexos diminutos entre flores rosadas, son pirañas, son ángeles leprosos que cantan "Metamorfosis, metamorfosis", son dos pobres criaturas que han querido escapar a un Príapo jubilado. Se les perdona. [De donde son los cantantes]

In the Chinese section Auxilio and Socorro are members of the chorus in the Shanghai theater. In the African part they take the form of maids, but they also seem very much like the witches in Macbeth. During the Spanish division they become metaphors for mystical erotic devotion finally taking on the role of Parcas. Mortal Pérez in the three successive sections goes from an erotically aroused general chasing Flor de Loto to a politician from Camagüey to a blond Spaniard who is a double for Christ.

Besides these characters no unifying threads exist in the novel except the author's idea—that of portraying the composition of lo cubano. Sarduy apparently realizes that the reader will experience great difficulty in establishing understanding for from time to time "Yo" explains: "Bueno, querido, no todo puede ser coherente en la vida." Later when "El Lector" appears again Sarduy makes the parenthetical comment "cada vez más hipotético."

"Junto al río de cenizas de rosa" takes place in the Shanghai, a burlesque theater in the barrio chino of Havana. The "painted surface" or main plot is the symbolic chase of Flor de Loto and María who is described as "ausencia de pájaros, el Deseo". The "miscellaneous material" is composed of drugs, illusion, and the Chinese orchestra. The distillation of this collage yields its central theme and, for Sarduy, the essence of lo chino in lo cubano: desire.

"La Dolores Rondón" begins with a poem by Dolores about herself, and then two "Narradores" begin telling about her life not in chronological order, but in the order of the lines of the poem tracing her rise from poverty in Camagüey to power in Havana as the mistress of Mortal Pérez. Her life is summed up best by: "Duro Oficio el de Dolores. Cortesana y poeta. Cortesana lo fue toda su vida. Poeta por un día. Pero el tiempo lo disuelve todo, como el mar en el mar." Besides the obvious contributions of the Negro to lo cubano (music and rhythm, mythology, color, etc.) Dolores adds her slogan, "¡El poder está en las caderas!"

The last section of the book, "La entrada de Cristo en La Habana," spans roughly one thousand years in time beginning in the Islamic world of tenth century Spain and ending in a mythical twentieth century Havana where Christ (the double of Mortal Pérez) dies in the snow in an extraordinary transformation of the city where there are kirsch factories, subways, and strange plants. According to Sarduy the snow is "la total asimilación de lo exterior" ["Las estructuras …"]. The central theme of this section (besides showing the whiteness and blondness of the Spaniards) gives one of the main Spanish elements in lo cubano, faith and belief in life after death which, in the symbolic trek of Christ through time and space, begins a slow disintegration climaxing in complete putrefaction in Havana. He characterizes the Cuban conception of life after death saying that what waits for us on the other side is "la orquestica de mambo" and "Que quien bien baila, entra" [De donde …].

Both novels represent an effort by Sarduy to isolate and analyze lo cubano with his own technique of "total" realism which he develops through an artistic or "painterly" analysis of Cuban reality. The correct interpretation of the novels depends on the reader's approach being that of one analyzing a "word painting." In Gestos he uses the gestural painting method with an attempted direct transference of visual images to paper in word form which results in sketchy, superficial scenes from life. De donde son los cantantes takes the reader several steps farther into abstraction presenting a word collage in which Sarduy presents a multi-sense attack on the essences which go together to form lo cubano. The second novel, although utilizing some of the same technique of the first, indicates a profound evolution in the writing of Sarduy. The first novel, even though making use of the difficult objective mode, remains superficial and ambiguous, whereas the sheer chaos of sense images in the second novel almost defeats his purpose.

Introduction

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Severo Sarduy 1937–1993

Cuban novelist, poet, dramatist, and essayist.

The following entry presents an overview of Sarduy's life and career through 1991. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volume 6.

Sarduy is best known for experimental and linguistically complex literary works that explore Cuban culture and the ways in which language creates and transforms reality. His most famous work, the novel Cobra (1972), for which he received the Prix Médicis étranger, eschews linear narrative logic for a loosely structured series of images and dialogue scenes in which events are repeated with differing outcomes and characters change form and gender. As Julia A. Kushigian observes: "[T]he strength of Sarduy's work lies … in his ability to duplicate the world through the chaotic, creative process—mixing times, histories, cultures, and genders in an effort to stimulate readers through the brilliance and complexity of his prose."

Biographical Information

Sarduy was born in Camagüey, Cuba, where he attended Instituto de Segunda Enseñanza. In 1956 he entered medical school in Havana, where he began writing poetry and advertisements for radio and television. The following year he published a short story entitled "El seguro." During the Cuban revolution Sarduy worked as an art critic for Lunes de Revolución; in the fall of 1959, Fidel Castro's new government awarded him a scholarship to study art criticism at the L'Ecole du Louvre in Paris. Sarduy became aligned with two highly influential French literary groups: one was associated with the literary journal Mundo Nuevo, and the other—which included Philippe Sollers, Julia Kristeva, Lucien Goldman, and Tzvetan Todorov—was associated with the radical structuralist and Maoist journal Tel quel; he also studied structuralist methodology under Roland Barthes at the École Pratique des Hautes Études of the Sorbonne. Sarduy's first novel, Gestos, was published in 1963 and was followed by numerous other works, including novels and collections of poems and essays. Sarduy died in Paris in 1993 from AIDS-related complications.

Major Works

Gestos examines life in Cuba just before the Communist revolution of 1956–1959 and attempts to determine what it means to be Cuban. The novel is comprised of impressionistic vi-gnettes, dialogue scenes, and monologues that depict the daily activities of an unnamed mulatto laundress and singer. De donde son los cantantes (1967; From Cuba with a Song), considered by many critics to be Sarduy's most experimental novel, includes three narrative sections; the first concerns a tortured romance between a Spanish general and a nightclub singer; the second depicts the career of a singer named Dolores Rondón, who was the unnamed main character from Gestos; the third section deals with the introduction of Spanish-European culture to Cuba. The title character of Cobra is the star of a burlesque house run by a woman named La Señora, with whom Cobra—whose gender is at times difficult to ascertain—is romantically involved. The fantastical plot of this novel—one that includes such disparate characters as Tibetan monks, a motorcycle gang, and a Tangierian sex-change doctor named Dr. Ktazob who is reminiscent of Dr. Benway from William S. Burroughs's Naked Lunch—begins when Cobra and La Señora are reduced to dwarf size by a drug both were taking to make Cobra's feet smaller. Cobra proceeds mainly as dialogue and is accompanied by Sarduy's comments on art and the creative process. Maitreya (1978; Maitreya), a novel many critics consider to be about the theme of exile, begins at the time of the Chinese invasion of Tibet when a Buddhist monk, the Master, dies after predicting his eventual reincarnation as the Instructor. The other monks find a young boy being cared for by two Chinese women, the Leng sisters, and declare him the reincarnation of the Master and the next Lama. Not wishing an ascetic life for the boy, the Leng sisters flee to Ceylon and then to Cuba during the revolution. The final section of the book concerns the death of Cuban author José Lezama Lima. Evincing a more traditional narrative structure than some of his previous novels, Colibrí (1984) centers on a house near a jungle where a woman named La Regenta provides wealthy male clients the spectacle of hand-some young men wrestling. Colibrí, a young blond man who has just arrived, defeats an obese Japanese wrestler, El Japonesón, and becomes the hero of the club. After discovering that La Regenta is passionately in love with him, Colibrí flees into the jungle and meets up with El Japonesón; the two become friends and lovers. Once captured, Colibrí is returned to La Regenta, only to escape and be caught again. Upon his return the second time, however, Colibrí is treated like a god and orders La Regenta's house burnt to the ground and rebuilt. Colibrí then takes charge as the new "dictator" of the club. Cocuyo (1990) is an ironic bildungsroman set in pre-Castro Cuba that some critics have found reminiscent of Voltaire's Candide. Cocuyo, whose name means "firebeetle," is torn from his comfortable bourgeois life by a violent storm; he is injured and winds up in a hospital staffed by unreliable and untrustworthy doctors. He eventually flees to a girls' school where he takes a job running errands. Cocuyo's journey towards maturity leads to an awakening of his sexuality, specifically his love for a woman named Ada.

Critical Reception

Most critics praise Sarduy's experimental approach to novel writing, aligning him with the avant-garde writers of the South American literary "Boom," post-Boom, and with European postmodern and post-structuralist authors. Sarduy's work is recognized for its distinctive blend of themes, including an abiding interest in Cuban identity and culture, as well as a fascination with Oriental and Western philosophies. Sarduy's work also deals with themes of sexuality and personal identity, offering often outrageous depictions of transvestism, transsexuality, homosexuality, and sado-masochism in an attempt to explore and critique the notion of a unified ego, or singular personality. While critics generally agree that Sarduy's work offers unique and original insights and experiences, most point out that his books are difficult—sometimes nearly inaccessible—because, in addition to the oblique, allusive nature of his writing and his frequent avoidance of linear narrative logic, Sarduy—by his own admission—often included in his works references to his personal life that could have been meaningful only to himself or to particularly close friends. Michael Wood concluded of Cobra: "There is a dizzy freedom in such writing. And while Sarduy has horrible slithers into cuteness and into sniggerings of camp, and while he is far more interested in blood and semen and leather jackets than I am ever going to be,… Cobra remains a remarkable book, a nervous, flighty homage to the life of language."

Severo Sarduy with Roberto González Echevarría (interview date Summer 1972)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: "Interview: Severo Sarduy," in Diacritics, Vol. 2, No. 2, Summer, 1972, pp. 41-5.

[González Echevarría is a Cuban-born American educator and critic who specializes in Hispanic literature. In the following interview, Sarduy discusses the concept of "the baroque" and its significance to his work.]

Severo Sarduy is a young Cuban writer (b. 1936) established in Paris, where he is director of the Latin American collection of Editions du Seuil. He began his literary career as a poet in pre-revolutionary Cuba. After the Revolution, in 1959–60, he was part of the team of writers who published Lunes de Revolución, an active literary weekly directed by the novelist Guillermo Cabrera Infante. At the end of 1960, a grant from the government sent Sarduy to Paris to study art history at the Ecole du Louvre. He has been in Paris since, where, after completing his studies, he joined two influential literary groups: the one formed around Mundo Nuevo, a monthly literary journal directed by Emir Rodriguez Monegal and the Tel Quel group. He had published two novels, Gestos (1963) and De donde son los cantantes (1967), and one book of critical essays, Escrito sobre un cuerpo (1969). These last two books, as well as his third novel Cobra (to appear this spring in Spanish; fragments have already appeared in Tel Quel translated by Philippe Sollers), show the influence of the structuralist Tel Quel group, which will be evident also in his answers in the following interview. Aside from his work as a novelist and playwright, Sarduy has served as intellectual bridge between the French literary theoreticians and the Latin American intellectual community.

[Echevarría]: Severo, I know that you're preparing a lengthy essay on the Spanish-American baroque for a UNESCO book edited by the Peruvian critic, Julio Ortega. In addition, your interest in the works of Góngora and Lezama Lima qualify you as an expert in the baroque of the seventeenth century as well as in that of the contemporary period. I'd like you to speak first of Góngora, and then proceed to the baroque of Lezama Lima and of course, that of your own works.

[Sarduy]: Góngora was born in 1561 and died in 1627. If I remember correctly, he wrote the first Soledad in 1612, the year in which he also wrote Polifemo. I am not the least bit interested in making a kind of literary and historical parallel with what happened in that period. I mean, as an example, all the biographers of Góngora point out that in 1604 peace was made in London, and the second part of the Guzmán de Alfarache was published. Or they can say that in 1609 the moriscos were expelled and there appeared, as well, Quevedo's translation of Anacreon, and Quevedo's polemic with Góngora was begun. What the biographers point out is a visible parallel, a visible synchrony with what happened in that moment. I am more interested in establishing a kind of table—and I would give the word "table" the meaning which it has in French when one speaks of a table de correspondances; that is, an interplay of different signs that correspond among themselves—establishing a table of the underlying elements that reverberate in the wording of the Soledades, and which are not marked by visible historical events. For example, we can keep in mind the following: What is the episteme which the baroque makes explicit and puts into practice? There is a factor which seems to me to be essential, which undoubtedly Eugenio d'Ors, the precursor of all that we can mention in this sense, foresaw: in this age which we have just situated, Kepler discovered that the rotation of the planets around the sun is not circular, as was believed and as Galileo continued to affirm for primarily esthetic reasons, but elliptical—I underline, obviously, the word "elliptical." At the same time, if I remember correctly, it was Harvey who discovered that the circulation of the blood traces a kind of ellipse around the heart. I should also add another thing to this dossier: the canonical structure of the Church was decentralized; in place of a central aisle leading the worshiper from the entrance to the high altar, it took the form of a building without specific entrances and exits, and whose plan was opened, just as the urbanism of the baroque city was opened. In other words, the baroque city was no longer a center around the cathedral, around the dome, but rather a decentralized organization—"polysemous" shall we say—with various comings and goings, with various interior sections. Thus we see here that there exists a kind of underlying battle—which interests me much more than those battles and those treaties that the biographers point out—between two forms characteristic of our western civilization: the circle and the ellipse. This struggle of circle and ellipse has various manifestations; it is fought in several fields. In painting, it is apparent for example, how in the works of Raphael, a circular structure continued to prevail. However, already in Pierre de Cortona, the central circle breaks apart and everything is organized into a kind of ellipse that defines the baroque, of which Cortona is perhaps the most characteristic Italian painter. Thus we see how in painting the circle and the ellipse confront each other. I believe that, forcing things a little, we could say that the figures in Guadalupe which carry on a dialogue in the paintings of Zurbarán can also be inscribed within a circle, while those of El Greco can not.

And how do you extend these ideas to literature?

The area to which I am most interested in extending these ideas is, obviously, literature. In Góngora, as in all of the baroque, the ellipse is the essential support, and the rhetorical ellipse here corresponds, metaphorically I think, to the geometric ellipse. This is not by chance. In the Gongorine ellipse, in the baroque ellipse, there are two centers: the suppressed term and the "suppressing" term. In an ellipse, there is always a term which is hidden, censured; and one which blossoms from the textural surface to serve as a cachette or a mask for the other. Instead of saying "Strait of Magellan," we would say, "the hinge, the narrow embracer of one ocean and another, etc." We know perfectly well that certain animal names are censured in Gongorine rhetoric, that one can not speak of hens, and so forth. We know that there is a series of pre-established topoi, so that one term may be censured and the other apparent one may cover it. In a Lacanian sense we can say that what Góngora shows is precisely what he hides from us. In other words, that which he shows, as in the metaphor that supports all of the Lacanian psychoanalysis, is that which never ceases to hide something. The Gongorine ellipse, in short then, functions as a table of events which are never historical, which can never be dated, but which constitute the epistemology underlying all the mechanisms of the baroque; which is to say, the struggle between Galileo and Kepler, between Raphael and Cortona, between Zurbarán and El Greco, between the "divine" Herrera and Góngora.

Let's move on to contemporary literature, or rather to the present baroque of Lezama Lima and Severo Sarduy.

We're going to begin exactly as we did with regard to the Spanish baroque of the seventeenth century—with cosmology. Which is to say, what does contemporary cosmology teach us? The latest theories are supported by data obtained not through instruments of observation but through radio, using high frequency waves. These waves have allowed us to construct a cosmological theory which is almost sure, to the extent that one can speak of cosmology beyond hypotheses. The universe is presently in expansion—this theory is called, precisely, the theory of the expanding universe. This expansion, which has verified that celestial bodies constantly distance themselves from each other, proves that at a certain moment—and to which undoubtedly corresponds the notice which heads the second part of Enana Blanca in Cobra—there was an explosion of a quasar, and this explosion gave origin to the universe such as we know it, which brings us to the following: the center of the universe is empty; it is a polyvalent and movable center. This theory of the empty center, this topology of the empty center, is going to reverberate in literature exactly as the theory of the ellipse resounded at a certain moment in the structure of the Gongorine metaphor. To wit: I believe that the textuality consistent with this theory is precisely one which stipulates an empty center. In other words, the censured word is going to form here that empty center; it will not exist any more, but its pulverizations at various levels will be legible in the textual surface, in that which Julia Kristeva calls the "phenotext," as opposed to the "genotext." The genotext is movable, plural, empty; the phenotext—that is, the visible, legible surface of the text—will, by means of a radial reading, make room for this word, this paragram which has been censured, eliminated. Here I will allow myself to give an example of radial reading found in Cobra, by means of the censured or suppressed paragram "morphine" at which one arrives through a series of signs that participate on different levels; on a phonetic level, when instead of "morphine" allusion is made to "Morpheus," to "morphologically," to "white morpheus" which is a cattle disease, etc. On the level of meaning, reference is made to a series of images of whiteness such as "snow," and an another level, to "horse," which, in slang, is another way of saying "morphine," etc. Thus one can read on various levels these signs which lead to a center which is no longer there, which is already missing.

I would like you to clarify a little more the difference between paragram and radial reading.

Radial reading is the process which can lead us, in this case, to a negative and absent paragram. In other words, the basic model, that which generates the visible text, the phenotext, is no longer there; it is missing. We could say, in a very Heideggerian sense certainly, that it shines by its absence.

But then, should the reader of that paragraph in Cobra to which you were alluding—should he be able to recover the genotext?

No, no, his reading would be innocent.

Then if the reading of such text were not innocent, it would not be considered a "good reading"?

I think it would be as if the seventeenth century reader had to recognize the zodiacal allusions Góngora makes in the first Soledad in order to know that he was speaking about the month of April. I think that the reader of the age generally read very naïvely. Cobra is full of such traps, some of which are for my friends, some for you as you know, some for Roland [Barthes], some for François [Wahl], and others strictly for me which no one knows. In other words, there is a series of formal secret mechanisms. Let me use a canonical example of this devotion: the sculptures of the Parthenon, situated at a great height on the metope of the pediment, and not visible except frontally or from below, are also minutely sculptured from behind. The craftsman who created them dedicated this work to the gods. That work, although not to be contemplated by men, had to be perfect. These "secrets of construction" were dedicated to God. In this sense, in the humble as well as minute composition of Cobra, there are many "secrets of construction"; the manuscript which in Benares I offered to the Ganges for example, was the object of great care.

Then an innocent, naïve reading is for those who have said that you alone understand De donde son los cantantes.

In other words, the reading, with all of the mechanics to which we refer, is not accessible to everyone. I think it's evident that there are degrees of perception in all readings. That which interests me is to see how the whole episteme of his age is reflected in the practice of writing of each author. I repeat that I am not the least bit interested in lists of contemporary occurrences which point out to the author, for example, that there was a reform of customs and a high sense of authority in the year 1623, when Góngora received a pension of 400 ducados!

This brings us to a theme to which you have alluded in several of your works: the expulsion of the author, or the negation of a unique, individual emissive center.

Well, perhaps this stems in part from an observation by Philippe Sollers with regard to the absence of the author. Through a series of motives of an ideological nature, in Sollers the interesting thing is precisely the censure of that type of emissive center of the text which is the author, and which is, specifically, the Romantic author. Romanticism supposes—and this conception has been handed down to our age through a series of persistent prejudices—that there is a single, omnipotent emitter of the text, and that the text is an expressive entity which stems from a center and which is decoded by another center: the reader. Even in Sartre, the idea of language as practical-inert stems from this conception, since the author would be someone who uses that practical-inert entity to express something that is his own psychology, etc.

This is what you parody in De donde son los cantantes, when you appear in the novel

As author …

Yes, and later in Cobra, when you appear and threaten a character with exclusion from the chapter which you are writing.

In other words, that which is being formulated there exactly is that there is no author. And why is there no author? Because if we carry our ideology to its ultimate consequences, we will know that there are no proprietors of language … Plagiarism, as Lautréamont proposed, is not only admissible, but advisable besides. One must totally suppress the idea of a central emitter of the voice.

But getting back to the expulsion of the author, how is it effected, how can we nullify him?

This idea of eliminating the author, of expelling him, can be realized by means of two practices. One of these practices is very obvious: the ultra-baroque. In other words, when we arrive, for example, at the temple of Kajuraho, that enormous Indian pyramid of copulating figures; or when we arrive at the temple of Konarak or Mahabzli-Puram or to Kanchi Puram, or to any of the great places of Indian architecture (also in this context: the window of Tomar, of Alcobaça, and of Batalha; as well as certain South American colonial architecture—the works of the Indian Condori, or the works of the authors of the Sacrarium of Mexico, the works of the Aleijandihno in Minas Gerais …) All of these works have no author … the baroque proliferation is so extreme that this type of bubbling up of the signifiers expels all personal ideology, all psychology. There is no author because the horror vacui eliminates any central emitter. In this sense I believe that all the works which I have just mentioned have no author. I believe that here that which is manifest is a grammar in proliferation; an exacerbated code which devours everything. The chapels "by" Churriguera in the cathedral at Burgos have no author. Gongorine literature, the literature of the extreme baroque, expels this omnipotent entity of which we were speaking.

The second possibility is that which has already been practiced in the United States by the sculptors of the school of "minimal art." For example, Bob Morris, Donald Judd, John McCracken, Larry Bell, Sol Lewitt, etc. And perhaps preceding these sculptors, the painter Barnett Newman. What do these sculptures of minimal art—or, as has been said, of primary structures—teach us? In the case of Barnett Newman, monochrome panels. In the case of the others, simple cubes, cylinders—in other words, pure geometric forms. These painters and sculptors, by reducing themselves to primary structures, that is, to the structures which engender all other possible forms in space, and by radically eliminating all expression, eliminate the author as well.

Thus it is the opposite of what you mentioned before about the ultra-baroque.

Yes, the opposite of what I had said. In this sense, I think that a painting of Barnett Newman also has no author. Showing a blue monochrome panel is precisely bringing us to that point of non-reducibility of expression.

Is this what you have tried to do in La playa?

La playa, my dramatic piece whose subtitle is precisely Primary Structures, claims to do nothing other than show primary grammatical structures. There is practically no plot, and no development, since it is a fixed theater, and as it was represented in Kassel, there are no entrances or exits of characters, nor any movement. It is like a staged photograph. The sentences—et pour cause—are extremely simple, and they do not allow one to "see" or rather to hear more than the essential articulations of the composition of the sentence. The mechanics of this play consist of showing the support which from a subject leads to a predicate and to a direct object. As in the cube of Larry Bell, that which one sees is the essential support of all possible bodies in space. That is the second practice of the expulsion of the author; the first by hypergraphy, the second by the reduction of the support to the primary structure.

You say that there is no plot in La playa; however, you told me that

Of course, there is a kind of plot, shall we say, grosso modo, which can explain to a certain extent the acceptance of the play in Germany. It deals, putting between quotation marks the work "deals," with the story of a German gigolo in Cannes. The gigolo, as hero of the play, has business in the south of France with whatever people he meets, which gives rise to a whole series of possibilities of combination, and of sexual combination […] but anyway, this is relatively marginal.

Why also the subtitle Sequences?

It is called Sequences simply because it stems in a sense from a play by Luciano Berio called Sequences.

But "sequence" indicates "progression," doesn't it?

It really refers to the strongest etymological meaning of the word "sequence," as the Littré defines it, and as was subject of an essay by François Wahl which you will probably read when the play comes out in print. Sequence is precisely the combining of various cards of the same suit in the deck.

Getting back to the baroque, I know you have on other occasions expressed some ideas about the morality of the baroque, especially in relation to eroticism, which is one of the preferred themes of your work—of creative work as well as of your critical work. What is the morality of the baroque, and to what extent is it manifested in the proliferation of signifiers of which you spoke earlier?

A morality of squandering, of waste. We should start off with the idea of baroque as waste and over-abundance of signifiers, as totally saturated information. The baroque is precisely the squandering of signifiers, or "media," and from there, I believe arises the censure of a moral order of which the baroque has been victim in civilizations as puritanical as the French. In France there has never been a perfect expression of the baroque. Remember the censure, and carrying things to their extreme, the expulsion in France of Bernini, whose project for the façade of the Louvre was rejected. I would say—exaggerating a bit—that neither in French architecture nor in painting is there a perfect baroque as there is in Italy or in Spain or in Germany.

And with regard to eroticism?

Eroticism, like the baroque, is a squandering, because eroticism is a game which carries with it no "information." Eroticism is not in function with reproduction, but with excess, with play. The erotic man is the homo ludens, not the man who reproduces. Eroticism then responds to a baroque phenomenon of waste, of loss.

Then Don Juan would be the typical case, wouldn't he?

Of course, Don Juan is the typical case, although Ives Bonnefoy, in his recent book Roma 1630, which won this year's prize for criticism and which is precisely about the baroque, says that Don Juan is not a baroque character since he doesn't fulfill to satiety a total adherence to the object, that he assumes the category of absolute in the baroque expenditure; a hic et nunc which for him is the condition of the baroque and which—and I continue to paraphrase Bonnefoy—Bernini exemplifies in the dais of San Marcos.

I haven't read Bonnefoy's book, but from what you tell me, I doubt that I could agree with him about Don Juan.

Anyway, that which I find interesting to note is that eroticism has been censored for the same reason that the baroque was censored. In other words because they are not functional, because they do not carry with them a mass of information, of utility. Genetic information is the penetration of the spermatazoid into the egg. Eroticism opposes this carrying of information. The baroque sentence does not lead us to a pure and simple meaning, but rather, through a series of ellipses, of zig-zags, of détours, carries with it only a floating signifier—empty and polyvalent.

And how can we apply these observations to the case of present-day Cuba?

That which is happening in Cuba could be called a type of psychoanalysis of the Hispanic. The catharsis which is there being effected is that of all the repressed censures during the centuries beginning with the Inquisition.

But then, how can the work of Lezama Lima be explained within that context?

Lezama is precisely the reverse of the Torquemadesque coin, since he attacks the censure on two of its levels, on two levels of waste: on the level of the erotic—and I cite obviously the Farraluque episode in Paradiso—and on that of the baroque. In this sense, he has dealt a blow to the censure on an exterior level—thematic—but also on a profound level—structural, syntactic, in the immense metaphorical squandering of Paradiso.

Yes, and in the case of Carpentier?

It would be very difficult to speak of Carpentier. I wish to revise to a certain extent my thesis on Carpentier. I don't believe Carpentier is baroque in the sense which I have just given to this word.

I don't agree with you on that.

I believe that he deals with a type of very learned and proliferous organization, but one which doesn't imply semantic waste. I don't think there is this squandering of information in Carpentier. But, I have to work much more with this author. It certainly interests me to contradict his ideology of the baroque. For Carpentier—and he mentions it explicitly in the interview we read today at home—the baroque is a kind of metaphor of nature. He considers, as did d'Ors in Lo barroco, that the baroque mechanism is a natural metaphor. D'Ors says that there is nothing more baroque than a Portuguese park at noon; he speaks of the natural, Adamic state of the baroque; he formulates a paradisiacal state of genesis, a natural primogenial state. And Carpentier says that the Amazon River, the uncontrollable vegetal proliferation of America inevitably had to lead us to the baroque. I don't think that the thesis of the justification of the baroque by natural analogy is as convincing as that of its justification by textual metaphor.

I agree, but, as Emir Rodriguez Monegal has pointed out, there is a great difference between Carpentier as theorist and Carpenter as novelist.

Of course, of course […]

I would say that in his novels, Carpentier is baroque almost in spite of—or perhaps in opposition to—that which he himself has stated in his book of essays, Tientos y diferencias.

Well, in that case, yes, but I am using as a point of departure his explicit ideology, that which he has stated: his conception of the baroque is totally "d'Orsian." In this case I am putting into practice the basic structuralist opposition between nature and culture. I believe that the baroque is nothing other than a metonymy of cultural order, not a metaphor of natural disorder. It interests me more that the base be intertextual. Why? Because the intertextual base permits the conveying of an idea which seems to me essential in the baroque: the idea of "grafting."

Yes, but you know that in Los Pasos Perdidos, Carpentier grafts from colonial texts and at times, as I told you this morning, from little-known ethnographic texts as well.

Yes, I know. I believe that precisely in this case I agree to the extent that the baroque can be interpreted as a cultural metaphor. I cite the façades of colonial architecture to which I alluded, where we see that the elements of the Icaic art, pre-Cortés in general, have been grafted onto an architectural structure of Hispanic origin. In literature, of course, the quotation, plagiarism, reference, and reminiscence would correspond to this type of grafting. But I am still of the idea that the baroque is a phenomenon of intertextuality precisely because the intertextuality allows me to bring into function another element—to my judgment an essential one: the element of parody, very visible in Lezama and scarcely visible at all, excuse me, in Carpentier.

I agree.

I believe there can be no baroque without parody.

Without doubt, parody is the missing element in Carpentier.

There is no baroque without parody; parody is a distancing, grafting, and as we have already seen—and you alluded today to Calderón's Life is a Dream—the baroque stems from an image which contradicts itself, which hollows itself out. The baroque is the blind spot of the king.

Principal Works

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Gestos (novel) 1963
De donde son los cantantes [From Cuba with a Song] (novel) 1967
Escrito sobre un cuerpo: Ensayos de crítica [Written on a Body] (essays) 1969
Flamenco (poetry) 1969
Mood Indigo [with H. M. Erhardt] (poetry) 1970
Merveilles de la nature (poetry) 1971
Cobra (novel) 1972
Overdose (poetry) 1972
Barroco (essays) 1974
Big Bang: Para situar en órbita cinco máquinas / Pour situer en orbite cinq machines de Ramon Alejandro [with Ramon Alejandro] (poetry) 1974
Maitreya [Maitreya] (novel) 1978
Para la voz [For Voice] (dramas) 1978
Daiquirí (poetry) 1980
La simulación (essays and lectures) 1982
Colibrí (novel) 1984
Un testigo fugaz y disfrazado (poetry) 1985
El Cristo de la rue Jacob [Christ on the Rue Jacob] (novel) 1987
Nueva inestabilidad (essays) 1987
Cocuyo (novella) 1990
Pájaros de la playa (novel) 1993
Epitafios, imitación, aforismos (poetry and prose) 1994

∗This volume is in both French and Spanish.

Eugene R. Skinner (review date September 1974)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: A review of Cobra, in Hispania, Vol. 57, No. 3, September, 1974, pp. 606-07.

[In the following favorable review, Skinner discusses the structure of Cobra.]

Sarduy has participated in several influential literary journals: Lunes de revolución in Cuba and after his move to Paris in 1960, Mundo nuevo and Tel quel. His previous novels, Gestos (1963) and De donde son los cantantes (1967) have earned him recognition in Europe and in Latin America as an important figure in contemporary narrative. To an original sensitivity for the baroque style of his Cuban mentor Lezama Lima, Sarduy has amalgamated the linguistic concerns of the Tel quel group. The result is a unique fiction, rich in surface texture and detail, that eschews traditional narrative content in order to focus upon the process of communication. Since language is both producer and product of culture, this emphasis leads to an objectification of the very supports of culture.

Cobra definitely represents Sarduy's most ambitious endeavor in this direction. Whereas De donde son los cantantes reveals the tripartite underpinning of Cuban culture (Chinese, African, Spanish), his latest novel achieves a global scope, comprising a dialog between contemporary Oriental and Occidental cultures. In 1970, Sarduy indicated to Jean Michel Fossey that his novel in progress would present two European interpretations of India. Both versions arise from a reductive process that falsifies otherness, in this case Indian culture. The first view is exemplified by the "Drugstore," where otherness is reduced to picturesque detail. For example, a poster intending to portray the goddess Parvati reveals only a superficial retouching of a Madonna by Murillo. The second view, that of the "Bookstore," decodifies the texts of Indian religion and translates them into the vocabulary of Christian mysticism. Both perspectives originate from a concept of the medium, visual or linguistic representation, as an inert practical instrument for the communication of information. This produces on the level of culture, an ethnocentrism that falsifies otherness, self, and is inconsistent with contemporary European epistemology.

For Sarduy, as expressed in an interview with Roberto González Echevarría in 1972, the contemporary period is characterized by the topology of the empty center and its analog in the physical world: the theory of the expanding universe. The textuality appropriate to this theory would consist of "pulverizations" moving away from a "center" that no longer exists. The latter can only be recovered through a "radical" reading of the "pulverizations" back toward the empty center. Cobra definitely requires such a reading.

The novel consists of two parts. "Cobra I" introduces the protagonist, a transvestite in La Señora's Lyric Puppet Theater, who is obsessed with the perfection of his body. La Señora willingly sacrifices everything in order that the next spectacle, La Féerie orientale, please the public. They both travel to Tangier, where Dr. Ktazob effects the final transformation of Cobra's body. "Cobra II" narrates the protagonist's initiation, death, and funeral in Amsterdam. A gang of four youths, that trafficks both in drugs and Oriental mysticism, conducts the rituals. This part concludes with a pilgrimage to an Oriental temple for the celebration of the vernal solstice. These basic narrative units, "Cobra I" and "Cobra II," parody the two European views of India: "Drugstore" and "Bookstore," respectively.

However, a third view, although not present as a narrative unit, is suggested by the novel. The structure of the narrative seems to lack a hierarchical organization: episodes are narrated and then negated in order to be re-narrated, scenes and characters from this work and from other works appear and disappear, commenting upon this text and being commented upon by it. These techniques tend to recreate the experience of a continual process of emanation and dissolution of forms, of composition and decomposition of the text. This third perspective, hopefully the result of a "radical" reading, reveals simultaneously the Indian reality of my and the text's matrix of the empty center.

Jerome Charyn (review date 9 March 1975)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: A review of Cobra, in The New York Times Book Review, March 9, 1975, p. 18.

[Charyn is an American educator, novelist, screenwriter, and critic. In the following laudatory review of Cobra, he briefly summarizes the events depicted in the novel and concludes: "Of course Cobra isn't for everybody."]

Cobra is a mystery show staged by transvestites in disturbingly familiar cities that may, for all we know, belong to an alien universe that is about to crash into us. The personae are constellations that explode into various shapes throughout the book.

Cobra, Severo Sarduy's hero-heroine, begins life as a mummy, a wax doll in a "lyrical bawdyhouse." Here she performs and sleeps, "imprisoned in machines and gauze, immobilized by threads lascivious, smeared with white facial creams." The other dolls, Dior, Sontag, and Cadillac, are jealous of Cobra, the "queen" of the "Lyrical Theater of Dolls." The Madam of the bawdyhouse, the creator and protectress of the dolls, "would look them over, stick on their eyelashes and an O.K. label for each, and send them off with a slap on the backside and a librium."

But Cobra's existence does not reduce itself to simple questions of mechanics. She is more than a doll "who opens and closes her eyes, who urinates and everything, with real hair." Cobra has been "pricked with ardor," and "humanized by force of whacks and slaps." Like Caracas, the inflatable doll in Tommaso Landolfi's remarkable story, "Gogol's Wife," Cobra complains about her new, brittle humanness. Griping to the Madam, she says: "Why did you bring me into the world if it wasn't to be absolutely divine?" Fussy, particular, she demands a change of sex, for which she travels to a mysterious abortion clinic that may or may not be located in Tangier.

Accordingly, Cobra enters the second part of the novel as a kind of teddy boy who takes up with a motorcycle gang from a cosmic Amsterdam. The gang members, who assume totemistic names, seem to be reincarnations of the dolls out of the bawdyhouse that Cobra inhabited earlier in the book. Cobra is mutilated and destroyed by the gang in a kinky religious ceremony. But there is little need to mourn. By the end of the novel, Cobra may have become an embodiment of Shiva, the elusive Hindu deity of destruction and creation: "His arms, swift propellers, shaking the world, a peevish god dances."

Sarduy's book defies specific meaning or single-minded interpretation. It is a novel that embraces opposites. It takes the entire cosmos as its subject, adheres to mutilations and swift changes, and deals with the disintegration and rebirth of worlds. "A file of black zebras striped white" can be seen as "a file of white zebras striped black." Ktazob, the godlike abortionist who performs Cobra's sex operation, "hides in the most visible, in the center of the center." Sarduy disallows any satisfying permanence in his definition of humankind. "Neither word nor object," man moves "in his own yellow world of successive circles."

Perhaps Sarduy is suggesting the ultimate mutability of all human landscapes. Sarduy's transvestite is almost as indefinable as Thomas Pynchon's heroine V.: both creatures bump through time and space to manufacture the illusion of history for themselves. A Cuban novelist living in Paris, Sarduy may be defining himself in terms of interior exile; existence, according to Pynchon and Sarduy, seems to be movement toward the inanimate, and the stylized props of a nightmare. Sarduy's syntax becomes the modulations of a scream, a bitter cry that is shaped and controlled by laughter and a sense of dread.

Language is everything in Sarduy's book. It has few contemporary counterparts. If anything, it resembles the dreamscapes of Rimbaud's Illuminations, but with a further twist: Sarduy's fictions are hallucinatory prose poems that melt into one another. It is the rightness of an image, the powerful beat of a sentence, that keep Cobra alive. His sentences surprise; the rhythms confound and startle us, and exhaust us, with a frightening beauty: "Beneath the striped halo of street lights, blue rectangle, the store windows frame fruit baskets full of apples, pastry bowls dripping honey, kitchen boys with starched white caps, iron ovens where stuffed with almonds, surrounded by laurel wreaths, whole animals revolve." (Starting with hints of a benign world, with halos and blue rectangles, and moving through an abundance of almonds, honey and fruit, Sarduy's sentence ends on a spit, with roasting animal flesh.)

Sarduy is the master of wordscapes that dip, shake, and explode. But if Cobra is a magical juggling act, of image balancing dangerously upon image, the translation is as remarkable as the book itself. Suzanne Jill Levine has managed to snare Sarduy's sense of play, all his conundrums and fabulations, and a good many of his Spanish puns, with a gorgeous transference of rhythms from one language to another.

Of course Cobra isn't for everybody. It's an "aphasic opera," a skitterish text devoted to lyrical noise, snaking music, and passionate silences. For those who desire fiction that is unsoiled, that has reasonable insights, a pleasant story, and identifiable characters, stay away from Cobra. It is crafty, slippery and poisonous.

Further Reading

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Criticism

Bush, Audrew. "On Exemplarity and Postmodern Simulation: Robert Coover and Severo Sarduy." Comparative Literature 44, No. 2 (Spring 1992): 174-93.

Compares Sarduy's work with that of Robert Coover. Bush examines similarities between North American postmodernist fiction and South American literature after the so-called "Boom" of the 1960s; he focuses in particular on the relationship of each school to developments in French structuralist and post-structuralist literary theory.

Champagne, Roland A. Review of Cobra, by Severo Sarduy. Modern Language Journal 60, Nos. 1-2 (January-February 1976): 80.

Favorable review of Cobra.

Review of Para la voz (For Voice), by Severo Sarduy. Choice 23, No. 7 (March 1976): 1069.

Short, favorable review of Para la voz.

González Echevarría, Roberto. "Plain Song: Sarduy's Cobra." Contemporary Literature 28, No. 4 (Winter 1987): 437-59.

Examines oriental influences and structural elements in Cobra.

Levine, Suzanne J. "Writing as Translation: Three Trapped Tigers and a Cobra." Modern Language Notes 90, No. 2 (March 1975): 265-77.

Compares Sarduy's approach to the creative process with that of Guillermo Cabrera Infante.

Menton, Seymour. "Models for the Epic Novel of the Cuban Revolution." In Honor of Boyd G. Carter, edited by Catherine Vera and George R. McMurray, pp. 49-58. Laramie: The University of Wyoming, 1981.

Examines the works of many novelists, concluding that Gestos is "the novel closest to being the Cuban heroic epic."

Nordell, Roderick. "Kaleidoscopic Cobra in English." The Christian Science Monitor 67, No. 94 (9 April 1975): 27.

Unfavorable review of Cobra.

Prieto, Rene. "Mimetic Stratagems: The Unreliable Narrator in Latin American Literature." Revista De Estudios Hispanicos XIX, No. 3 (October 1985): 61-73.

Explores the works of several contemporary Hispanic writers. Prieto describes the narrator and narrative of Cobra as being "in perpetual transformation."

Review of Written on a Body, by Severo Sarduy, translated by Carol Maier. Publishers Weekly 256, No. 12 (22 September 1989): 50-1.

Mixed review of Written on a Body.

Seager, Dennis. "Conversation with Seudo Severo Sarduy: A Dialogue." Dispositio V-VI, Nos. 15-16 (Fall-Winter 1981): 129-42.

Discusses Cobra, De donde son los cantantes, Maitreya, and Escrito sobre un cuerpo. The essay is written to appear like an interview: Seager poses questions and responds to them as Sarduy, thereby literalizing his contention that "discourse is always a sort of dialogue."

Eduardo Gonzalez (essay date March 1977)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: "Baroque Endings: Carpentier, Sarduy and Some Textual Contingencies," in Modern Language Notes, Vol. 92, No. 2, March, 1977, pp. 265-95.

[In the following excerpt, Gonzalez discusses Cobra and Barocco and explores Sarduy's preoccupation with the baroque style and his postmodern stylistic techniques.]

I rise, O fair assemblage! Andcommincio. Now then, after this introit of exordium, my galaxy girls …

Finnegans Wake

¡Ya! ¡Ya! ¡Una boa! La culebra para no dar a la muerte franco el póstigo de los oídos, por donde el encantador la guíe, cose el un oído con el suelo, el otro zúrcele con la cola para que a puerta cerrada se torne la muerte y aun el diablo.

La plcara Justina

No amount of ingenuity is likely to clarify the self-conscious appropriation of certain canonized styles. Such is the case with Baroque. The adoption of what might be taken to be the intrinsic practices of this style by writers as different as Carpentier, Lezama Lima and Sarduy seems to occupy an area of unresolved ideological tensions between, on the one hand, modern secular culture and, on the other, the dispersed vestiges of the complex, conflictive, dogmatics which, in seventeenth-century Spain, underwent an extravagant political and cultural crisis in the writings of Quevedo, Góngora, Calderón and other lesser writers. The persistence of Baroque in these South American writers represents an attempt (in many ways contradictory) to ground artistic practice on a tradition at once grandiose and removed from the ephemeral life span of modernist and post-modernist aesthetic credos. Furthermore, it can be argued that Baroque was the last transcendental and syncretistic cultural movement to be advanced in European civilization.

I see in Carpentier an attempt to secularize Baroque in terms of an ethnic (his vision of American ethno-cultural amalgamation is notoriously and, perhaps, naively syncretistic), a geographical and historical renewal of what are perceived to be decadent European cultural strains. In Lezama Lima Baroque persists as the transcendental, poetic expression of Catholic dogmatics, contaminated by a sublime, orphic access to natural and organic forms. What renders his poetry and fiction so unendingly enticing is the receding horizon of forms, of mythic idioms, which they unfold before the reader's eye: a Vía afirmativa which leads to a concurrencia, or poetic hypostasis: "La poesía se hace visible, hipostasiada, en las eras imaginarias, donde se vive en imagen, por anticipado en el espejo, la sustancia de la resurrección" [Lezama Lima, "Preludio a las eras imaginarias," Órbita de Lezama, 1966]. But it is in Sarduy where the renewed dogmatics of a waning and abandoned catholicity comes into contact with a new set of secular anti-theologies. [Sarduy] insists in registering (by means of parody and travesty) the various languages (the cant) of competing systems, theories and of other expressions of what Goeffrey Hartman calls "the knowledge explosion" [Geoffrey Hartman, "History Writing as Answerable Style," The Fate of Reading, 1975]. Thus if one were to decode Cobra or Barroco in a manner akin to that of the Roland Barthes of S/Z, the need would arise to add an extra code, or to extend the cultural one that he proposes.

The application of this extra code to Sarduy's texts should involve the notion of mass-media agencies, and the subsequent discernment of their operative interference and, also, exploitation in and by Sarduy's text. In Sarduy, wisdom, that equivocal virtue—practiced, perhaps for the last time, with so much elegance and ironic rigor by Borges—together with the great codes of the commonplace, have all been adopted and rendered as information, as a network of mutually interfering agencies. Ultimately, a reading of Sarduy's Cobra as some kind of apocalypse would have to resign itself to the idea that Cobra addresses a final gesture to any future interest, anticipating in that backward glance a purely neutral informational tap. Although reading Cobra one could detect in it the playful anxiety that the future will be blind.

I have already mentioned professor Hartman's concern with the "knowledge explosion," a phenomenon whose consequences he deftly extends into the realm of art's relationship with culture at large. There appears to be an overload (which I would like to interpret in terms of the informational code) which Hartman sees, negatively, (he speaks of "overhead") as a confused and expansive new theology: "A liberation, not of men and women, but of images, has created a theatrum mundi in which the distance between past and present, culture and culture, truth and superstition is suspended by a quasi-divine synchronism. A living cinema surrounds us, a Plato's cave full of colored shadows." Culture's last miracle could, after all, be its ability to cash in on its game at any minute. Behind Hartman's detection of a "secular sparagmos" and of his cautionary reminder concerning the existence of a "structured reserve of forms," there is the advocacy of restraint, of a redrawing of boundaries (perhaps by means of highly refined rituals), or of the expert continuance of our transactions with the dead. Thus his question: "Is art's truth merely in its obsessive consumption or negative transcendence of historical models?" But Hartman is too wise to advance a definite answer.

And yet, there are, always, more urgent truths; such as the fact that exercises in textuality like Cobra seem to have gone beyond the modernist attempt to establish and mold a public (a sensus communis) upon the shared, ironic handling of myth. In this context (one in which art and ritual persist in interacting) the modern, post-romantic redefinition of irony and allegory, as described (most influentially) by Paul de Man in "The Rhetoric of Temporality," implies an ultimate de-mystification, an emptying-out of myth's distancing, mediatory, but, also, identifying, institutional and clustering faculties. For, what kind of institution (or group of shared beliefs) could resist, or outlive, the demystifying dialectical rigor (the antidogmatics) described, as follows, by de Man?:

The act of irony, as we now understand it, reveals the existence of a temporality that is definitely not organic, in that it relates to its source only in terms of distance and difference and allows for no end, for no totality. Irony divides the flow of temporal experience into a past that is pure mystification and a future that remains harassed forever by a relapse within the inauthentic. It can know this inauthenticity but can never overcome it. It can only restate and repeat it on an increasing conscious level, but it remains endlessly caught in the impossibility of making this knowledge applicable to the empirical world. It dissolves in the narrowing spiral of a linguistic sign that becomes more and more remote from its meaning, and it can find no escape from this spiral. The temporal void that it reveals is the same void we encountered when we found allegory always implying an unreachable anteriority. Allegory and irony are thus linked in their common discovery of a truly temporal predicament. They are also linked in their common de-mystification of an organic world postulated in a symbolic mode of analogical correspondences or in a mimetic mode of representation in which fiction and reality could coincide. [Paul de Man, Interpretation: Theory and Practice, edited by Charles S. Singleton, 1969]

In addition, de Man's redefinitions of allegory and irony and, more importantly, his dialectical yoking of the two concepts, extend, historically, in the direction of a further de-mystification of Baroque and its legacy. It should be clear from the following remarks that current adoptions of baroque jouissance (such as Cobra's) could not, in terms of such dialectical rigor, transcend beyond banality:

For, if the dialectic between subject and object does not designate the main romantic experience, but only one passing moment in a dialectic, and a negative moment at that, since it represents a temptation that has to be overcome, then the entire historical and philosophical pattern changes a great deal. Similar allegorizing tendencies, though often in a very different form, are present not only in Rousseau but in all European literature between 1760 and 1800. Far from being a mannerism inherited from the exterior aspects of the baroque and the rococo, they appear at the most original and profound moments in the works, when an authentic voice becomes audible. [Interpretation]

Central to de Man's purpose is, precisely, the authenticating phase of renunciation implicit in the allegorical strategy. Allegory persists in a world still held by moral contentions and dilemmas, whose conflicts are "ultimately resolved in the triumph of a controlled and lucid renunciation of the values associated with the cult of the moment, and this renunciation establishes the priority of the allegorical over the symbolic diction" [Interpretation]. Interestingly enough, the part of Hans-Georg Gadamer's Warheit und Methode (Truth and Method) that de Man takes as a starting point for "The Rhetoric of Temporality" marks the beginning phases of Gadamer's own de-mystifying treatment of the separation between mythical and aesthetic symbolic practices. Here myth is treated more as an expression of transcendence as such, than as a device aimed at communal and ideological formation; although the implications of Gadamer's handling of myth and allegory—within a post-romantic context—do apply to the rise of some modern secular dogmas, among which the elevation of "aesthetic consciousness" remains crucial:

The fixed quality of the contrast between the two concepts of the symbol that has emerged 'organically,' and the cold, rational allegory, becomes less certain when we see its connection with the aesthetics of genius and of experience. If the rediscovery of the art of the baroque … and, especially in recent decades of baroque poetry, together with modern aesthetic research, has led to a certain reinstatement of allegory, we can now see the theoretical reason for this. The foundation of nineteenth-century aesthetics was the freedom of the symbol-making activity of the mind. But is that a sufficient foundation? Is this symbol-making activity not also in fact limited by the continued existence of a mythical, allegorical tradition? If this is recognized, however, the contrast between symbol and allegory again becomes relative, whereas the prejudice of the aesthetics of experience made it appear absolute. Equally, the difference of the aesthetic consciousness from the mythical can hardly be considered as absolute. [Truth and Method, 1975]

The status of publics is implicit in this passage, for the new estimation of allegory might also contain dogmatic elements; its uses of myth lend a cosmic, naturalizing and, ultimately, authoritarian character to the historically-relative (ideological) notion of 'aesthetic consciousness.' It is precisely such communitary and public context that is cited by Gadamer: "it cannot be doubted that the great ages in the history of art were those in which people without any aesthetic consciousness and without our concept of 'art' surrounded themselves with creations whose religious or secular life-function could be understood by everyone and which to no-one gave solely aesthetic pleasure. Can the idea of aesthetic experience be applied to these without reducing their true being?"

This is not the place to follow the analysis of coexistence and shared practices developed by Gadamer in Truth and Method (an investigation which seems, inevitably, to lead back to Vico); however, and returning to Cobra, it could be suggested that as aberrant, banal or minoritary as its practices might seem, Cobra's baroque gesturings could very well constitute the inaugural seance of a de-ritualized vernacular, whose time is not yet here nor there, and whose displacedness is post-communal. Cobra's Baroque animates its own delirious Wake: insofar as the Baroque might be held to be a world contained in Myth (and in Myth's public dispensation) Cobra escapes it.

To escape baroque Myth is to escape Myth as the End, and to do so at the End.

Cobra unwinds its transversal fable, its all-consuming adventure, beyond publics, assemblies and feasts, until it becomes a stellar dispersion of cultural debris (detritus)—of pure cant. Being too occupied with informational gestures, it does not allow itself to fall or to deviate into meaning. Cobra's irresponsibility (contrasted with the strained calculations of Barroco) amounts to a species of vernacular reduced to the level of a de-mystified product. Perhaps implied in any such throughgoing recherche of vernacular origins (the same would be true of De donde son los cantantes) there ought to be the determination of how some forgotten priestly deeds and style of talk were taken over and made vulgar (or given double currency) by local or, most likely, by wandering wits. A vernacular might, in this sense, be regarded as a theology, or as the secular errancy of a few god-terms, or, more simply, as a pedagogy at last freed from the heavy burdens of clerical efficacy. The parody of lacanian theories in Cobra constitutes a proleptic removal of theoretical jargon into plain speech. Sarduy's Baroque begins with the anticipated extintion of clerical singularity, while Carpentier's ends with its enduring magisterial canonization.

Recently, Edward Said has insisted on the particularity of the text as "graphological memory," and on the Oedipal motifs "lurking beneath many discussions of the text" [Edward Said, Beginnings, 1975]. My own tentative sense of the interaction between certain texts and the constitution of publics, as a possible way of distinguishing Carpentier's from Sarduy's Baroque, finds in Said's ideas of an early-Christian sensus communis an important index of contractual guilt, based on textual license and, inevitably, textual licentiousness: "it should be noted that in the Christian West the central text, the New Testament, has formally existed as Gospels whose physical existence commemorates a communal guilt and redemption. If Jesus is the father of the Christian community, every instance of writing signifies his death, or at least the transfer of his spoken words to a written document and the community's ambivalent relation to it" [Beginnings]. Said goes on to observe how the growth of Christian dogma and, particularly, its reception by educated pagans, included the parallel development of sermo humilis, "a mode that combined 'low' locutions with sublime subject matter." The strengths, the propagandistic or propaedeutic range of sermo humilis, are agencies in the formation of brotherhoods; the sermo humilis provided "Christians with what Freud called 'a common substance;' the form and content of the textual substance had a binding force similar to that of a ritual meal."

In this I see a paradigm of how writers like Sarduy and also Guillermo Cabrera Infante, who are engaged in revitalizing, extending and contaminating vernaculars (such might have been the case also with Fernando de Rojas, Francisco Delicado and Francisco Lopez de Ubeda), seem to invest their productive energies in the concentrated and specialized idioms of marginal and, on the other hand, of growingly-official cults and ritualized verbal and gestural performances; as if it were the main business of these writers to intercept such proceedings at the critical point when their incipient textuality is about to take the route of some distant but nevertheless imminent canonization.

I am far from pretending to know how such dynamics of appropriation and interaction might work, but, for the moment, I would suggest that the existence of such a phenomenon is of very little relevance in the case of writers like Carpentier; precisely because their adoption of discourse constitutes from the very beginning an elegant erasure of previous canonical expropriations. Their business is to translate what Said would call "graphological memory" in terms of spatial perspective, of the layered succession of frames in parallel relation to the picture's plane. As a result of this spatial cogency, there is a counter-feeling, an anxiety concerning the perennial work of inscriptional violence; a phenomenon which I have examined in relation with [Carpentier's] El siglo de las luces. The homogeneously-layered space of perspective (already the triumph of the Eye) is linked in Carpentier with a kind of scenic primitivism, centered on the unquestioned ascendancy and ruling authority of the Site. The mansions of Carpentier's world do recall the earlier theatrical devices of the mystery plays: "'Mansion,' like 'the heavens,' was a technical theatre term. Since the Middle Ages it had been the name for the major scenic device of the mystery circle. The mansions were symbolic houses, castles, palaces, thrones, tents, hills, or simply places (loci) where the major episodes of the mystery were conceived as having their locale" [Angus Fletcher, The Transcendental Masque, 1971].

The insistence on Site and scenic locality in the text of Carpentier responds to the main underpinnings of an ideology based on the consciousness of Absence and of Lack. Indeed, the strong spatial demarcations and hierarchies of perspective, and the obsessive concern, already mentioned, with inscriptional violence, promote the emergence in his text of a solid, total and enveloping Agency which I would call Myth-as-Absence-or-Lack. Perhaps distinguishing Carpentier's text from that of Sarduy should begin with Deleuze and Guattari's well-marked question in L'Anti-Oedipe: "poruquoi revenir au mythe?" Their refutation of the ideology of Lack is part of their own rejection of the mythic model. They see the primary index of communal binding as a conception of something common to both sexes, that opens an unending dialectic of plenitude and lack:

Ce quelque chose de commun, le grand Phallus, le Manque aux deux faces non superposables, est purement mythique: il est comme L'Un de la théologie négative, il introduit le manque dans le désir, et fait émaner les séries exclusives auxquelles il fixe un but, une origine et un cours résigné.

Il faudrait dire le contraire: à la fois il n'y a rien de commun entre les deux sexes, et ils ne cessent pas de communiquer l'un avec l'autre, sur un mode transversal ou chaque sujet possède les deux, mais cloisonnés, et communique aved l'un ou l'autre d'un autre sujet. Telle est la loi des objets partiels. Rien ne manque, rien ne peut ětre défini comme un manque; et les disjonctions dans l'inconscient ne sont jamais exclusives, mais sont l'objet d'un usage proprement inclusif que nous aurons à analyser. [Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, L'Anti-Oedipe, 1972]

For Deleuze and Guattari, beyond Myth ('primitive,' psychoanalytical, structuralist or lacanian) the operating status of partial entities and of incompletion does not refer to an encompassing and totalized plenitude, which would then be upheld as the main driving force behind a circular flight between Presence and Absence. Adapting this notion to discursive practice, one would see that marks, interruptions and all other manifestations of graphological discontinuity, could not resolve their interminable action through a constant exodus towards a centering and vanishing point acting as the imperial locus of hierarchical distributions, in spatial perspective or discursive repression. Such textual activity is as hard to describe as it is stubbornly unavailable in most traditional discursive practices. Cobra's affirmative drone is as close as I have seen a text approach such free play.

Still, it is not clear whether or not such open play can escape the series of multiplying and receding hypostases which playing (itself) is out to forget, to erase from discourse-as-play, from discourse as a substitute of consciousness and as replacement of time's efficacy in memory. By hypostasis I mean something akin to the god-terms activated by Kenneth Burke in his playful The Rhetoric of Religion, where he states that "Linguistic entitlement leads to a search for the title of titles, which is technically a 'god term.'" No such elevation is present in Derrida's notion of DifferAnce; for instance: "There will be no unique name, not even the name of Being. It must be conceived without nostalgia; that is, it must be conceived outside the myth of the purely maternal or paternal language belonging to the lost fatherland of thought. On the contrary, we must affirm it—in the sense that Nietzsche brings affirmation into play—with a certain laughter and with a certain dance" [Jacques Derrida, "Differance," in Speech and Phenomena, and Other Essays on Husserl's Theory of Signs, translated by David B. Allison, 1973]. Bearing this in mind as one follows the hierophantics of the lacanian progeny, one is never sure as to whether or not "the lost fatherland of thought" is still included, or simply re-deployed, in the Symbolic; particularly when, through the meridians and trinitarian coordinates of Lacan's Map (or through the triangular Oedipus invisibly rigged in it like an alienating machine) one discerns definite intimations of an original béance. For no one would deny the crucial status of this term (in, among other texts, that of Barroco); a term that even the hermeneutical theology of Paul Ricoeur has appropriated with eagerness and, one suspects, with profit.

But for the present purposes what matters is the role of béance in Sarduy's Barroco and his characterization of "neobarroco." Sarduy speaks of "Neobarroco del desequilibrio, reflejo estructural de un deseo que no puede alcanzar su objeto, deseo para el cual el logos no ha organizado más que una pantalla que esconde la carencia." Moreover, the adoption of carencia (a tributary of béance) as axiomatic fiction leads to a peculiar exaltation of metaphor:

Barroco que en su acción bascular, en su caída, en su lenguaje pinturero a veces estridente, abigarrado y caótico, metaforiza la impugnación de la entidad logocéntrica que hasta entonces lo estructuraba desde su lejanía y su autoridad; barroco que recusa toda instauración, que metaforiza al orden discutido, al dios juzgado, a la ley transgredida. Barroco de la Revolución. [Barroco]

Could it be that this incessant metaforización is Myth's most extravagant ruse? It seems at least likely that the energies which animate Barroco's tropisms and its proclamation of Revolution (of a capital one, at that) ought to be located in its own over-abundant, self-conscious sense of being a burlesque sort of exilic lucubration; an unattainable Genesis written in the key of Apocalypse, a constant departing gesture away (and another one towards) the structures and galaxies of the Symbolic, of the nowhere/anywhere whose primary function is that of structuring and generating the terms of our tenure within Culture.

Ernst Cassirer, whose view of Culture as an immanent totality was also constant, stated his own programatic aims in words which I must quote at length, since they even contain a most fitting metaphor of directional quest:

All the many images do not designate, but cloak and conceal the imageless One, which stands behind them and towards which they strive in vain. Only the negation of all finite figuration, only a return to the 'pure nothingness' of the mystics can lead us back to the true primal source of being. Seen in a different light, this antithesis takes the form of a constant tension between 'culture' and 'life.' For it is the necessary destiny of culture that everything which it creates in its constant process of configuration and education removes us more and more from the originality of life. The more richly and energetically the human spirit engages in its formative activity, the farther this very activity seems to remove it from the primal source of its own being. More and more, it appears to be imprisoned in its own creations—in words of language, in the images of myth or art, in the intellectual symbols of cognition, which cover it like a delicate and transparent, but unbreachable veil. But the true, the profoundest task of a philosophy of culture, a philosophy of language, cognition, myth, etc., seems precisely to consist in raising this veil—in penetrating from the mediate sphere of mere meaning and characterization to the original sphere of intuitive vision…. Hence it has no other solution than to reverse the direction of inquiry. Instead of taking the road back, it must attempt to continue forward. [Ernst Cassirer, The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, 1, 1966]

But the absence of this sense of direction within the Symbolic is as notorious as the obsolescence it confers upon the culture/life split.

Hence, the Symbolic could be said to be the most cosmically exegetical, hermeneutical and allegorically-prone of the totalities yet to be postulated in the aftermath of so-called Structuralism. Current efforts to by-pass it, or to de-construct its oedipal underpinnings (Kristeva's La révolution du langage poétique and Deleuze and Guattari's L'Anti-Oedipe) are crucial departures, insofar as in them the world of Culture, as an imperiously total Signifier of signifiers, is taken to task by means of locating analysis at registers which move closer and closer to a pre-sygnifying hyle (i. e. the minimal components of Kristeva's bases pulsionnelles and the multiple Schizo of L'Anti-Oedipe).

In my own interpretation of the text of Carpentier (being conscious of all these post-structuralist afflictions) I adopted the hermeneutical mode or, in more conventional terms, my inquiry was wilfully allegorical and tropological (exploitative of both accident and design). In this manner I have sought a certain degree of clerical certitude. As for Sarduy, my general remarks were aimed at stressing the unresolved tensions brought about by his adoption of Baroque. It seems to me that one possible way of gaining insight into his novel venture could be to describe the relationship that his text, or discursive practice, might establish with conceivable publics, or to determine the consequences of having moved beyond them.

It is my view that an exegetical appropriation of lacanian strategies can lead (as it does in Barroco) to an exaltation of Culture to cosmic proportions; but, also, that such an exaltation is activated (or dialectically opposed) in Cobra by the delirious play of the text. I have suggested Deleuze and Guattari's machines désirantes as a convenient emblem for this unceasing production. Barroco's plundering of cosmological theories, its perverse celebration of Big Bang, are part of a textual desire to be at once totally differentiated and undifferentiated: to be the initial explosion and the final state of dispersion and all in a single coup de texte.

Finally, while the contention as to who is, or what constitutes a recurrence of Baroque remains a matter of, at best, tasteful inclination, what seems to me clear (in moving from the delights of Cobra to the promotions of Barroco) is that with the latter the whole (baroque) matter should be laid to rest not as Myth's Wake, but as its latest hangover.

Judith A. Weiss (essay date Spring 1977)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: "On the Trail of the (Un)Holy Serpent: Cobra, by Severo Sarduy," in Journal of Spanish Studies: Twentieth Century, Vol. 5, No. 1, Spring, 1977, pp. 57-69.

[In the following essay, Weiss examines various events depicted in Cobra and discusses their significance in terms of the psychoanalytic and semiological theories of Jacques Lacan, Jacques Derrida, and Roland Barthes.]

The serpentine trail of Sarduy's un-hero/ine opens in scenes of decadence and exquisite transvestism in a Hindu lyrical theatre of dolls, dominated by the rivalry between the leading players, Cobra and Cadillac, and by one obsession: Cobra's feet are too big and she attempts to shrink them, ending up by shrinking herself into a grotesque dwarf. It proceeds with the pilgrimage of Cobra, accompanied by her dwarf-double and the Madam, in search of Dr. Ktazob, a reputed master of the trans-sexual operation, to the final scenes of motorcycle gang-cum-exiled Tibetan lamas (complete with death rites; a penultimate scene of relatively nice realism, set in India, and what appears to be a final sunyata). In pursuing this trail one can orient oneself by keys set up at convenient points along the critical service road by the new school of Latin American criticism. The principal key is perhaps the most inclusive and conclusive—a reading of the novel as playground for one protagonist: Language. Truly so; his primary critical interest, as a student of Barthes, Lacan and Derrida, being in the conscious and unconscious structures of language and writing, Sarduy set out to create a fine work of criticism within a superb work of fiction.

Some tendency to overemphasize the surface (signifiers) has resulted in the underemphasizing of the process of signification as a function of meaning; the meaning, in Cobra, is not of necessity solely negative, despite the overwhelmingly sardonic tones in which Sarduy writes. Although Sarduy may be making fun of oriental religion as a Western fad, a truly integrative experience remains possible—given, of course, a favorable subject and favorable circumstances.

A symbolic reading will show that Sarduy's seriousness about "self-realization" or freedom is serious insofar as it represents, over and above the immediate problem of loss and absence, a possibility of unity with and within the text and the reader through the ritual of reading/writing (viz., coding/decoding) the figuration and transfiguration of the functional protagonist, Cobra. The figurative symbolism is crucial, and serves as a link between the ideologies of the West (psychoanalysis and structuralism—the Tel Quel group) and the Orient (tantric Buddhism—Octavio Paz et al.). One should move, conceivably, beyond the decoding suggested by Sarduy himself, a series of puns on Cobra.

Before abandoning the word games entirely, however, one might digress to etymologies, in order to draw upon the close correspondence of "cobra" and "cobre" (copper) in the cultures that have influenced Sarduy. The Spanish paradigms cobra/cobre correspond to the semitic paradigm na[×]as/ne[×]os, with identical semantic values attached to the full syntagmatic and paradigmatic correspondences, and a further paradigmatic and semantic association with Buddhist/Hindu mythology. Cobra=na[×]as=serpent, and cobre=ne[×]oset=copper. The sacred value of copper (read also bronze) and its interchangeability with gold in some instances, common to the West African nations prior to the disruption of the empires by European slavers, persists, in a diluted form, in the Cuban cult of Osun or the Virgen de la Caridad de Cobre; the sacred serpent Dan of Dahomey comes to Cuba as the voodoo loa of fertility, Damballah, who in the hierarchy of West African spirit gods might rank with the creator-god Obatala or be equated with Ogun-Shango. The magical powers of both copper and serpents have parallels throughout the mythologies of the Indo-European world, the most famous conjunction of the two paradigms occurring in the tale of Moses and the brazen serpent, the ne[×]ustan. The sacred serpent of ancient Egypt was the najas (na[×]as?), identified generally with the hooded cobra.

Moving eastward, one recalls that Naga was the serpent prince who supported Vishnu in the water, and is identified as a water deity and symbol. A contrast is immediately apparent between the primary identification (male) of this deity and the primary identification (female) of water deities in Afro-Cuban cults (Osún, Yemayá, Oyá).

Connected with the Serpent Prince were the nagas, genii appointed as keepers of life-energy and the sea's riches. They were entrusted by Buddha with keeping sunyata until mankind was ready to receive it; "about 700 years later, the great sage Nagarjuna (Arjuna of the Nagas), initiated by the serpent kings into the truth that all is void […] then brought to man the full-fledged Buddhist teachings of the Mahayana" [Ananda Coomarashwamy, Buddhism and the Gospel of Buddha, quoted in Heinrich Zimmer, Myths and Symbols in Indian Art and Civilization, edited by Joseph Campbell, 1946].

Semiotically or semantically, then, one might with some stretching arrive outside the text at a correspondence which Sarduy sets up within the text through an almost arbitrary commutation technique.

Although the Nagas themselves may retain a masculine figuration, a Hindu-Buddhistic reading of Naga's realm tends toward the dissolution of the binary value attached to liquid substance in favor of what one might call a bi-valence—i. e., from semen vs. milk to semen/milk, from female=passive vs. force=male to female/force. The psychoanalytic decoding of the serpent symbol, on the other hand, is a fairly clear-cut paradigm of the phallus, seen in Freudian terms as one part (the dominant) of a binary sexuality, the other part (the passive) corresponding to the serpent's medium, water.

A case could be made for the ideological correspondence, in Judaeo-Christian mysogyny, between the serpent as death-denotation and the Evil Female who, as death-connotation, takes on certain ophidian attributes (perhaps by analogy to stereotypical female role-acting or a male interpretation of it). We thus have a merging of Thanatos-female.

Add to this the value of maleness and Eros of the serpent-phallus, and the sum total is a characteristic binary value attached to the serpent according to Western thought.

An unmistakeable tension is established in Sarduy's writing between binary tendencies representing occidental mythologies and a bi-valence or conjunctive impulse present in an oriental world-vision. (The Afro-Cuban vision lies somewhere between these two, in view of its recognition of androgynous orishas and of the possession of individuals of both sexes by any orisha.)

In the same way, Cobra, the genetic male who in Madam's Indian theatre of Cobra I strives to perfect his female characterizations, is from the outset presented as a protagonist with a sexual duality which becomes progressively more conflictive before it is resolved in death/sunyata.

If Cobra were able to portray to perfection the characters s/he plays, all would, we are assured, be well and good; his one flaw is the size of his feet. Such large feet ruin the finest impersonations and are the one area where Cadillac, Cobra's nearest rival, seems to best him. They are, moreover, the one visible sign defining or exposing the sham and indicating any conflict; they project a bivalent image where the player is striving for the essence of femaleness, being in fact the only key, in Freudian terms, to Cobra's genotypic identity, since Sarduy refers to his character as she throughout the first part of the novel. Cobra is, then, a kind of closet Oedipus, a swollen-foot of tell-tale maleness, and for the sake of her art Cobra the artiste declares war on nature and sets out on a pseudo-psychoanalytic journey.

The pomades, plasters, and other applications turn Cobra into a constantly shifting legscape of mold, poisonous vegetation, gangrenous sores, and rot; the drugs s/he ingests turn her finally into a freakish dwarf. Though the magic of fractions there are now two Cobras: one, the 'normal' performing star, and the other, Cobra, who is known as Pup, by analogy to the White Dwarf, Sirius' companion, a star "that has reached the end of its evolution" [Fred Hoyle, Astronomy]. While Cobra is away in India attempts are made to return Pup to her original size. All methods fail, including the temporarily successfully "snow" therapy which, in addition to giving us the first visions of the snowcapped mountains of Tibet through Pup's hallucinations, also gives Pup an almost fatal addiction.

The major conflict, which precipitates Cobra's decision to seek perfection through the scalpel (applied this time to the source of the problem, in the hope that, as a secondary characteristic, the feet will inevitably shrink), is her rivalry with Cadillac, whose envy has no bounds. Cadillac sees the trio (Madame + Cobra (+/=) Pup = (3/2) off at the station, on their way to seek out Ktazob.

Their long voyage takes them through Spain (where monks and priors try to dissuade them from their heretical goal, and where they meet Help and Mercy, two pilgrims from Sarduy's earlier novel), and North Africa, where Cobra sings tangos and dances mambos in filthy dives. Here, willing to follow any lead to the elusive Dr. Ktazob, Cobra talks with Count Julian, who in a theatre box confides that the good doctor operated on himself and was now a very dowdy housewife retired from the business. She talks to William Burroughs, who appropriately enough introduces sadistic connotations for Ktazob, through indirect indicators—his (Burroughs') own primary identification as a writer of pornographic fiction, and his reference to the Nazis: Ktazob accumulated his wealth through the "configuration of new Eves and the disfiguration of old Nazis."

The last encounter before the appointment with Ktazob takes place in Cobra's dressing room after a show. A slick pimp, exuding vulgarity in words and gestures, enters the room and aggressively reveals himself to be none other than Cadillac, whom Ktazob has "couillonné au carré." "Tired of her rags" she had sought out Ktazob herself, and was given an Abyssinian's member; teasing and inviting Cobra to "reserve the première" for him when she gets "creased," he advises her that Ktazob, like a purloined letter or the name of a country on a map, cannot be seen for being in the most obvious places, in the "center of the center," and that is where he is to be sought.

Ktazob is found, and he discusses his surgical method, which is no more, no less, than a classical Sade set-up of pain-transference. In order to perform the operation, with no anaesthetic, on Cobra's body, he has Pup conditioned by an instructor to receive the pain, to become in a sense the non-body. This complex section, the climax of Cobra I, furnishes certain important paradigms for Cobra II, chief among them being (a) the obvious—Cobra's new gender-identity, and (b) the diamond pattern—represented … by the strange relationship of unity between givers and receivers and termed by Sarduy "a graph of the mutation."

Cobra, perfected as a female body, moves into the second part of the book in the masculine gender, although it may be she who appears in flashes as a frightened woman coming out of the Métro and walking hurriedly along the wall. The conversion is complete; not merely, it turns out, a sexual conversion, a coming together, through crossing over or over-lapping points, of the two sexes, but a final conversion of West to East, paradoxically through the passageways of North Africa and the dives of Amsterdam (with its parodies of orientalism) and only much later to India.

The first active meditation, in the first person, takes place in a white room, as an introduction to Cobra II. In this second half of the novel repeated encounters, in the men's room of bars and drugstores (with phony gurus, murderous police, bikers and opium-dealing hippies) are seen alternating with lyrical prayers and with paeans to the bikers of the totemic names (Tiger, Scorpion, Tundra, and Totem) who initiate Cobra. Audiences with the guru are freely repeated, word for word, as dialogues with a fortune teller. The bikers' ritual is later concluded as the ritual prescribed in the Tibetan Book of the Dead, over Cobra's corpse; the bikers are the lamas, and suspiciously resemble the Amsterdam hippies…. Finally, the sado-masochistic ritual of the leather cult bears some definite resemblance to the tantric rites although, among other distinctions, the bikers' ritual stops short of death while the lamas' begins with death.

Alternating in intensity and detachment, the language in Cobra strives for what might be best described as non-attachment. Cobra moves through mortification and physical changes to a state of pure tolerance. As the biker-lamas announce when they arrive to pick him up for his initiation: "… Because to be a leader you have to pass through submission, to gain power you have to lose it, to command you have to first lower yourself as far as we want: to the point of nausea." Cobra must, as part of the initiation, submit to the transgressions associated with Tantra, which are connected with food and sex. Watered-down in the extreme, the ritual is conducted solely through symbols:

TOTEM: "You will drink of my blood"—and he poured a bottle of ketchup over him—; "of my cum"—and he opened a container of yogurt over his head.

TIGER: "I am going to blind you"—a flash, in his eyes.

TUNDRA repeated yawning "You have gone through submission, you have lost power, etc."…

SCORPION: "Now what, do we kill him?"

TOTEM: "He has to be fucked."

TIGER: "No. Let him loose. He's got to get dressed now."

This contrasts, in its mildness and humour, with the actual transgression recorded after Cobra's death, around his corpse. The transgression represented by ingesting tantric food (the bodily secretions and excretions) seeks to reintegrate all substances. Octavio Paz sees this as a rejection of sublimation, an alternative to the psychoanalytic path. The symbol in Tantra is not differentiated from reality, which might explain the ease with which the taboo substances are ingested as symbols, and their symbols (ketchup, yogurt) as the actual substances.

The real or symbolic eating of excrement corresponds in tantric Buddhism to seminal retention. In Cobra II sacramental eroticism is experienced by the narrator at or about the time that the protagonist is "processed" for the other world, an operation that includes the ingestion, by the officiating lamas, of their foul secretions and excretions. On introducing the question of enlightenment through seminal retention, Paz notes that the body "for Tantrism is the real double of the Universe which is, in turn, a manifestation of the diamond-like and incorruptible body of the Buddha." Seminal retention, which proceeds in stages through the six cakras or nerve centers, is interpreted as the awakening of Kundalini energy, which rises like a coiled serpent and is finally "released transformed and sublimated until [the] perfect unfolding and conscious realization are merged in the highest centre, […] and Kundalini [is] finally united by Parama-Siva." Kundalini rises, moving along the male and female channels, seeking to unite Sakti and Siva (Purusha and Prakriti), together the balance of form and energy, seen sometimes as the perfect lotus, sometimes themselves transcended as the Diamond of Buddhahood, or sunyata. The two channels of the body correspond as well to the male and female sides of speech. Language, like religion, is in Tantrism "a system of incarnated metaphors." Writing, according to Paz, is a double of the cosmos; like tantrism, it is lived, as a body analogous to the physical body, and the body is read as writing.

Kundalini as uncoiling nagas, najas, nehoshet or cobra.

Is there possible in the text itself an exercise of that tantric system which leads to the lotus-head, to the Diamond itself? Considering the close connection between Sarduy's and Paz's texts, this would appear to be undeniable. If the body of writing corresponds to the yogic body (both being doubles of the cosmos), certain experiences common to both should be noted, some of which have already been described (the willingness to transgress, to change, to travel to the very gates of chaos, pain, loss of identity and death before reaching sunyata).

If, in Derridian terms, the proper decoding or deconstruction of a text consists, in a way, of triangulating the 'absence' (often the centre), then all throughout Cobra, much as it is in the chapter dealing with Pup's heroin experience (where the taboo word is never once expressed), taboo is the 'absence.' Totem, as signifier and signified, is on the other hand a powerful presence, constituted as element in opposition to the term taboo, which might be seen as zero-term.

Western (and, conventionally, Eastern) taboos, identified earlier on as transgressions involving food, the handling of corpses, sexuality, and various degrees of atrocity including homicide, are transgressed from within the functionally outcast communities of the theatre, the demi-mondes of Moroccan bars and alleys, of drugs and motorcycles, and the exiled group of lamas. The term 'taboo,' never supplied by the author, is one of the reader's most significant contributions to a reading of the text, albeit probably on a subconscious level, and possibly never verbalized. The irony, of course, resides in the reader's being forced to confront his or her conventionality: a trap set by Cobra, where the reader, in confronting this attachment to the taboo principle (hence to an un-revolutionary system), is short-circuited, so to speak, in absentia.

Cobra, already an anomalous entity early in the game, travels the length of experience until s/he becomes taboo, as the object of taboo rituals, and in a broader sense is taboo, moreover, as subject of the novel. This process becomes apparent as the narrator-figure, in yogic postures, comes within sight of the ultimate totem, the Diamond. The experiences of narrator and protagonist, then, together follow the tantric precepts, which are not doctrine/theory, but praxis/practice.

Another manner of viewing 'absence' in the novel, here in a way more closely analogous to the idea of the zero degree, is through sexuality. Binary sexuality and the systematic struggle away from it, or rather through it, dominate symbolically; the terms (male and female) are connoted usually in opposition to the subject's circumstance in Cobra I and II, respectively. These are, however, also viewed largely as in a house of mirrors which are significant indicators, principally of the absence of any precise, definable 'reality.'

The ordering of the experiences suggests a causality that can only be ascribed to a free play of the unconscious surfacing in language. It is free-associative within the accepted system (ritual) of writing (Tantra): syntax, which is like a mirror of the author's body. Its purpose may be to chase vainly after a definition of reality, or, having achieved the wisdom to recognize the psychoanalytic-linguistic impossibility of ever reaching such a definition, simply to enjoy the game and glide through the self and the writing.

In such a state of non-attachment, derived through experience rather than as etic denial, both the self and writing become viable for the realization of individual freedom on several planes: the plane of writing proper ('creative expression' or symbolic projection), where maximum freedom accrues proportionately to "the freedom to combine sentences …, etc" [Roland Barthes, Elements of Semiology, 1968]; the existential plane, where through a syncresis of East and West the writer can resolve certain contradictions inherent in intellectuality and sexuality—the active-passive dichotomy; the plane of sexual identity, where through a symbolic psycho-analytic-cum-yogic journey, the conflictive question is resolved, first by means of the deliberate assumption of full female characteristics in the bejewelled and perfumed world of the Lyrical Theatre of Dolls, then by means of the return to an exclusively male-identified world (motorcycles, monks)—never, granted, without the playful interference of signs of the opposite value—so that the final, suprasexual state is achieved as the culmination of a prolonged androgynous stage. The entire novel might indeed be seen as a perfectly androgynous piece of writing, where metamorphosis and bi- or polivalence in the characters are functions of an active binary sexuality as much as they are a game of signal-crossing. The significant concern seems to be to erase definition, which whether episodic, sexual or sentimental stands for the illusoriness of attachment.

Every attempt to empathize, or fix a scene as an isolated episode, or speak of someone's sex, ends back in the maelstrom of Sarduy's language, always in motion along unpredictable paths and at an unpredictable pace. Yet Sarduy is ultimately no more in control than the reader. He has marginated himself from the writing, and it is the novel that writes itself. Cobra, the pilgrim, the brazen serpent, the energy rising to find its rest in form; form moving to find its balance in energy, "the energy of the word" [Roland Barthes, "The Baroque Face," Review, No. 6, 1972]. And the writing is the tantric exercise in which Cobra, author and reader might reach some measure of realization and even of meaning.

Craig P. Johnston (essay date Fall 1977)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: "Irony and the Double in Short Fiction by Julio Cortázar and Severo Sarduy," in Journal of Spanish Studies: Twentieth Century, Vol. 5, No. 2, Fall, 1977, pp. 111-22.

[In the following essay, Johnston explores the confrontation of characters with their doubles in Julio Cortázar's "Historia" and Sarduy's "Junto al Rio de Cenizas de Rosa."]

Man's encounter with his Doppelgänger, a meeting between an individual and his animal, mechanical, or human counterpart, often serves as the narrative material by which contemporary writers of prose fiction depict the human condition. In addition to the portrayal of man through the confrontation of an individual with his double, literary creators have turned to the ancient device of irony, a clash between reality and appearance, for the fundamental narrative technique which permits the examination of modern man and his foibles.

Shared by both irony and the Doppelgänger is a structure of duality: in the former case, the duality consists of two conflicting interpretations of an event or of a single situation; in the latter case, on the other hand, two conflicting aspects of a single personality or identity form the pairing we know to be the double. Essential for the effectiveness of both these literary devices is the presence of a third element, the observer or reader who sees the antithetical components both as separate entities and as parts of a unified whole. Thus the reader performs the function of joining the constituent elements of either irony or the double to form a perceptual unit from which the symbolic meaning of a work emerges.

The ironic confrontation between man and his double may assume many forms. It is, however, the specific man-man double pairing characterized by an ambiguous, self-conscious treatment, bordering on parody or caricature, called a "Baroque double" by Robert Rogers [in his A Psychoanalytic Study of the Double in Literature, 1970], which concerns us in the examination of two contemporary Latin American works of short fiction: Julio Cortázar's "Historia" and Severo Sarduy's "Junto al Rio de Cenizas de Rosa." Each of these pieces of short fiction reveal a particular focus on the dissociation of the narrator's personality into the antithetical aspects of his being. This fragmentation results from an attempt to hide his true identity from both himself and the reader. As the reader perceives an emerging Baroque double in the story he becomes aware of the ironies inherent in the particular narrative.

His fascination with the appearance of man's double runs through the totality of Cortázar's literary production. The man-animal double appears as the pairing of man and Minotaur in "Los reyes," man and axolotl in "Axolotl," man and Minotaur in "Carta a una sefiorita en Paris," man and tiger in "Bestiario," and man and the imaginary mancuspias in "Cefalea." The man-machine Doppelgänger appears specifically in the man-camera pairing in "Las babas del diablo" and generally in many of the humorous stories from the collection Historias de cronopios y de famas. While Cortázar's development of the man-man double both in Rayuela and in many of his short stories is undeniable, it is in his very concise story "Historia," in the collection Historias de cronopios y de famas, that Cortázar offers an outstanding example of the ironic use of the literary double in order to bring forward a penetrating vision of man and the act of literary creation. In this brief work Cortázar elaborates on a man-man double pairing which conforms to the pattern he has described in Rayuela as "paravisiones," the existential experience of feeling oneself as oneself and as another at one and the same time. In this particular short story Cortázar elaborates the idea of the Doppelgänger in one of the mythological cronopios in whom he embodies a vision of man's consciousness or his state of mind in the form of an abstract character.

"Historia" is a concise work consisting of two sentences: "Un cronopio pequefito buscaba la Ilave de la puerta de calle en la mesa de luz, la mesa de luz en el dormitorio, el dormitorio en la casa, la casa en la calle. Aqui se detení el croaopio, pues para salir a la calle precisaba la Ilave de la puerta." Without plot and indeed without substantial action, "Historia" seems to offer little possibility for the ironic development of the double. However, it is precisely its brevity which permits Cortázar to create an intense vision out of what initially appears to be a trivial and unimportant situation, for as he exaggerates the disproportion between the brevity and intensity of his creation he succeeds in stressing the ironic disparity between the title, "Historia," and the absence of material of great consequence. The ambiguity of the word historia, meaning either "story" or "history," further accentuates the ironic quality of the presentation of the material.

In order to understand the nature of the double in this work it is necessary to take into consideration the point of view from which the material is related. A detached observer impersonally presents the cronopio's search for a lost key. From this distanced, objective perspective the narrative shifts to the consciousness of the character being viewed, to the internal workings and associations of the cronopio's mind.

The fundamental opposition of the text thus develops in terms of an interior-exterior clash of perspectives. The dualism of an external view and an internal one arises in the movement from the narrator's detached reference to "Un cronopio" to his description of the association of ideas—"la llave de la puerta de calle en la mesa de luz, la mesa de luz en el dormitorio, el dormitorio en la casa, la casa en la calle"—to return again to an external vantage point: "Aquí se detenía el cronopio." This movement of the narrative thus involves a shift of perspectives from exterior to interior to exterior, clearly establishing an opposition between antithetical points of view. It is this opposition which serves as the basis for the development of the doubles.

The thoughts of the cronopio also represent a movement through space, a movement which itself duplicates a progressive transference from exterior to interior. That is to say, the associations he formulates in his mind involve a spatial transformation from the key for the door to the street on the night table to the bedroom, from the bedroom to the house, from the house to the street.

On the basis of the perspective differences that appear as the opposition of interior and exterior, the double pair of the narrative appear to be the narrator and the cronopio. Initially the narrator sees the cronopio as something distinct from himself, but the reader notes how the narrator enters into the mind of the cronopio in such a manner that it appears to him that narrator and cronopio are two facets of a single identity. The narrator is thus both the observer and the observed, splitting into two beings which appear to be distinct. This fragmentation proves to be the basis for the ironies of the work in addition to being the foundation upon which Cortázar creates the doubles.

If the narrator sees the cronopio as a being distinct from and external to himself, from the reader's vantage point this distinction is illusory. For him both narrator and cronopio are one and the same. This perceptual discrepancy between the reader's and the narrator's evaluations of the situation creates one of the basic ironies of this brief work.

In a further assault on the reader's perceptual certainty, Cortázar attacks linear logic and sequence in developing a circularity in the narrative. This appears in the movement from narrator to cronopio to narrator and in the cronopio's associations that proceed from the key to the table to the bedroom to the house to the key for the door opening on the street, once again. The pattern of circular movement extends to the reader's perception of the narrative, for, in reading the final comment, "pues para salir a la calle precisaba la llave de la puerta," he finds himself obliged to return to the beginning of the work in order to capture its overall import.

Through the creation of this circular structure in "Historia" Cortázar not only rejects sequential logic but also subverts the reader's concept of linear time, replacing it with mythical circular time. The narrative, then, is both a manner of describing circularity in the cronopio's perception of reality and of duplicating the same circularity in the reader's perceptions.

The circular pattern reproduces in the reader another textual phenomenon. The situation of the cronopio, locked in his room without a key, is duplicated by the reader's entrapment in the circular structure of the narrative, which will continue ad infinitum in perceptual repetition. At the same time, this entrapment in circularity produces an expansion of the reader's consciousness. With each revolution in the narrative, the reader perceives the narrative and his situation differently; the repetition of the pattern becomes a means of drawing back to contemplate oneself in the act of reading in the previous revolution. What at first glance appears to be a pattern of confinement and frustration thus ultimately becomes a contribution to the enlargement of consciousness, as the reader seeks to behold more and more of experience.

In short, by creating the man-man double of narrator and cronopio in a manner which masks the fragmentation of the narrator's personality, Cortázar lures the reader into the closed realm of the narrative. The result of this decoying into a perceptual repetition is an important doubling in which reader and narrator-cronopio become reflected images, expanding and extending the impact of the story. As he experiences the expansion of his consciousness, the reader duplicates himself in each revolution of the circularity of the text; and this perception of himself in the act of reading produces a fragmentation of his being into the antithetical components of observer and observed. By this fragmentation the reader duplicates the narrator's disintegration into two seemingly autonomous identities.

Reader and narrator thus become doubles through which two contrary worlds are united in the act of reading. The duplication of the narrator's experience by the reader produces the perceptual unification of the realms of art and life, a unification which inhibits making clear distinctions between apparent opposites. The identities of reader and narrator are joined in the same manner in which are those of the narrator and the cronopio.

Basically, it is the relationship of the reader to the text which forms the narrative unity of "Historia," a unity from which the disparities of irony emerge and from which the antithetical aspects of identity develop. This brief work changes what Noé Jitrik understands to be the structural basis for the stories in Cortázar's earlier work, Bestiario, which he sees as consisting of double planes whose "términos se sitúan, se resuelven o se resumen en la interioridad de un actor de la peripecia" [Noé Jitrik, "Notas sobre la 'Zona sagrado' y el mundo de los otros en Bestiario de Julio Cortázar," La vuelta a Cortázar en nueve ensayos, edited by Sara Vinocur de Tirri and Néstor Tirri, 1968]; in the case of "Historia" it is the reader, not the character, who ironically is one of the double planes and the actor in whose consciousness these antithetical elements are unified.

In the creation of the doubles of narrator and cronopio and of the resultant irony Cortázar displaces the focus of "Historia," for doubling and irony do not principally occur in the narrative, but rather in the mind of the reader as he perceives the work. The text functions not only to present the disintegration of personality, but also to cause the reader to experience the same fragmentation and misinterpretations as it describes.

Our second example of the man-man double in which the reader's perception of a dual identity produces a unitary vision, the fusion of opposites, appears in Severo Sarduy's "Junto al Río de Cenizas de Rosa," one of the units of his longer work, De donde son los cantantes. This particular narrative centers on an examination of Cuban identity and of reality in terms of the Chinese influence on the synthetic process of acculturation. Sarduy focuses on this aspect of Cuban culture in order to examine a specific facet of reality because, in his opinion, "El mundo chino, me parece un mundo de percepción, un mundo estático más bien, un mundo que se sitúa en la dialéctica de la contemplación y de la acción extrema." [quoted by Emir Rodrigez Monegal, "Dialogo con Severo Sarduy: las estructuras de la narration," Mundo Nuevo 2, Agosto, 1966]. As the basis for the creation of the double and the associated perceptual discrepancies, Sarduy concentrates on a hallucinatory world of metamorphosis and misinterpretation.

As Sarduy suggests, the basic material of this narrative fundamentally depends on perception, rather than on psychological development of characters and traditional plot. The action is essentially the General's anguished search for Flor de Loto, a mysterious woman who is present only momentarily in the work. During his quest for Flor the General pursues her through the barrio chino of Havana, in a theater, in a cafe. Throughout the hallucinatory search two other characters, Auxilio and Socorro, are continuously present. While their presence is constant, these two masters of disguise and transformation undergo a series of metamorphoses.

The point of view from which the narrative is presented is that of a third-person observer. Sarduy, however, does not limit his narrator to mere reporting but permits his intrusion into the narrative. Exemplary of such intrusions are his remarks to the reader: "Yo—Bueno, querido, no todo puede ser coherente en la vida. Un poco de desorden en el orden, ¿no?" or "Bueno, pues como iba diciendo cuando me interrumpieron las Llenas de Gracia, el Mirón camina siempre en diagonal." Also, the narrator addresses the characters directly, as in his comment to the General: "Yo—Silencio. Óyela. Entona su solo." Sarduy depends on this particular point of view for the creation of the Doppelgänger, which appears in many forms in the narrative.

In order to trace, or at least indicate, some of the doubling which appears in "Junto al Río de Cenizas de Rosa," an examination of Sarduy's use of disguise in the process of metamorphosis is necessary. From the onset of the narrative the author places a premium on fleeting appearance and evanescent identity in the world of perception as he introduces the General in his first encounter with Flor de Loto. The reader immediately becomes aware of an important incorrect perception on the part of the General as he takes as reality a woven tapestry or piece of embroidered material:

El rumor de la tierra era como el de los palillos que chocan en el aire en la Toma de un Fuerte Enemigo, así es que, nada raro, allí estaba Cenizas de Rosa. Cosida en aquel paisaje, ejercitando su yin en pleno bosque de la Habana, era un pájaro blanco detrás del bambú, un prisionero inmóvil entre lanzas. Recitaba los Cinco Libros, cantaba con su voz de pitillo; parecía que iba a reventar como un sapo salado, miraba a la luna en silencio y volvá a recitarlos.

In this description the narrator presents for the first time Flor de Loto, the metaphoric white bird sewn into the material. It is shortly after this description that the General views the scene.

As the narrator continues his description it becomes evident that Flor appears in the General's perceptions to have an existence autonomous from that of the woven scene, to be a real person:

El venía separando los gajos, dando golpes con los brazos como un machete doble, se abría paso entre la zarza entonando un aire de combate. Era un mirón, el muy tunate, otro místico. ¡Pero hay que ver que las artes gimnásticas sirven para algo! Da un salto Flor de Loto, y, como el pececillo que al saltar fuera del agua se vuelve colibrí, así vuela entre las lianas.

In these descriptions of Flor's actions, which appear in a scene woven on a tapestry, the narrator establishes the relationship of observer and perceived object between the General and Flor that is to remain constant throughout the narrative. Further suggestion of the General's mistaken belief that Flor is a person appears in another seemingly unimportant observation of the narrator:

Cenizas de Rosa teje su propia figura con lianas y huye, dejando al adversario ese doble inasible, esa imagen deshilachada y móvil.

Él se acerca por detrás, sutil; pero abandonado por Chola Angüenque, la reina de las armas, queda atrapado en el telar.

This comment by the narrator indicates the existence of Flor as a character woven in a tapestry, rather than as a living person, as the General believes, imperfect interpretations which serve to create one of the early ironies of the narrative.

In seeing Flor as a living individual, the General actually projects his own desire onto a human image distinct from and autonomous from himself. He fails to realize that Flor is in reality the externalization of his desire, but the reader is aware of this, and it is this awareness that produces a disparity essential to the ironic quality of the work. In the figures of Flor and the General we thus have a double pairing in which what appears as difference in the narrative is for the reader sameness, what appears as two becomes one in the reader's perception.

Shortly after the General has first viewed Flor, the narrator's observation reveals the pattern of transformations which she is to follow. She becomes "una máscara blanca que rayan las sombras de las canas, es apenas el vuelo de una paloma, el rastro de un conejo." To this point in the narrative Flor has been referred to by the narrator as ella, la amarilla, una máscara blanca, un pájaro blanco; similarly, the General has several identities, several names: el Condecorado, el Glorioso, el mirón.

Flor's disguises are many: "Es mimética. Es una textura—las placas blancas del tronco de una ceiba—, una flor podrida bajo una palma, una mariposa estampada de pupilas, es una simetria pura." Another example of her disguise is her imitation of the General, "imita el choque de medallas, la propia voz del perseguidor, o aparece como otro general lujurioso para enloquecerlo." She appears as the figure of the Empress, as Maria, as la Fija. Thanks to her many disguises and transformations, Flor succeeds in evading the General.

The General also is a constant figure appearing in many forms and disguises. Not only is he "el Condecorado, el Glorioso," but also "el matarife," "el Fijo," "el gallego," "el Batalloso," "el Medalloso." In the narrator's eyes both Flor and the General are in a perpetual process of transformation, a constant permutation of identity which contrasts with the static quality of the General's viewing the woven scene and the invarying relationship between the General and Flor despite their multiple identities.

Within the pattern of continual deterioration and recreation the characters of Socorro and Auxilio duplicate the relationship of movement and static presence we have seen in the figures of Flor and the General. It is these two characters, Auxilio and Socorro, who, according to the narrator, are "poseedoras … del secreto de las setenta y ocho transformaciones." Although they never reveal the secret, they are for the reader the keys to the multiple metamorphoses of the General and Flor. Among the many identities by which Auxilio and Socorro are known are: "las Siempre Presentes," "las Simétricas," "las Siamesas," "las Divinas," "las Peripatéticas," "las Pintarrajeadas," "las Cejudas," "las Obesas," "las Sonsas." Despite their protean identities, Auxilio and Socorro are constants within the narrative, always symmetrical in their presence. While they appear to be different at every moment, they are always the same, whether in motion or static.

What has thus emerged in "Junto al Río de Cenizas de Rosa" is a dialectical relationship of changing identities in terms of movement and immobility. As we have seen, the General and Flor continually change identities, but the relationship between them remains the same, that of pursuer and pursued. Similarly, Socorro and Auxilio have permutable multiple identities, but their presence and symmetry remain constant: "lo que da unidad," Sarduy has said, "… desde ese punto de vista son los personajes que siempre son los mismos y siempre son distintos." ["Dialogo con Severo Sarduy…."].

In the cases of the General, Flor, and Auxilio and Socorro what changes is merely their surface appearance as characters; the creation of the new identities becomes the act of disguise. Each character in his multiple identities is presented as constantly changing masks. It is a case of "máscaras que cubren otras máscaras que cubren otras máscaras." ["Dialogo con Severo Sarduy…."].

The same basic relationship between motion and immobility also appears in the author's creation of the narrator of the text. The author remains fixed, constant, but his creation, the narrator, appears and disappears precisely as does Flor; at one moment he is absent, at the next he directs himself to the characters in the narration—"Yo—Déjese de retórica. Tíreles aunque sea una piedrecita, un suspiro"—or to the reader—"Yo—Eso dice él. Locierto es que la Generala…." Sarduy's creation of his narrator duplicates the situation which the narrator describes in the fiction.

The narrator is the projected double of the author, as Flor is of the General, becoming an objectified, detached image of the author's personality: "Cuando yo digo en mi novela: yo," reveals Sarduy, "ese yo es un él. Es decir, toda primera persona singular en una novela es en él" ["Dialogo con Severo Sarduy"]. The narrator becomes both a transformation of the author's identity and, paradoxically, the expression of that same identity. In short, the narrator is the exposed disguise of the author, a disguise that not only hides, but reveals.

Fiction is thus the creation of a literary disguise which both exposes and conceals the identity of the author. The act of creation becomes the verbal movement which reproduces the perpetual opposition between transformation and fixed identity, between appearance and reality. Not only does the language of this particular fiction communicate the evanescent identities of the characters, but it also performs the function of creating the author's fleeting disguise in the narrator. Language and writing become the mask which the author creates and with which he deceives the reader, who believes, in this case, that the General and Flor, the author and narrator, are distinct beings, when in reality they are one and the same. Thus Sarduy has created a perceptual disharmony between appearance and reality.

The resultant ironic perception on the part of the reader produces yet another disparity in which the reader's expectations that the meaning of the work is other than the act of metamorphosis it describes are disproved by the fact that the act of writing and narrating duplicates the very metamorphosis it describes. The meaning, the ironies, the doubling of "Junto al Río de Cenizas de Rosa" lies not in the material presented, not in the plot, but in the act of creation by the author and the reader's perception of the narrative. Thus the entire narrative may be seen as the creation of a surface which the reader is to perceive, but cannot penetrate. The act of writing is itself an act of disguise.

We have seen the presentation of two distinct examples of the man-man double in which the impact of the encounter is intensified by the use of irony. Through the perceptual movement, both in terms of point of view and of the cronopio's thoughts, Cortázar represents the fragmentation of the narrator's being into two antithetical facets: from what appears to be a unified identity emerge two distinct modes of existence. To fully realize the effect of "Historia" Cortázar lures the reader into the pattern of circularity which dominates the narrative, a pattern which induces him to duplicate the fragmentation of the narrator's being into observer and observed. This dissociation, a result of a fundamental act of perception, completes what Cortázar considers to be the creative act, the writing of fiction.

Sarduy, on the other hand, has created in "Junto al Río de Cenizas de Rosa" a narrative in which the opposition of metamorphosis and fixed identity determines the relationship between characters, between doubles. The General's projection of his own desire, the creation of Flor de Loto, is duplicated by the author's creation of the narrator. Thus, what initially appears to be two distinct, separate identities turns out to be the manifestation of a single being. The reader finds doubling to be a series of masks and disguises; he sees the narrative as a mask which reveals the identity that it attempts to hide. Identity and disguise are one and the same thing. For Sarduy, the act of creation, the act of writing, becomes an act of disguise which reveals his being.

Alfred J. Mac Adam (essay date 1977)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: "Severo Sarduy: Vital Signs," in his Modern Latin American Narratives: The Dreams of Reason, University of Chicago Press, 1977, pp. 44-50.

[In the following excerpt, Mac Adam examines various levels of meaning in De donde son los cantantes and discusses the "distance" between author and reader and text and reader.]

Severo Sarduy's De donde son los cantantes (1965) may be said to constitute an allegory of language, or more specifically, of the language of Cuba. We should understand allegory in this context not so much as a kind of literature but as a way of reading literature. In the ancient world, in Quintilian for example, allegory is a situation in which a meaning exactly opposite to the meaning of the words is intended or one in which words say one thing and mean another. For Sarduy, as for Derrida, words are arbitrarily chosen signs, and printed words doubly arbitrary, doubly metaphoric signs, marks that stand for linguistic signs which stand in turn for something else. Any conjugation of these written signs therefore constitutes a case of allegorical activity, since we know that we are at least twice removed from anything like reality when we deal with the written word. We know, further, that the context in which these written signs appear, a literary text, is one in which nothing is communicated directly. What Sarduy's rhetoric aims at is a literal reading of the text—but this of course is a pun.

Theologians have for centuries been accustomed to see the Bible as a text in which more than one level of meaning is present. These levels, in Aquinas and, ultimately, in Dante, were codified into four levels: the literal, the allegorical, the tropological, and the anagogical. The literal has two or three separate modes of existence: the words are composed of letters and must therefore have an individual meaning, out of any context. But most important for the exegete was the idea that the literal level of meaning was that which told "what happened." In the case of Moses leading the children of Israel out of Egypt, the literal level is history, a recorded event from the past. An event's being history enabled the interpreter to distinguish between it and parables, exemplary tales not possessing a literal or historical meaning. Beyond history is the spiritual significance of an event, itself divisible into three levels, the first of which is the allegorical, in which the historical event is seen as a prefiguration or type for another event (Moses leading the children of Israel out of Egypt is a prefiguration of Jesus leading mankind out of perdition). As Robert Hollander says of this process, "The letters of Scripture, when reporting events, have the peculiar quality of being able to signify words which simultaneously signify facts, which facts also simultaneously are figures, types, or shadows (umbrae) of other facts" [Robert Hollander, Allegory in Dante's "Commedia," 1969]. The moral level of interpretation is somewhat vaguer, usually relating to the faith; the Moses story might be an admonition to keep faith in extreme adversity. The fourth level, the anagogical or mystical, relates the event to God's plan for the flow of cosmic history, teleology; its message might be that the faithful shall be saved. Thus we have history, morality, and metaphysics bound up in a single text.

Sarduy's text puts literature on the same level as Scripture, that is, Sarduy puts all texts on the same level, the sacred being a contribution by the reader. The method of fourfold allegorical interpretation may therefore grant the reader access to the work, with some alterations. First, the literal level of meaning (always remembering that the use of the word level is merely a convenient figure, that all levels of meaning occur at the surface of the text): the literal or historical level here is the history of language, the chronicle of how words change identity over time. This is taken up in the Ensor-inspired chapter "The Entry of Christ into Havana," which follows the section devoted to the development of Spanish on the Iberian Peninsula. This section is marked by a number of quotations from Hispano-Arabic poetry and references to Saint John of the Cross, quotations which constitute a synecdoche. We then follow the migration of Spanish to Cuba, where it undergoes further transformations. In order to define the process of Sarduy's text, we might rephrase Hollander's remark in this way: "The letters of Sarduy's text, when reporting events, have the peculiar quality of being able to signify words which simultaneously signify other words, which words also simultaneously are figures, types, or shadows (umbrae)—that is, metaphors—for other words." The moral level is not absent in Sarduy, but instead of referring to Christian metaphysics, it refers to the philosophy of Martin Heidegger, "the little stud from the Black Forest" [From Cuba with a Song]. The anagogical or mystical level is likewise present, although in modified form: it refers us back again to the nature of language as a system of signs devoid of meaning, of interpretation as the individual's act of creating a meaning, a meaning found in or derived from himself, as in Heidegger's "hermeneutic circle."

Before pursuing the Heideggerian ramifications of Sarduy's text, we should recall its setting, Cuba. Not Cuba as it is (a geographical or political site), but a particular, peculiar Cuba, of which his language is a metaphor, in the same way that Cabrera Infante's language, in Tres tristes tigres, aspires to be a metaphor for another Cuba. In his ironic (in the way Eliot's notes to The Wasteland are ironic) note to the book, Sarduy states: "Three cultures have superposed themselves one on another to constitute Cuban culture—the Spanish, the African, and the Chinese; three fictions that allude to each of them make up this book." Cuba is a trinitarian (at first) reality, but there is also the mysterious fourth element, referred to as "The Unnamable Bald Female." This is, of course, Death, the death alluded to in Tocqueville's comparison of New England and the tropics, the death lurking just below the glittering surface of Carribean nature. The history of language has also (wrongly) been seen as a history of decay: Latin "decays" into the modern Romance languages. Sarduy plays with this fictitious history of decay in his history of Spanish and its cubanization in order to incorporate political history into linguistic history. The advent of the Spaniards was an act of violence, just as the history of Cuba is a movement of violence from east to west across the island. This would include Fidel Castro, whose entrance into Havana is alluded to in the chapter called "The Entry of Christ into Havana." Violence, decay, and death are all involved with the tropics, are all aspects of language (from various points of view), and are some of the motifs that give unity to the text.

Four is a number to which we must return as we again consider the first chapter of the book, "Curriculum Cubense," a Cuban course of study (and also the idea of a race). First we have a rather taut exchange between two characters (and we should always keep in mind the idea of character as letter, or the Spanish word for character, personaje, as persona or mask), Auxilio and Socorro. These names are synonyms as well as being two of the many names of the Virgin, as is the Dolores who appears later. These ladies are versions (deconsecrated to be sure) of the Virgin as vessel, seen here as lacking content. They are the signs of language, the signifiers chasing after or searching in vain for meaning. Auxilio is undergoing an "identity crisis" (understandably) because she has none, except as a searcher-for-identity, a role which links her to Heidegger's Dasein (his term for that aspect of humanity involved in inquiries into and investigations of its own mode of being). Socorro responds to Auxilio's outburst by telling her to drop dead, to cease to exist either as a thing (Heidegger's ontic mode) or as being, the ontological mode. Auxilio retorts with a modified quotation from the sonnet "Love Constant beyond Death" by the Spanish baroque poet Francisco de Quevedo: she makes the subject of the clause "I" where the original was "my soul": "Seré ceniza, mas tendré sentido" (I shall be ash, but I shall have awareness). It should be recalled also that the expression "tendré sentido" may also mean "I shall have meaning," an idea that converts the verse into a restatement of Saint Augustine's idea that language is born out of desire: what keeps Auxilio alive is her hope (hence the future tense of the verb), her will-to-meaning, seen in the text as the longing of the mystics for union with God. This God (meaning) is referred to in a duet the two females sing as

      Always absent, always absent,
      He does evil gratuitously.

The evil he does is merely to exist, to remind the signs of their emptiness: "For the signifier is a unit in its very uniqueness, being by nature symbol only of an absence" [Jacques Lacan, "Seminar on 'The Purloined Letter,'" translated by Jeffrey Mehlman, in French Freud: Structural Studies in Psychoanalysis, Yale French Studies, No. 48, 1972].

In this introductory phase of the text, Sarduy dramatizes the plight of the signs: they long for (mystic) union with meaning, referred to as a God or other masculine figure. This introduces the erotic element implicit in the relationship between masculine and feminine, the same erotic relationship expressed in sacred terms in mystic poetry, particularly that of Saint John of the Cross. A twist is given to this eroticism, one already suggested by Saint John's relationship with God: the names of the signs, Auxilio and Socorro, while seeming to refer to female characters, are masculine in gender. This hetero-homosexual play reinforces the ludic aspect of the whole text; it is a carnival of language, literally a "farewell to the flesh" in which the reader is led to see that words are only surfaces, that whatever meaning desire imputes to the signs, they will forever be mere shells tricked out in whatever costumes fit the occasion (the context). The baroque concept of desengaño is the metaphor that best explains the situation: the drama of the signs, their being doomed to a permanent state of emptiness, their being condemned to exist as surfaces, points out to the reader that what is at stake in the text is language itself, that there is nothing hidden here, that the surface, or a palimpsestlike series of surfaces, is all.

It is precisely because of this rhetorical consistency that De donde son los cantantes is so outwardly baffling. Instead of being introduced to an allegorical or metaphorical situation by stages, as he is, say, in Morel or,… in Cortázar's Rayuela, the reader here is plunged directly into the middle of things. Depending on one's position, this is either to disregard the reader completely or to treat him with unaccustomed respect. What is demanded of the reader, and again we might bear Dante in mind, is that he share the writer's culture, in this case that he know something about linguistics and twentieth century philosophy, just as Dante could demand of his readers that they share his familiarity with theology. Unlike Dante or Bioy, Sarduy does not mask his allegory with a plot. De donde son los cantantes, whose radical of presentation is metaphoric recurrence, transmits its ideas by repeating its various metaphorical dramas again and again, by agglomerating those dramas. To read the text is, necessarily, to reread it, in the same way that a "reading" of myths is a reading of all available permutations of myths.

Sarduy has been termed a neobaroque writer, and there can be no doubt that because of his reiteration of elements of Spanish baroque culture—the poetry of Góngora, Quevedo, and Saint John or his (ironic) utilization of the idea of "passion" and other religious-erotic concepts—he is. But it might be more fruitful to associate him with a "Spanish" writer of an earlier period, Prudentius (348–415?), since De donde son los cantantes resembles the Psychomachia in so many ways. Prudentius's allegorical poem on the struggle between virtues and vices cannot be subjected to the fourfold exegetical technique because it patently lacks a literal level, and yet because of its majestic stylization, its wealth of significant detail, and its ritualized accumulation of scenes, it reminds one of Sarduy's text. It is the utter strangeness of the drama enacted in both texts that links them, a strangeness which repels psychological identification on the part of the reader.

This depersonalization of character, the association of characters and ideas, and the absolute disregard of anything even resembling a plot or any other form of temporal organization that would make the text "lifelike" connects Sarduy's work with satire. When we realize that the narrative represents, talks about, and is a metaphor only for its own processes and that these elements are a part of language taken as a totality, we see just how futile a reading of the text as any other sort of literary phenomenon would be. To be sure, Sarduy includes references to Cuba, which is only natural since the language he is concerned with is his own Cuban Spanish, and it is here perhaps that we see a contamination of the kind of purity to which Sarduy's text aspires by historical circumstance. Similarly, when he alludes to figures from the "real world," such as Jacques Lacan or Martin Heidegger, he is including the nonliterary world in his text even if he might not want those allusions to constitute a link between the text and an extratextual reality. Within the text, the allusions act as reinforcements of narrative coherence, but their presence does point out a possible gap between the culture of the reader and that of the writer (or his text).

It is the reader's knowledge that connects any text to a cultural context, not the text itself: it is no doubt unfortunate that most readers lack the intimate knowledge of Ireland necessary to follow Joyce's references, the knowledge of Southern history to make an annotated Faulkner unnecessary, or a familiarity with French culture equivalent to Proust's. The same is true for those matters most important to Sarduy's text, but this gap between reader and writer does not mean that the text can only be read within the confines of a cultural framework. It is not only these so-called modern works which challenge the reader; a cursory reading of Dickens or George Eliot reveals a culture, often presented in terms of biblical and liturgical references, to which most modern readers have only the most limited access. Ignorance gives us easy entry to no literature, and it is perhaps the realization on the part of the authors considered in this essay that they must educate their readers that constitutes what is truly modern in them. They demand what the nineteenth century obscured and what earlier centuries took for granted: a common culture shared by all educated people.

It is this intellectual distance between author and reader and text and reader which has gained the new Latin American narrative the reputation as an elitist literature. What has been forgotten is that all literature is elitist. The written word in Western culture has never been the property of all, although it has always been public property. It belongs to those who are willing to work at it, regardless of social or economic class. But there is, along with the need to make allusions to extratextual matters, a tacit confession that the reader may not know who or what is being alluded to, together with a tacit hope that the reader will find out; and this puts the concept of the literary text as a hermetically sealed system into some doubt.

Enrico Mario Santi (essay date Spring-Summer 1980)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: "Textual Politics: Severo Sarduy," in Latin American Literary Review, Vol. VIII, No. 16, Spring-Summer, 1980, pp. 152-60.

[Santi is a Cuban-born American educator, author, and critic of Hispanic literature and poetry. In the following essay, he examines De donde son los cantantes and Sarduy's use of themes from the philosophy of Martin Heidegger.]

One of the assumptions that governs our sense of modern literary history is that progress in literature exists because Modernity allows for a greater and demystified knowledge of reality. The origins of this pretension to epistemological superiority are perhaps located in Romanticism, whose parallel development and alliance with German Idealism strengthened its case with a powerful philosophical basis unseen before its time. It could be shown, however, that the superiority which Romanticism claims as its own was already present in the Renaissance and in the case of certain modern genres such as the novel, forms the very basis of their position in literary history. The same could be said of those literatures which arise with the advent of Modernity, such as that of Latin America, which from their inception establish a polemical stance before Western culture and tradition.

Implicit in virtually all critical approaches to the Latin American novel are one or more of the above notions, although critics themselves have been wont to recognize the limits which these very notions impose. The interplay between these critical assumptions, on the one hand, and the peculiar blindness displayed by certain critics, on the other, has been especially prevalent in a certain reading of what has come to be known as the new Latin American novel, which came of age during the 1960's and, some say, continues even today. The assumptions, in this case, have been the following: that these recent novels display a greater self-awareness as literature than all previous texts written in Latin America; that this self-conscious textuality, which rejoices in its own playfulness, exposes the arbitrariness of all sign systems; and that these qualities render a more accurate, less mystified representation of the problematic nature of Latin America. Among these recent novels, those by the Cuban author Severo Sarduy (b. 1937) perhaps emblematize these literary and critical trends. His works, four novels and two volumes of essays to date, have been seen as sustained explorations of parodic discourse, or have at least been so qualified to describe a peculiar brand of writing which defies simple classification. In the pages that follow I will not hesitate to repeat this commonplace, but only with the intention of challenging its strength and of testing its limits. The general focus of my argument will be to use Sarduy's mode of writing as an instance of the problematic interplay I have sketched above. I will begin by expanding on notions, some of which are well known, about the novel; next, I will attempt to link these broad generic considerations to the subject of parody and adumbrate the relationship between parody and the novel. Finally, I will try to bring these ideas into focus and apply them to a discussion of Sarduy, and in particular to a reading of a section from De donde son los cantantes, the "Curriculum cubense," with which this novel, the most significant by this author within a specifically Latin American context, begins. In the end I will hope to have shown that Sarduy's brand of writing belongs to a species of post-modern literature which is much tamer than it has been made out to be.

Literary history tells us that the novel is a late genre. Compared to tragedy or the epic, both of which are discussed as early as Aristole's Poetics, the novel is very recent. Risking a pleonasm or a bad pun. I would say the novel's belatedness constitutes its novelty: its generic newness is inscribed in its very name. The implications of the belatedness, as is well known, are crucial. Born of Modernity, of the radical disjunction between words and things which Foucault has described as the beginning of classical representation, the novel rises as a genre which is both corrective and self-corrective. The consciousness of the past which is typical of the Renaissance, an acute and dense temporality which is conceived in linear terms, entailed the pangs of historical and antiquarian anxiety. The word "anachronism" is in fact a Renaissance invention. For the philological mind of the Renaissance—for Erasmus, Valla, Vives, Inca Garcilaso—the past ceased to be a contemporary presence, more or less tolerated, and became a historical dimension whose limits had to be measured and judged. For these and other reasons we can say that the literature of the Renaissance, in its consciousness of its difference from the past and in its judgment of literary history, is the first truly historical literature.

It is hardly an accident, therefore, that the birth of the novel—Rabelais and Cervantes are the two names I have in mind—takes place during this time. In seeking to found its beginning, the novel casts a critical, corrective glance towards its own past, thus making of literary history the culprit of its founding gestures, the evil site of error, blindness and delusion. Rabelais, for example, assumes the same critical distance toward the epic from which Cervantes will regard the romances of chilvalry. Both authors will identify in their precursors the errors of art and of thought, as well as of those modes of writing that ostensibly stray from a correct union of sign and meaning, thus hindering philosophical or objective knowledge and fostering instead delusion and madness. It could be said that from its inception the genre of the novel internalized in its rhetorical structure two distinct and simultaneous political gestures—political, that is, in the sense of their overpowering corrective strategies—which we have barely begun to understand. The first of these strategies we would call a politics of literary history; the second, a politics of the subject or of individual consciousness. The first has been a strategy to achieve power over precursor texts by claiming an ability to correct literary history; the second has been a strategy to attain power over the limits of the subject, of consciousness and of the deceptions of writing by means of an unfolding of the creative self into mirroring doubles and the protracted use of humor. The labels we have traditionally attached to these two political strategies are "parody" and "irony," respectively.

Parody is one of several modes of the politics of literary history. One could undoubtedly cite others: imitation, quotation, allusion. But among all of these modes parody would seem to be the most political, or at least the most overtly so. Indeed, one should speak of terrorism, rather than politics. The power of parody is the reader's terror, or at least the awe he displays before the demystified knowledge of this genre. For parody is the demystified genre par excellence. One thinks of the language employed by Mikhail Bakhtin to define it: the parodic text (e. g. Don Quixote) seeks to destory, by mock inversion, the base model (Amadis of Gaul); parody exaggerates literary conventions in order to destory them. It is a question not just of imitation or benign derision, but of outright destruction. In its desire to correct literary history, parody will go so far as to destory all anteriority, even if in so doing it means destroying itself. For the crux of parody, which is also the crux of the novel, is the crux of Modernity itself: the tension between the desire to escape from a successive temporality, from the duration to which writing condemns the literary act, towards the facticity of action and presence, on the one hand, and the given necessity of having to describe that very desire in temporal (or linguistic) terms, on the other. Perhaps parody is the genre that most violently enacts that general principle which Paul de Man derives from the relationship between literary history and literary modernity: "The more radical the rejection of anything that came before, the greater the dependence on the past," a formula which, translated into our subject, would give us: "The more parody seeks to overpower and destory, the more it creates and is subdued by literary history: and the more it attempts to subvert literary conventions by deriding them, the more it reinforces them" [Paul de Man "Literary History and Literary Modernity" Blindness and Insight: Essays on the Rhetoric of Contemporary Criticism, 1971].

Both the novel and the parodic text share in the enactment of this principle of Modernity, as it were. That is, they share in the enactment of a cycle of destruction and creation, a dialectic of derision and reinforcement of literary conventions that are held to be at once, and paradoxically, outworn and necessary. I am not of course suggesting that we should now begin confusing novel and parody, genre and mode of discourse, as though they were one and the same, blurring distinctions which, measured against their common origin, turn out to be quite secondary. I am saying, however, that within their own rhetorical requirements novel and parody share this common structure. And in the case of parodic novel, that is, of an explicitly parodic novel—since, as I suggested earlier, the genre by itself enacts political gestures that are always potentially parodic—this tension is exponentially doubled, the cycle of creation and destruction, of derision and reinforcement of literary conventions, is magnified as their political or rhetorical strategies fuse, and corrections (both of the past and of itself) become more violent and thus more convincing. A parodic novel is a two-fisted terrorist.

It is almost a platitude to refer to Severo Sarduy's novels as parodies. From Gestos (1963) to Maitreya (1978), Sarduy's texts seem to want to span the entire spectrum of parodic correction—from pastiche, to collage and allusion, to outright travesty. In an interview with Roberto González Echevarría, in which Sarduy states his penchant for the Baroque, he goes so far as to claim that without parody there would be no Baroque, which one must take to mean that without parody there would be no Sarduy. De donde son los cantantes, Sarduy's second novel, is explicitly parodic in its mockery of a whole tradition in Latin American literature—the search for cultural identity—and indeed of Latin American thought itself. González Echevarría writes that the novel "deploys the question/affirmation of origins as a text within an open space, that donde, with and without an accent, as well as within the movement of that son, plural being and Cuban dance, which both confers and subtracts the essence of that illusory—in the sense of theatrical—place of representation." It is this tradition which De donde son los cantantes parodies, assembling a mock-archeology of the structure of Cubanhood, so to speak. And it is tradition which the novel identifies, in its ludicrous itemization of the different racial components of Cuban culture—Chinese, Black and Spanish—as the site of error and delusion. Of the novel's five sections, the middle three are devoted to a burlesque dramatization of each racial component; and these sections are preceded by an introduction, the "Curiculum cubense," a kind of scene of instruction which reveals the purpose of the book, and followed by a final note which recapitulates the entire novel and all but repudiates its pertinence to the subject.

Of all the five sections, none is perhaps more enigmatic, more baffling in its allusive density, than the first chapter, if we can so call it. The final note informs us that the purpose of this first section is to introduce the characters. Indeed, throughout the "Curriculum" we witness the picaresque wanderings of Auxilio (Help) and Socorro (Mercy), two interjections which more or less function as the two main characters who are engaged in an ever-frustrating search for the essence of Being: "La pregunta de los sesenta y cuatro mil pesos, la definición del ser" ("The sixty-four thousand dollar question, the definition of being"). Their search includes Socorro's visit to Domus Dei, the house of God or of Death; Auxilio's subsequent foray into a modern self-service, where he/she (the characters' sexual identities are as mysterious as their names) proceeds to distribute old, and probably apocryphal, pictures of him/herself to the rest of the customers; and, finally, a section titled "Nueva version de los hechos" ("A New Version of the Facts") which narrates the mutual seduction of Auxilio and General. The latter is at one point described, in language from the first line of Pablo Neruda's Canto General/General Song/, as "el blanco de la peluca y la casaca" / "the White man of wig and frockcoat" /, an obvious allusion which is meant to convey that he stands for the Spanish component of Cuba's cultural makeup. The union between these two strange bedfellows, Auxilio and General, described as a "cosmogonia en ciernes" ("a budding cosmogony"), is said to attract a whole world: "chupó mundo. El biomio Auxilio-General chupó todo lo que habla alrededor y, claro está, chupó a una negra y a una china: así se completó el curriculum cubense," ("it sucked in world. The binomial Help-General sucked in all that was around and, obviously, it sucked in a Black woman and a Chinese woman: thus was completed the curriculum cubense"). The name given to this new allegorical binomial of desire and Hispanicity, we are told, is "Auxilio-Concepción del Universo" (Help-Conception of the Universe); and it includes, we are further told, "la Pelona Innombrable" ("the Unnameable Baldy"). Death itself, as the companion of heroic Spain. Altogether, then, they are four, and not just three, the elements of Cuban culture: Spain, China, Africa and Death. The four are variously referred to as a "trébol gigante de cuatro hojas" ["giant four leaf clover"], "animal de cuatro cabezas que miran hacia los cuatro puntos cardinales" ("a four-headed animal that looks toward the four cardinal points"), and "un signo yoruba de los cuatro caminos" ("a Yoruba sign of the four roads"). And the final description summarizes the significance of the quartet by means of a discreet allusion to Heidegger: "las cuatro partes de que hablaba el lechosito de la Selva Negra" ("the four parts of which spoke the jack-off from the Black Forest"). "Si, el único," ("Yes, the only one") Socorro is quick to add, "que le puso la tapa al pomo!" ("Who put the lid on things").

The allusion to Heidegger at the end of the section is an attempt not only to summarize the preceding mock descriptions, but more importantly to prescribe a structure for the novel, a telos and an intention which is faithfully followed by the rest of the text. In its almost didactic deliberateness, in its shameless allusiveness, the reference to Heidegger and by extension all of the "Curriculum cubense" acquires an allegorical cast which invites decipherment by means of an outside code. This allegorical turn is prepared for by both the macarronic Latin of the title and by Auxilio's earlier remark concerning "la definicion del Ser" ("the definition of Being"). The Cuban foursome, it suggests, stands for, or is a version of, the "cuatro partes" ("four parts") which the Heideggerian text, the most powerful ontological investigation of our times, is supposed to contain.

Granted that Heidegger is brought into Sarduy's text almost casually and then dropped abruptly, only to be jabbed later at one or two other spots in the novel, the strategic position that the allusion assumes and its attendant allegorical cast render it more important than it would appear at first sight. The allusion to the "four parts" is none other than a reference to Heidegger's "quadruple constellation," what Heidegger calls the Fourfold (das Geviert) of ontology, which in his conception means the gathering of four experimental structures (earth, heaven, man and gods) as the constitution of the world which go something like this: the Fourfold (earth, heaven, man and gods) is originally and repeatedly co-present and implicit in all things; all four imply one another always and permanently in an originary sense. Accordingly, to take the example that Heidegger himself employs, when I look at a jar I must understand, if I wish to understand the jar as a real thing, that the water that flows from it implies the presence of both a water spring (earth) and the rain (heaven); that the water is both a refreshment for mortals (man) and an offering to the gods (divinity). To know the Fourfold is to know what makes up a thing. I have italicized the latter word because Heidegger chose to explain this particular concept of the Foufold in the context of his famous 1950 lecture on "The Thing." In this lecture Heidegger attempted to offer solutions to what he called, using a phrase which recalls a similar concept of Lukacs', "modern man's transcendental homelessness" [Martin Heidegger, "Das Ding," in Jahrbuch des Bayerischen Akademie der Schöner Kunste, 1951]. Heidegger's word for this condition of modernity is the German Heimatlosigkeit, in which the German heim stands for both home and fatherland (Spanish patria). The gathering of the Fourfold, then, is a way of recuperating not only the Being of things, but of the fatherland itself, of returning to the place of birth, the donde to which the title of Sarduy's novel alludes. For Heidegger any one thing is a meeting of the four (das Geviert), an original unity where each and every element implies the other three, as in a gathering of mirrors facing one another, to use another of Heidegger's images which Sarduy fondly picks up in "Curriculum cubense:" "¡Ya se van zafando, ya se miran. Qie graciosos!" ("They're starting to come apart, they're looking at each other. How cute!").

It could be shown that virtually all of the baffling imagery that we find in "Curriculum cubense" has been lifted out of Heidegger's description of the return to the transcendental home or fatherland. But of course, it would be at once too simple and too naive to look upon this particular allusion as an authoritative key that would permit a successful decoding of Sarduy's text, an exegesis whereby the once abstruse allegory would be domesticated. More interesting, perhaps, would be to regard such a moment as the navel of the novel, so to speak; the moment, that is, when parody and allegory seem to teeter in an undecidable balance between presence and absence, meaning and derision, code and outright joke. This would be the moment when all of the political or terrorist gestures of the text are subverted in order to enthrone meaning, Heideggerian meaning no less, thereby invalidating, or at least rendering suspect, all of the text's pretensions to power. In other words, if the purpose of Sarduy's text is to subvert the tradition of the search for Latin American identity, why invoke, at this crucial moment of the novel, Heideggerian hope, especially when this particular gesture, even if not specifically cultural, drags along with it a whole system of metaphysical complicity? Such a question would not be necessary if the allusion to Heidegger did not surface at a point where there occurs a closure of representation, which is fulfilled by the reminding sections of the novel—four Heideggerian original elements, four layers of Cuban culture, four remaining sections of the novel. The fulfillment of this closure ends up privileging the allusion to Heidegger and it confirms an allegorical structure not unlike that of many traditional texts (Dante's Purgatory, for example) in which another external, authoritative code structures the length and order of the narrative. It is perhaps interesting that the novel offers another example in miniature of this same structure in "La Dolores Rondon," the second chapter, where the décima inscribed upon Dolores' tombstone prescribes the order of the narrative.

My conclusions may seem obvious by now, so I will quickly sketch them out. In De donde son los cantantes Sarduy may have chosen to deny, through parody, the specificity of Cuban (and through it of Latin American) identity and culture, but he only seems to have been able to broach the subject by invoking a higher authority (Heidegger) and a method of destruction (Cuban parody, or choteo) which dismantles all critical gestures at the very moment when they are posed. What if, one might ask, the very act of denying Cuban specificity through parody turns out to be the most peculiarly Cuban gesture of all? The question at least seems worth asking in view of Sarduy's heavy reliance, throughout all of his novels, upon Cuban slang. And similarly, would not the determination of a mock-archeology through Heidegger turn out to be the most metaphysical, the most insidious search for identity of all? The final note of the novel, which repudiates the pertinence of the preceding sections, would seem to take the extra leap into the nihilism of a total fiction, but the question remains whether the note is part of the fiction or, instead, an authorial directive, not unlike, one might add, Carpentier's deceptively historical postscripts.

Sarduy, or his language, is unable to escape the ontological question, that question which all parody, in its violent corrective gestures, seeks to answer in advance, pretending to be always already in control of a demystified knowledge. Sarduy's writing, in this not unlike that of Juan Goytisolo, another similar post-modern writer, or that of the Tel Quel movement, which at times has inspired both, is a new species of Romaticism, a more powerful and more convincing because more violent Romanticism which believes in the myth of the innocence of becoming; the myth, to use Jonathan Culler's critique of Tel Quel, "that continued change, as an end in itself, is freedom, and that changing constantly liberates us from the demands that could be made of a particular system" [Jonathan Culler, Structuralist Poetics, 1975]. Yet parody seems to be less the final, clean answer to the question, De donde son los contantes, less the comforting correction that all modern authors dream of, than the symptom, the painful reminder that out there a question still lingers which is worth quarreling about.

Gustavo Pellon (essay date Fall-Winter 1983)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: "Severo Sarduy's Strategy of Irony: Paradigmatic Indecision in Cobra and Maitreya," in Latin American Literary Review, Vol. 11, No. 23, Fall-Winter, 1983, pp. 7-13.

[In the following essay, Pellon examines how Sarduy creates irony by disrupting the narrative flow of the text and utilizing the technique of "paradigmatic indecision," which destroys images and meanings "by a change of tone, a personal comment, or a violently contradictory sentiment."]

He answered every keon with a belch, a Bronx cheer, or the facile aphorism, "samsara is nirvana." Maitreya

In Cobra and Maitreya Severo Sarduy employs a stylistic technique which entails a partial rejection by the author of the process of selection. Following the linguists Hjelmslev and Jakobson in the distinction they draw between an axis of selection (paradigmatic text) and an axis of combination (syntagmatic axis), I have called this technique paradigmatic indecision. The extraordinary stylistic experiments of Sarduy reveal the linguistic preoccupations of contemporary Latin American literature, and at the same time bear witness to the link between current narrative experiments and the post-structuralist ideology of writing.

Synthesizing a more traditional approach to the process of literary creation and interpretation, Wayne Booth isolates the four key elements present in what he calls "stable irony." For Booth, this type of irony must be: intended, covert (i.e. having a surface meaning and a deep meaning), stable (i.e. once interpreted the reader is not invited to undermine it further) and finite (i.e. localized, it makes no universal claims) [Wayne C. Booth, A Rhetoric of Irony, 1974]. Sarduy's writing sets out to violate all the rules of traditional irony, and in this it rather resembles Booth's characterization of "unstable irony." Booth distinguishes between the two types of irony by explaining that stable irony asks us "to push through its confusion to some final point of clarity," while unstable irony wants us "to see through it to a possibly infinite series of further confusion." The most fundamental strategy in Sarduy's work, (and one which he shares with post-structuralist theorists) is precisely the unseating of the notion that a literary work is capable of arriving at some "final point of clarity."

In many contemporary novels ironic devices such as digressions, and extra-novelistic interruptions have frequently been exploited with the purpose of demystifying the process of writing and reading. Sarduy in Cobra and Maitreya takes the ironic interruption of the narrative flow to the level of the sentence itself. In this manner, the very surface of the text is constantly undermined since the author at any given moment refuses to choose a particular adjective, simile or metaphor and instead presents the reader with several choices. The repeated confrontation with series of alternatives, which in the main are irreconcilable, reminds the reader at every instant of the arbitrary character of expression and of the novelistic universe which the author creates or subverts at will.

Sarduy employs paradigmatic indecision as the fundamental vehicle of a narrative strategy which endeavors to reject any ultimate assignation of meaning by either the author or the reader. For Sarduy, meaning is always provisional and tentative, and only the corrosive process of irony endures.

Paradigmatic indecision is the most radical of the many ironic devices employed by Sarduy in his novels, but never does it appear in the extreme version utilized in certain passages of Cobra where the page for a moment assumes the aspect of a cross-roads. The following excerpt from one of these passages offers a model of paradigmatic writing which resembles the infinite novel imagined by Borges in "The Garden of Forking Paths:"

    She went /barefoot, dragging incense burners,
           /bedaubed with crosses of black oil,
           /in a Carmelite habit, of burlap, a
           yellow cord around her waist,
           /wrapped in damasks and white cloth,
           with a wide-brimmed hat and a staff,
           /naked and covered with sores, under
           a hood …

After the dazzling moment of indecision which rises abruptly from the page with a double semantic and visual effect, the text of Cobra resumes its normality.

The predominance of the paradigmatic axis over the syntagmatic in Sarduy is the logical consequence of the metaphorical bent of his writing, a stylistic predilection which links him with Lezama Lima. Speaking of Lezama, Sarduy underscores the importance of what he calls the "vertical cut" of writing: "on Lezama's page what counts is not the veracity—in the sense of identity with something non-verbal—of the words, but their dialogical presence, their reflection. What counts is the texture French, Latin, culture, the chromatic value, the layer that they mark in the vertical cut of writing, in its unfurling of parallel knowledge" [Escrito sobre un cuerpo, 1969]. This unfolding of parallel knowledge which Sarduy recognizes in Lezama's style is very much present in his own. What matters most of all in any page of Sarduy's writing is the texture, and the technique that he utilizes most frequently in order to make the reader feel the texture of the text is this vertical cut, the parallel images which constantly frustrate the reader's naturalization of the text. "Writing is the art of mending," Sarduy proclaims in Cobra. Reading also is, no doubt, and Sarduy sets out to make the job of mending as difficult as possible for the reader.

Maitreya presents a less graphic version of paradigmatic indecision than Cobra, but in Maitreya the use of the technique is so prevalent as to become the normality of the text rather than an anomaly. This more subtle version of indecision consists in a constant opposition of alternatives, similes and catalogues. The formula employed most often by Sarduy is a or b, whether in the form of an affirmation or a question, but there are also many instances which transcend mere binary opposition. The indecision almost always reflects one of the countless catalogues of alternatives. It describes the sudden awakening of a startled Tibetan monk:

Rigid, his hands joined in a reverent greeting, he proffered a tumultuous mani, without knowing for certain if he was addressing it to a Lamaic superior, to a bloodthirsty monkey that was grabbing his finger and biting it, or, shortly after death, to the hateful manifestation of Avalokitechvara, myriapodous and wrathful, in a halo of black flames, of a necklace of heads sucking blood clots.

Frequently the opposition of alternatives reveals a demystifying strategy, which recalls the fundamental gesture of Romantic irony as practiced by a writer like Heine, where "the writer creates an illusion, especially of beauty, and suddenly destroys it by a change of tone, a personal comment, or a violently contradictory sentiment." [William Van O'Connor, "Irony," Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, edited by Alex Preminger, Frank J. Warnke and O. B. Hardison, Jr., 1974]. In Sarduy, one of the choices generally contributes to the exotic oriental and mystical backdrop of the action while the other, which usually carries a prosaic interpretation, destroys it. Some of these instances are very brief, like the following one which describes the preparation of the lama's corpse for the funeral: "They removed his white mantle and his underpants," or like the very last words of the lama: "This very night, after they give the soccer scores, I will enter forever into nirvana." But Sarduy's demystification functions best when he develops the image in great detail before letting it shatter in front of us:

Grave, the dwarf, plastered with vermilion, earrings, and between the eyebrows a dot of gold, was unrolling a scroll: identical bodies, holding hands, like the twins of the Zodiac, scribbled with Sanskrit inscriptions which the bejewelled one translated painstakingly, squinting his eyes, as if he were deciphering the message of the ancestors engraved on a femur or a recipe of Nitza Villapol.

In this last example, all the mystery of the orient vanishes when Sarduy juxtaposes an engraved Tibetan thigh bone with a recipe of the Cuban avatar of Julia Child.

Paradigmatic indecision is not the only device used by Sarduy in his project of demystification. Another iconoclastic mechanism which appears in Maitreya is the incongruous juxtaposition of different cultures, most notably Cuban or Hispanic culture and the Orient. Thus in this novel, the Leng sisters, while fleeing with the boy lama on a train of Pakistani refugees, drink warm beer and eat bagfuls of "fried plantains." They also poison the disciples of the lama with strychnine-laced "Alicante nougat," and when the lama dies, the old sisters find consolation in their "hot chocolate and churros."

As many of the previous examples demonstrate, one of Sarduy's most effective ironic mechanisms is his recourse to the incongruous, the banal and the scatological. Sarduy's most carefully elaborated effort to debase the Tibetan Buddhist religion which serves as the only thematic constant in the novel appropriately concerns the well-known quest for a reincarnated lama. The dying lama offers his disciples the following clues regarding his rebirth: "You will find me in the water, with my eyes closed. I will be the Instructor. A rainbow of wide stripes will surround my feet." Sarduy turns his ritual into a game of metaphorical interpretation, and the lama's prophecy is fulfilled under totally unexpected and prosaic circumstances. Weary from their fruitless search, the monks arrive at a temple where the Leng sisters are scrubbing a child, whose eyes are shut tight to keep out the soap, in a large plastic tub decorated with the seven colors of the rainbow. Confronted with this banal scene the monks merely note that the multicolored tub is in bad taste, "why so many loud colors in a tub," and Sarduy berates them for failing to recognize the clues given by their teacher: "all five of them—the self-appointed Commission of Experts on Metempsychosis—were lacking in metaphorical boldness." The Tibetan rite receives its coup de grâce when the boy brings to an end the ceremonial examination which is to prove his identity by exclaiming: "Why harass me with more tests?… I wish to continue the conversation that I interrupted with my friend the supreme abbot of Surmang, which we have held for two generations. He owes me two chickens."

It remains to show how Sarduy, consistent with his ideology, also refuses the apparent power of his privileged position as author by undermining his own rhetoric, and mocking his own use of multiple alternatives and metaphors. The following passage represents the culmination of this rhetorical device as well as the author's mock exasperation with his own strategy:

From a distance la Tremenda slowly made him out, imprecise, as if through a fiberglass screen or through the Cambodian October rain. Was it her irises, made cloudy by the barbituric homage to Greta Garbo, or the smoke of the fired prawns which issued from the kitchen in Vermeerian vapor clouds, almost choking a canary which was gasping in a shitty cage, and leaving on the overcoats that refried odor which denounces Mandarin culinary economy?

Anyway, she saw him.

After indulging in extremes of paradigmatic squandering, Sarduy turns to the other end of the spectrum, towards aporia, where indecision in the face of the multitude of choices results in an inability to speak at all. From the verbal shrug of the shoulders, "Anyway, she saw him," Sarduy proceeds to an apparent capitulation when he paradoxically describes a scream of La Divina as "an inadjectivable scream."

Having reached the silence of indecision, Sarduy takes the undermining of his paradigmatic rhetoric to the very limit of writing and speech—pantomime—or since this is obviously impossible in a novel, the description of pantomime: "That very night, and with her eyes like this—with my fingers I make two zeros—, the most deceitful solutions occurred to la Tremenda…."

The predominance of interpretive crises in the writing of Sarduy reflects the central project of post-structuralist ideology, the renunciation of the power implied by authorship and the dethronement of the concept of an entity filled with meaning which guarantees order at the theological, political, scientific and artistic levels, what post-structuralists call a "privileged subject" or a "transcendental signified." The post-structuralists instead posit a chain of signifiers whose meaning is only provisional and self-referential. Their project, as described by Julia Kristeva, envisions a type of linguistic nirvana:

In this other space where the laws of the logic of speech are undermined, the subject dissolves and in the place of the sign is installed the collision of signifiers cancelling out each other. An operation of generalized negativity … an annihilating negativity, which ancient philosophies, such as Buddhism, have glimpsed designating it by the term unyavada. A "zerological subject," a non-subject comes to assume this thinking which annuls itself. [Julia Kristeva, Semiotiké, 1969]

Buddhism has always insisted that ordinary language is misleading because of its conventionality and artificiality. The founder of Buddhist skepticism, Nagarjuna, held that "the notions of a permanent self and of permanent substances are illusions fostered by language" [Niniar Smart, "Indian Philosophy," The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 1972]. In order to express the ineffability of reality he used the term unya (void). Nagarjuna's followers gradually lost the insight of Voidism, and to use Kristeva's terminology, successfully reinstated the concept of the subject. Nagarjuna's thesis underwent a religious transformation whereby the "Void" first became the name of the inner nature of all phenomena, and eventually this Absolute became deified as the Buddha. This later revelation completely filled the gap left by Nagarjuna's skepticism.

The fate of Nagarjuna's doctrine points to a danger inherent in the demystifying strategies of Kristeva and Sarduy. To substitute the concept of the subject, Kristeva installs what she calls a "non-subject." On closer examination, her claims appears less radical, since her "non-subject", assuming the function of the subject it displaced, actually serves to center her system, much like the Voidism of Nagarjuna's followers which paradoxically came to be filled by the concept of a deity. Seeking to displace the authority of the subject, Kristeva instead replaces it with that of the non-subject. It is futhermore suspicious that at the very moment when she is engaged in annulling the authority of the subject, she should invoke, however obliquely, the authority of the Buddhist metaphysical tradition in an attempt to impress her readers with the ancient pedigree of the concept of the non-subject. Kristeva's allusion to unyavada is infelicitous since the very history of that concept addresses a warning to those who seek to free themselves from the persistent authority of absolutes. Kristeva's bold attempt to think outside of Western metaphysics unfortunately founders when it seeks the support of the East, which stands in as great a need of demystification as the West.

Does Sarduy fall prey to the same contradiction? In the case of his second novel, De donde son los cantantes, Enrico Mario Santi has argued that Sarduy's writing is only a new but more violent version of Romanticism, which privileges "the myth of the innocence of becoming" [Enrico Mario Santi, "Textual Politics: Severo Sarduy," Latin American Literary Review VII, No. 16, 1980], and by claiming to possess demystified knowledge, in turn forfeits its claim to any type of significant radicality.

Regarding Cobra, Roberto González Echevarría maintains that all the Indian, Derridean and Lacanian underpinnings of the novel are subjected to the same process of emptying that Catholic iconography undergoes in the work of Calderón. The fundamental difference between the two systems is that Calderón always eventually arrives at a moment of true plenitude, the Eucharist, and Sarduy's writing always ends in derision.

In Maitreya, Sarduy has altered his stategy, and if he does not achieve the liberating triumph which González Echevarría sees in Cobra, "a true explosion of the values of the West," [Roberto Gonzáles Echevarría, "Memoria de apariencias y ensayo de Cobra," Relecturas: estudios de literatua cubana, 1976], neither does Sarduy fall into the crypto-positivism of Kristeva or the Neo-Romanticism Santi sees in De donde son los cantantes.

It is impossible for any system to escape the reinstatement of the subject, since as a system it must make a claim to truth. In Maitreya, Sarduy seems to have realized that there is no way to write and at the same time escape the privileged position of authority. Since he cannot avoid enthroning himself, he opts for a stategy which will permit him to constantly dethrone himself. This strategy of irony is founded on paradigmatic indecision carried to the very level of the sentence, and the last two sentences of Maitreya (the first of which contains one such indecision) appropriately summarize Sarduy's own project in his novel: "They fondled rites unto idiocy or boredom. In order to demonstrate the impermanence and vacuity of all." Sarduy's demystification of his own writing through linguistic ritual results not in idiocy or boredom but in a much subtler avatar of his previous novels.

Julio Ortega (essay date 1984)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: "From Cuba With a Song," in Poetics of Change: The New Spanish-American Narrative, University of Texas Press, 1984, pp. 173-79.

[In the following essay, Ortega examines how the structure and literary style of From Cuba With a Song contribute to an examination of "Cubanness."]

From Cuba with a Song, by the young Cuban writer Severo Sarduy, is a novel that carries radicalism of form to a new level in the Latin-American novel. It is a novel, an antinovel, and a scrapbook of a possible novel. It strikes the reader first as a jumble of innovations, but it actually possesses a self-induced program within its obstinate will to transgress. This program takes the form of the draining of the traditional novel in new variations of the reshaping of cultural forms.

The book consists of an introduction followed by three segments, each dealing with one of the three racial components of Cuban culture:

(a) "Curriculum cubense," a sort of prologue, poses the idea of the text as iconographic writing. Through this writing, Sarduy will attempt to make visible the different and conjugated components of the Cuban world.

(b) The first segment, "By the River of Rose Ashes," is a mirrored recreation of the Chinese world of Havana. Its detailed descriptions, enumerations, and transformations are not intended as a snapshot of this world but as its possible metaphor: the masks are switched in this feverish transgression of its own design, in the play of its verbal fireworks. The humor found here is a form of criticism, of self-questioning. This text is, therefore, a brilliant pastiche sustained by the code of its baroque gratuitousness and is valid in its own right. The glossed world of this novel is drained—by the act of glossing itself—of signification and even of materiality, because the baroque line of this work is light and airy and the sensation it distills is an insinuation, a trace of desire, rather than the full sensation of desire itself.

(c) The second segment, "Dolores Rondón," is a pastiche of the Black component of a "Cubanness" brilliantly reduced by Sarduy to a myth of sensible forms. Whereas the Chinese spectacle implied a world of objects, a happy confusion of changing characters and masks, the Black spectacle implies a theatrical oralness. The tragic game of a feminine character sarcastically followed through the popular legends about her is developed here in another literary game. Through a popular theatrical performance we witness the lost cause of this Cuban mulattress who has been elevated to a national symbol. Sarduy once again constructs a rhetorical parable, a baroque, oratorical pastiche, intended as another mask of reality within language.

(d) The third segment, "The Entry of Christ in Havana," is the most accomplished part of the text. It too is a verbal parable, but its object is the Hispanic component of this "curriculum cubense," which we now realize has critical implications and a dynamics of festive interrogation. The hallucinating creation of a language as a totally imaginary adventure, a process whose very nature implies a radical criticism of the tradition of this genre and of representation, reaches it expressive culmination in this text through gratuitousness. Its most beautiful creative energy emerges from the play of free verbal invention.

This ethnic and cultural anthropology turns out to be a proposal for an antianthropology, so to speak. The conjugation of "cultural" and "ethnic" elements is presented here starting from a different perception: the pictorial and theatrical possibilities of language. The three glossed components are seen as pure spectacle; thus their essences are disclosed through appearances, through faces represented as masks. Hence the Chinese is only a repertoire of objects; the Black is a full-bodied voice; and the Hispanic is a rotting wooden statue (of Christ), a parable of signification. Pastiche and inversion, the novel's secret Sadian or satirical festivity provide the touchstones for an ironic criticism of the three cultural components and the key to the possible reshaping of popular creativeness in a textural fullness. This popular imagery is reduced to a few sensuous signs, and the novel thus becomes a radical rejection of the meanings of culture in the name of the liberation of the senses provided by art.

Appearance is inevitably also a cultural form in Sarduy's literary game. It is a form emptied of meaning but infused with another proposition, the baroque in this case. The baroque aspect of Sarduy's work is not, however, the allegoric and sensorial baroque encountered in Lezama Lima or the solar baroque of Octavio Paz; it is, instead, a hyperbole of pure form, a spiral of metaphorical accumulations, a double mask, perhaps because the pastiche implies a total suppression of density and at the same time a pure presence of language. Deprived of a signifying connection with all referents, Sarduy's baroque requires a formal relationship with them based on its own medium: the word, the phrase, the text. Therefore, this baroque is almost a parody of itself, because Sarduy longs for the idea of the baroque as a kind of verbal absolute. The text is thus produced as a recodification by the image and as a recovery of the world through the senses. Repeatedly proposed as an erotic activity, Sarduy's writing is also the nervous or tense desire for a fulfilling eroticism, which is found here as suggestion, as a beckoning. Thus, even if the lack of density does not imply an aleatory eroticism (as in Lezama Lima), the origin of writing does. For Sarduy, narration amounts to liberating meaning through the senses, to posing a parody of the world through empathy.

This reduction of reality to the image produces various rhythms and scenes in the novel, from the image constructed and then displaced ("By the River of Rose Ashes") to the spectacular and sonorous image ("Dolores Rondón"), and to the image playing with the irony of symbols ("The Entry of Christ in Havana"). A warm and festive current runs through the novel in these sequences. This festive energy suggests the continuous displacement of the text's own findings, because the reader himself loses, in the barrage of images, the course of its reference; the text thus continues to unfold in a constant imagistic beginning.

Sarduy has found a way to reconcile the surrealist method of figurative exploration by the image (especially in the delirious final text) with the nouveau roman's method of detachment and objectivity.

Through this dual method, his writing evinces a pictorial base that is immediately transformed into a theatrical space and then converted into a dream. Hence this novel is nothing other than the dream of an innocent apocalypse.

Guillermo Sucre has written as follows:

Sarduy's novel is a metaphor, and this metaphor is nourished, above all, by art. Sarduy looks through art at what is real. Art is his mediator and it is knowledge, but not in the sacred way it was for Proust, Joyce, or Thomas Mann, for all of whom art was still an absolute. Although Sarduy superposes art on all his perceptions, he does it in a playfully ironic way. [Guillermo Sucre, Imagen, No. 20]

This accurate comment also points to the place of this novel within the Latin-American narrative. The baroque aspect of Sarduy's work is rooted in a transgression of culture in the name of art as a sensuous resumption of reality through words.

But this novel also engages in an obstinate effort to destroy the pathos of the everyday world and attempts, instead, to rescue the world through the possible formal purity, in the full simplicity of its sensible evidence. "The Entry of Christ in Havana," in particular, suggests a critical zeal in its progressive hollowing out of the great myth (myth of Meaning? of Humanism?). This amused rage is the patient and final reconstruction of reality, its reformulation in the synthesis of dreaming and verbal actions. Through its changing images and the playfulness of its forms, the radical criticism of this operation also suggests a parody of traditional works, but this parody finally becomes a fervent reconstruction of the pure spectacle of sensible forms, of language as an infinite metaphor of tradition.

The verbal action or the verbal liberation have the same motivation, the reshaping of the world in the pleasure of the word, the desire for a conjugated perception arousing the desire to live reality anew as though it were a language of feelings. The freedom of the word is also the freedom of desire in the fleeting perception that conjugates them through the magic of writing. But the lucidity of this dream in From Cuba with a Song carries with it the inevitable ambiguity that goes with creative criticism: when it is critiqued poetry is destroyed and empties its references in the neatness of sensoriality. In this case poetry perhaps sees itself as a mask, as gratuitous appearance and, therefore, as ironic criticism of its own poetic game. Perhaps more critical than poetic in nature, this novel consumes itself as its own excessive example. Thus, its creative resolutions lie in the radical position gained by its own textual drama, because this novel is also on the cutting edge, on the edge of culture. But Sarduy's imagistic fervor and verbal passion will undoubtedly reveal to us that culture itself is just another form of the more radical art he is proposing.

Critic Emir Rodríguez Monegal has given us a key to the creative work of Severo Sarduy in an interesting interview with him (Revista de Occidente, No. 93). Referring to Cobra, the title of his best-known novel, Sarduy establishes various possibilities of association with it that are based on reference and allusion and imply an interplay between a given structural system and a peculiar mechanism of writing.

From Cuba with a Song (1967) also shares in this multiple interplay. The title in Spanish (De donde son los cantantes) is a line from a popular Cuban song, in which it is heard as a question, but in the novel it appears as an answer. In the song the singers are from Havana, but the novel tells us they are from Cuba. This phrase is thus an epithet. In addition to establishing an association with the song and Cuba, the title establishes an association, through popular culture, with the reader. The title is thus the first phrase of the book: its metaphor and its incitement.

In effect, the association is established through allusions, and this is the point at which writing formulates its design. As in Three Trapped Tigers, in From Cuba with a Song allusion operates actively and permanently, although in Cabrera Infante's novel it tends to the direct, obvious pastiche, to the play on words as proliferating material. In Three Trapped Tigers the allusions serve the novel; they are one of its levels but are not necessarily the basis of its structuring, which is to be found instead in the unfolding of a parody that alludes to itself. On the other hand, in Sarduy's novel the three-part structure itself is referential: the curriculum cubense implies the Chinese component, the Black element, and the Hispanic factor (names that are places, races, cultures). Hence the three levels of the novel allude, in the manner of a gloss or masquerade, to these "anthropological" components, which are stripped of their traditional meaning.

Sarduy realizes that the only way to speak separately of these three components is to approach them from a detached point of view and through the effusiveness of play and sensorial empathy. Thus the system that creates the novel (three "full" worlds that are emptied exultantly) permits the release of a writing that always alludes to a potentially "infinite," presupposed objective correlate.

The allusion can refer to literature but, above all, it begins by referring to the visible and formal characteristics of those three festive worlds. Consequently, this writing achieves the brilliance of a formal play that is ironic in its perspective and sensorial in its choices. These detached points of view and the approximations in the structure of the narrative allow the work to be self-sufficient, to require only the spectrum of its artifice, of its illusional game: sleight of hand, magic word, and final switch. We can say, then, that this novel is critical in its antitraditional formulation and "poetic" in its ritualization of the fantastic paraphernalia adopted by the three texts-worlds-glosses.

Therefore, the reductive activities of the novel (the sharp humor of its parodies and its "draining" of the meaningful levels) are countered by an accumulating and masquerading activity (the novel chooses to carnivalize the signs of a festive and spectacular reality).

Notwithstanding its lack of density, which is precisely what makes it a mirage or a chorus of echoes, From Cuba with a Song contains several books: first, those that are part of the basic structure, whose common space is the exalting parody constructed by empathy, by identification; second, the substratum of the three "full worlds" that are simultaneously present and absent and imply the area in which the author cuts, selects, and reassembles; third, the writing that constructs with masks, that is, on the "surface" levels of a purely verbal deduction; and, finally, the other book, the one with critical implications, because this play of unrestricted, gratuitous appearance—this pageant of appearance—implies the irrepressible and systematic criticism of literature and of the traditional need that explains by "meaning" while overlooking the "meaninglessness" of the "artificial" forms, which are no more and no less artificial or gratuitous than desire and its labyrinth.

In La Maison de Rendez-Vous, a novel by Robbe-Grillet, the sensuous nuance of the Chinese scene is also produced starting from a repertoire of objects relevant to a Western outlook: a dancing woman in a clinging silk dress, for example. The erotic suggestion emerges, in this case, from a very clear notion of femininity: full presence, pure object. In the Chinese chapter of Sarduy's novel, on the other hand, the sensuous suggestion emerges from an expectation, a proximity, a light touch—from the postponement, therefore, of the act itself—and from the successive incitements that permit the disguising and imagistic proliferation of what in the end is not a woman but an empty mask. Robbe-Grillet prefers to design the unhurried sensuality of a repeated and formalized scene duplicated in the sumptuous tradition of typical objects. Sarduy opts for a bric-a-brac, delirious, and multiform China stripped of its tradition and reduced to a game, to a buoyant spectacle.

In so doing Sarduy places himself within a characteristically Spanish-American tradition. His critique of literature operates by expansion. He selects a formal and imagistic repertoire that goes beyond verism and the need to correlate words with the "reality" that supposedly underlies them. Lezama Lima had already brought images of snow close to his tropical landscape, but Sarduy goes one step further: he makes it snow in Havana. This mechanism has come to us from the baroque. The first Spanish-American baroque poets pretended to see European flowers among our own. This act is more audacious than comparing an Araucanian girl with some mythological goddess, or the environs of Mexico City with some classical longing.

The greatest audacity is not, however, the inducement of an imaginary reality; it is the attitude toward language, because the use of words becomes as decisive as the knowledge of the world: language seeks to be the final transparency. This use of language reveals, above all, a nominal faith: the poet need only say the names of the world to believe that the world is inexhaustible. Names, therefore, are the images, the birth of metaphors and figuration. The mechanics of Spanish-American Modernism are not much different: a nominative repertoire becomes a fantastic paraphernalia; the world is transformed into a series of prestigious images.

Like Lezama, Sarduy has developed a variation within this tradition. Lezama's dense baroque, full of symbolic implications, is followed by the light baroque constructed on pure figuration that characterizes this novel. But the exultation itself of its artifice discloses its critical slant. In the end, in its draining of the meaningful levels, Sarduy's writing acts significantly based on the irony of a questioning, demythifying criticism.

The component aspects of "Cubanness" expose in this novel the other side of their full appearance: their empty appearance. The Chinese factor exists only as a carnivalesque masquerade; the Black factor exists as a chorus of voices (a mulattress reviews her "career" from the vantage point of her death, of her legend); and the Hispanic factor is seen from the perspective of the traditional and meaningful symbol par excellence, a statue of Christ on the cross, gradually and spectacularly destroyed during a religious procession. Along with the festiveness of the characterizing images and the masquerading, we find again a reduction of the mirages. Thus, the celebration of "Cubanness" is also the discovery of its significant "nonexistence," in other words, of the sole presence of its forms, which language consecrates through a reuniting croticism.

Rene Prieto (essay date Spring 1985)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: "The Ambiviolent Fiction of Severo Sarduy," in Symposium, Vol. XXXIX, No. 1, Spring, 1985, pp. 49-60.

[In the following essay, Prieto focuses on the characters in Sarduy's Cobra and Maitreya, maintaining that destruction—"the prodigal squandering of self"—becomes the "gateway of change" for the transformation of the characters.]

To say that ambivalence, exaggeration and multiplicity play a major role in the recent novels of Severo Sarduy is to belabor a point for reasons which only the temper of these very works can justify. Saturation and redundance, even critical, are as topical to Sarduy's fiction as transformation and evolution are typical of his characters.

The narrative subject in Cobra as well as in Maitreya develops through a transmutational process in every way antithetic to the classical notion of character unity. Its kaleidoscopic nature becomes clear only in the light of Lacan's maxim, "Je ne pense pas là où je suis, et je ne suis pas là où je pense." Furthermore, the impermanence of Sarduy's subject-in-process is made evident at all levels: sexual, nominal, and morphological. La Tremenda, the protagonist of Maitreya, is also la Colosal, la Monumental, la Masiva, la Contundente, la Diva, la Prima, la Obesa, la Toda-Masa, la Delirium, la Divina and la Expansiva. Cobra is a transvestite, a castrato, male, female, square root of itself, and, after many upheavals, a whimsical prima donna in a Moroccan nightclub where she shares the spotlight with la Divina, la Adivina, la Di Vina, and Lady Vinah. The protean characters of Cobra and Maitreya even coexist with their own images, sometimes stunted (Pup: Cobra), sometimes reflected, such as the fabulously identical twins la Tremenda and la Divina:

eran tan idénticas y gritonas que había que marcarlas con puntos de colores en la frente para saber cual había ya mamado y a cual había que darle dos cucharadas de cocimiento de yerbabuena o dos nalgadas suavecitas para que se durmiera. [Cobra]

Referring to the evolution and expenditure characteristic of the narrative subject in Cobra several critics, among them Emir Rodríguez Monegal, have mentioned the affiliation between Sarduy's fiction and the work of Georges Bataille. However, while it is true that in the figuration of eroticism and dilapidation the work of both authors is immediately comparable, no one will deny that their respective portrayals of death (which is both the driving force and seminal feature of their narrative universe) differ dramatically.

For Bataille eroticism is "L'approbation de la vie jusque dans la mort." [Georges Bataille, L'Érotisme, 1975]. It is through the erotic act that two individuais are joined together and communicate. But eroticism, claims Bataille, "ouvre à la mort. La mort ouvre à la négation de la durée individuelle." Therefore, in fiction at least, and always through the body, the protagonists of Bataille's universe are relentlessly driven to their own end, whereas those of Sarduy's novels brandish death as a beguiling plaything which always signals a new beginning. Since death and life are histrionically (and logically) wedded in Sarduy's conception, the onto-logical process of Cobra and Maitreya unfolds as an ostensible contradiction which I propose to analyze and summarize here in one question: how can violence, castration and death function as a kind of tectonics of the body, as a generative magma begetting fecundity from barrenness and growth from decay? Having noted that the process of character expenditure in both novels serializes its hermeneutic complexity along three rungs—rejection, discontinuity and transformation—I propose to open discussion by examining each of these features in detail.

The protagonists of Cobra and Maitreya are maimed from the outset by what should be labelled (in keeping with Sarduy's iconoclastic parody) a "tragic flaw" essentially amounting to an undisguised mockery of the inherently failed human condition. As Biblical man turns to his maker besmirched by the onus of original sin, so does Cobra, frenzied by the unsightly feet which deface her otherwise dazzling beauty:

¿Por qué me hiciste nacer si no era para ser absolutamente divina?… ¿De qué me sirve ser reina del Teatro Lírico de Muñecas, y tener la mejor colección de juguetes mecánicos, si a la vista de mis pies huyen los hombres y vienen a treparse los gatos?

In the same manner, in Maitreya, La Tremenda laments: "Dios o Big bang…. ¿Por qué … me has hecho vulnerable, blanco indefenso de los rayos, y permites que con revigidos artilugios birriagen el dibujo de la voz que te loa?" Furthermore, in both novels the initial flaw is merely a prelude to the eventual and inevitable breakdown of the entire bodily machine:

Mas poco duraba la majestad de la engreída diosa paquidérmica: a los primeros esterntores trompetados caía en un stress germánico: resacas, come repletas de crustáceos, en la cabeza, relámpagos úricos en las bisagras mandibulares, fuacatazos en la campanilla, nudos vocales y tizones en la garganta, cuyas cenizas tupían los canales del laberinto. [Maitreya]

All does not function as it should in Cobra and Maitreya; things fall apart. But the ubiquitous flaws and universal inadequacies should be seen for what they really are. In Sarduy's fictional portrayals insufficiencies are clearly symptoms of a profound dissatisfaction, deceivingly featured as a rejection of part of the body (the feet or the sexual organs) when in fact they signal an overall negativity, a rejection of the entire self which the discarded appendage (Cobra's sex, for example) will come to symbolize, metaphorically. Furthermore, as Freud has made amply evident, negativity (Nachfolge) should be seen as the equivalent of expulsion or, more exactly, of the instinct of destruction (Destruktionstrieb). And this equivalence explains why Cobra's rejection of his feet heralds a wish to negate or annihilate his whole self. Fueled by desire, Cobra enacts the primal fantasy of the dismembered body which, according to psychoanalysis, masks castration anxiety. Wishing to reduce the size of his tormented extremities ("los pies de Cobra eran su infierno") the protagonist ends up shrinking his entire body and becomes Pup, the "white dwarf." Then, to attain the summit of wish-fulfillment after being shamed in part by his own dwarfness, he submits his own parts of shame, his "residuo grosero, lo que de tí se desprende informe" to the eager blade of Doctor Ktazob "que en taimado raspadero tangerino arranca de un tajo lo superfluo y esculpe en su lugar lúbrica rajadura."

Mutilation and decay are pervasive figurations of both Cobra and Maitreya but should not be seen as signs of discontinuity, however. As the narrator of Maitreya indicates: "un don perdido implica el surgimiento de otro." This is why the faithful Tibetan followers who cast the rest of their dismembered Master to the air discover that "la cabeza, como un planeta desorbitado que al caer volviera al estado de lava, de cal o de nácar, en un despliegue helicoidal y luminoso, quedó convertida en una concha marina tornasolada y gigante." This process in which expenditure is a requisite ingredient of transformation and, therefore, of production, is also dramatically different from the Bataillean notion of negativity. In Bataille's fiction the "negativité sans emploi" turns out to be an affirmative dispersion in which the characters (such as those of Histoire de l'oeil or Ma Mère) engage in an unfettered passage towards death, the one and only rebuttal of human isolation (what Bataille terms "l'ipseité"). In linguistic terms, Bataille portrays negativity as a series of ellipses (the blank pages of Mme Edwarda) where all and nothing are equally unspeakable.

In contrast to Bataille in these respects as well, Sarduy turns his back on verbal avarice, on the white page, and his own process of dépense generates a widespread sense of prodigal squandering. So too, mutilation in his novels functions as a confirmation of the heterogeneous nature of his narrative subjects always portrayed in a complex verbal system which can be labelled "motivated," if we abide by the term coined by Russian Formalism. By this I mean that in Cobra and Maitreya the polyvalence of signs is a reflection of the ontological plurality which is one of the major themes of both novels. And this polyvalence is created by means of two mechanisms: the paragrammatic movement, and what I label hybridization to betoken an agglutination of signifiers.

One of the most significant uses of hybridization in Cobra stems from the very name of the surgeon who "arrance de un tajo lo superfluo," Dr. Ktazob. This patronymic simultaneously contains and delivers a network of signs axiomatic to the capital problem in the text: castration anxiety. First and foremost, zob designates the phallus in Arabic and is a word freely used in current French jargon. Furthermore, cazzo [Katzo] in Italian is a synonym for zob and, finally, a phonetic reading of the surgeon's name [K] [ta] [zob] would define in Spanish one who castrates (i.e., "quita" zob).

The "superfluo" mentioned in the text is what is never specifically mentioned in Spanish in this section of the novel: the zob or [katzo] which the protagonist is missing and which the surgeon (whose signifier is male organ by definition, i.e., [katzo] and zob), severs with one blow, "arranca de un tajo." We might add that the phallus is conspicuously absent, and its absence directly parallels the lack or loss in Cobra's own castrated body.

We must not forget, either, the significant role of the consonant "Z" for any student of Roland Barthes such as Sarduy. As Barthes has demonstrated in S/Z, the letter "Z" is "l'initiale de la castration" housed in the medial axis, the vital center of Sarrazine, protagonist of Balzac's short story. Like Sarrazine, the one who [K] [ta] [zob] displays in the very heart of his name, which is his textual body, the "Z" emblematic of the emasculation which Cobra desires. Offering his body as an oblation to Ktazob's blade, the protagonist denies his virility, in the general and abstract sense, as well as the object which represents it and which he is about to discard. And it is not surprising that he rejects this one part of his body, the phallus, because metaphorically speaking it is the very emblem of his identity. The synonymity of both signifiers—phallus/Cobra—is manifest in the section immediately following the castration scene in the chapter entitled, "La Conversión." After the suture which puts an end to the operation, Cobra's pillow remains smeared with "almidón límpido o semen" secreted by "lengüetas acanaladas, ásperas." And immediately after the operation Cobra's behavior is described with an ambiguous terminology which could equally refer to the male organ and to the reptile: "Se yergue … Se desdobla … la cabeza tiangular que corona un arco … esa ojiva de bulbos babosos … Con la respiración del durmiente se contrae y dilata la cuenca estriada" … and "enchumbarán, apretadas las esponjas … chorros de jugos corrosivos, salivazos fénicos…."

The nexus between phallus and reptile is not only evident in the text describing the castration ceremony but throughout the entire novel as well…. For example, it is said of the Alexandrian saint who emasculates himself in a static rapture: "amputóse de un tajo el basilisco." The text is equally explicit when it identifies Totem's organ to a reptile: "Le fosforece enroscada en el sexo, una serpiente. Al glande se adhiere blanda, la cabeza. Afilada, goteando leche, penetra la lengüeta" [Cobra].

Occasionally identified with other male characters in the novel, the phallus is, nonetheless, most emphatically and most often coupled with Cobra himself and is in every way the sign of (what becomes after the castration scene) his/her identity. We are further convinced of this identification when the protagonist loses his/her name after the castration ceremony to retrieve it only during the initiation in "Cobra II." Besides his name, after Ktazob's operation the protagonist loses its alter ego, Pup, the white dwarf which is a reflection, "un otro yo" of itself. As the surgeon informs Cobra in a sentence which clearly identifies the dwarf alter ego with the severed organ: "ella … no es más que tu desperdicio, tu residuo grosero, lo que de tí se desprende informe … cuerpo de tí caído que ya no eres tú."

The process of hybridization which foregrounds the topic of discourse by its very absence corresponds, therefore, to the lack which denotes in this instance the loss of the male organ and also, as we have noted, the loss of identity or, more exactly, of specificity. Cobra is essentially kaleidoscopic and Sarduy portrays its plurality by continuing to represent the facets or personae which it ostensibly discards through what Kristeva has defined as the paragrammatic movement. As Gerardo Vázquez Ayora indicates, this movement is based on "mecanismos de generación y selección que exigen la figuración de cada elemento citado por lo menos con dos referencias" [Geraldo Vásquez Ayora, "Estudio estilístico de Cobra de Severo Sarduy," Hispamérica 23-24, 1979]. Aside from the "linear" reading which reveals the stream of events, Sarduy's system fosters a discontinuous communication whereby the reader can link one clause with its recapitulation in a dramatically different context. In Cobra, for example, the paragrammatic movement permits the contiguity of two antithetic fictions. Sarduy structures the text so that the protagonist can be both masculine and feminine, not in succession but conjointly.

In the chapter entitled "¿Qué tal?" which follows the castration scene Cobra appears "envuelta en una capa negra, cubierta por un sombrero de cardenal." This description becomes codified as a leitmotif which reappears later in the novel: "Un sombrero rojo cuyos cordones, cayendo hasta una capa negra, del rostro ocultaban las flores de oro" and comes to represent Cobra as a female character. However, at this point in the narrative (the chapter entitled "La iniciación") the protagonist's sexuality has evolved once again. When the leitmotif was codified Cobra had just been emasculated and he was indeed she. But in "La iniciación" he has reverted to his male persona: "con los nudillos se acarició la barba." Thus, the paragram used to portray Cobra as female shares the narrative space in which he is undisguisedly male. In this manner, Sarduy convincingly portrays two antithetic fictions simultaneously: Cobra as he is and Cobra as he wishes to be.

The protagonist's castration fantasy extemporizes his will to be "other." This is a yearning he satisfies by transforming his inmost being into a prurient furrow of flesh, an empty space which allows her to house and therefore to possess the phallus she covets. Ktazob's operation permits the protagonist to evolve from being to having; it is only by virtue of her newmade womb, in other words, that Cobra will legitimize the possession of the phallus inside her body in a culminating paroxism of narcissism. This is why it is helpful to remember at this point how, according to Freud, the decisive element in the genesis of homosexuality is a fixation on the mother whose body is a receptacle by definition and therefore embeds and reclaims the male organ. As Julia Kristeva so pertinently observes: "Son corps plein, réceptacle et répondant des demandes, tient lieu de tous les effets et satisfactions narcissiques, donc imaginaires: c'est dire qu'elle est le phallus" [Julia Kristeva, La Révolution du langage poétique, 1974].

I have already noted how phallus and Cobra are metaphorically substitutable in Sarduy's novel. Now, I should like to discuss how the loss of the protagonist's name after the castration scene further corroborates this synonymity. After Cobra loses his masculinity he is never identified by his signifier (which he has, we could say, "perdido de un tajo") but rather by four of the signifieds which define him: "copenhague bruselas amsterdam"; "appel alechinsky corneille jorn"; "serpiente venenosa de la India"; "recibe en la pagaduría su salario." The loss of the phallus motivates the lack of signifier and the loss of identity; as Kristeva notes in Révolution du langage poétique: "pour qu'il ait énonciation il faut que l'ego se pose dans le signifié, et ceci en fonction du sujet manquant dans le signifiant…."

The protagonist recovers his missing identity only after affirming himself as subject of the novel. Until the initiation, Cobra is object of the text, third-person pronoun, the voice that Emile Benveniste defines as the "non-personne." However, after the ceremony begins the protagonist speaks in the first person: "ahora da vueltas alrededor de mí, mirándome," that is to say, he takes possession of the text since, as Benveniste has demonstrated, the first person is the voice that appropriates the narration: "les indicateurs je et tu ne peuvent exister comme signes virtuels, ils n'existent qu'en tant qu'ils sont actualisés dans l'instance du discours, oú ils marquent par chacune de leurs propres instances le procés d'appropriation par le locuteur" [Emile Benveniste, Problèmes de Linguistique générale, 1966].

The use of the first person, following the castration scene, emblematizes access to the symbolic function which is language and, in this instance, the act of writing. Becoming "yo" Cobra becomes the text, the "boca que obra," emitter of the symbolic discourse which dresses itself as parody of mimetic representation.

Furthermore, the affirmation of the narrative subject is the culminating moment of the initiation ceremony during which the protagonist receives a name, that is to say, the only sign he is still lacking:

le trazó en el jacket, sobre la espalda, un arco vertical que se abrió en la piel, chorreando, embebido por la felpa, retorciéndose como una serpiente macheteada.

"¿Cobra?" pregunta Escorpión.

"Cobra: para que se envenene," responde Totem.

But even the investiture of the male Cobra does not hinder the periodic figuration of the protagonist in his female incarnation as a constant return of the repressed. The previously quoted paragram, "un sombrero rojo cuyos cordones…." underscores the plurality typical of this novel and makes amply clear that in Cobra the thematic development is a process affirming the heterogeneous nature of all narrative characters.

As is amply evident, the heterogeneous subject of Cobra and Maitreya is mirrored by the polyvalence of signs underscoring the multiplicity of sense contained in both novels. In Cobra, Eustaquio's colossal "tube" dazzles la Señora in a Turkish bath house. The sight of it stirs her deeply as a potent reminder of Ganesha, the legendary elephant god of India. Later on, when more than the mere view of this member thrills to gayness the dancers of the "Teatro Lírico," la Señora exclaims: "Dios mío,… a esta casa la ha perdido la trompa de Eustaquio." By means of this intertextuality (the elephant's trunk figuratively likened to the Eustachian tubes which metaphorically mask the maleness of the Indian makeup man) Sarduy forges yet another paragram which fully corresponds, in its plurality, to the kaleidoscopic characters of his novel and contrasts with the element of expenditure represented by violence and mutilation. In other words, the novel is composed of ever-expanding (ever ambiguous) signs, ostensibly in contrast with the rampant erosion disabling the characters. In Cobra, Pup tears off the ears from a little girl so she can steal "unos aretes de caramelo." Totem slices off his tongue and Cobra's feet succumb to a "morado lezamesco" followed by "grietas en el tobillo, urticaria y luego abscesos subiendo de entre los dedos, llagas verdinegras en la planta." In Maitreya characters are scourged, raped and mutilated even after death. The Leng sisters "raspaban, de un cadàver, las viruelas; con una lima, le desgastaban los dientes." Later in the novel other characters "jugaban con excrementos … con agua sucia … se entregaban a los oprobios prescritos."

But characters are not exclusively disabled, demolished and spent in these novels. For the most part, they turn away from any fruitful enterprise as well. Intercourse is conspicuously absent from Cobra and Maitreya although it figures in the fantasy conceived by the characters themselves. For example, at one point in the later novel Iluminada describes a couple she sees reflected in a mirror:

lo que aquello apretaba entre los brazos, con dedos separados y curvos, sin presión, era su pareja blanquísima, patiabierta y vuelta hacia él, senos enormes y cintura estrecha, caderas grandes que movía lenta, cubierta de coronas pesadas y pulseras de piedra sin brillo, mientras se dejaba hundir entre las piernas un falo rojo y enorme, sin venas….

The wanton voyeurism of this scene may well obscure the lack of creative urge actually portrayed in the text. But careful reading soon reveals that what Iluminada describes is a mere hallucination brought on by infusions of laudanum. In addition, both the dehumanized subject of the sentence, "aquello," as well as the description of a phallus "rojo y enorme, sin venas" put the overt sensuality of this passage in proper perspective allowing us to see the alleged love tryst as a sterile allegory of the sexual act and not as the act itself.

Sexual communication is avoided in Cobra as well; the erotified tableau of the four "blousons noirs," for example, culminates in a total lack of contact, in a rejection of all partners: "Totem: Nos masturbamos; Tigre y Tundra; Escorpión y yo. Cada uno terminaba solo. Nadie toca la leche de otro. No nos miramos." Leng masturbates as well and only as a last resource does he squeeze his body between that of his partners, avoiding all genital contact:

Ya cuando sentía que la centella germinadora subía por los alambiques ovillados, entonces se acercaba a la frazada que envolvía a los bultos simétricosy, entre su ropa sudada, como un jabalí en la gruta, se escurría ligero. Las estremecidas, vueltas una contra otra, lo incrustaban entre sus volúmenes….

Given the pervasive sterility of Cobra, it is not surprising that the major erotic fixation in the novel which comes after it should be sodomy, and specifically what Sarduy labels in Maitreya "f. f. a." or "el consuelo digital" which violates "los anales del imperio." In Maitreya the homing hand ("En ano metia primero las yemas unidas de los dedos, como para cerrar una flor o acariciar el hocico de un tapir"), functions just as much on the thematic level (as an emblem of perversion and sado-masochism) as on the symbolic. We have seen how, in Cobra, the reptile metaphorically deisgnates the phallus. The same transference of sense from one sign to another is at work in Maitreya, with one difference, that to decode it we must refer to the doctrines of Tantrism which play such a pivotal role in Sarduy's narrative conception. According to Kundolini yoga, the hand can symbolically emblematize the phallus. We learn in the Satoakranirupana that Kundolini is the serpent residing in the median line of the body (dehamadhyaya in Sanskrit). When it is properly awakened with Hatha yoga, Kundolini travels through the six vital centers, or cakras, of the body until it reaches the seventh, sahasrara cakra, the lotus of a thousand petals, found at the crown of the head. Only when Kundolini reaches this center does the disciple attain enlightenment (mukti).

What is particularly interesting about this process is that the second cakra, svadhistana, is situated at the base of the male organ, lotus with six vermillion-colored petals, and, according to the dogma, it is associated with an element (water), a color (white), one of the senses (taste), and a part of the body (the hand). This symbolic equivalence between the hand and the phallus would convincingly clarify the otherwise mysterious parthenogenesis of la Tremenda in Maitreya:

Entonces el iranio, escupiéndose la mano, los dedos reunidos en un cono, la hundió hasta las falanges, en el túnel que se iba delatando a su paso … La Tremenda amaneció cosiendo y cantando … Esa misma noche empezó a hincharse … Agarrada al árbol plástico … la Tremenda dió un gran pujo. Sobre una colcha … cayó parado, como sobre una flor de loto, la mano derecha alzada y abierta, sonriente y rojo, como de sangre fresca o de porfirio, el engendro….

But being born on his feet is hardly the only idiosyncracy of the marvelous child who "presentaba una protuberancia. El pelo, trenzado a la derecha, era azulado … El lóbulo de la oreja tres veces mas largo que lo normal. Cuarenta dientes sólidos y parejos protegían una lengua larga y afilada … y una fina membrana le unía los dedos de las manos y los pies." In fact, all these features correspond to the thirty-two which distinguish the last historic Buddha (who precedes Maitreya) born….

Even such brief excursion into Tantric thought demonstrates how the polyvalence in Maitreya functions on two levels at all times. On the symbolic plane Tremenda's "hijo caudal" confirms the generative power of the hand and the nexus between this extremity and the phallus, whereas on the thematic level, the hand corroborates the difference between the Bataillean notion of dépense and Sarduy's prolific conception.

The characters in the work of both authors are portrayed in a context of expenditure. However, in Sarduy's fiction, violence, castration, and death are decorative mannerisms, rhetorical figures along a generative chain. The prodigal squandering of self in both Cobra and Maitreya simply signals the beginning of one and all transfigurations. Being is forever becoming and the body defamed, rejected and mauled is soon after the germ of a fledgling creation. As Sarduy says in Cobra: "La muerte—la pausa que refresca—forma parte de la vida." Before all, therefore, destruction in his works is always ambiviolence, gateway of change.

Roberto González Echevarría (essay date January-June 1987)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: "Sarduy, the Boom, and the Post-Boom," in Latin American Literary Review, Vol. 15, No. 29, January-June, 1987, pp. 57-72.

[In the following essay, González Echevarría focuses on Maitreya and Colibrí and examines the self-reflective, autobiographical character of Sarduy's writings.]

In his recent books, Sarduy loses himself in the extravagance of his previous works, in the gallery of mirrors that reflects back the texts already written. He again performs a rigorous analysis of the Latin American tradition within which he creates his work and to which he now adds a reflection about his own life as a writer. What does being a Latin American writer mean? How can one create a work as heterodox as his from within a cultural tradition in which the structures of power and authority are so rigid? What is the relationship between power and writing, between authority and literary discourse? Where does Sarduy situate himself with respect to modernity and post-modernity, and what does this position reveal about the Latin American narrative today? These are the questions raised by Sarduy's latest works, but not, of course, in the abstract language used here. On the contrary, if something is evident in the most recent ground covered by Sarduy, if something is visible in the path he takes in the eighties, it is a concretely autobiographical inclination. Now, Sarduy returns to America not by way of the Orient; rather, the New World itself is the one visited, as much literally as literarily: not Nepal or New Delhi, but Camagüey or Caracas, San Juan or Mexico City; not Tibet, but the South American Jungle.

Sarduy visited Caracas in the early 1980s for a conference concurrent with the presentation of the Rómulo Gallegos Prize, which is awarded every four years to Latin American writers for a novel published during that period. The prize has been won by Gabriel García Márquez, Carlos Fuentes, and Mario Vargas Llosa, among many others. This was one of Sarduy's many visits to Latin America in the past few years. The encounter with South America, and with Caracas in particular, was of singular importance. In Caracas Sarduy approached the Latin America of Doña Bárbara (1929) and The Lost Steps (1953). For Caracas is not only Rómulo Gallego's city, but Alejo Carpentier's as well. It was in the Venezuelan capital that Carpentier wrote some of his most important works between 1945 and 1959, most especially The Lost Steps, that critical summa of Spanish American literature that originated in part from the author's experience of the Venezuelan jungle. For Carpentier, Venezuela constituted a synthesis of what is American. Sarduy will arrive at the same insight through the novel of his compatriot and master.

In Caracas Sarduy also met with members of the Cuban delegation to the conference, who had meant a great deal to him early in his career, writers such as Cintio Vitier and Fina García Murruz, survivors of the "Orígenes" Group and close associates of José Lezama Lima, who had just died. Sarduy also met with Caribbean writers who admired him and whom he has influenced, such as the Puerto Rican Luis Rafael Sánchez. The trip to Caracas contributed to the recovery of the most traditional Latin American theme, whose center is nature and whose obsessive landscape is the jungle. Colibrí ["Hummingbird," 1984] is the product of that recovery. This textual journey to the jungle in quest of the origins of a Latin American literary tradition shapes itself to that of the protagonist in The Lost Steps, searching for roots and for the inspiration to create. Carpentier published his great novel at the age of forty-nine; Sarduy was forty-eight when Colibrí appeared.

The reflective nature of Carpentier's novel, which was based on a poignant introspection by the author in which life and work are fused and confused, has its counterpart in all of Sarduy's recent texts. Sarduy's literary journey up to the 1980s has attained sufficient literary and historical density to act as an unavoidable facticity, a facticity that is imposed as rereading and as origin of whatever followed. The clearest sign of this process is La simulación ["Simulation"], a book of essays published precisely in Caracas (1982). From the very first page it is clear that one of La simulación's objects of speculation is Sarduy's own life. The best example of this self-reflection, however, is Un testigo fugaz y disfrazado ["A Fleeting and Disguised Witness," 1985], a surprising book of poetry, above all because of the traditional nature of its versification: these poems are sonnets and ten-syllable décimas with clear Gongoristic and Quevedian echoes. Autobiographical mode and submission to traditional forms are, jointly, the most visible marks of Sarduy's texts in these years.

The return to conventional literary forms as much in Colibrí as in Un testigo fugaz y disfrazado reflects a historical phenomenon of undeniable impact: the dispersion of the Tel Quel group, and with it a certain retreat on the theoretical and experimental front. Undoubtedly, the deaths of Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault, and Jacques Lacan contributed to this withdrawal. But theoretical fatigue had made itself increasingly felt in their works, especially in Barthes', which, like Sarduy's, whose work was very probably influenced by Sarduy, turned gradually to autobiographical and aesthetic concerns. The later Barthes frees himself from the neutral, scientific tone of his semiotic phase in order to produce a self-reflection marked thematically and formally by eroticism. The turn toward the literary perhaps is a recognition that theory, as important as it was, had been the least compelling aspect of the work of the maîtres penseurs of French criticism; that Foucault's obsessions with those excluded from society (prisoners, sexual perverts), Lacan's Joycean style (neologisms, play on words, a certain linguistic liturgy), always averse to scientific metalanguage, and Barthes' fixing gaze (of the body, of the contour of objects and spectacles), were the most lasting and pertinent literary elements produced by the group. All of this is visible in Sarduy not merely as the "influence" of French thought in his works, but as an integral part of Sarduy's own project. In many ways, the transformations of the Parisian clique represent a short slide toward Sarduy, since it had been Sarduy, more than anyone else, who had systematically applied Tel Quel theory to actual literary products.

The exhaustion of theory leads to a recovery of conventional forms and themes—to the primacy of plot in Colibrí, to the jungle, and to the rigorous conventional metrics of Un testigo fugazy disfrazado. But it also consists—once again, although in a very different manner—of a return to the beginning, to origins. Not a return to a unique origin, void and bare, but rather to a formed origin; that is to say, to the forms prior to the demolition by telquelian experiments, to the forms bequeathed by tradition, by power and authority. To the writer who abandons his literary youth, his passion for the new, traditional form is a discipline. Already a part of tradition, Sarduy is forced to fathom, as in Maitreya (1977), the importance of the works of the masters as well as his own place within tradition. This transition and self-reflection figure prominently in Colibrí.

In the same way that Escrito sobre un cuerpo (Written on a Body, 1969) and Barroco ["Baroque," 1974] reflected upon the themes of former stages in Sarduy's career, La simulación dramatizes those of the most recent phase. I say dramatizes because, as in previous essays, Sarduy refuses to generate a metalanguage that pretends to escape literary discourse. Thus, as in Escrito sobre un cuerpo, characters of Sarduy's own fiction appear in La simulación, and an entire scene from Maitreya is inserted. Furthermore, Sarduy includes in La simulación vignettes of his own life that reflect the themes of the book; as in Roland Barthes par lui même, Sarduy is the principal object of analysis in La simulación because the book wishes to isolate the elements that make his work peculiarly his. La simulación seeks the Sarduy in Sarduy. Pretense, simulation, are offered as the distinguishing marks of this work and as that which motivates every individual, above all the artist. The central thesis of the book is that there is a "feigning (im)pulse" implicit in the death wish whose source is biological. That which is "natural"—also in the sense of "normal"—is therefore already simulated. In other words, we suppose with automatic Platonism that the copy is weak, secondary, parasitic, while the model is the original, that which is strong and natural. Sarduy inverts this conceptual habit: the copy is the strongest because it is what generates movement, what awakens the subversive capacity of the model. The model only survives in the copy. According to Sarduy, this dissimulating impulse is manifested in what he calls the aggression of the copy against the original. The transvestite outdoes what women in "femininity," his "makeup" makes her most violent and lethal characteristics stand out. The excess of the copy is the supplement; the ontic is always the addition, which adds, subtracting from the original. To be is to (un)assemble, to evade power by camouflaging the body in order to mimic the forms of power, so that they may be pointed back—now as subversive and lethal weapons—at power itself. It is here (in Colibrí) that American nature will come into play. Nature, with its mimetic exuberance, motivates the process of inflating the copy, or the copiousness of the copy (as is evident in Maitreya, especially in the obese, Botero-like characters).

Sarduy bases these assertions on statistical studies that "prove" that the mimetic activity of certain butterflies, which before was believed to be a form of defensive camouflage, is totally useless; hence it may simply be the product of a desire to disappear, to die. To die is to die. Pure excess. Excess as issuing from a biological impulse. By pretending, which is the only way to be, transvestites play with death. In this theory of Sarduy's there is, curiously enough, an echo of a certain fin de siecle vitalism which had a great influence on Ortega y Gasset's work, especially on his theories about the sportive character of human culture—culture is that which is not a reaction to material necessities; it is that which is in excess of them. There is a notable difference, however, that at the level of the history of ideas we would have to attribute not to Ortega y Gasset but rather to Heidegger and Bataille, since here excess is at once being and an impulse towards death, being towards death. This self-annihilating character lends an appearance of mortal masquerade to Sarduy's version of American art (and of the American artists), which links it to the Baroque. Evidently Sarduy's speculation about secondariness, about the primacy of the copy, about the persistence of the model in the copy, has to do with American art and American being in general: American art is transvestism, a Baroque spectacle. That which is American would then no longer be merely secondary. American is that which is by being secondary. Upon copying that which is European, in the gesture of incorporating and visibly assimilating European forms, American art and being constitute themselves not as copies, but as the only life that the original can actually have. The vignettes based on Sarduy's life, especially the first one, bring these considerations to the most concrete level possible.

In this vignette Sarduy narrates a story from his childhood, which takes place in a Camagüey described in Lezama Lima's terms, with shades of Amelia Peláez. It is Carnival time. Sarduy and his father put on costumes. The father, wrapped up in a sheet, is dressed as a ghost, the boy as a woman. The pair could not be more suggestive. By dressing as a woman the boy abolishes any resemblance to the father, denying him in the most subversive way possible within the Spanish American context. The father, in turn, has transformed himself into an image of death. The vignette is a minute Baroque allegory of the central themes in La simulación. The carnivalesque joke reveals a profound stratum of culture in the act of concealing itself. That stratum of culture is at odds with official ideology. Pretense, disguise, paradoxically make the truth, or at least its image, break forth. The model, form, that which is traditional, surrenders its movements, its breath, to the copy, which lives off it by means of a kind of parasitism. The model, vacated, is now the image of death, a fixed form. By coming into the play of the book disguised as himself, Sarduy as author assumes the risk of his theory. Clearly, to dress up as yourself is also a form of simulation, perhaps the most effective. There is no exhibitionism in La simulación; nor is there reticence or prudishness as in similar essays by the major writers of the tradition, for example, Borges, Fuentes, Paz, or Lezama Lima himself.

Of all the transgressions against the Latin American literary tradition in the last few years, none is as radical as the one perpetrated in Colibrí. In his most recent novel, Sarduy abandons the visibly Cuban themes of his previous work in order to focus on the central theme of Latin American literature: the relationship between the American landscape and the culture of the New World. Ever since the chroniclers of the Indies, ever since the great travel-books of the nineteenth century and Sarmiento's Facundo, Bello's Silvas americanas, Neruda's General Song and Carpentier's The Lost Steps, Latin American nature, with its singularity and exuberance, has been the emblem of what is new, different—of what is unusual. How to think of the American landscape? What is its place in natural history? Writing America, telling its history, must be the account of that unusualness, as much in Fernández de Oviedo, who thinks from the point of view of fixed neo-Scholastic schemes, as in Hegel, who already thinks of the natural world as history, even though he vacillates over exactly where to place American nature—either at the beginning or at the end of history. The theme of nature has given American literature the mark of newness and of modernity, and by accumulation, that of stability and facticity; the American tradition is the tradition of what is new. This paradox is the origin of Colibrí.

In Colibrí Sarduy abandons the figurative geography of his previous novels—Cuba/the East—to unfold a map made up of the clichés of the Latin American novel of the jungle. It is a symbolic map like the ones in The Lost Steps and One Hundred Years of Solitude: the river, the estuary, the jungle, the cove, the clearing in the forest, and as contrast, the city. In this literary cartography Sarduy dismantles the most elementary components, the foundations of Latin American culture, revealing its most profound secret, where sex and being, language and social praxis are intertwined. The novel of the jungle constitutes the epic stratum of Latin American literature, that which relates the origin and evolution of the founding characters and their values; the epic current in Latin American narrative, as in The Lost Steps (Santa Mónica de los Venados) and One Hundred Years of Solitude (Macondo), the history of the creation of cities, of the birth of the heroes who carried it out. The novel of the jungle, including Neruda's General Song, narrates the marriage of American man to the virgin nature of the Continent and shows how Latin American culture emerges from their amorous struggle. On his journey to the jungle the Latin American writer finds himself and encounters those epic origins, inasmuch as the theme of nature legitimizes him as part of tradition. This is the process narrated in The Lost Steps and taken up again in Colibrí: the origin of tradition, the origin of the authorial figure, both being basic components of the authority on which literature as a Latin American institution is founded.

Colibrí, and we can immediately perceive the nature and breadth of the transgression, is a blend of gay epic and pastoral, revolving around the problematic passage from adolescence to maturity; that is to say, the moment in which the individual, acculturated (subjected to a code of laws, to the Other), begins to become a part of society. It is a transition parallel to that from being a young writer to one who is part of the canon. Colibrí's is a pre-heroic world, a world that exists before José Arcadio Buendía marries and founds Macondo. Of course, Colibrí takes apart the myths that sustain the gay world as well. The pastoral is another version of America's utopia, while the epic is the creation of a hero who bases his power on the authoritative submission of the Other. In short, the hero is a version of the antecedents of the Latin American dictator who ends up being a perversion of his previous literary renderings.

This focus on the transition from adolescense to maturity reflects a process of squaring accounts in Sarduy's work; his passing from the position of a young writer, who practices novelty like terrorism was an emblem of himself, to the posture of a mature writer, who has already consolidated a position and whose novelty has been converted into a recognizable discourse, into a kind of facticity. With Colibrí Sarduy's literary adolesence ends; with this book he shakes off the mask of the portrait of the artist as a young man. Cuba as a theme has been exhausted in Maitreya, and the debt to Lezama Lima seems to have been settled with that hallucinating biography of Luis Leng. Cobra had left behind the experiments most clearly marked by the theories of Tel Quel. This does not mean that there are no traces of these two themes, but they appear as part of that facticity that is a signature of Sarduy's own style. Colibrí boasts not only figures of what is Spanish American, but also figures already thought of as properly Sarduian.

This self-reflection is announced in the first sentence of the novel: "He danced between two mirrors, naked, behind the bar." The two mirrors infinitely multiply the protagonist's image; given the identification of the author with the protagonist, nakedness projects self analysis. In fact, Sarduy's images in the novel are multiple, even though derived, above all, from two figures: the protagonist and the narrator. These two figures, of course, are protean. The narrator speaks at times in a masculine voice and at others in a feminine one. Sometimes the protagonist seems to be only the projection of the other characters' desires. In any case, the vicissitudes of both reflect known elements in Sarduy's biography, as is the case in La simulación. The text of Colibrí is like a gallery of mirrors in which images of the author are reflected and multiply, dissolving the original. We do not know, of course, who Sarduy really is, except the exuberant proliferation of his figures, as elusive as the hummingbird itself and as much a product of the illusion of movement that this bird projects. Clearly, it is not only this narcissistic obsession that controls the text; various allegorical strata of signification that include American themes related to nature are added to it.

The action in Colibrí begins in a place typical of Sarduian fiction: an emporium close to a great river, where handsome young men engage in fake, wrestling matches for the pleasure of the nouveau riche and military brass addicted to violence and discipline. As at the end of Maitreya, we are in the inflationary world of petro-dollars and drug trafficking, the world of luxury and waste, of the supplementary. La Casona is situated at the edge of the jungle and is presided over by La Regenta (also La Canosa, etc.), a madam whose original gender is unknown. Given to imperious gestures and unappealable commands, La Regenta (provisional queen?) governs the joint with an iron fist, assisted by a dwarf who acts as referee in the fixed combats and a series of decorators and cooks who make up the place. The Madam and her emporium have their antecedents in Rivera's The Vortex (1924) and Vargas Llosa's The Green House (1965); in the myth of the jungle, and that of El Dorado, alluded through the protagonist in Carpentier's The Lost Steps.

Colibrí arrives at this place from the jungle. He is young, extremely beautiful, his hair is blond, almost white. His ancestry is unknown. Like all Sarduian characters, he seems to have been born ad hoc for fiction. They name him Colibrí (hummingbird) because of the posture of flight that he assumes as he jumps over the fence and because of his agility as a wrestler. Colibrí's first match is against an obese Japanese sumo wrestler, who is unable to seize him and in his effort to do so hits his head against the back wall, on which there is a mural depicting a winter scene. Colibrí becomes the hero of the joint, valued and sought after by the "whales" (the "cetaceans", etc.), that is, the wealthy clients who frequent the spot. But the Madam has fallen in love with him, and Colibrí flees to the jungle pursued by her agents. In the jungle he comes across the Japanese wrestler, and they first become friends, then lovers. The hunters find them, and they are separated in their flight. Colibrí hides in the capital, in another joint where he works in the painting of "tamed fleas." There the Regenta's men find him again, he fights anew with the Fat Jap and with the giant, metamorphosed into a tall nun who attacks him with a knife which has a crucifix for a handle (an homage to Buñuel). But Colibrí manages to escape once more, returning to the jungle on a trip resembling that of the narrator-protagonist of The Lost Steps. In the deep of the jungle he again encounters his persecutors—they can be found at the origin, the source that is not pure, that also contains violence. They return Colibrí to La Casona, adoring him now as though he were a deity. Everyone returns to the Emporium, which has become an asylum for benign old lunatics. Colibrí, who has begun to show a capacity for leadership, burns the place down, only to reconstruct it, requesting that youths be brought in to liven up the joint as before. The circular nature of the story is evident. In the end, Colibrí replaces La Regenta, and in this way, retrospectively, reveals her origin.

Can Sarduy's work be seen as a paradigm of the most recent Latin American novel, of that body of narrative that some have already called the post-Boom? Prudence counsels us to respond that it is too soon to establish such demarcations, that the present is difficult, if not impossible, to place historically. If the Boom exists, it was due to cultural, political, and economic factors that made it such that a group of novelists was recognized as somewhat homogenous, despite the differences in their ages and backgrounds. Such conditions do not exist today. What does indeed continue, however, is an enormous vitality in Latin American fiction, with the writers of the Boom (except Cortázar, of course) and others peripheral to the phenomenon who have continued writing with great imaginative energy and success. Remarkable works keep coming from, among the major figures, Mario Vargas Llosa, Carlos Fuentes, Gabriel García Márquez, Guillermo Cabrera Infante, José Donoso and Augusto Roa Bastos, and from among the younger contingent (the group to which Sarduy belongs due to his age)—Manuel Puig, Miguel Barnet, and Reynaldo Arenas. If there is a post-Boom, it must include some of the works by each of these writers, since all work during the same time and under similar conditions. Clearly, some of the novels of the older group continue to repeat certain characteristics of the novels of the Boom, especially those by Vargas Llosa and Fuentes. If we think of the post-Boom as consisting of some of the books produced by the Boom's protagonists after the famous novels that consecrated them, and these in addition to those written by the younger group, perhaps then we could discern some common characteristics to attempt a very provisional description of the period. Let us venture some general ideas, taking Sarduy as a starting point but without pretending to turn him into a paradigm. But beforehand, and in order to see the phenomenon of the post-Boom in a context that clarifies it somewhat, let us consider the characteristic of a movement undoubtedly linked to the post-Boom: post-Modernism, or postmodern literature. We will approach post-Modernism through the proposals of the North American novelist John Barth and the French theorist Jean-François Lyotard.

In a necessarily autobiographical essay [John Barth, "The Literature of Replenishment," in his The Friday Book: Essays and Other Nonfiction, 1984], since he has been considered one of the foremost postmodern writers, Barth meditates on the distinction between moderns and post-moderns. First, he affirms something that must be kept in mind when talking about the post-Boom; post-Modernism is necessarily epigonic, as much a continuation as a rupture, and in no way can it be though of as a negation of Modernism. Barth includes T.S. Eliot, William Faulkner, André Gide, James Joyce, Franz Kafka, Thomas Mann, Robert Musil, Ezra Pound, Marcel Proust, Gertrude Stein, Miguel de Unamuno and Virginia Woolf among the great modern writers. Postmodern writers (in addition to himself, included with due skepticism), and the North Americans William Gass, John Hawkes, Donald Barthelme, Robert Coover, Stanley Elkin, Thomas Pynchon and Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. Outside the United States Barth says that some include Samuel Beckett, Jorge Luis Borges, the later Nabokov, the authors of the nouveau roman, Michel Butor, the writers of the Tel Quel group, the Englishman John Fowles, and the "expatriate Argentine Julio Cortázar." In addition, Barth proclaims that he will not associate himself with any literary group in which Colombian Gabriel García Márquez and Italian semi-expatriate Italo Calvino are not included. As we shall see, Barth considers these two writers, especially the first, to be the best exponents of postmodern literature. It should be evident that, for our purposes, Barth's list is somewhat confusing, if it places Borges, García Márquez, and Cortázar in the same category, even though it must be clarified that he speaks of including just the North American writers, García Márquez and Calvino. The other names have been frequently mentioned by critics.

In summarizing the works of such North American critics as Robert Alter and Gerald Graff, Barth provides several characteristics of modern literature. It is principally a criticism of last century's bourgeois social order and the vision of the world that it promoted. The central artistic recourse therefore consisted of deliberately inverting the conventions of bourgeois realism by such tactics as the substitution of the mythical method for realism, and the manipulation of parallelism between contemporaneity and antiquity. Echoing Graff, Barth alludes here to what Eliot said with respect to Joyce's Ulysses. Other recourses were "the radical disruption of the linear flow of narrative; the frustration of conventional expectations concerning unity and coherence of plot and character and the cause-and-effect 'development' thereof; the deployment of ironic and ambiguous juxtapositions to call into question the moral and philosophical 'meaning' of literary action." To this he adds "the adoption of a tone of epistemological self-mockery aimed at the naive pretensions of bourgeois rationality; the opposition of inward consciousness to rational, public, objective discourse; and an inclination to subjective distortion to point up the evanescence of the objective social world of the nineteenth-century bourgeoisie." On his part, Barth adds two elements to this list: (1) "the modernists' insistence, borrowed from their romantic forebears, on the special, usually alienated role of the artist in his society, or outside of it: James Joyce's priestly, self-exiled artist-hero; Thomas Mann's artist as charlatan, or mountebank; Franz Kafka's artist as anorexic, or bug;" (2) "the modernists' foregrounding of language technique as opposed to straightforward traditional 'content.'" According to Barth, modern works are also difficult, creating the need for professors, or a "priestly industry of explicators, annotators, allusion-chasers, to mediate between the text and the reader." Postmodern narrative, according to the professors read by Barth,

merely emphasizes the "performing" self-consciousness and self-reflexiveness of modernism, in a spirit of cultural subversiveness and anarchy. With varying results, they maintain, postmodernist writers write a fiction that is more and more about itself and its processes, less and less about objective reality and life in the world. For Gerald Graff, too, postmodern fiction simply carries to its logical and questionable extremes the anti-rationalist, anti-realist, anti-bourgeois program of modernism, but with neither a solid adversary (the bourgeois having now everywhere co-opted the trappings of modernism and turned its defiant principles into mass-media kitsch) nor solid mornings in the quotidian realism it defines itself against.

As can be inferred from his tone, Barth is not completely convinced by this description of postmodernism, which if accurate would make "postmodernist writing […] indeed a kind a pallid, last-ditch decadence, of no more than minor symptomatic interest." For Barth "[t]he proper program for postmodernism is neither a mere extension of the modernist program as described above, nor a mere intensification of certain aspects of modernism, nor on the contrary a whole-sale subversion or repudiation of either modernism or what I am calling premodernism—'traditional' bourgeois realism." Barth is not overly explicit about the details of his program. He puts most of his emphasis on the need that postmodern works be made accessible to a greater number of readers, since the novelties of modernity "are by now more or less debased common currency," and because "we really don't need more Finnegan's Wakes or Pisan Cantos, each with its staff of tenured professors to explain it to us." And, above all, the postmodern narrative should tell a story. His preferred examples are Italo Calvino (Cosmicomics) and García Márquez (One Hundred Years of Solitude). The latter is "an exemplary postmodernist and a master of the storyteller's art."

I don't believe that Barth's proposed and discussed schemes are immediately applicable to Latin American narrative, but they do seem to be adaptable in an instructive way. There is no doubt in my mind that what Barth and his sources call modern literature corresponds to the novelistic trend of the Boom, in particular Cortázar's Hopscotch (not the stories, which perhaps would be postmodern), and three novels profoundly marked by Joyce, Faulkner, and poetry: The Death of Artemio Cruz (1962), The Obscene Bird of Night (1979), and Three Trapped Tigers (1967). The predominant elements in these novels are breakdowns of the plot, an emphasis on language and on stream of consciousness, allusiveness, irony, the self-reflection that inquires as to what literature is. They also feature notions of the artist as an alienated, priestly, sickly being—Horacio, Cabrera Infante's trapped tigers, Estrella, Morelli. Bourgeois rationalism is mocked in these novels, and, in a subjectivism sometimes aided by drugs, a more profound level of self-knowledge is sought after, along with an understanding of culture as a superior value which invalidates the false and alienating manifestations of the post-Industrial society. As such, we would of course have to admit that there is a delay on the part of Latin American literature, since it arrives at the Modern, at least in narrative, at a moment when the postmodern already predominates in North America and in Europe. It would be better, however, to say that Latin American literature is simply following the beat of another drummer rather than experiencing a delay. But in any case, it seems to me plausible to say that the Modern is equivalent to the Boom, and therefore postmodern is equivalent to the post-Boom.

Now, what version of the postmodern is applicable to the post-Boom, and in particular to Sarduy? The professorial one or Barth's? I don't believe them to be antithetical but complementary. What is crucial is the return to storytelling, to narrativity. I believe that the program of intensification of Modernism's experiments does indeed lead to a narrative that increasingly centers around itself and its processes, but contrary to what was initially thought, this leads to the realization that this kind of writing also produces narrative, not metadiscourse or knowledge. It seems to me that this is what occurs in One Hundred Years of Solitude as much as in the most recent works by Sarduy. What is now irretrievable is the notion that a metadiscourse exists, that a narrative matrix "opens itself," and in doing so makes possible a profound understanding of literature or the author. As far as this is concerned, narrative, including the Latin American post-Boom narrative, coincides with the description of knowledge in the postmodern era made by Lyotard, who insists on the preeminence of stories, of the narrative in all forms of knowledge [Jean-François Lyotard, La condition postmoderne: rapport sur te savior, 1979]. The stories are local matrices of knowledge not connected with superior matrices that explain either the stories or the matrices. Narrative processes indeed might not be the whole story of real life, but surely they are part of it. What postmodern narrative sets out to do is to abolish the nostalgia for totalization. The novel of the Boom aspired to be total, and even if it failed and made a spectacle of this failure, the fact remains that the possibility of totalization was an important factor.

I believe we can now return to Sarduy, to the novel of the post-Boom, and to the categories I had promised above.

Apotheosis of narrativity. The works of the Boom, in accordance with what we have just pointed out, and Hopscotch in particular, inhibited the plot, at times subjecting it to a pulverization that did not allow even the most tenacious reader to recognize the thread of the story. In Sarduy this stage corresponds to From Cuba with a Song (1972) and to Cobra. Ever since Maitreya there has been a return of the plot, of the story, as a backbone element of the text. The same can be observed in Cabrera Infante, if we compare Three Trapped Tigers to Infante's Inferno. In the former there are various narrative threads that may or may not interweave, while in the latter there is a linear development. The testimonial novels of Barnet and the works by Puig never practiced the kind of narrative dispersal that we find in many of the works of the Boom. Now, as we have seen in Colibrí, this return to storytelling does not in any way mean that there is a return to the traditional novel. The distinguishing element between traditional and post-Boom narrative lies in the understanding of plot and how it is put together in these post-Boom works. It is a matter of a difference in narrative discourse. In the traditional novel the narrative line was guaranteed by the centralizing presence of an authorial voice that carried the story from one event to another, explaining how the different parts were interwined and making the whole story relate or reflect a series of social values, the most important being the concept of time and the model of history. The narrator's voice assures us of why what happens happens. In the novels of the Boom the authorial voice is fragmented but does not lose its authority, since the author's figures always embody literary values that suppose a possible prior or future unity. The chronicler in Terra Nostra is Cervantes; in Hopscotch Morelli is a theorist of the novel; furthermore, this narrative presupposes a unity provided by language itself and its capacity to establish meaningful ties independent of the whole story, as in poetry. In the recent Latin American novel the concatenation of incidents is produced independently of any metadiscourse, of any global category that might posit a meaningful order, including language. When the author appears in the work, as in The War of the End of the World, that symphony of narrativity, he does so as one more fictional character without superior powers (he is a mere journalist, somewhat short-sighted in addition). When he appears in Colibrí, it is as a painter of "tamed fleas." Furthermore, the story, the succession, and linking of incidents in these novels is considered independent of the narrator, as we saw in Colibrí; the story is more important than language or the narrator.

Absence of metadiscourse. The novels of the Boom, even the most audacious, contain a critical, literary, political, or cultural metadiscourse. Hopscotch, for example, displays its own literary theory explicitly formulated in the "Table of Instructions" and in fragments of "Morelliana." In addition, Hopscotch is still marked by the great theme of modern Latin American literature: the search for cultural identity and the definition of Latin American culture. Oliveira searches for his identity as an Argentine; the two parts of the novel provide the dialectic of Argentine culture: Europe-America. From Cuba with a Song fragmented the theme of Cuban identity into three stories, and in Colibrí Latin American identity is reduced to a single story that posits Latin American identity as the reflection of a nature which gives it meaning over and above the story itself. Without the possibility of totalization, the novel of the post-Boom abandons the nostalgia of identity, or of culture, as a narrative matrix that might comprise it and invest it with meaning.

This elimination of metadiscourse is systematically carried out in Sarduy through the presentation of local religious systems. What Lyotard identifies at the level of the exchange of knowledge in the postmodern era is seen in Sarduy by privileging local stories understood as the only possible sum of knowledge, and therefore as an object of worship. In Colibrí this reappears, with a less specifically Third World sense to it, by the allusion to Jim Jones and the Guayana holocaust, a symbol of the outcome of modernity.

Elimination of ironic reflexivity. The mark of modernity on the works of the Boom was produced by the much talked-about novelistic reflexivity that, by including in the fiction the story of how the novel itself is written, creates an infinitely receding sequence that obliterates the frontiers between reality and fiction. The author's figure makes a spectacle of his suffering in the face of such ambiguity, so that his importance diminishes and he is even cancelled out as the source of creation and ultimate knowledge. The author is sacrificed to the laws of language or of literature that are superior to him. The bad faith of the process is clearly evident. The novel of the post-Boom does not give such a chance for self-immolation to the author, who not only appears as part of the fiction, but simply as one more character who does not control the events. Post-Boom narrative in no way allows for the supposition that the narrator's consciousness is superior to the story itself, and generally he does not appear as a literary figure. In Sarduy the author's figures are not only weak, but deliberately ridiculous, as with the pot-smoking director of the Shanghai, in From Cuba with a Song, or Colibrí, who is a painter of tamed fleas. Horacio, Melquíades, and even the characters of Three Trapped Tigers appear freighted with literature. Sarduy's work parodies the reflexivity of the novel of the Boom that grounds itself in the almighty figure of the author, a projection of romantic irony.

Superficiality. There is a deliberate superficiality in the novels of the post-Boom. Neither the language with its twists and turns, nor the characters, nor the author's figure, promise depth or profound understanding. All is color, narrativity, action. This is observed in a great absence in Sarduy: stream of consciousness. There is no attempt to represent authorial or character consciousness as prior to language, be it by means of syntactic breaks, reiterations, or any of the devices bequeathed by modernity, above all by Joyce and Faulkner. Sarduy's language, like Puig's, like Barnet's, does not break with the conventions of grammar and rhetoric. These are the formed and inhabited origins to which one returns on every journey of self-inquiry.

Steven Moore (review date Summer 1989)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: A review of Maitreya, in Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. 9, No. 2, Summer, 1989, pp. 242-43.

[Moore is an American writer, editor, and critic. In the following review, he assesses the plot, literary influences, and structure of Maitreya.]

Severo Sarduy is the most daring and innovative of the socalled Boom writers—García Márquez, Fuentes, Vargas Llosa, et al.—but has never won the large audience these writers command. Maitreya, his fourth novel (originally published in 1978), guarantees to continue both his high reputation and low readership. His novels are more difficult to read than those of his compatriots and require not only a familiarity with recent history and French critical thought, but an ability to decode his outlandish metaphoric structures. His characters are not the typical cast of dictators, whores, and matriarchs of Latin American fiction, but an outrageous group of drag queens, dwarfs, motorcyclists, Tibetan monks, dealers, and assorted perverts—most weighed down by junk jewelry and too much makeup, frequently drugged with cocaine, and hanging out in louche bars or disreputable cabarets. Reading a Sarduy novel is akin to trying to develop a Structuralist reading of history from a trunk of costume jewelry, tacky religious relics, and the creepy merchandise of an s-m sex shop.

Sarduy's best-known novel, Cobra (English translation 1975, also by the gifted Suzanne Jill Levine), began in the West (Paris, Tangier) and ended in the East (India, Tibet). Maitreya, which González Echevarría describes in his excellent study as a post-Structuralist companion to the Structuralist Cobra, reverses the route, beginning in Tibet and moving west to Cuba, Miami, and New York, before ending in Iran. The novel is divided into two halves, with a great deal of doubling uniting the two halves and exemplifying its Buddhist premise: "reality as an empty place, a mirage of appearances reduced to the myth of its interchangeable representations." While part one concerns the unsuccessful revolt of Tibetans against their Chinese oppressors in 1959—and their flight to Ceylon—part two begins with the Cuban Revolution of 1959 and the flight to Miami of certain segments of Cuban society. The Leng sisters of part one, protecting the new-born incarnation of the Buddha, have as their counterparts in part two the "Massive Misses": Lady Divine and Lady Tremendous, who wind up singing Wagnerian arias in a Cuban cabaret in New York City run by a cook named Luis Leng, who may be the same incarnation of the Buddha in part one. ("Maitreya" is the title of the future Buddha.) But Leng is also a character out of José Lezama Lima's novel Paradiso, and the death of the Master that opens Maitreya is Sarduy's homage to the death of Lezama in 1976. The novel is thus about the loss of origins—the Buddhists' loss of Tibet, the loss of pre-Revolutionary Cuba, and the loss of the grand master of Cuban literature (Lezama edited the influential magazine Orígenes)—which makes the subsequent wanderings of Sarduy's weird cast of characters a kind of campy diaspora, awaiting the future Buddha in gay bars.

It is difficult to describe this complex, often baffling novel, and those who read Spanish would be better served by Roberto González Echevarría's study, which offers not only an informative analysis of Maitreya but a biographical introduction, a discussion of Sarduy's association with the Tel Quel group, and excellent readings of all of Sarduy's inimitable novels. Sarduy will never join García Márquez on the best-seller list, but as González points out, Sarduy is the "secret source" for much that is admirable in García Márquez and other Boom writers.

Joan M. De La Cova (essay date December 1990)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: "What Kind of Games Are These Anyway?: The Metafictional Play and Politics of Cobra and Juan sin tierra," in Revista Hispanica Moderna, Vol. XLIII, No. 2, December, 1990, pp. 206-17.

[In the following essay, De La Cova examines Sarduy's Cobra and Juan Goytisolo's Juan sin tierra (1975). She contends that, while both works are neo-baroque and "abandon linear narrative for spacial form," Juan sin tierra's "new realism" and Cobra's parody act to disguise and represent a variety of political themes.]

In 1972 and 1975 respectively, the Cuban Severo Sarduy and the Spaniard Juan Goytisolo, expatriate friends in Paris, brought to publication unsettling metafictional works. Cobra and Juan sin tierra are responses to some of the same literary stimuli of cultural opposition: Octavio Paz's Conyunciones y disyunciones, the nouveau nouveau roman, and French Post-Structuralism. The two works are not the same kind of metafiction, however, as Cobra tends toward a fabulous text of language games and extreme decontextualization, whereas Juan sin tierra is an instance of what Patricia Waugh [Metafiction: The Theory and Practice of Self-Conscious Fiction, 1984] calls a "new realism."

As might be expected, there are notable technical similarities between the works. They both abandon linear narrative for spatial form. In both, the dominant devices of travel are changes of scenery and intertext. Moreover, the two works use variations on well-known techniques for exploring fiction: role playing and script writing within a work of fiction.

Dealing with the tricks of the theater, transvestite deceptions, and Oriental transmutations, the story of Cobra helps to heighten perception of the artistic devices of fictional role playing. With narrative discontinuity and verbal play, the characters appear to have shifting identities. The Señora, also called la Madre, la Alcahueta, and so on, of a theatrical troupe of transvestite Dolls, is reputed to be the elderly female impersonator Mei Lan Fang gotten up as a young lady. She has a miniature double, la Señorita, la de Señora, or Sra. The biggest star of the troupe is Cobra, who has a double, Cobrita, the White Dwarf (with astronomical association), or Pup, short for Poupée. Cobra is taken for "el original" by "las muy derridianas" Doils…. Or as explained in a footnote, "Sra. + Cobra (+/=) Pup = (3/2)." No attempt is made to create realistic characters in an imaginary world mimicking the real world.

Cobra's fictional characters are as insubstantial as the illusion of transvestite femaleness or an individual ego in Buddhist thought. Jean Franco writes, "Characters are … signifiers … character, like the verbal pun, becomes a kind of splitting apart of an apparent identity to show the disparate possibilities of the signified." Even the signifiers of gender and ethnicity are unreliable. In Tangiers Cobra's rival la Cadillac plays the sex-change surgeon el Doctor Ktazob, el doctor K., for short, also known as San Ktazob, el Padre, el Alterador or simply A. The members of Cobra's back-up chorus in a Tangerine club are designated by written variants of a name: la Divina, la Adivina, la Di Vina, and Lady Vinah. Two of Cobra's lazarillos in Tangiers are Tariq and the uncertain Visigoth Conde Don Julian, lifted from medieval chronicles and Goytisolo's Reivindicación del conde don Julián (1970). Elsewhere Cobra is a strange woman in Paris, an initiate into a motorcycle gang, a hippy or exiled Tibetan lama in India, and a traveler eager for Tantrisms on whose body the graphs C-O-BR-A are inscribed. Such inventions involve too much manipulation of signifiers and mediation by fiction, theater, and painting to be readily naturalized. All identities are suspect.

More conservative, Goytisolo handles role playing somewhat differently. A fictitious author writes in a Parisian study and doubles himself into a character. One of his motives is to invent a persona as an author-actor. He often rewrites a role from another text and adopts the persona of a known author-actor; then, when it appears not to meet his aspirations sufficiently, he moves on to another, and so on successively. During these changes one signifier provisionally identifies two different author-actors (T. E. Lawrence or Charles de Foucauld and the imaginary author, for example). The process is repeated as he moves from text to text. The imaginary author appears to be an ego in flux. Then in the final chapter, with references to incidents appearing in Goytisolo's earlier texts, he suggests he has drawn the parameters of what was self and not self in an evolution which took place before he began his text.

Juan sin tierra's character shifts are less whimsical than those in Cobra. Apparently different identities are designated by the same signifier or variations of it in order that they may be perceived as analogues, reversing a process that operates in the latter text. For example, Ebeh is the Senussian chief responsible for the murder of Père Foucauld and a beggar in Tangiers. The parodical character Vosk is variously a plantation's chaplain, a prudish colonel, a psychiatrist, Mutter Vosk, a character who claims to be of flesh and blood, the gentleman Bosch, who aspires to be portrayed in a work of art, and a utilitarian literary critic who supports past forms of realism. The critic is based on Goytisolo's aesthetics during his apprenticeship years and the aesthetics of the critic and erstwhile New York University colleague Rafael Bosch, Georg Lukács, who was Goytisolo's "inseparable mentor" for four or five years during his social realist phase, and others. Vosk stands for values the fictitious author opposes, including a belief that a work of art should faithfully represent life in accordance with (familiar) realist conventions. In this text various identities are joined under a single signifier and its variations to show ideological similarities in the contextually plural signified.

In both Sarduy's and Goytisolo's metafictions, problems involved in role playing are magnified by matters of authenticity and freedom connected with script writing. In one sense Cobra mocks the Cuban regime's scripts for dissidents and expatriates. Several versions of the Indian body-painter Eustaquio's history are presented. The first version is ultimately chosen over the others because, it is commented ironically, the Indian "tiene que ser" as he is in that version for the Dolls' show and the story to continue. He is trapped in a script of dubious reliability. The Dolls have like fates to a double degree, as they follow scripts within scripts. As González Echevarría comments about the secondary quality and theatricality of Cobra, "Toda representación … supone un guión, un pre-texto, a script; una presencia anterior no visible en la escena, pero implícita en la noción misma de teatralidad" [Roberto González Echevarría, "Memoria de apariciencias y ensayo de Cobra," Severo Sarduy, edited by Julián Ríos, 1976]. Who writes the scripts? That is left undetermined. They would appear to issue from what Roland Barthes has called a textual Scriptor, who exists in writing the text and in no other context.

Juan sin tierra places script writing and transmitting in the foreground. Scripts being written or rewritten for and by the imaginary author are the most authoritive, but they are often unsatisfying. He wishes to write himself (or his double) a script as son of Changó and Savior of Cuban Blacks. However, in "truth" a "señorito blanco," he is firmly rejected: "usted?/no me haga reír!/con su defecto?" The principal dilemma is whether he can write himself an authentic script. Or are all scripts unauthentic perhaps? Vosk is a script transmitter, who follows the designs of various historical ideologies as a preacher of correspondences between the Mendiola family of a sugar plantation and the Holy Family in heaven or as an agent of reforming the decadent writer into a bard of patermaternidad. Later Vosk is a victim of a script reduction as the fictitious author reduces him to V and threatens to write no more about him. Scripts are repeatedly being created (or replayed) and deconstructed in Juan sin tierra. Formal realism in this work is mimesis of a writer in the process of writing, which allows the deconstructions to be naturalized.

Cobra invites a reader to consider its mode of fictional presentation. Extradiegetic discourse lays bare strategies of plot announcing: "La escritura es el arte de la elipsis," "… es el arte de la digresión," with irony "… es el arte de recrear la realidad. Respetémoslo," and "No…. es el arte de restituir la Historia," or "… es el arte de descomponer un orden y componer un desorden," and "… es el arte del remiendo." The contradictions are not resolved. The discourse proceeds to imply that the narration is a linguistic fiction partially built on the Señora's tall tales (potential metadiegetic narrating), which are marked by "la hipérbole tapageuse, el rococo abracadabrante y la exageración sin coto." But the Señora is not overtly either a writer or narrator of any part of Cobra. Who or where is the center of orientation?

No one is mimetically presented in the text as a writer of its narrative or commentary. The sender of a parodic address to the "Dear Reader," "Estimadas lectoras: sé que a estas alturas …," is not identified. A yo that occasionally appears in Cobra is never given personality, stable temporal or spatial coordinates, or presence in the act of writing. Following the comment "Como les decía hace un párrafo," left in a form ambiguously either first- or third-person, when unambiguous first-person verbal forms or the pronoun yo explicitly appear, they may confound rather than resolve questions of who speaks and from what world. Confusion is the likely result of a comment in the chapter "Teatro Lírico de Muñecas I": "Yo (que estoy en el público): Cállese o la saco del capítulo—no puede continuar este relato." If this yo is an "author," he is both in the audience and working on the chapter. In later chapters of the text, yo is a participant in Tantric Buddhist rites and might as well be the yo of an "author" as of Cobra, or both, or neither. With permeable "worlds" Cobra follows a pattern of the nouveau nouveau roman "designed to dramatize ontological issues" [Brian McHale, Postmodernist Fiction, 1987]. Because they are frequently ignored, traditional mimetic boundaries between diegetic levels tend to dissolve. In a sense, yo is everywhere and nowhere in Cobra. It appears to be a signifier limited to the function of a pure discursive shifter. As Professor Franco notes, Cobra "has been hailed both as a quite new kind of writing as well as a destruction of the concept of authorship itself" [Jean Franco, "The Crisis of the Liberal Imagination and the Utopia of Writing," Ideologies and Literature 1, No. 1, 1976]. Familiar ideas about narration, the primacy of an author, and an author as "person" are undermined.

"Auto sacramental bufo" is González Echevarría's definition of Cobra ["Memoria…."]. It appears to have no metaphysical entity nor ego as its source, and no primary signified. "En Cobra todo el sustrato metafisico derridiano y lacaniano, toda la mitología india absorbida de Conjunciones y disyunciones, es sometida a … un proceso de vaciamiento," he explains. He contrasts it to Calderón's autos, where "los desplazamientos sucesivos conducen a un momento de plenitud … en el signo irreductible de la eucaristía." In Cobra "esa fe que sustenta la unión se convierte en irrisión." Sarduy humorously allegorizes an absent presence, non-logocentrism, the Buddhist ideas that "form is emptiness [sunyata, between affirmation and negation]" and life a "stream of becomings and extinctions," also the physical universe as an "Obra no centrada" (see Sarduy, Barroco), and revolution.

Cobra is not pure surface. Nevertheless, Ana María Barrenechea has described Sarduy's fiction as "un arte plano cuya única profundidad proviene quizás de un constante alusión al vacío" [Ana María Barrenechea, Narradores hispanoamericanos de hoy, 1973], and Barthes had called the mimesis of Cobra the "mimesis of language (language imitating itself)" [Roland Barthes, The Pleasure of the Text, translated by Richard Miller, 1975]. This kind of commentary has fostered what Judith A. Weiss has described as "some tendency to overemphasize the surface (signifiers)" resulting in "the underemphasizing of the process of signification." With reason she calls for a symbolic reading, since the figurative symbolism of Cobra "serves as a link between the ideologies of the West (psychoanalysis and structuralism—the Tel Quel group) and the Orient (tantric Buddhism—Octavio Paz et al)." As Paz says of the symbolic languages of primitive cultures, poetry, and the modern novel, in Cobra language becomes as a body, "cobra cuepro." This body doubles the universe and people within it.

Although the commenting discourse of Cobra appears to be produced by a non-personality, an invented author is a definite psychological and physical presence in Juan sin tierra. Sarduy has written of Goytisolo's metafiction, "La voz—las voces, desde la modulación recitativa hasta la tesitura operática,…—no tiene propietario, ningún sujeto centrado … el texto que discurre o recrea no tiene autor" [Severo Sarduy, "La desterritorializacion," Juan Goytisolo, edited by Julián Ríos, 1975]. "Las voces" of Juan sin tierra are pastiches or parodies of other texts or voices from commonplace heteroglossia. In that sense, even when dialogically blended with "la voz" they have no proprietor. However, in contrast to Cobra, to which Sarduy's comment better applies, "la voz" of Juan sin tierra belongs to the fictive person who writes, a transworld Álvaro Mendiola.

Juan sin tierra makes the fundamental epic situation of fiction, imaginary discourse between a sender and a receiver, into a major theme. It appears on multiple levels of diegesis, arranged in the Chinese box technique. In the outer box or frame the extradiegetic fictitious author performs the act of writing for his own personal motives and for an extradiegetic reader. In the first inner frame or on the intradiegetic level appear events he writes about, such as travel or the characters' narrating acts. In the second inner frame or on the metadiegetic narrative level are events told in the characters' narratives. Both narrative and metanarrative functions occur in box after box. How to communicate is a theme in every one.

Goytisolo's text is not a solipsistic exercise. Robert C. Spires considers that as Juan sin tierra shifts the focus "from the level of the product of writing to the level of process" and "the narrative moves in whirlpool fashion toward the creative act, it ultimately deconstructs itself into a void of non-communication." However, an imaginary author's deconstructions and expressions of concern with his medium are not non-communication but a different kind of communication. If the invented author refuses to communicate by means of buen decir, a pure Castilian, and the forms of canonized literature, then by oppositional means, using parodies of older forms and pushing to the foreground the process of working with an alternative kind of language, an irrational, metaphorical lenguaje sensible, a Pan Hispanic Spanish, foreign languages, and a new novel, he both communicates the structure of his defamiliarized medium and writes something [Roland Barthes, Critical Essays, 1972], about politics and ideology. Contradicting Genaro J. Pérez, who to describe Juan sin tierra borrows Beckett's comment on Finnagan's Wake, "His writing is not about something; it is that something itself" [Roland Barthes, Critical Essays, 1972], this reader would say than in a bivalent mode Goytisolo chooses both alternatives.

The invented author is still communicating something and writing (opaquely) when like graphs on a white wall Arabic characters alone are displayed on the final page, signifying that he is with the pariahs sharpening a knife. The cuchillo is, among other things, a Pazian-inspired metaphor for a language of rebellion. Arabic is a cuchillo against the old habits, institutions, and the framework of thought of the Western tradition, and a challenge from the imaginary author to a reader to go further with him than he had thought. One who continues reading in the spaces of Goytisolo's novels finds the narrator of Makbara (1980) already there with the pariahs, over the wall, so to speak. And in Paisajes después de la batalla (1982) Arabic graphs mysteriously appear and multiply on Parisian walls, street and business signs, and many other surfaces usable for communication. For Westerners the graphs are signs of a threat or an invitation from an Other into uncertain domains.

Juan sin tierra gives evidence of a good deal of ontological insecurity with metaleptic transgression against the boundaries between diegetic worlds. The diegetic frames are fragmented intermittently when the fictitious author steps out of his role to speak as if he were the real author. They also fragment when the invented author or a character slips from one diegetic level into another. A singer pictured on a record jacket near the imaginary author becomes, on the intradiegetic level of the sugar plantation, a Yoruba Virgin, who is to give birth to the son with whom the invented author indentifies. Or the imaginary author converses (Unamuno-like) with his character Vosk. There are many instances of fragmentation or slippage from frame to frame.

Cobra prevents naturalization because it tends to dissolve the boundaries between various levels of diegesis. (Where form is "emptiness," there are no logical barriers). Barthes writes: "Cobra is … a paradisiac text, utopian (without site), a heterology by plenitude: all the signifiers are here …: signs and mirages of objects which they represent … verbal pleasure … reels into bliss." As Barthes describes it, it is an example of a blissful text opening itself to the "free-play of the world" (The Pleasure). Frank Lentricchia observes that this happens by "the simple effect of polysemy" and "the calling of ironic attention to the fictiveness of ideological or generic systems" [Frank Lentricchia, After the New Criticism, 1980], which is a reuse of modernist devices, now pushed to the foreground. "Bliss" is produced by Cobra in a distinctly mannered style.

In contrast to Cobra, Juan sin tierra retards naturalization by transgressing boundaries left in place. The realistic presence of an extradiegetic invented author in the process of writing, whose commentary invades the sometimes unrealistic intradiegetic narrative, creates a strong tension between realism and irrealism, while such tension is weak in Cobra.

Whereas in Cobra the motives for the text being written remain unmentioned, in Juan sin tierra the invented author's affective, moral, and intellectual relationship to his work acquire an important meaning and value. He has things to say not only about "what" and "how" but also about "why" he writes. In the final chapter there appears a literary manifesto initially sounding like the Tel Quel group's and Sarduy's theories on the autonomy of the literary object and pure writing. But it is only partially valid as a statement of the aesthetic theory on which Juan sin tierra is based.

First of all, the affirmation of the "autonomía del objeto literario" is equivocal since it is rare that literature does not interact with other systems. What appears to be meant is that the literary text does not have to imitate life and provide a world that mimics the "real" world. However, this reader would not say of Juan sin tierra what Suzanne J. Levine has written of Cobra, "No hay realidad fuera del texto" [Suzanne Jill Levine, "Borges a Cobra es barroco exégesis: un estudio de la intertextualidad," Severo Sarduy, edited by Julián Riós, 1976]. There is too much overlap between Juan sin tierra's fictional world and both Goytisolo's earlier fictional worlds and history for a careful reading not to shift repeatedly between worlds.

Second, although the imaginary author has progressed from looking for "posibilidades exquisitas de redención" to celebrating the "placer nefando y baldío de la escritura," he does not give himself totally to the pure pleasure of writing. After the manifesto he copies the ex-slave Casilda Mendiola's letter to his great-grandfather, calling in the "fuente secreta del proceso liberador de tu pluma." Based on Casilda Goytisolo's extant letters, kept in Murgar Library at Boston University, this letter originally appeared in Señas de identidad (1966). Subsequently the invented author offer another key to his motives for deviant behavior and writing: his reaction a decade earlier when a bourgeois Spanish couple repulsed a beggar, a scene which also appeared in Señas. Juan sin tierra is tied to society. "The literary act is a social act," as Frank Lentricchia reminds critics [Frank Lentricchia, Criticism and Social Change, 1983].

Finally, having exposed various motives for his deviations in writing as in other things, the writer declares that he has reached a point where he can live in peace, but he is too conscious of his transgressions to enjoy much of that peace. Does not the "unproductive manipulation" he claims to practice give him pleasure in part for the reason that it is illegal? If so, his activity is not wholly self-sufficient but social. He is writing not for art's sake alone but "something" for an inscribed reader, a "futuro lector." Although Juan sin tierra is not for easy consumption but rather complicated, highly stylized, and self-consciously artful, its writing is not unproductive.

Cobra and Juan sin tierra are maximalist Neo-Baroque writing. They are loaded with signifiers from diverse fields: painting, sculpture, music, dance, cinema, literature, astronomy, religion, philosophy, psychoanalytic theory, and popular and camp cultures. They indulge in an intertextual overkill that heightens perception of artistic artifice. Their titles exemplify how intertextual elements are often "stolen" from diverse contexts.

The sign Cobra pertains to a multitude of contexts. It is a metathesis of baroc. It belongs to Paz's poem "La boca habla," which appears in the "Diario indio" chapter of Cobra: "La cobra / fabla de la obra / en la boca del abra / recobra / el habla: / El Vocablo." Additionally, as González Echevarría remarks, "Cobra is from the verb cobrar, which indicates 'recuperar lo perdido,' in other words 'dar vigencia, actualidad, a una presencia diferida,' and in Western languages c-o-br-a is a 'grado menos zero de la fonología' in which the often repeated phonemes turn back upon themselves and 'se autocancelan'" ["Memoria"]. With its fricatives and progressively open vowels, cobra is also an example of the "vibración fonética … rumor de lengua de fondo" remaining from the Big Bang (see Sarduy, Barroco). Cobra calls to mind the constellation Serpens Caput. A graphic represention of a coiled cobra reveals an empty center, like the non-ego and the unmentioned taboos of the text. It plays upon the polyvalent symbolism of the cobra of India: a poisonous serpent, the sacred serpent of Buddhist and Hindu folklore, a symbol of nature's protectiveness toward all creatures, and the Serpent King. It evokes the yogic kundalini or "serpent power." It is associated with the Latin copula and with the anagram for a group of expressionist painters from COpenhagen, BRussels, and Amsterdam, whose paintings serve, among others, as a source of the scenery and characters of Cobra, as González Echevarría explains. It is linked to cobre, the "metal emblema de Ochúm, la diosa yuruba … y de su equivalencia católica la Caridad del Cobre" according to Sarduy [Emir Rodrigez Monegal, "Conversación con Severo Sarduy," Rensta de Occidente 31, Series 2, 1970], the slang name "snake" given to homosexuals, the phallus, and the symbol of medicine and surgery to which Cobra resorts to be rid of the phallus. In a free-play of signs, the signifier of the title has a great multitude of signifieds repeatedly differed.

Goytisolo's title Juan sin tierra is also polyvalent but to a lesser degree. It calls to mind legends of nomadic wanderers. It reminds one of the "self-banished" Spaniard Blanco White, who used it as a pen name, and it is a tribute to Jean Genet, who, wrote Goytisolo, "predica con el ejemplo las virtudes del exilio" ("El territorio del poeta"). As Pérez explains, it also "refers to 'Jean sans Terre' or John Lackland of England … who was forced … to accept the Magna Carta," and it "suggests parallels" between the novel and its narrator, and historical circumstances [Geraro J. Perez, "Form in Juan Goytisolo's Juan sin tierra," Journal of Spanish Studies: Twentieth Century 5, 1977]. The overtly political title is significant with respect to the situation of the imaginary author, the real author, and his exiled production during the late years of the Franco regime. The signs are engaged in limited play.

In Juan sin tierra the so-called onanistic and poetic writing is not gratuitous nor self-sufficient in the sense of art whose end is itself. The author may be continuing a "búsqueda de la identidad social, literaria y personal", writing as "psychoanalytic therapy," writing for the benefit of others as well as for himself, or, as the invented author says, pleasure seeking. But the writing does not negate a social intention in wedding itself to the pleasure principle. As Norman O. Brown writes in Life Against Death: "Art's contradiction of the reality principle is its social function…. Art, if its object is to undo repressions … is in this sense subversive of civilization". Since the invented author has been counterposing black and white, masters and slaves, respectable bourgeois and pariah, and heterosexual and homosexual behavior, he is clearly mindful of diverse social intentions. If he repeatedly remarks on his unproductive pleasure in writing, it is because, besides a means of communication, writing is also per se a pleasurable activity. As Carmen Martín Gaite puts it, writing can cause one "to forget the destination and enjoy the journey" [Carmen Martin Gaite, "The Virtues of Reading," translated by Marcia L. Wells, PMLA 104, 1989]. Moreover, it is a place for a happy dialogue between what Paz calls cuerpo and no cuerpo: nature and culture, body and soul, the pleasure principle and the reality principle (Conjunciones y disyunciones passim). The purposes of art are heterogenous.

Goytisolo enjoys the journey without forgetting the destination for very long. In the context of his role as a "francotirador," he has discussed the political motives of his playful creative writing in the late Franco years, explaining that to have his say without either giving arguments to the Francoist establishment or fomenting divisiveness in the opposition, he resorted to "una estrategia de la invención" and "un lenguaje metapolítico" [Juan Goytisolo, Libertad, Libertad, Libertad, 1978]. While relevant to some degree to the whole trilogy begun with Señas de identidad, this explanation is most pertinent to the final work of the trilogy, Juan sin tierra. He adds:

Mi obra novelesca adulta … era marginal y minoritaria … porque yo recurría en ella a un discurso nuevo, indirecto,… gracias a ello podía expresar lo que era indecible, en un lenguaje au premier degré: …—crítica de las sociedades burguesa y burocrática …; necesidad de un cambio radical de nuestros valores culturales, sociales, morales, actitud tercermundista y hostil a los criterios … de la civilización judeocristiana, etc.—proyectándolas a un nuevo ámbito: el de los deseos reprimidos, la utopía y la imaginación.

In Juan sin tierra, projecting cultural politics into the field of desires, dreams, and imagination is play.

Sarduy has considered his own Neo-Baroque writing to have cultural political significance. In an interview he told Jean-Michel Fossey: "Ser barroco hoy, creo, significa amenazar, juzgar y parodiar la economía burguesa, basada en la administración … 'racional' de los bienes, en el centro y fundamento de esa administración …: el lenguaje … el lenguage no se encuentra en función de información sino en función de placer" [Jean-Michel Fossey, "Severo Sarduy: maquina barroca revoluciónaria," Severo Sarduy, edited by Julian Riós, 1976]. Referring to his thematics, he claimed a playful body was a "máquina barroca revolucionaria que impide a la sociedad represiva su propósito (apenas) oculto: capitalizar bienes y cuerpos." Nevertheless, Cobra would appear to be subversive rather than revolutionary.

In Cobra play and eroticism are not accompanied by any noticeably revolutionary social vision. It is susceptible to trivialization or neutralization in late capitalist societies since, as Jean Franco points out, in our age the pursuit of pleasure has been absorbed into the dominant ideology. However, if one considers Sarduy's ties to Cuba, Cobra takes on a more serious aspect. The pursuit of pleasure and elitist and "decadent" art are at odds with Cuban ideology. Although against Sarduy's calculations liberal bourgeois societies may absorb Cobra, the utilitarian-minded Cuban establishment cannot.

Goytisolo paraphrases Barthes's comment on Sarduy's De donde son ios cantantes (1967) and hails the "hedonismo revolucionario" of Cobra (Barthes, Severo Sarduy; Goytisolo, Disidencias). But Professor Franco gives Sarduy's hedonism little value. She negatively criticizes Cobra as a "dance of signs" without history and a game of "constant metamorphoses" which "invite enjoyment and not use." The basic problem, as she sees it, is that mobility and "the promotion of gratuitousness" may be Utopian, but they are not revolutionary, and in this day a text based on them reproduces the values of late capitalism. She remarks: "The dominant ideology is now reproduced in … the very pursuit of pleasure. It encourages the setting up of private worlds but sets taboos around politics" [Jean Franco, "The Crisis of the Liberal Imagination and the Utopia of Writing," Ideologies and Literature 1, No. 1, 1976]. Yet metapolitics, cultural metapolitics, is not wanting in Cobra.

A work of oppositional postmodernism, Cobra was written when the Western counterculture of the 1960s and early 1970s was beginning a decline. It is dernier-cri counterculture. On both the narrative and linguistic levels of Cobra, there is plenty of play and camp eroticism of the kind that counterculturalists would applaud, and the Cuban regime as well as the "old bourgeois stereotype" (Franco's term) would find condemnable. But it is play with a critical edge, against both the establishment and certain characteristics of the counterculture, particularly its lapses into ethnocentrism, which Sarduy uses against itself, its political naiveté, and machista elements within it.

Cobra shares in a "common enterprise" of many feminist, deconstructionist, and pyschoanalytic projects that in "Mermaids and Minotaurs in Academe" Nancy A. Newton terms "deflating our Western cultural phallus," that is, putting one on guard against "an inherited discourse-system in which impregnable individualism, unilateral logic and reason, specialized mastery and domination hold key defensive positions" [Nancy A. Newton, "Mermaids and Minotaurs in Academe: Notes of a Hispanist on Sexuality, Ideology, and Game Playing," MMLA 22, No. 1, 1989]. Sarduy writes a transvestite discourse transgressing the West's master narratives and the either/or binarism of male/female and work/play. His artistic vision in Cobra is one supported by Marcuse, Norman O. Brown, and the Post-Structuralists, among others, who thought that the idea of freedom, imagination, and art could provoke liberating changes in culture. Since semic signs and the structures of language play a great role in consciousness and culture (according to Barthes, Derrida, and Lacan), they are placed in the foreground of Sardy's work-play, or to use Lentricchia's handy phrase, his "cultural work of words" (Criticism and Social Change). This reader was reminded by Newton's article that the separation of work and play into different spheres is a result of social forces rather than nature. In art, work and play come together again.

Pastiche and parody in Cobra are comic but critical. For example, the excentric, nomadic characters moving from West to East in pursuit of Liberation find celluloid gurus, plastic Buddhas, and a canned nirvana because they do not go below the surface of an India de pacotilla. There is an East-West analogy operating in Cobra. A Che Guevara poster found in India (the poster was a popular wall decoration in Western radical-chic circles) has the effect of suggesting a parallel between the attraction of Latin American revolutions for drugstore and university revolutionaries and that of Eastern religions for Western devotees in India. They appear to have as little comprehension of the histories and communities of the East as foreign supporters of Latin American revolutions often have of Latin American societies. The analogy is re-enforced in the fragment "Las indias" in the chapter "Diario indio," in which the footnoted source of a description of a Caribbean island is reputedly the "Diario de Colón." On the last pages of Cobra, an invocation of an invisible homeland on the other side of the mountains, "[e]l país natal," may suggest: lama: Tibet = cubano: Cuba or lama-cubano exiled from Tibet-Cuba.

Both Sarduy and Goytisolo consider playful art to be successful in undoing repressions and regaining freedoms that some religious and political systems quite strictly ask one to forego. Goytisolo has been enthusiastic about the "crimes" committed by Sarduy's playful will against "el logocentrisimo" of our culture in which "el goce debe ocultarse tras la máscara de la razón" [Juan Goytisolo, Disidencia, 1977]. But Cobra's playfulness and hedonic excesses are not incompatible with purposefulness.

Goytisolo is not to be boxed by a "false alternative" for art between gratuitousness and usefulness, which is challenged in Todorov's "Art According to Artaud." The imaginary author and the hero-writer of Juan sin tierra adopt the roles of onanists opposite the utilitarian critic Vosk to play out a dichotony of aesthetic positions favoring either gratuitousness or utilitarianism. Although the fictitious author celebrates the hedonism of writing and rejects practical norms and rational language for his writing, he is ultimately not an apologist for gratuitous art but a vindicator of an artist's right to practice whatever forms of artistic discourse he chooses. Since Goytisolo felt morally compelled to write about something in the early 1970s, he did so in Juan sin tierra as artfully as he could. What is "useless" may be against society's norms, but "useless" writing in Juan sin tierra is paradoxically a social weapon against repression, metaphorically a knife against the renunciations of instincts into which society presses an individual. If the playfulness with which Goytisolo writes something in Juan sin tierra is at times needlessly explicit, such explicitness is motivated by the author's desire to make a point as strongly as possible: pleasure and the criticism of cultural and political problems can be combined in art. That is one of its great rewards.

Juan sin tierra contains many clear allusions to political realities and issues in the restricted meaning of governmental politics. In Cobra, except for a mordant comment made when the transvestite star Cobra is discovered hanging upside down trying to reduce her feet, "Como a toda revolución, sucedió a ésta un régimen de sinapismos draconianos," and the Che Guevara poster, they are almost nil. But all of Cobra transgresses what Anthony Kerrigan calls "the laws of Cuba" pertaining to the "curbing" and banning of writers. For instance, the "Ley de la Extravagancia," applies "to anything far fetched, extravagant, from homosexuals … and their extravagant dress, to writers of extravagant … prose or verse," among others. In its crimes against such "laws," Cobra is artistic insurgency.

In "Politics, Literature and the Intellectual in Latin America" Enrica Mario Santí astutely maintains that a Latin American writer (or, extending the category, a writer in the Spanish language) may be an intellectual but remain an artistic writer by virtue of his "creative use of language," which "presupposes his undertaking a critique of language," as a result of which he "opens himself and his work to the realm of systematic inquiry … that necessarily binds his writing to his historical and political context." It is worthwhile to consider these contexts in order to appreciate the dimensions of the games Sarduy and Goytisolo play.

Cobra was written at the time of "el caso Padilla" (Castro's jailing of the "decadent" poet Heberto Padilla and the consequent international protest) when, in Goytisolo's words, "el Líder Máximo había resuelto acabar con cualquier forma de disidencia" (En los reinos de taifa). Its baroque complications, hedonic excesses, and superficial gratuitousness form a declaration of rebellion against the puritanical twentieth-century Cuban "Counter-Reformation." Although it may not be banned in Cuba, "no se vende Cobra allí" (Sarduy, letter).

Cobra disguises its politics more radically than Juan sin tierra. The latter text is more concerned with the communicability of its political issues. Although the writing of the Spanish Left was still kept in check by tradition and authoritarian measures during the last years of the Franco regime, certain liberties, such as freedom from prior censorship, were granted. But when Juan sin tierra was published in 1975 in Barcelona, the Ministerio de Información refused to allow its distribution in Spain because, as Goytisolo has recounted, it contained "ataques contra el régimen, sacrilegio, bestialismo, y una larga lista de cosas que impedía su circulación" (Interview). It became available in Spain after Franco's death, when it was re-edited and republished. It was a playful, indirect way for Goytisolo to take a position on difficult ideological issues, criticize the Spanish Right and Left, and suggest the liberalization of cultural hierarchies, an egalitarian social organization, and a happy resolution to the supposed conflict between aesthetics and a writer's moral responsibility.

In the early 1970s Cobra and Juan sin tierra were the oppositional work-play of contentious, dissident expatriates from Castro's Cuba and Franco's Spain. If one is willing to expand the definition of politics to include, as it has in many circles for at least three decades, a vast field of power relationships and cultural issues, including an artist's, critic's, or reader's attitude toward the creative process, then both Juan sin tierra and Cobra are highly (meta)political countercultural works.

Thomas E. Case (essay date Autumn 1991)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: A review of Cocuyo, in World Literature Today, Vol. 65, No. 4, Autumn, 1991, pp. 676-77.

[In the following review, Case claims that Cocuyo exhibits a "dense, multilayered, and distinctly neobaroque style, parody, and metaphoric structure."]

Severo Sarduy is a writer of many talents. He is a recognized art and literary critic and a member of the Tel Quel group as well as an accomplished novelist, essayist, and poet. Born and raised in Cuba, Sarduy studied medicine before moving to Madrid and subsequently to Paris, which he made his home. His first novel, Gestos (1963), blended avant-garde techniques with Cuban sensitivity; De donde son los cantantes (1969), the highly acclaimed Cobra (1972), Big Bang (1974), and other works followed, in which Sarduy elaborated and expanded his complex and multifaceted literary world.

For Sarduy followers, Cocuyo will satisfy their appetite for his dense, multilayered, and distinctly neobaroque style, parody, and metaphoric structure. The narrator relates of Cocuyo's early shock in life, toppled while performing one of man's most private acts, to his being torn from a comfortable bourgeois existence by a storm, which lands him in a hospital run by quacks, from which he flees to live with La Bondadosa in a girls' school where he runs errands for an office. He finally reaches the real world of the port district. His jarring voyage into maturity is marked by his first notions of fear, his awakening to his own sexuality and to his love for Ada, and a cruel introduction to the horrors of life with all its inequities and injustices.

Cocuyo's (his name means "firebeetle") odyssey through the timeless pre-Castro Cuban world conjured from some collective memory is a Candide-like (or perhaps better, picaresque) trial of discovering the world as it really is. Cocuyo's dreamlike meanderings include a descent in a Gothic tower and travel aboard a Spanish bergantín loaded with African slaves. Admittedly, he suffers from oniromanía familiar, but he gradually emerges from this state to a superclarity brought on by falling into a quagmire and helplessly flailing about in it. From an innocent and detached view of humanity he comes to see man's fate as his own. He is grateful for this epiphany, for it shows him "el verdadero rostro del hombre, su esencial doblez, su necesidad, tan insoslayable como el hambre o la sed, de trampa, de mezquindad." On an optimistic note, he looks up and sees the stars still in their orbits.

Sarduy has skillfully followed in the footsteps of his Cuban masters José Lezama Lima and Alejo Carpentier. His pessimism is perhaps a little worn, if not still strikingly true, for the last decade of the twentieth century, but the message takes second place to the brilliance of his metaphorical images, tirelessly crafted to produce expressions that evoke a mythical and magical world.

Previous

Sarduy, Severo (Vol. 6)