Canonical Banquet

-by Rafael Rojas Gutiérrez-

translated by D. Ohmans
(c) copyright 2010

Text imprint Mexico City, Fondo de Cultura Económica, ©2000


A book is always a testament to various readings. When some years ago I read
The Western Canon. The Books and School of the Ages by Harold Bloom I
could not avoid the raft of suggestions that called to me demanding a rough
draft or an expression of that perplexity. From the start I thought that Bloom
had grounds for defending the canon of Western literature against the normative
decentralization promoted by postmodern criticism. I agreed too, as the Yale
professor suggested, that the only condition which makes possible a canonical
work or author would be found in sublime aesthetic experience, that is, in the
sphere where Kant located the mystery of art: the realm of feeling. The
Romantic explanation, which Bloom took from Walter Pater, according to which
high literature is that that by its "strange beauty" produces an agreeable
disquiet or perturbation in the public, sufficed to illuminate for me an ethic
of modern reading.
     The difficulties began when I read Bloom's judgments concerning "Latin
American literature" which, in The Western Canon, is presented as a
univocal cultural entity. I noticed, then, that there were spacious disconnects
between the three levels of the literary canon: the national, the continental
or regional and the Western. Bloom could omit Alfonso Reyes and Juan Rulfo,
Leopoldo Lugones and Macedonio Fernandez, Jose Marti and Virgilio Piñera,
six authors whose absence was unthinkable, and not in the Mexican, Argentine
and Cuban literature of the last two centuries, but instead in all Hispano-
american literature taken together. The objections were profiled still more
upon seeing that in the catalog of canonical "Latin American" authors of the
"Chaotic age" there were 18 writers and six of them were Cubans: Nicolas
Guillen, Alejo Carpentier, Jose Lezama Lima, Guillermo Cabrera Infante, Severo
Sarduy, and Reinaldo Arenas. To what did we owe this preferential
disequilibrium? How representative of "Latin America" were the works of these
Cuban poets and storytellers?
     The essay, "A canonical banquet" attempts to describe the ambivalent
reaction that Bloom's book produced in me. The first part is dedicated to
challenging the idea of a canon of Latin American literature that would be
based on ideological inventions of cultural identity in that topos
called "Latin America" - a myth from the 2nd French Empire, reformulated by
successive post-colonial elites. Later, the argument is shifted to the Cuban
literary field in order to reconstruct the national canonization that in
certain authors and works has produced, over the past two centuries, the main
histories and critiques of insular letters. By his attempting the genealogy of
both canons, the Latin American and the Cuban, some analyses are called for
regarding the fabrication of literary authority, accomplished in the milieu of
postmodern cultural studies, which, from a residual or nostalgic Romanticism,
Bloom trenchantly refutes.
     The last part of the essay broaches the sinuous theme of the literary
relations among the six canonical writers. What did they read between
themselves? What were their opinions of each other? What were their affinities
and discrepancies? To rummage in that impassioned terrain, dominated by the
pathos of artistic vanity, not only turned out to be a hermeneutic exercise
regarding the forms of authority that are practiced within a literary field
previously authorized through critical and historical discourse, but
an inquiry in turn into those politics of friendship that rule intellectual
sociability among six Cuban writers. The pathos of that "geometry of the
passions" came to confirm, paradoxically, how useless and rancorous can be
certain attempts to destroy the canon or to reconstruct it according to
ideological or cultural parameters. Seemingly, before the canon there are three
dignified options: preserve it, strip it or expand it.
     Regarding the six Cuban writers it is undeniable that "they are all that
they can be," although perhaps "they are not all there." According to taste,
one could reclaim the presence of Eliseo Diego or of Lino Novas Calvo, of
Virgilio Piñera or of Jose Marti. Yet, as Bloom says at the beginning of
his book, the virtues that make certain writers canonical are not to be sought
in the judgments of a critic but in a reader's enjoyment. Therefore, after the
essay there is presented the anthology "Symposium of Fiction," conceived in the
form of a dialogue, where Guillen, Carpentier, Lezama, Cabrera Infante, Sarduy,
and Arenas exchange theirs texts and juxtapose their voices. On hearing them
discuss their respective poetics with so much nobility, it is difficult not to
accept that through them Cuban literature achieved a mysterious and fleeting

-Mexico City, winter of 1999-

                         Part One
                    A CANONICAL BANQUET

                    IN THE SHADOW OF THE CANONS

THE LATIN WORD canon, traditionally applied to music and religion,
means rule, precept, model. The norms that some council of the Church
establishes on the dogma or the discipline are canonical. The voices
that are superimposed in a musical composition, reiterating the same song, form
a canon. Whether a principle or a voice, the canonical alludes to a
certain order or hierarchy which is to apply to a set of values and signs.
     Harold Bloom is one of the few modern intellectuals who still believes, in
the manner of the old Schopenhauer, that religion and music are the perfect
models of Western culture.(1) There is a personal genius, a daemon,
behind every great work of art of of literature; but its perishability in the
collective memory and imagination indicates, according to Bloom, that there
also exists a universal scale of the aesthetic. That order will be revealed, as
Kant affirmed, in the experience of each creation of high culture. Bloom
accepts it languidly with the sentence: "I feel quite alone these days in
defending the autonomy of the aesthetic, but its best defense is the experience
of reading King Lear and then seeing the play well performed"(2).
Someone has said that Harold Bloom, like his teachers Walter Pater and Paul de
Man, is a tenacious late Romantic. Romanticism produced the idea that
aesthetics were an autonomous sphere in which the Western spirit operated. The
Romantic of the imagination stems from a process of internationalization of
the Romantic quest in the writings appearing toward the end of the 18th
century and extending even into our own day.(3) Said process not only involves
the poetics of the literature, but also, as Hayden White has seen in the cases
of Michelet, Ranke, de Toqueville, and Burckhardt, conditions the poetics of
history.(4) At the beginning of the 21st century, according to Paul de Man--a
judgment to which Bloom would subscribe without apologies--we still live within
the limits of the Romantic imagination.(5)
     However since the end of the 19th century modern poetics and vanguardists
have tried to destabilize the three words which support that idea: Spirit, the
West and Aesthetics. Rimbaud proposed the disappearance of poetry into life.
Nietzsche argued that art and literature, just like morality and religion, are
fictions in which human vanity displays itself. Spengler foretold the decadence
of that that Hegel, always very sure in his language, called "the spirit of the
West." Even so, after Antonin Artaud and Andy Warhol, after Marcel Duchamp and
Michel Foucault, Susan Sontag and Gayatri Spivak, after postmodernism,
feminism and multiculturalism, Harold Bloom defends the idea of a canon of
Western literature.
     Seen from a canonical point of view, the great literature of the
west could be reduced to a few writers. This economy of intellectual history is
possible thanks to what Bloom, in a classic book, has called "the anxiety of
influence"(6). There are authors, such as Dante and Milton, Shakespeare and
Cervantes, Goethe and Tolstoy, Proust and Joyce, Kafka and Beckett, who project
an elongated shadow and found models of fiction for a literature that survives
them. That literary consequence is due to a "dialectic of the poetic tradition"
by which some writers, implicitly or explicitly, always refer to other authors
and to other works. Such that if we illuminate Milton's shadow we shall
discover in it Wordsworth, Shelley, Keats, and Tennyson; or if we search in the
wake of Ralph Waldo Emerson we shall find Whitman, Dickinson and Stevens.(7)
     Those who project the most shade over Western literature are the
canonical authors. A distinction which, according to Bloom, only 26
writers from all time merit. Much before Bloom, Vladimir Nabokov had applied a
similar economy to the valuation of Russian poetry and narrative. According to
his calculations, "the great literature of Russia since the beginning of the
19th century would be equal to 23,000 pages of regularly printed copy"(8). But,
aesthetically, how is a foundational writing determined? What quality causes a
writer to awaken in others that "anxiety of influence"?; or better, what are
the attributes qualifying a work for the canon?

     The reply, in almost every instance, has been its strangeness, a form of
     originality that may not be assimilable or rather assimilates us such that
     we cease viewing it as strange. Walter Pater defined Romanticism as the
     combination of strangeness and beauty, yet I believe that with that
     formulation he characterized not only the Romantics, but instead all
     canonical writing. The cycle of great works from the Divine
     Comedy to Paradise Lost, is from the strange to the strange.
     When one reads a canonical work for the first time she experiences a
     strange and mysterious surprise, and it almost never is what we expected.
     Recently read, the Divine Comedy, Paradise Lost, Faust, Hadji Murad,
     Peer Gynt, Ulysses, and "Canto general" have that mysterious
     quality in common, that capacity to make you feel estranged in your own

     That house to which Bloom refers is the West. The reading that makes you
"feel estranged in your own house" is the reading of a text which has been
previously domesticated for Western aesthetics. It does not deal, then, with
the strangeness of the Other who, placed against the Self, establishes an
exteriority, that is to say, what Emmanuel Levinas would call an
"irreducible face to face relationship"(10). It deals with an act of reading
that inscribes and confirms the modern identity of the Western subject and
ensures her anagnorisis by means of its literary canon.
     It is natural, then, for Bloom to react violently against the new
discourse that postulates the decentralization of the modern Western subject.
That postmodern and multicultural discourse, deployed in six branches
("feminism, neo-Marxism, Lacanism, neo-historicism, deconstructionism, and
semiotics") comprises what Bloom, following Robert Hughes, caricatures as the
Culture of Complaint.(11) Its principal reproach to those currents of
literary critique, which little by little are gathered in the new academic
discipline of Cultural studies, has to do with the considerable
ideologization that its exponents admit:

     Aesthetics reduces to ideology, or even to metaphysics. A poem cannot be
     read as a poem, because it is originally a social document or,
     rarely, though the possibility exists, an attempt to surpass philosophy.
     Against this idea I urge a tough resistance whose sole objective would be
     to keep as much richness and purity as possible in poetry. Our legions who
     have deserted represent a branch of our traditions that has always fled
     from aesthetics: Platonic moralism or Aristotelian social science. When
     they attack poetry, they banish it for destroying social order or rather
     tolerate it if and when it adopts the role of social catharsis beneath the
     standards of the new multiculturalism. Beneath the surfaces of Marxism,
     feminism and academic neo-historicism, the ancient polemic of Platonism,
     or of Aristotelian social medicine, equally archaic, continues its march.
     I suppose that the conflict between these tendencies and the ever hounded
     partisans of aesthetics will never cease.(12)

     Legions, flight, resistances, attacks, desertions, standards... For Bloom,
criticism, and, in general, the culture, is a battlefield, a struggle.(13) His
idea of the canon is a causa belli, a sanctuary of the Western
aesthetic that should be defended by a well-provisioned army of critics. But
the agon, far from splitting Western culture, personifies it. The
contest between the heirs of Plato and Aristotle and the heirs of Dante and
Shakespeare; between the Greco-Roman and the Judeo-Christian; ultimately,
between the classical and the Romantic imagination, is presented, then, as
combat between the advocates of aesthetics and their enemies.
     Camille Paglia, for example, presents her viewpoint in that scene of
Western struggle and from there describes the distance that then separates her
from Bloom:

     We belong to different Western traditions. Bloom, who prefers the
     Bible to Homer, is Judeo-Christian. His consciousness is completely
     literary, an orchestral dynasty of the Word. I am Greco-Roman, ruled by
     visual images and formal theatrics, in art, sport, politics, and

     Yet here as well that agonistic does not surpass the Western frontiers.
The tension between different legacies of Western culture does not place its
territory in danger, nor lead to a face-to-face confrontation with other
cultures. In this sanctuary within the limits, the canon can accept
corrections, amplifications or reductions, without losing its strong criteria
of authority and exclusion.
     In Errata, the memoirs of George Steiner, we find a delicious
reflection upon the fallibility of the canon. There it is demonstrated,
following an intuition advanced by Steiner in After Babel, that not a
few modern writers have rejected Shakespeare's throne: Johnson and Pope
mistrusted his taste, Tolstoy thought him "crude" and "puerile," Eliot
preferred Dante and Wittgenstein suspected that "clamorous unanimity" which
united his readers.(15) Steiner himself seems to incline towards Racine as the
center of the canon, and declares that the work he would take with himself to a
desert island is Berenice. Why Racine? For his otherness, for
his isolated perfection, for his discreet sacrilege, for his resistant
untranslatability.(16) Even in a classicist spirit like Steiner there flowers
that ingrained anti-authoritarian impulse which grounds the rebellions against
the sovereignty of Western taste.
     Movement or accommodations in the canon, like that of Steiner, are finer
and more subtle than the brusque genealogical reconstruction of the West
proposed by Paglia, or than the explosive rancor of the multiculturalist
academics. The risk will always exist, as the Mexican anthropologist Roger
Bartra warns, that some discussions which question Western modernity,
formulated within the academic left of the United States and Europe, will
be read by the Latin American intellectual elites as rhetorical excuses for
authoritarianism.(17) In the Cuba of the Nineties, for example, the cultural
bureaucracy had read the famous essay by Fredric Jameson Postmodernism, or
the cultural logic of late capitalism (1991) as an eloquent reaction
against the justified suspicion that today the closed identities, the
homogenizing utopianism, the absolutist ideologies, and the happy
rationalizations awaken.(18) In any case, as Bartra proves in The Cage of
Melancholy, a critique of authoritarian nationalism is not unthinkable
from the Latin American left beginning with a close reading of certain
postmodern notions.(19)
     The unfathomable paradox of the Culture of Complaint is that the
resistances to the Western canon, exerted from other regional or national
cultures, produce meta-narratives equally or more authoritarian and excluding.
Canonical rationality infiltrates those discussions that reclaim a
space for otherness as against the territory of Western enunciation. The
narrative of that minor "subject," repressed and peripheral, which is inserted
under protest, comes to be, ironically, a miniature replica of the Modern
Central Subject. There are thus created what Bloom himself calls counter-
canons: elitist and closed lists, strong expressions of power, in the
cultures that define themselves as subordinate.(20) In general, the critiques
from the academic left of multiculturalism, that of Fredric Jameson in his long
commentary on the anthology Cultural Studies (1992), of Lawrence Grossberg,
Cary Nelson and Paula A. Treichler and, especially, that of Slavoj
Zizek in his suggestive essay "Multiculturalism or the Cultural Logic of
Multinational Capitalism," ignore that discursive asymmetry which produces, in
Latin America, authoritarian receptions of anti-canonical texts, conceived and
written in the United States or Europe.(21)
     The Cuban critic Ivan de la Nuez has noted that in Latin America, from the
beginnings of the 19th century, discussions appear that attempt to formalize a
canon of Latin American culture.(22) Definition is sought in them of an
historical subject who traces their horizontal limit against the United States
and their vertical limit versus Europe. The Latin American identity receives,
from then on, a series of formulations: its politics with Simon Bolivar,
ideology with Jose Marti, spirit with Jose Enrique Rodo, the racial with Jose
Vasconcelos, the literary with Pedro Henriquez Ureña, the poetical from
Jose Lezama Lima, the religious from Leonardo Boff, the philosophic by Leopoldo
Zea. Each one of these definitions of Latin America, as a differentiated
historical subject, brings along with it the catalog of the myths, heroes,
events, authors, and texts that comprise the Latin American canon.
     Like all self-identifying metatheory, the discussion of the Latin American
identity dissolves the regional and national differences in a continental
morphology. The Latin American canon, like the Western, tolerates the
morphological exceptions badly. The sumula nunca infusa of such
exceptions, which the impossible book of Jose Lezama Lima suggests, indicates
precisely the poetical project of destruction of the Western and Latin American
canons, by means of a Cuban contra-canon or what Julio Ortega has
called a "morphology of the exception"(23).
     Perhaps due to that impossibility in its most oppressive variant, which is
that of the political canon, Ernesto Che Guevara argued, at the
beginning of the 1970's, that revolutionary Cuba was not an historical
exception, but instead the "vanguard," the paradigm of the "struggle against
imperialism": the rule that the other nations of the continent should
follow.(24) Guevara, creator of that model guerrilla, of that armed utopia,
that Argentine, that is, son of the "most European" country in Latin America,
according to the stereotype of the Havana oligarchy of the 20th century. Thus,
from the borders of the Western, imperialist Other, they launched the
extreme formulas of the counter-canon of the culture and the politics
of Latin America.
     Curiously, as De la Nuez warns, in a certain tradition of canonical Latin
American intellectuals, which goes from Jose Enrique Rodo to Roberto Fernandez
Retamar, they appeal to a literary reference from the author who, according to
Bloom, occupies the "center of the Western canon": The Tempest of
William Shakespeare. Three characters from that work, Prospero, Ariel and
Caliban, have triggered a triple symbology, an allegorical set that enables
recognition of Latin America within its two cultural frontiers. For Rodo, the
three symbols were perfectly distributed: Prospero, the civilizing duke of
Milan, represented Europe; Caliban, the savage and deformed slave, the United
States; and Ariel, the airy spirit, Latin America. According to the Uruguayan
writer, Latin American culture should take inspiration from the Western
classical tradition to become a new civilization, based upon the nobility of
the spirit.(25)
     In 1971, the Cuban poet Roberto Fernandez Retamar, starting from a
rewriting of The Tempest by Aime Cesaire of Martinique and from a poem
by the Barbadoan Edward Brathwaite, inverts those allegories with his essay
Caliban: notes toward a discussion of culture in our America. For
Retamar, the symbol of Latin America and the Caribbean is not Ariel, but
Caliban. The original owner of the island, who would be enslaved by Prospero
and would learn his colonizer's language so as to curse them later, represents
Latin America and the Antilles. Ariel, the "noble and winged part of the
spirit," incarnates the "bourgeois" Latin American and Caribbean intellectual
who conceives her culture as an extension of Western culture. And Prospero,
the colonizer, symbolizes the West itself, that world capitalist
center where Europe and the United States are indistinguishable.(26)
     The allegory of Caliban allows Retamar to compose an entire leftist canon
that identifies the Latin American culture with some figures from its history,
by means of an ideological selection that converts them into rigid narrative
emblems. Let us see how he displays this gallery of cultural legitimation:

     I do not know another more accurate metaphor for our cultural situation,
     for our reality. From Tupac Amaru, Tiradentes, Toussaint-L'Ouverture,
     Simon Bolivar, the priest Hidalgo, Jose Artigas, Bernardo O'Higgins,
     Benito Juarez, Antonio Maceo and Jose Marti, to Emiliano Zapata, Augusto
     Cesar Sandino, Julio Antonio Mella, Pedro Albizu Campos, Lazaro Cardenas,
     Fidel Castro and Ernesto Che Guevara; from the Inca Garcilaso de
     la Vega, Alejaidinho the popular Antilles musical, Jose
     Hernandez, Eugenio Maria de Hostos, Manuel Gonzalez Prada, Ruben Dario
     (yes - despite everything), Baldomero Lillo and Horacio Quiroga, to
     Mexican muralism, Hector Villalobos, Cesar Vallejo, Jose Carlos
     Mariategui, Ezequiel Martinez Estrada, Carlos Gardel, Pablo Neruda, Alejo
     Carpentier, Nicolas Guillen, Aime Cesaire, Jose Maria Arguedas, Violeta
     Parra and Frantz Fanon, what is our history, what is our culture, if not
     the history, if not the culture of Caliban?(27)

     Further on, Retamar adds to this epic selection from Latin American
history a teleology comprised of the dates of major symbolism for the left of
the Seventies. "Our history," "our culture," totalizing phrases that Retamar
utters from a specific location of enunciation, which is the Cuban
revolutionary power, that is projected and imposed with the pretension of a
canonical order upon the vast and plural imagination of Latin America. All
Latin American culture, or that which is "fundamental" in it, then remains
circumscribed by the discourses involved in the anti-colonial revolutions. All
Latin American history, or its "essence," remains encoded in a genealogy of
events that, through its symbolic force, verifies, as Eric Hobsbawm would say,
the "historiographic invention" of a revolutionary and anti-colonial Latin
American "tradition":

     If one could set out some of the dates that landmark the advent of that
     culture: the first are imprecise, referring to indigenous combats and
     revolts of black slaves against the European oppression. In 1780, a major
     date: the rebellion of Tupac Amaru in Peru; in 1803, Haiti's independence;
     in 1810, initiation of revolutionary movements in several of America's
     Spanish colonies, movements that will extend themselves well into the
     century; in 1867, victory by Juarez over Maximilian; in 1895, the start of
     the final stage of Cuba's war against Spain - a war that Marti also
     foresaw as an action against the rising Yankee imperialism; in 1910, the
     Mexican Revolution; in the Twenties and Thirties of the century, Sandino's
     resistance in Nicaragua and establishment on the continent of the working
     class as a vanguard force; in 1938, nationalization of Mexican oil by
     Cardenas; in 1944, the arrival to power of a democratic regime in
     Guatemala that radicalizes in the government; in 1946, the beginning of
     the presidency in Argentina of Juan Domingo Peron, beneath whom the
     "decamisados" showed their faces; in 1952, the Bolivian Revolution;
     in 1959, the triumph of the Cuban Revolution; in 1961, Giron:
     the first military defeat of Yankee imperialism in America and
     proclamation of the Marxist-Leninist character of our Revolution; in
     1967, the fall of Che Guevara at the head of a nascent Latin American
     army in Bolivia; in 1970, the arrival into the government, in Chile, of
     the socialist Salvador Allende.(28)

     To this Latin American catalog of Retamar's one could make as many
reproaches as were made against Harold Bloom's Western catalog. Are not also
representative of our political culture the emperors Agustin de Iturbide
I of Mexico and Dom Pedro I of Brazil, the dictators Juan Manuel de Rosas
and Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, the lifetime presidents Antonio Guzman
Blanco and Porfirio Diaz? Where if not in Latin American history to locate the
counterinsurgents Jose Tomas Boves, Felix Maria Callejas, Santiago de Liniers
and, even closer in that time, Victoriano Huerta, Fulgencio Batista and Rene
Barrientos? Is not, then, the erudite conservative tradition of Lucas Alaman,
Gabriel Garcia Moreno, Miguel Antonio Caro, Benito Laso, Jose Antonio Irisarri,
Francisco Bulnes, and Alberto Lamar Sweyer a component of our cultural
situation? Are not those writers most absorbed in their poetics part of
our reality: the Argentineans Macedonio Fernandez, Jorge Luis Borges
and Adolfo Bioy Casares; the Mexicans Xavier Villaurrutia, Jose Gorostiza and
Juan Rulfo; or the Cubans Julian del Casal, Jose Lezama Lima and Virgilio
     And if we move from the catalog to the teleology, the reproaches here too
do not fail to arise: do not events like Christopher Columbus' arrival in the
New World on 12 October of 1492 qualify for that which Retamar calls our
history, the proclamation of the New Laws of the Indies during the
decade of 1540, or the Bourbonic reforms of Carlos III and Carlos IV in the
second half of the 18th century? And attending only to the modern history of
Mexico and Cuba, how to justify the exclusion, in that genealogy of Latin
American dates, of the year 1821, when Agustin de Iturbide, through the Plan of
Iguala, finally achieves the consummation of Mexico's independence; of 1848,
the year of the traumatic war with the United States; of 1861, when the liberal
Empire of Maximilian of Hapsburg is established; of 1878, when the Pact of
Zanjon marks the end of a ten-year devastating war in Cuba; of 1902, the birth
of the first Cuban Republic; of 1917, with the proclamation of the liberal and
nationalist Constitution of Mexico; or of 1940, proclamation of the no less
liberal and nationalist Constitution of the Republic of Cuba?(29)
     Now then, that sum of reproaches to the leftist Latin American canon runs
the risk, perhaps, of requiring the articulation of a political counter-canon
that would oppose the emblematic values of revolutionary violence with those of
legality, reformism, pacific evolution, or democracy. That is, a counter-canon
of a liberal or conservative stripe that would rebel against an historical
image of Latin America, constructed by those Marxists who, like Retamar, were
convinced, at least during the Sixties and Seventies years, that, at the end of
the 20th century, the logic of Latin American ideology was moving, in an
irreversible manner, toward a decolonizing radicalization of the nationalist
liberalism of the 19th century. Such a counter-canon, by rebelling against an
ideological selection from history whose gallery of statuary extends from Tupac
Amaru to Fidel Castro, could tend towards the foundation of its own catalog, of
its own teleology, that is, towards its own canonization of Latin
American history.
     It happens that confronted with every modern cultural canon, like those of
Bloom or of Retamar, two supremely modernistic reactions are mobilized: that of
opening the canon and that of the counter-canon. The only way to resist both
temptations from a postmodern perspective is deflection, flight, the
abandonment of all canonical rationality. And that abandonment is made possible
once the mythical device that constructs the genealogies, that invents the
traditions, is discovered, reified by the visibility of the fiction which
supports the writing of the history.(30)
     It is not that Latin American history lacks events that are symbols and
myths of revolutionary, decolonizing, republican, nationalist, liberal, or
socialist ideologies. It is that the genealogical connection between such
events is, as Hobsbawm indicates, an historiographic invention of certain
elites as producers of legitimate discourse.(31) What continuity can there be
between the indigenous rebellions towards the end of the 18th century and the
liberal oligarchic Republic of Benito Juarez? How if not through the teleological
invention of a tradition can Cuban Marxism-Leninism be considered the heir of
the nationalist, liberal and democratic revolutions of Mexico in 1910, of
Guatemala in 1944 and of Bolivia in 1952?
     Certainly, Fernandez Retamar's counter-canon is also an attempt to
correct, amplify, open, or complete other previous genealogies of Latin
American culture. His tense continuity with respect to the liberal
historiography of ideas is visible, in the style of Mariano Pico Salas, Jose
Luis Romero and Leopoldo Zea.(32) In another of his essays, Retamar accepts the
genealogy of the Romantic-positivist liberalism of 19th century Latin America
constructed by those authors, and adds to them, as aufhebung or
acknowledgment that goes beyond them, an ideological cocktail comprised of
Rodo, Marti, Anibal Ponce's Marxism, Jose Carlos Mariategui, Julio Antonio
Mella, Ernesto Guevara; the utopianism of Ezequiel Martinez Estrada, Darcy
Ribeiro, Augusto Salazar Bondy, and the revolutionary nationalism of Fidel
Castro. Thus, the invention of the two traditions that sustain the Latin
American canon is achieved: that of the learned, which would extend from Andres
Bello to Fernandez Retamar himself, passing through Jose Marti; and that of the
leaders, which would start with Simon Bolivar, would also pass through Jose
Marti, and would arrive at Fidel Castro.(33)
     The only visible difference between this Latin American cultural canon
and that of the West is based--as Bloom signals in the Culture of
Complaint--on the invention, not quite of aesthetic traditions, but
ideological traditions, or, if one wants, upon the historical aesthetization of
certain ideologies (Jacobinism, liberalism, nationalism, Marxism-Leninism,
Trotskyism, Stalinism...) Nevertheless, an intense complicity exists between
both canons: and it is that the "anxiety of influence" rules equally,
with the same oppression, the Latin American subject and the Western subject.
Fernandez Retamar speaks, for example, of an "aspiration for ontological unity"
--"to dilute the class struggle"--in "modern bourgeois Mexican thought," which
is manifested, first, in The Cosmic Race by Jose Vasconcelos and,
later, in Profile of Man and Culture in Mexico (1934) by Samuel Ramos,
"in whose shadow--he adds--Octavio Paz will write The Labyrinth of
Solitude (1950)"(34).
     The affirmation that the book by Paz is written in the wake of
that by Ramos recalls the passages in Bloom regarding the "shadows" of Milton
and Emerson. However, through a study by Enrico Mario Santi we know that the
undeniable reference to Ramos undergoes a critical adjustment--which, somehow,
deactivates it--in the first chapter of The Labyrinth of Solitude.
Indeed, Paz's central thesis represents an abandonment of the viewpoint in
Profile of Man and Culture in Mexico: "deeper and more vast than the
feeling of inferiority, lies solitude. It is impossible to identify both
attitudes: to feel alone is not to feel inferior, but different..."(35) Both
authors, Ramos and Paz, share in investigating the national Mexican identity
from the perspective of psychoanalysis. Yet, as Santi indicates:

     Ramos saw in the "imitation of Europe" the source of an inferiority
     complex that should be undone; Paz considers that that relation, although
     quite faulty, continued being necessary. Paz's object of analysis was,
     therefore, diametrically opposed to that of Ramos: not the social present
     but instead the historical past and its obsessive and damaging
     repetition in the internal drama of the individual. If memory of
     the prototype liberates, its forgetting (or repression) condemns one to
     repeat it.(36)

     It is thus that that counter-canon which attempts, in the words of
Fernandez Retamar, "to delimit the historical Latin American domain,
confronting its reality with that pertaining to another domain...the
Western," reproduces the same will to power, the same tracing of frontiers that
dominates the Western canon.(37) Said will to power, said cartographic
and surveyor's impulse thus deals, at once, with a delimitation and measuring
of the territory, and depends on the firmness and rigidity with which both
identities, that of Latin America and that of the West, are inscribed into the
discussion. Perhaps, upon becoming aware of that ironical reconstruction of
hegemony in the name of a marginalized and dependent culture, Retamar would
decide to soften some judgments in his essay Caliban. And so, in
"Caliban Revisited," a 1989 text, he writes:

     My wish is not, and never was, to present Latin America and the
     Caribbean as a region cut off from the rest of the world but rather to
     view it precisely as part of the world - a part that should be looked at
     with the same attention and respect as the rest, not as a merely
     paraphrasic expression of the West.(38)

     It constitutes, no doubt, a retreat, and a quickening of the discussion
of the Latin American identity. So that in Caliban, more than it refuting
the idea of Latin America as "a mere peripheral expression of the West," it
affirmed the idea of an autonomous Latin America, differentiated as a "special
case," as a specific phenomenon within the "colonial world"--and, even, upon
the "planet"--because of its intense mestizo ancestry.(39) But this
anthropological note about the density of mixed ancestry functioned more as an
allegory than a possible Latin American ideological identity. It is true that,
in that essay, Latin America was presented as a part of the world. It is only
that they also alluded there to the "other part" of the world: that of
the metropolis, that of the "colonizing centers," that is, to the West.(40)
Almost 20 years later, with his return to Caliban, Retamar seeks to
temper the key argument of the essay, without having come to rewriting it:

     Our America is bringing its own nuances to this struggle, this victory.
     The tempest has not subsided. But The Tempest's shipwrecked
     sailors, Crusoe and Gulliver, can be seen, rising out of the waters, from
     terra firma. There, not only Prospero, Ariel and Caliban, Don Quixote,
     Friday and Faust await them, but Sofia and Oliveira, and Colonel Aureliano
     Buendia as well and--halfway between history and dream--Marx and Lenin,
     Bolivar and Marti, Sandino and Che Guevara.(41)

     Here, that conflict of the Latin American canon versus the Western canon
becomes considerably ameliorated. "Our America" brings its "own nuances" to a
cultural war that by now is not solely its own. However, Retamar cannot resist
the temptation to compose a new catalog, a new gallery of legitimacy. This
time, the characters in the story mix with literary archetypes and figures from
fiction. On the island, as survivors of the tempest, Crusoe and
Gulliver retain 15 emblems: eight are European, seven are Latin American. It
would seem as if the borders were erased, that territories were founded and
that the West is now as much Hispano-american as Latin America is Western. We
have here an appropriation, a hybridization of the Other as "central,"
"metropolitan," "imperialist," "hegemonic," that allows it to be culturally
domesticated. For an instant, we feel that Retamar abandons that "Center-
Periphery dualism" which simultaneously grounds the imperial and the
decolonizing discourses.(42) Yet even so, the will to power, the cartographic
and surveyor's impulse that grounds the canon, puts at the bottom the ultimate
genealogy: Marx and Lenin, Bolivar and Marti, Sandino and Che
Guevara." Again, the aestheticization of the ideology bestows upon it a measure
of authority intended to represent--dissolving its internal differences--the
entire Latin American culture.
     To verify the hegemony, the authoritarianism, of this Latin American
canon, one could again broach that question of Gayatri Spivak's: "Can the
Subaltern Speak?"(43) And a possible reply would be: of course she can! At
times she speaks up to her elbows! And when a subaltern does it or one
marginalized who attempts to speak for the rest of the marginalized and the
subalterns, her voice can come to propose a discourse as hegemonic as that
which is imposed by the Modern White Western Subject. Such that that question
of Spivak's, as she herself seems to recognize in a passage of her well-known
essay, could be preceded by others: Of what subaltern do we speak? What is the
expression space of that voice that presents itself as a subaltern? Are
subalterns the canonical representatives of "Our America" and its national
cultures? Is she only a subaltern in relation to the West? How should we think
about the ostensible hegemony that certain subalterns exert?
     The discussion of the Latin American identity, which is a part of the
representation strategy of the lettered national elites, has had to ignore the
infiltration, in the center of its narrative, of that will to power, of that
surveyor's impulse. The creators of the cultural counter-canon are slow to
recognize, as Kumkum Sangari has noted, that the exhaustion of the mass
representations, of the identifying meta-narratives, that the masking of the
intellectuals beneath power affects the center as well as the periphery, the
ex-metropolitan cultures as well as the post-colonial cultures, the hegemonic
subjects like the subjected subalterns.(44) Ultimately, Caliban, the
allegory of the "entire body" posited by George Steiner, is the slave who
dreams of violating Prospero's daughter to populate the island with
Calibanis - homunculi, "new men"; who is assigned to another man--
Stephano, the "drunken butler"--who will confront whoever mistreats her;
this Caliban, the same whom in his curse prefigures an awful despotism,
persists in being the symbol of the lettered elites who imagine Latin
American culture as a counter-canon to the West.

1) Bloom has dedicated one of his books to studying the persistence of the
images and tales of the Hebrew Bible in western literature, from Dante to
Kafka: Ruin the Sacred Truths: poetry and belief from the Bible to the
present, Harvard University Press, 1989.
2) Harold Bloom, El Canon Occidental: la escuela y los libros de todas las
epocas, Editorial Anagrama, Barcelona, 1995, p.20.
3) Harold Bloom, Romanticism and Consciousness: essays in criticism,
W. W. Norton & Co., New York, 1970, pp.3-24.
4) Hayden White, Metahistory: the historical imagination in 19th century
Europe, FCE, Mexico City, 1992, pp.135-254.
5) Paul de Man, The Rhetoric of Romanticism, Columbia University
Press, New York, 1984, pp.1-2.
6) Harold Bloom, The Anxiety of Influence: a theory of poetry, Oxford
University Press, 1971, pp.5-16.
7) Harold Bloom, A Map of Misreading, Oxford University Press, 1980,
pp.144-59 and 177-92.
8) Vladimir Nabokov, Lectures on Russian Literature, Ediciones Grupo
Zeta, Barcelona, 1977, pp.35-36.
9) Harold Bloom, op.cit. p.13.
10) Emmanuel Levinas, Totality and Infinity: an essay on exteriority,
Martinus Nijhoff, The Hague, 1965, pp.52-53 and 266-67.
11) Harold Bloom, The Western Canon, Editorial Anagrama, Barcelona,
1995, p.535. See also Robert Hughes, Culture of Complaint: the fraying of
America, Anagrama, Barcelona, 1994, pp.97-103.
12) Ibid. pp.27-28.
13) Harold Bloom, Agon: towards a theory of revisionism, Oxford
University Press, 1982, pp.16-51.
14) Camille Paglia, Sex, Art and American Culture, Vintage Books, New
York, 1992, p.123.
15) George Steiner, Errata: an examined life, Ediciones Siruela,
Madrid, 1998, pp.50-51.
16) Ibid. pp.52-53.
17) Roger Bartra, Blood, Ink, and Culture: miseries and splendors of the
post-Mexican condition, Editorial Oceano, Mexico City, 1999, pp.57-65.
18) See Fredric Jameson, The Antinomies of Postmodernity, Editorial
Trotta, Madrid, 1996, pp.23-72.
19) Roger Bartra, The Cage of Melancholy: identity and metamorphosis in the
Mexican character, Editorial Grijalbo, Mexico City, 1987, pp.15-23.
20) Harold Bloom, op.cit. pp.47-48.
21) See Fredric Jameson and Slavoj Zizek, Cultural Studies: reflections on
multiculturalism, Paidos, Mexico City, 1998.
22) Ivan de la Nuez, La Balsa Perpetua: soledad y conexiones de la cultura
cubana, Editorial Casiopea, Barcelona, 1998, pp.103-16.
23) Julio Ortega, "De Paradiso a Oppiano Licario: morfologia de la excepcion"
in Jose Lezama Lima, Paradiso, UNESCO, Mexico City, 1988, pp.682-90.
24) Ernesto Che Guevara, Works: 1957-1967, Casa de las
Americas, Havana, 1977, v.2, pp.405-19.
25) Jose Enrique Rodo, Ariel, Espasa Calpe, Mexico City, 1992,
26) Roberto Fernandez Retamar, Caliban: notes toward a discussion of
culture in our America, Editorial Diogenes, Mexico City, 1971, pp.28-36.
27) Ibid. pp.30-31.
28) Ibid. pp.78-79.
29) The Chilean historian Alfredo Jocelyn-Holt Letelier has written a
provocative book on the power of stereotypes in the image of the Chilean past:
El Peso de la Noche: nuestra fragil fortaleza historica, Ariel,
Argentina, 1997, pp.11-20.
30) Michel de Certau, The Writing of History, Universidad
Iberoamericana, Mexico City, 1993, pp.302-07.
31) Eric Hobsbawn, The Invention of Tradition, Cambridge University
Press, 1983, pp.1-14.
32) See from Mariano Pico Salas his precursor book A Cultural History of
Spanish America: from conquest to independence, FCE, Mexico City, 1944;
from Jose Luis Romero, Latin America: its cities and ideas, Ediciones
del Candil, Buenos Aires, 1967, which was enlarged in an edition from UNAM in
1981; and from Leopoldo Zea: Positivism in Mexico, FCE, Mexico City,
1968 and, above all, The Latin-American Mind, Pormaca, Mexico City,
33) Roberto Fernandez Retamar, Para el Perfil Definitivo del Hombre,
Editorial Letras Cubanas, Havana, 1981, pp.352-98. Concerning the "invention of
the traditions," we refer to the Introduction by Eric Hobsbawm to the
anthology The Invention of Tradition, op.cit.
34) Roberto Fernandez Retamar, op.cit. p.384.
35) Octavio Paz, The Labyrinth of Solitude, Catedra Letras Hispanicas,
Madrid, 1995. Introduction by Enrico Mario Santi, pp.72-75.
36) Enrico Mario Santi, ibid. p.75.
37) Roberto Fernandez Retamar, op.cit. p.353.
38) Roberto Fernandez Retamar, Caliban and Other Essays, University of
Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1989, p.53.
39) Roberto Fernandez Retamar, Caliban, Editorial Diogenes, Mexico
City, 1971, p.9.
40) Ibid. p.7.
41) Roberto Fernandez Retamar, Caliban and Other Essays, University of
Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1989, p.55.
42) Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths and Helen Tiffin (eds.) The
Post-colonial Studies Reader, Routledge, London, 1995, pp.117-18.
43) Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, "Can the Subaltern Speak?" in Cary Nelson and
Lawrence Grossberg (eds.) Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture,
Macmillan, London, 1988, pp.277-312.
44) Ashcroft, Griffiths and Tiffin (eds.) op.cit. pp.143-47.

                    NEARBY OTHERNESS

IN CUBAN LETTERS the drafts of definitions of a "Latin American culture"
abound. Jose Marti wrote Our America, an essay packed with metaphors
and allegories, where one reading covers what he calls "the continental soul."
Jose Lezama Lima dedicated an entire book to the theme, The American
Expression, in which the author of "Paradiso" interprets the american
imagination and its historical incarnations starting with the native
symbology that is derived from the Baroque and Romanticism. Alejo Carpentier
translated Latin American culture into a poetics of his own narrative, as is
seen in The Lost Steps, Explosion in a Cathedral, Baroque Concert or
The Harp and the Shadow, and also reflects upon the genesis mystery of
the "Great Savannah" in the efforts in Vision of America. Roberto
Fernandez Retamar has proposed, in Caliban and other essays, that a
Latin American cultures does exist and that its "historical domain" is
discernible from that of the West.
     These four authors inscribe the Cuban national identity within a greater
cultural space, which corresponds to that of Latin America. Nevertheless, that
has not prevented each of them from dedicating a good part of their work to the
interpretation of Cuban culture. In Revolutionary Poems: Cuba, 1959-1974,
Idea de la Estilistica and Essay from Another World Fernandez Retamar
creates recurrent approximations to the cultural trauma of the island.
Alejo Carpentier's first work, Ecue-Yamba-O! was an Afro-Cuban novel.
Later he wrote Music in Cuba, a history of what he called a "specific
insular sonority." He also wrote The Chase, a novelette situated in
the years of the Thirties, during the revolts against the dictator Gerardo
Machado, where the paranoid mentality of the revolutionary Cuban is drawn. In
addition to various chronicles and essays about the literature and the art of
the island, towards the end of his life Carpentier wrote The Consecration
of Spring, a novel in which the three epochs of Cuba, the colonial, the
Republican and the revolutionary, match the triple narrative.
     Jose Lezama Lima, for his part, dedicated some of his best essays to Cuban
poetry, painting and customs, always seeking those moments when the national
identity, what he called "the certainty of our own," is brought into the
culture's images. Think, for example, of Treaties in Havana, of Beginning
with Poetry, of the prologue to his Anthology of Cuban Poetry,
of his novels Paradiso and Oppiano Licario or, finally,
of his diverse texts concerning Jose Maria Heredia, Julian del Casal,
Juan Clemente Zenea, Jose Marti, Rene Portocarrero, Mariano Rodriguez or
Aristides Fernandez. And lastly, Jose Marti, at the end of the 19th century,
wrote innumerable articles where he affirmed the national culture of the
island. In his texts upon the racial question (Enough, My Race, On
Black and White) or in his elegies to some mestizo intellectuals,
like Jose Maria Heredia, Antonio Bachiller y Morales and Jose de
la Luz y Caballero, the certainty is clearly presented that Cuba is a
nationality, with its own social composition and its own spiritual genealogy.
     Thus in Cuban literature, insofar as it is displayed in these four cases,
the national identity is framed within two parallel discourses that resist the
slightest stress. On one side, Cuba is a nation who participates in the Latin
American cultural identity. On the other, to be Cuban is a national identity
that is distinct within the rest of Latin American culture, without
ceasing to belong to it. That it, Cuba achieves the magic of being Latin
American through its Cuban traits and Cuban through its Latin American traits.
It is due, perhaps, to a convenient application of set theory to discussion of
the island's identity: Cuba would then be a cultural subset within Latin
America, its territory becoming at once its own and foreign. Yet that
parallelism of the double national and continental identity is careful to
never recognize a collision, a falling apart, a friction between both
     Even so, not lacking among the island's lettered are those who have
defined and define Cuban culture from within itself, outside, at the
margin and sometimes even as a counterpoint to Latin American culture. This is
the insular exceptionalism current of the discussion. In it the understanding
view is more anthropological than sociological. The base of such a discourse is
that even if Cuban society shares many of the characteristics of Latin
America's post-colonial societies, her human type, her social composition and
her historical experience are very different. That is the sense in which Jose
Antonio Saco, in the 19th century, gave it the name nationality: an
historical and cultural formation as different from Spain and Europe as from
the Latin America nations and the United States.(45)
     Saco's idea, starting from his imaginary national, Catholic and white, is
only an anthropological intuition that will be developed, by the 20th century,
with mixed ancestry cultural studies of Fernando Ortiz and Lydia Cabrera. The
best approximation to such a focus perhaps may be found in two texts by Ortiz,
published in 1940, the year that also represents, significantly, the political
and constitutional maturity of Cuba: The Cuban Counterpoint of Tobacco and Sugar
and the Cuban Human Factors. The anthropological concept of transculturation,
which is formulated in the first, is expressed in the second by means
of a metaphor: the ajiaco stew. Cuban culture would be that: a unique
and unrepeatable broth where African, Chinese, Spanish, European,
North America, Russian ingredients are boiled...(46)
     Yet there is still one more insertion of the discussion on Cuban identity
in another space that borders it: the cultural area of the Antilles and the
Caribbean. Curiously, it concerns an insertion that is assumed to be more
distant, weaker than the Latin-americanist discourse, being nearer and more
immediate. Even so, it is possible to find it in some passages of the same
Fernando Ortiz, in the final essays of Vision of America where Alejo
Carpentier speaks of the Antilles as "resonant islands," in various texts of
the historians Jose Luciano Franco and Manuel Moreno Fraginals and, above all,
in the only book written by a Cuban that proposes to read his culture as if it
were plainly inscribed onto the Caribbean domain: The Repeating Island: the
Caribbean and the postmodern perspective by Antonio Benitez Rojo.(47)
     This fragile insertion has been opposed by a hard and focused nationalist
definition, which seeks to demarcate the Cuban experience of the Caribbean
cultural area. In the middle of the 19th century one can read, again in the
papers of Jose Antonio Saco, how the model of the sugar plantation, with its
indispensable black majority population, applied to the English, French and
Dutch Antilles put nationality in danger, that is, placed the native,
white and Catholic scheme of the Cuban nation in danger.(48) That fear of a
black revolution, like that of Haiti in 1804--that eventually provoked the much
lamented loss of Santo Domingo for the Spanish crown--is seen too in the texts
of Francisco de Arango y Parreño, Jose de la Luz y Caballero, Domingo del
Monte, Francisco Frias y Jacott, Gaspar Betancourt Cisneros, Rafael Montoro and
also emerges, by the beginnings of the 20th century, in some essays by Roque E.
Garrigo, Francisco Figueras and Cristobal de la Guardia, where that Caribbean
chaos, of which Benitez Rojo speaks, is attributed to the racial mix
between Latins and Africans.(49) Such that we deal with a deep-seated cultural
phobia which spans the entire native mentality of 19th century Cuba and that
nourishes a nationalism for which the Antilles and the Caribbean are a sort of
realm of the Other, who must be negated.
     It is not strange, then, given the weight of similar cultural stereotypes
of the imaginary native, that even in 1927, Ramiro Guerra will give them some
resonance with anti-Caribbean statements in Sugar and Society in the
Caribbean. Here Guerra thinks he sees in the landlordism that invades
Cuban agriculture at the beginning of the 20th century and in the practice--not
very recurrent, it is true--of ensuring a workforce with Haitian and Jamaican
braceros, a process very similar to that generated by the plantation
during the sugar boom at the beginning of the 19th century. There is a
fortuitous centenarianism in the text, as if the phenomenon which, one hundred
years ago, threatened the patrician native, that is, the concentration of
agrarian property in foreign hands and the growth of the black population, will
be repeated.(50) Thus Guerra undertakes the lettered role who, like Saco in his
time, speaks for that native elite, warning of the danger of its contamination
and decadence. Such that, as Arcadio Diaz Quiñones indicates, this
nationalist discussion locates the Other in the Cuban subject within a
zone that geographically and culturally are involved with it: the Antilles, the
     Ramiro Guerra, just like Fernando Ortiz, Emeterio Santovenia, Jose Antonio
Fernandez de Castro, and Herminio Portell Vila, was convinced that Cuba was
the Caribbean country most fully formed into a nation. With this certainty, a
good part of the republic's intellectuality attributed fortune to the island
in spiritual leadership within the region. This was demonstrated in the
enthusiastic reception given by those intellectuals to the book by Italian
biologist Gustavo Pittaluga, Dialogues about Destiny where he supported,
among other designs, the establishment of an Antillean confederation
headed by Cuba.(52) To Mañach, always a skeptic, the fact annoyed him that
doctor Pittaluga, an immigrant, after describing the "sorrowful events of the
Republic," should assign to the Cubans a providential mission in the Caribbean,
the Americas and the world.(53) But for Medardo Vitier that book, "one of the
three or four most important among those published in Cuba," was commendable
because it translated to Cuba "that Western energy, which wishes to create and
dominate, like it created and dominated Europe"(54).
     During the Republic, that arrogance, that vanity of Cuban nativism towards
the Caribbean, only strengthened. And with the Revolution, despite the
insistence upon a decolonizing, Bolivarian and Third-worldist discourse, it did
not disappear either. The imagery of the Revolution, and in general of the
Left, represented Cuba as a leader nation of the Third World, of
underdevelopment, of Latin America, while however, at root, it was not so
Third-worldist, underdeveloped and Latin American because of its belonging to
the Soviet bloc with its social advances. Meanwhile the Dominican Republic and
Puerto Rico, the two countries that presume a lesser otherness in the
Caribbean, given the common element of mixed Hispano-African ancestry, would
function within the nationalist revolutionary rhetoric as negative archetypes.
In the official Cuban ideology it is very common to hear the argument that "if
the Revolution is destroyed, Cuba would become a Puerto Rico or a Santo
Domingo"(55). Similarly, dramatically describing the economic fiasco of Cuban
socialism, the historian Manuel Moreno Fraginals predicted in 1989 that, near
the beginning of the 21st century, Cuba could become a replica of Haiti.
     With Puerto Rico, Cuban nationalism already had a long history of small
aggravations of which, frequently, our comrade Arcadio Dias Quiñones
insists on reminding us. From the days of the "Puerto Rican section" of the
Cuban Revolutionary Party to those of solidarity for independence with Pedro
Alvizu Campos, there has been an air of paternal treatment, a big brother
complex, in Cuba's cultural and political strategy towards the neighboring
island. Luckily, two Cubans, the historian Levi Marrero and the essayist Jorge
Mañach, both exiled and underground in Puerto Rico, tried to somewhat
correct that paternalism. Mañach, in his inconclusive Frontiers in the
Americas, made a vehement case for what he called the "prophetic
adventure" of Puerto Rico, that is, its voluntary disposition to constitute
itself as a "zone of confluence" between the two Americas.(56) And Levi
Marrero, in Roots of the Cuban Miracle, an essay dedicated to
justifying the work of the exile in Miami, refers to the Puerto Rican
experience as a cultural model which, in its way, resolves the dilemma of a
nationality that must survive under the North American imperial orbit.(57)

45) See his polemic against the annexationists: Cuba and the Cubans
(1852) and Las Esperanzas de Cuba in Contra la Anexion,
Cultural S. A., Havana, 1928, pp.107-51 and 235-44.
46) Fernando Ortiz, Cuban Counterpoint: tobacco and sugar (advertencia de
sus contrastes agrarios, economicos, historicos y sociales, su etnografia y su
transculturacion), Universidad Central de las Villas, Havana, pp.22-54;
The Human Factors of Cuban-ness in Ethnicity and Society, Imprenta
Molina, Havana, 1940, pp.7-19.
47) There is an extensive Cuban-Caribbean bibliography, with which Benitez Rojo
engages. But in it the texts written by Cuban authors are scarce. See Benitez
Rojo, The Repeating Island, Ediciones del Norte, 1989, pp.1-65.
48) Jose Antonio Saco, Parallel between the Spanish and British
Colonies in Works, Roe Lockwood & Son, New York, 1853, v.1
pp.147-70; Analysis de una obra sobre el Brasil, in Coleccion de
Papeles Cientificos, Historicos, Politicos y de Otros Ramos sobre la Isla de
Cuba, Ministry of Education, Havana, 1960, v.2 pp.77-86.
49) Antonio Benitez Rojo, op.cit. pp.xiii-xxix. See also Rafael
Rojas, Isla Sin Fin: contribucion a la critica del nacionalismo
Cubano, Ediciones Universal, Miami, 1998, pp.135-66.
50) Ramiro Guerra, Sugar and Society in the Caribbean: an economic history
of Cuban agriculture, Editorial de Ciencias Sociales, Havana, 1970,
51) Arcadio Diaz Quinones, "The Intimate Enemy: cultura nacional y autoridad
en Ramiro Guerra y Sanchez e Antonio S. Pedreira" in Op.cit.
magazine, University of Puerto Rico, History Department, 1992, pp.32-45.
52) Gustavo Pittaluga, Cuba: destiny as choice, Mnemosyne Publishing,
Miami, 1969, pp.403-10.
53) Ibid. p.19.
54) Medardo Vitier, Valoraciones, Universidad Central de las Villas,
Las Villas Cuba, Departamento de Relaciones Culturales, 1960, pp.334-41.
55) Nicolas Guillen himself reflected such a stereotype in his poem "Puerto
Rican Song": "How are you, Puerto Rico, / you an associate member of society, /
At foot of coconut trees and guitars, / beneath the moon and beside the sea, /
what a fine honor to walk in step, / shoulder to shoulder with Uncle Sam!"
Nicolas Guillen, Poetic Work, University of Guadalajara, Mexico City,
1978, v.2 p.22.
56) Jorge Mañach, Theory of the Frontier, Editorial
Universitaria, University of Puerto Rico, 1970, pp.138-60.
57) Levi Marrero, Roots of the Cuban Miracle, Patrimonio Nacional
Cubano, Miami, 1995.

                    GALLERIES OF CUBAN WRITING

SELF-DEMARCATION, which delineates Cuban culture within the Latin American and
Caribbean space, is intimately related to the construction of the island's
national canon of literature. In a certain way, it deals with the articulation
of an identificatory meta-tale, whose will to power manifests itself, in
parallel, towards the outside and towards the inside of a supposed "Cuban
aesthetic." That selection and authorization of certain island texts, in the
midst of the Latin American and Caribbean textual vastness, achieves a critical
economy very similar to that that is constructed in the process of canonization
of the emblematic texts of literary Cuban-ness. The inward-facing canon and the
canon facing outwards, although they involve different works and authors,
pursue, however, a single objective: they establish the valuational hierarchy of
those literary documents that best express the nation. Ernst Junger commented
that if nationalism did not exist, the literature of each country would be
infinite and incomprehensible. The idea appears clearly in some essays by Homi
K. Bhabha: the nations come to be "narration narratives," that is, cease being
simply narrated objects, imagined communities, and transform into subjects who
invent their own genealogies through writing.(58)
     For the case of Cuban literature, the essayist Enrico Mario Santi suggests
in a recent text:

     Meditations upon the canon of national literatures do not abound,
     unfortunately, on our actual critical horizon. The absence of that type of
     discussion is due, in part, to the nature of the theme itself. The Western
     canon is discussed today with the intention of destabilizing the order of
     those hegemonic cultures whose interests are served by the exclusion of
     the marginal or dependent cultures. It seems clear, nevertheless, that
     that discussion should attain the reaches of the specific national
     literatures as well as those which comprise the set of Latin American
     literature... The criterion that seems to have prevailed in the
     construction of the Cuban canon has been the common perception of how the
     text contributes to forging national identity.(59)

     The first histories of Cuban literature, in the middle of the 19th
century, slip the idea of a spiritual genealogy of the nation into the colonial
discussion of the Hispanic identity. Antonio Bachiller y Morales, who was a
representative on the Havana council and secretary of the Economic Society of
Friends of the Country wrote, between 1859 and 1861, the first modern attempt
at a history of Cuban literature: Notes on the History of Letters and Public
Instruction on the Island of Cuba. In his words to the reader, Bachiller
indicated: "ingratitude is one of the greatest vices, and Cuba should be
grateful remembering the names of those who have received the benefits of
education to whom their actual state is due"(60).
     Among the catalog of virtues that define the native patrician of the 19th
century appear, centrally, gratitude and a good memory: the good patriot should
give thanks to the land that saw his birth, always remembering the names of her
founding fathers. It is like the strong sense of tribute and of honor that
Americo Castro has highlighted in the Iberian mentality. In Cuba, the gratitude
of the patrician toward the founding fathers is displayed, as the studious
Agnes I. Lugo-Ortiz observes, by means of biographical writing that stabilizes
the spiritual genealogy of the nation.(61) A text emblematic of this
genealogical discursiveness is the Gallery of Useful Men by Antonio
Bachiller y Morales. Here, following the model of biographical writing in
On Heroes by Thomas Carlyle and in Representative Men by Ralph Waldo
Emerson, the archetype morality of the national subject is defined
for the first time.
     Bachiller's gallery begins with a Spaniard, the illustrious governor Luis
de las Casas, and ends with a native, the philosopher and pedagogue Jose de la
Luz y Caballero. Covering the decisive period for the cultural formation of the
Cuban nation, between 1790 and 1868, Bachiller portrays the emblematic figures
of colonial modernity: Alejandro Ramirez, Juan Jose Diaz de Espada y Landa,
Francisco de Arango y Parreño, Felix Varela, Jose Maria Heredia. The
"useful man," that is, "a son of Cuba who deserves to occupy a place in the
sepulchre of the benefactors of the nation," is essentially a public
intellectual who distributes his functions between the administration and the
academy, between education and the government.(62) Thus, the lettered appear in
the gallery (Varela, Heredia, Luz) together with the statists (Las Casas,
Ramirez, Arango). This modern notion of the public intellectual as a "useful
man" gave the biographies an instrumental character--as if these exemplary
lives once narrated offer themselves to imitation--that favored the
foundational and pedagogical sense of the text.
     But more than anything, Bachiller's Gallery achieved a moral
portrait of the "useful man," where the territory of the founding subject
remained clearly delimited. It dealt with the Hispano-native subject, white,
Catholic, masculine, illustrious, rich, and virtuous, who headed the birth of a
new nation within the old elites of the colonial order. Thus Bachiller would
try, by any means, to depoliticize his biographies and not suggest danger and
subversion to those intellectuals. This neutralization is observed particularly
in the texts on Jose Maria Heredia and Jose de la Luz y Caballero. Bachiller
avoids Heredia's vehement Republican separatism and emphasizes his lyrical
work, where, in his judgment, "the love of country is eternalized for the first
time"(63). And regarding Luz, the depoliticization becomes transparent: "Luz y
Caballero--he says--was a sage, a useful man, a friend of progress; he was not
a man of politics, nor did he cherish revolutionary ideas: it is necessary to
do him justice and not disfigure the noble, pacific and patriotic figure that
will pass into posterity"(64).
     Such that, just as the "useful man" incarnated the national subject, the
text was characterized, above all, by its "patriotism," that is to say, by its
contribution to the spiritual genesis of nationality. The Notes as
well as Bachiller's Gallery proposed, then, a double canonization:
that of the person and that of the text of the intellectual. Nevertheless, it
was not until the Study of Cuba's Scientific and Literary Movement
(1890) by his disciple Aurelio Mitjans that the technology of national
canonization of the text multiplies exponentially. For Mitjans the
moral archetype of the "useful man" was now not as important as the
aesthetico-national dignity of the discourse. That is why in his
Study, lamentably unfinished, he does not detain himself on figures
like Varela, Arango, Luz, or Saco, and instead amply reports the works
of Gertrudis Gomez de Avellaneda, Joaquin Lorenzo Luaces and Enrique
Piñeyro.(65) Just like Bachiller, Mitjans demarcated his canonization as
between 1790 and 1868, thus fixing the limits of a mythical time of spiritual
foundation, of a Golden Age in which Cuban nationality was invented by its
     This topic of an "age of the gods" or of an "imaginary era"--to replace
Vico's notion with that of Lezama--that precedes the heroic time inaugurated by
the wars of independence and which contains the spiritual genesis of
nationality re-appears, after Bachiller and Mitjans, in all the literary
historiography of the island. Raimundo Cabrera in Cuba and its Judges
(1887), Jose Marti in his article on Bachiller and Morales (1889), Miguel de la
Cruz in his Cuban Chromite (1892), Fernando in his conference
The Decadence of Cuba (1923), Jorge Mañach in his essay
The Crisis of High Cuban Culture (1924), Ramiro Guerra in Sugar and
Society in the Caribbean (1929), Medardo Vitier in The Idea of
Cuba (1938)...all these and still others confirmed the mythic memory of
the first half of the 19th century as an era of national gestation of the
spirit. These words largely suffice by Rafael Montoro in the prologue to the
first edition of Mitjans' Study to illustrate the diffusion of that
topic in an "imaginary" colonial era:

     At no time, nor in any nation yet constituted, under such unfavorable
     circumstances and institutions, has there been a literature like the
     colonial on this island, that notwithstanding its natural subordination to
     foreign models, and in particular those of the metropolis, gave, to the
     applause of the educated world, in 30 or 40 years of true activity, names
     such as Heredia and la Avellaneda, hopes such as those of Orgaz, Mendive
     and Luaces; a figure as sublime, in his candid contemplation of eternal
     things, as don Jose de la Luz y Caballeros; a publicist as profound and
     wise as Saco; literati like Del Monte and Echeverria; and even in the
     inferior spheres of a society vitiated by slavery, plebeians like Placido
     and serfs like Manzano, in whose foreheads, humiliated by injustice, God
     placed the flash of inspiration that redeemed their souls from ignominy
     and opened for them, wide and splendorous, the doors of immortality.(66)

     Within this exalted discourse emerges an inventory of the central figures
of the native colonial canon. Montoro includes a woman, Gertrudis Gomez de
Avellaneda, and two black poets: Placido and Manzano. Nevertheless, despite the
canonical matrix continuing to be white, masculine and Catholic, these
inclusions signal a start at opening the canon. Unlike Montoro, Manuel de la
Cruz, in his Cuban Chromite, begins his gallery of 20 lettered
nationals with Montoro himself and ends it with Enrique Jose Varona, without
including women or black intellectuals.(67) Raimundo Cabrera, on the other
hand, constructs a wider canon of some 90 figures in Cuba and its
Judges, in which five women appear: Gertrudis Gomez de Avellaneda, Marta
Abreu, Luisa Perez de Zambrana, Aurelia Castillo de Gonzalez, and Susana
Benitez, and two black intellectuals: the newspaperman and politician Juan
Gualberto Gomez and the musician Jose White.(68) It is such that ever since
these first galleries of Cuban writing a tension is manifested between an
opening and a closing of the national canon.
     At the beginning of the 20th century, independence yielded a certain
retreat in the discussion of cultural identity. More than legitimation of
native culture as against the peninsular Spanish one, criticism and
historiography sought, then, the generic itemization of Cuban literature. The
imperative was no longer to demonstrate that Cuba possessed a literature, but
instead to describe what type of literature that was: what type of poems and
novels did the island's authors write. The essayistic work of Enrique
Piñeyro and Jose Maria Chacon y Calvo is, in this sense, the first serious
attempt to formalize a canon of Cuban poetry. Piñeyro dedicated
monographic studies to Jose Maria Heredia, Gertrudis Gomez de Avellaneda,
Gabriel de la Concepcion Valdes (Placido) and Juan Clemente Zenea who, in his
judgment, were the four cardinal poets of the 19th century. Chacon y Calvo
followed a similar path, while showing little interest in Placido and focusing
on Heredia as the center of the Cuban poetic canon, in his important book
Heredian Studies (1939).(69)
     The process of canonization of the novel was a little slower due to the
low density of this genre at the beginnings of the 20th century. There are some
approximations like that of Arturo S. Carricarte in his article "The Cuban
Novel" (1907) and that of Arturo Salazar y Roig in his collection The Cuban
Novel: its manifestation, ideals and possibilities (1934). But the true
legitimation of the novel in critical discussion does not begin until the
Forties and Fifties, when Jose Antonio Fernandez de Castro, Juan J. Remos y
Rubio, Salvador Bueno, Raimundo Lazo, and Max Henriquez Ureña begin to
write their general histories of Cuban literature. Already in these works the
central corpus of the canonical Cuban narrative appears perfectly
defined: Villaverde, Carrion, Rodriguez, Labrador, Cardoso, Carpentier... The
Anthology of the Cuban Novel by Lorenzo Garcia Vega, published in
1960, could be seen as a confirmation of this canon of the island narrative
and, at the same time, as a protest against its narrowness, since the inclusion
of Jose Lezama Lima and Dulce Maria Loynaz, two authors then little known as
novelists, supposes a will to open the canon.(70)
     Thus by the middle of the Sixties, when Raimundo Lazo writes his
History of Hispano-american Literature, the literary canonization
of the Colony and the Republic has been consummated. The critics mention four
or five texts of historiography of Cuban letters, which order the place of a
writing in accord with a criterion of aesthetic and moral authority. Yet this
does not prevent that, at the margin of this historiography, the generic
canons continue taking shape, seeking the correction, opening or
actualization of the preceding canon. Cintio Vitier, who had published his
anthologies Ten Cuban Poets (1948) and 50 Years of Cuban Poetry
(1952) writes The Cuban in Poetry (1958), a work that in
a few years will become the most important rewriting of the Cuban
poetic canon after Jose Maria Chacon y Calvo. Jose Lezama Lima, very much in
tune with Vitier's thesis, itemizes that critical canon in his Anthology of
Cuban Poetry (1965). The book of essays In White and Black and the
Anthology of Contemporary Cuban Stories, by Ambrosio Fornet, both from
1967, propose the first selection and aesthetic authorization of the short
story in Cuba. More advances, regarding the theatre, are made by Rene Leal in
The Dark Forest (1975) and, more recently, Rogelio Rodriguez Coronel
in The Cuban Revolutionary Novel (1986) which presents the narrative,
colonial and Republican canon of literary historiography.(71)
     At one century since Antonio Bachiller y Morales would write his
Notes, Cuban criticism has achieved, then, a considerable
canonization of its national letters. The purest form of this new meta-
narrative of identity is found in the histories of the literature that begin to
emerge in the Forties and Fifties of the 20th century. In the books of
Fernandez de Castro, Remos, Bueno, Henriquez Ureña, and Lazo there is
established, as we said, an aesthetic authorization of the text in accordance
with the density that the national narrative attains within it. Remos, for
example, defined the object of this historiographic discourse in the prologue
to The Historic Process in Cuban Letters:

     Throughout these pages we recognize the process of letters in Cuba, from
     their first stirrings to what indeed should be called "Cuban letters," for
     although the notorious Spanish influences cannot be denied, they now show
     the presence of a spirit of Cuban-ness, which is the product of a
     collective consciousness that has evolved, and that utilizing characters
     all its own which diverge from the merely Spanish, it first seeks liberty
     and then the plenitude of sovereign life, in accord with its sense of
     political, social and economic organization.(72)

     As opposed to Remos, who inscribes the national personalization of Cuban
literature within a "Spanish" aesthetic, Lazo insists on localizing the "Cuban"
in the context of Hispano-american letters:

     As occurs with respect to the particular literature of the other Hispano-
     american peoples--undoubtedly at very different grades of development--a
     literature exists with a differentiated personality, not only by reason of
     the language in which it is expressed but also, decisively, for its
     content, for the peculiarity of the people and circumstances manifested in
     it, which are the causes that determine the existence of its own,
     autonomous literary movement, with the characters of a specific historical
     entity. And the personal reality of Cuba, of the Cuban and of its organic
     literary expression, are evidence that is manifested and defines by its
     presence, like an experience inseparable from the historian and even from
     the mere observer, the everyday events of Hispano-america.(73)

     Although here the topography where Cuban literature is inserted is
clearly different, both authors achieve a very similar outward
delineation. It is possible to speak of a "Cuban literature," within what Paul
Ricoeur calls "other text worlds" precisely because Cuba presents a
considerable "national narrative." Lazo and Remo coincide in that for over two
centuries the Cuban writers have primordially narrated their country, their
being, their national identity. Even when a novel or a poem are not situated in
the island's cultural space or do not reflect upon Cuban themes, Cuban-ness is
imparted by means of the language, the style or something more mysterious,
which could be the "spirit," the "tone" or the "atmosphere." The best proof
that in this Cuban historiography a "narration narrative" exists is the
mechanism by which the national identity achieves a super-powerful written
capacity. The Cuban is converted, thus, into a reifying rationality that can be
seen in the text even against the will of the writer.
     More clearly than in Remos or Lazo, the constitution of the national
identity is that that Homi K. Bhabha has called a "narration narrative," and
appears in Max Henriquez Ureña's Historic Panorama of Cuban Literature:

     So it is that Cuban literature, for the most part, is dedicated to
     awakening the Cuban conscience, thanks to the study of the Cuban problem,
     carried out by thinkers and sociologists, thanks to the lyrical expression
     of patriotic sentiment, or what its poets did... What do the poets and the
     folklorists do, in turn, except to look inward, at the essence itself of
     Cuban feeling? To what else but the task of seeking the Cuban essence is
     due the diffusion attained, not only by patriotic poetry, but also by
     native poetry which takes inspiration from the popular spirit, or
     indigenous poetry, or the rich and varied literature of custom, which
     travels from the descriptive article or the graphic and picturesque
     painting to the amusing sketch of the local environment, or the novel
     that brings an entire epoch to life? ...Cuba's literary history
     represents, in its general lines, the constantly renewed effort at
     assuring that the Cuban people attain a clear consciousness of their
     historic destiny.(74)

     This teleology of the national subject has marked Cuban culture since the
19th century. The powerful inscription of its aesthetic authority in the canon
has been very difficult to resist. Nevertheless, rebellions against and flights
from these galleries of white, Catholic and native literati have not
been lacking. In this sense, one of the first resistances to the Cuban national
canon is the counter-canon proposed by Domitila Garcia Coronado in her
Biographical and Photographic Album of Cuban Poetesses and Writers,
dedicated to Gertrudis Gomez de Avellaneda.(75) With her more than 20
portraits, Ms. Garcia Coronado discerned the possibility of another gallery,
this time of feminine writing, yet which did not attempt to ignore the ethnic
and religious canonization of nationality, but instead to reformulate it from
a Romantic gender perspective. Like Bachiller, Cabrera or De la Cruz, the
Peregrina, Merlin's countess and other native writing of the 19th
century also sought aesthetic authorization for the tale of the nation; it is
just that their listings integrated those women who "sang of the nation" with
the best "white and Catholic" voices.(76)

58) Homi K. Bhabha, Nation and Narration, New York, Routledge, 1994,
pp.1-7 and pp.291-322. See also Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities:
reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism, FCE, Mexico City,
1993, pp.283-86.
59) Enrico Mario Santi, Por una Poliliteratura: literature hispanoamericana
e imaginacion politica, UNAM/ Ediciones Equilibrista, Mexico City, 1996,
60) Antonio Bachiller y Morales, Apuntes para la historia de las letras y
de la instruccion publica en la isla de Cuba, Cuban Academy of Sciences,
Havana, 1965, v.1 p.35.
61) Agnes I. Lugo-Ortiz, Imagined Identity: biography and nationality on
the horizon of Cuba war, 1860-1898, Editorial Universidad de Puerto Rico,
Rio Piedras, 1999, pp.3-30.
62) Antonio Bachiller y Morales, Gallery of Useful Men, Instituto
Nacional de Cultura, Havana, 1955, p.67.
63) Ibid. pp.183-93.
64) Ibid. p.257.
65) Aurelio Mitjans, Estudio sobre el movimiento cientifico y literario de
Cuba, Consejo Nacional de Cultura, Havana, 1963, p.56.
66) Juan J. Remos y Rubio, History of Cuban Literature, Mnemosyne
Publishing, Miami, 1969, pp.1-11.
67) Manuel de la Cruz, Cromitos Cubanos, Editorial Saturnino Calleja,
Madrid, 1926, p.354.
68) Raimundo Cabrera, Cuba and its Judges, Editorial Cubana, Miami,
1994, pp.289-362.Apuntes
69) Cintio Vitier, Critica Cubana, Editorial Letras Cubanas, Havana,
1988, pp.181-209.
70) Lorenzo Garcia Vega, Anthology of the Cuban Novel, Direccion
General de Cultura, Havana, 1960.
71) For a presentation of the debate over the narrative canon of the
Revolutionary culture see Alejandro Pereira, Novela de la Revolucion
Cubana, UNAM, Mexico City, 1995, pp.11-22.
72) Juan J. Remos, Proceso Historico de las Letras Cubanas, Ediciones
Guadarrama, Madrid, 1958, p.20.
73) Raimundo Lazo, Historia de la Literatura Cubana, Direccion General
de Publications, Mexico City, 1974, p.16.
74) Max Henriquez Urena, Panorama Historico de la Literatura Cubana,
Ediciones Mirador, Puerto Rico, 1963, v.1 pp.9-11.
75) Domitila Garcia Coronado, Album Biografico y Fotografico de Poetisas y
Escritoras Cubanas, Imprenta El Figaro, Havana, 1926.
76) Adriana Mendez Rodenas, Gender and Nationalism in Colonial Cuba: the
travels of Santa Cruz y Montalvo, Condesa de Merlin, Vanderbilt University
Press, Nashville, 1998, pp.69-103. See also Florinda Alzaga, La Avellaneda:
intensidad y vanguardia, Ediciones Universal, Miami, 1997, p.103.


GEORGE YUDICE AND JOHN GUILLORY, who have criticized the idea of the Western
canon from the multiculturalist left, agree with Harold Bloom himself that all
literary canonization, even if applied to a culture of the Third World,
requires the establishment of a center.(77) The formation of the literary canon
responds, then, to a literary centrifuge, similar to the solar system. First
the center of aesthetic gravitation is located--the "most brilliant star", as
Reinaldo Arenas would say--and later the stars that revolve nearby. Bloom, for
example, has not the slightest doubt that William Shakespeare occupies the
center of the Western canon. In the same fashion, for the historians of Cuban
literature since the middle of the 20th century, Jose Marti represents the
writing of most centrality. It is true that was not always so--Chacon y
Calvo thought that the center of the poetic canon should be occupied by
Heredia--and that never lacking have been those whom, like Virgilio
Piñera, hold to the idea that the great Cuban poet of the 19th century was
not Marti but Casal. Yet it is indubitable that since the Forties criticism and
historiography tend to place Marti in the center of the island's literary
     This aesthetic coronation offers some difficulties and, in a certain
sense, affects the process of literary canonization as a whole. Marti not only
was a fiction writer but also, as Piñera warns, was the author of a
terrible novel and the victim of acute prejudice against narrative.(79) This
provokes a certain crisis of legitimacy or, if one likes, a lack of
representation concerning his figure. Shakespeare, as Bloom indicates, is the
center of the Western canon because the entire Western aesthetic is seen
reflected in his writing and, also, because there is no literary genre totally
foreign to him. In the case of Marti the second premise is not fulfilled.
Nevertheless, this lack is compensated by another sort of fiction that is what
determines, in the final account, the "narration narrative" of the national
identity. Marti, as opposed to Cirilo Villaverde or Miguel de Carrion, did not
write a "romance on the birth of the Cuban nation," but his "foundational
fiction," as Doris Sommer would say, expressed by means of poetry, journalism,
oratory, and the essay, came to be more powerful than that of those two
novelists.(80) Put into a few words: Marti invents the island's national
identity through his writing and therefore occupies the center of the literary
     It is curious how after the Forties any attempt to open up the Cuban canon
has felt obliged to confirm the centrality of Marti. In this sense, the most
illustrative case perhaps may be the poets of Origenes. As we know,
Cintio Vitier, Jose Lezama Lima and, in lesser degree Gaston Baquero and
Virgilio Piñera, did not hide their desire to rewrite the history of Cuban
poetry. In them, the will to open the canon was manifested by means of a blend
of curiosity and archivalism that led them to uncover certain writers like
Tristan de Jesus Medina, or to restore others like Juan Clemente Zenea. Yet, at
the same time, Lezama imagined Marti as the Prime Monarch of the island
culture, and Vitier carried this image to an extreme, typically Thomist, in his
irate reactions against any treatment of the figures of Casal and Varona that
did not acknowledge the supremacy of Marti over them.(82)
     The authoritarianism implicit in this canonization of Marti responds to
the fact that the history of Cuban literature is always subordinate to a
political theology. According to the Republican and revolutionary
historiography, in their works the Cuban writers reflect the path of a people
to their goal, the journey of a nation towards its destiny. That telos
changes names, according to the ideology of the historian or the critic.
Sometimes it is called "independence" or "republic," at others is called
"revolution" or "socialism" and some--the fewest--call it "democracy." But at
root that teleology, as in the Greek tragedies, comes to confirm the identity
of a homogeneous protagonist, rigidly defined according to morality, ideology,
sex, race, politics, religion, and gender. I refer, of course, to the national
     One way of observing the practices of power that that subject exercises
would be the interpretation of the authority mechanisms which formalize the
national canon of literature. Among those mechanisms, which go from frank
exclusion to the elegant devaluation of certain works and authors, perhaps the
most common being what we shall call the denationalization of the
text. Adriana Mendez Rodenas has referred to this in connection with
Cintio Vitier's judgment that "the scenery and the tone" of Gertrudis Gomez de
Avellaneda's poetry are "Spanish" and not "Cuban"(83). A similar predisposition
towards the work of Dulce Maria Loynaz--although less pronounced--appears in
the histories of Jose Antonio Fernandez de Castro, Salvador Bueno and Max
Henriquez Ureña. In this case, more than an aesthetic appreciation like
that of Vitier--who in The Cuban in Poetry only dedicates one footnote
to it--an editorial criterion of a geographic character predominates.(84)
As is known, until the Fifties Ms. Loynaz had published her principal books
(Water Games, Garden, Unnamed Poems, Last Days of a House) in Madrid.
Thus those historians rarely refer to some of her poems, such as those
included in Verses, her first opus edited by Ucar y Garcia in Havana.
     It is probable that behind those mechanisms of the aesthetic canon there
operates a will to silence and to "neutralize" the feminine voice behind a meta-
narrative of national identity.(85) This is suggested by the fact that literary
criticism, including literary feminist criticism, may have evaded or frankly
ignored the most radical part, in matters of gender, of the writing practiced
by Cuban women during the Republic. I refer to some authors of the Twenties and
Thirties, nervously consigned to the vanguard, like Ofelia Rodriguez Acosta,
Lesbia Soravilla, Serafina Nuñez, Berta Arocena, Julieta Carreta, and Tete
Casuso; all founders of the Feminine Club of Cuba and of the National Women's
Union: two civic institutions whose stories are unknown in existing Cuban
culture. The height of this politics of forgetfulness is that some of them and
others, like Mercedes Garcia Tuduri, Herminia del Portal, Josefina de Cepeda
and Julia Rodrigez Tomeu, do not even appear in the Dictionary of Cuban
Literature, edited by the Cuban Academy of Sciences in 1984.
     Even so, the neutralization or silencing of the feminine voice rarely is
directly formulated, that is, enunciated in terms of gender. Remos, who may
have been the historian with most generosity towards this literature, noted
that "the great sensation" caused in 1929 by the novel Life Commands
by Ofelia Rodriguez Acosta, more than being "interesting for its feminist
theme," the "strength of her style" or the "animated naturalistic
descriptions," "was due to the circumstance that the author of the work was a
young lady and furthermore single"(86). Here, the identity of the subject who
produces the writing floats to the top of the literary canonization. Yet this
transparency is truly exceptional. The most common is for the critical or
historiographic discourse to revert to mechanisms of power that hide the
subject's identity beneath primarily aesthetic or stylistic assertions.
     In relation to feminine writing, one of the most recurrent legitimation
mechanisms in the national canon is that we call generic excellence.
It is noteworthy how almost all historians of Cuban literature resist
considering Gertrudis Gomez de Avellaneda or Dulce Maria Loynaz--to continue
with those two cases--as novelists. Referring to Two Women: Espatolino and
Dolores, Lazo writes: "the novel and other forms of narration in prose
were not...particularly appropriate for manifesting the literary talent of
Avellaneda"(87). And regarding Garden by Ms. Loynaz, that same author
insists on considering it not as a novel, but as a prose poem, given the strong
presence of "fantasy and lyricism" in the text.(88) We see here a posited
equivalence between two powers: that of the literary narrative genre and that
of the masculine sexual gender. This symmetrical principle contaminates
literary history and generates a marked tendency toward national canonization
of a type of narrative and, sometimes, of a type of prose.
     Any generic canonization demonstrates intolerance before those vanguard
writings that transgress the stylistic borders of poetry or of prose. The case
of Garden, the lyrical novel of Dulce Maria Loynaz, which traditional
criticism has seen as crossing or residual to both literary genres, is
emblematic of that dislocation.(89) Just as Lazo expels her from the narrative
canon, Vitier subtly marginalizes her from the poetic canon, with a note in
which he alludes to the "suggestion of an isolated and self-absorbed
relation to the Cuban and the essential femininity that is the secret" of Dulce
Maria.(90) Vitier does not fully explain this segregation yet, judging from the
other note that he dedicates to Ms. Loynaz in his anthology 50 Years of
Cuban Poetry, this is because, in his understanding, the poetic plenitude
of the authoress of Water Games is found in Garden, which is not
a notebook of poetry but a novel.(91)
     Now then, the mechanism of generic excellence not only applies to
marginal or suppressed subjects. Every modern canon, as Harold Bloom indicates,
imposes a holistic regime of literary specialization. Casal, Guillen y Lezama,
for example, are established as canonical poets; Villaverde, Carpentier and
Sarduy, as novelists, and Mañach, Lamar Schweyer and Rodriguez Embil, as
essayists. This rigid compartmentalization generates resistances from the texts
against the national canon: how then to treat Casal's Prose, Guillen's
Memories or Paradiso by Lezama? Beneath what generic identity
to read the essays of Villaverde, Carpentier's Chronicles or Sarduy's
poems? Where in the canon to assimilate the strangeness of a narrative written
by essayists, like that of the novels Belen the Aschanti by Mañach,
Lamar's The Rock of Patmos or the short stories of Rodriguez Embil
in The Vital Lie?
     I do not deny, then, that the national canonization of certain literature
exercises violent force against non-hegemonic subjects. We only wish to
emphasize that those mechanisms by which literary authority is inscribed in the
canon function with an autonomous sphere, which is governed by aesthetic,
ideological or moral standards. Cintio Vitier, for instance, to qualify
Virgilio Piñera's poetics as "not Cuban," uses an expression that we heard
before in connection with Ms. Avellaneda. Commenting upon The Island by
Weight, he says: "the influence of visions that in no way and no sense can
derive from us is obvious in the tone and the thesis of this poem"(92). It is
not improbable that behind this judgment there may be a veiled disapproval of
Piñera's homosexuality, but its insertion in the critical text could only
be validated through ethical or aesthetic allegories of the nation. The
annulment of the other voice seems clearer to me, however, in Jose
Antonio Fernandez de Castro's book The Black Theme in Cuban Letters, where
the ethnic identity of the subject is radically supplanted by the
thematic identity of the text--which is only the condition making any
national canon possible--or in so many unfavorable critiques of Gabriel de la
Concepcion Valdes (Placido) and Jose Manuel Poveda for being mulatto poets who
resist, stylistically, the ontology of mixed race.
     In Poveda's case this vulnerability to criticism is accentuated by his
homosexuality. Here, it is remarkable how the historiography of Cuban
literature tries to simultaneously neutralize the black and gay identities of
the subject. It is the same way in which Federico de Ibarzabal writes The
Negro Problem to make what is a bodily attribute of some writing into an
ideological theme, or Alfonso Hernandez Cata writes The Angel of Sodom
and Carlos Montenegro Men Without Women, two novels in which the
texts, far from embodying homosexuality, attempt to depict it. Nevertheless,
this external representation of the gay identity does not protect said novels
either from the forms of exclusion that the canon mobilizes.(93) It is not
strange, then, that Hernandez Cata and Montenegro should be two of the
narrators least recognized by the Cuban literary criticism of the 20th
     Finally, I wish to focus on two other mechanisms of literary
authorization. In his essay The Language of Virgil, Antonio Jose Ponte
speaks of a certain tendency of the critics to always see the works of Lezama
and Piñera as a counterpoint, as if these writings were, in the words of
Cabrera Infante, two "lives to be read"(95). It deals, in effect, with a mania
of critical and historiographic discourse that we shall call stylistic
parallel. In particular, the history of Cuban poetry is clearly presented
as a parade of pairs or comparison of two lines: Zequeira and Rubalcava,
Placido and Manzano, Casal and Marti, Boti and Poveda, Ballagas and Florit,
Lezama and Piñera... This binary structure, which is at the root of Cuban
authoritarianism, breaks down into two galleries that conform, in turn, to the
national canon and counter-canon of the literature. Those who prefer a gallery
comprised of Zequeira, Manzano, Marti, Boti, Ballagas, and Lezama, cling to a
hard central notion of Cuban-ness, where the constructs of the "indigenous,"
the "personal," the "sincere," the "earthy" predominate. On the other hand,
those who incline towards the other gallery (Rubalcava, Placido, Casal, Poveda,
Florit, Piñera) admit a certain "Cubanization" of "lightness," of
"nihilism," of "artificiality," of "rarity." It is worth noticing that in the
criticism and the history of Cuban literature the first selections weigh the
most. The judgments of Del Monte concerning the "false" and the "mimetic" in
Placido reappear in the valuation of Mitjans de Rubalcava or in that of Lazo
with regard to Poveda. The stylistic parallels are not, then, simply
counterpoints, but dichotomies, like that of Ballagas vs. Florit which Bueno's
History proposes, or antitheses, like that of Marti vs. Casal which
appears in The Cuban in Poetry.
     Thus a "narration narrative," like that that conceives the national canon
of Cuban literature, can tolerate the aesthetization of those authors who Ruben
Dario called "idiosyncratic"(96). In a certain sense, Rubalcava, Casal, Poveda,
and Piñera incarnate, among ourselves, that "rarity." Yet what indeed
becomes definitely intolerable for the national canon is that text which
Emmanuel Levinas would call "exterior," that is, a narration of the foreign
from the local or those representations of other imaginings and other subjects
from the cultural territory of the island. Somehow, the "exterior" will come as
another turn of the screw of the "rare," the "imitative" or the "exotic." For
example, two radical French influences, like the Rousseau Cantatas by
Ignacio Valdes Machuca or the Baudelaire Precursor Verses by Jose
Manuel Poveda would be halfway between the "exotic" and the "exterior."
Similarly, the extreme imitation of Pedroso y Arriaga in The Mysteries of
Havana, imitative of the celebrated work by Eugene Sue, approach, by
means of mimesis, a narrative of exteriority. The poor criticism that these
works have always merited do nothing but confirm their expulsion from the
     Cuban literature, then, is full of those exterior texts. We shall mention
only a few: The Boatman Artist by Ms. Avellaneda, a novel inspired by
the life of the French painter Hubert Robert; The Hermit of Niagara
by Ramon de Palma, perhaps the best of his novelettes, but whose plot
is located in London, where English characters confront English problems;
Mozart Rehearsing his Requiem by Tristan de Jesus Medina, whose title
transports us to a remote dialogue with Pushkin; the book of essays The
Shadow of Heraclitus by Fernando Lles and Hercules in Lolcos by
Emilio Gaspar Rodriguez; the Austro-Hungarian chronicles, framed in the first
World War, of Luis Rodriguez Embil in The Mute Empire; those of Dulce
Maria Loynaz about Canarian life in A Summer in Tenerife; Season of
Angels by Lisandro Otero, an historical novel about Oliver Cromwell
and the "Glorious Revolution" of 1648; and more recently, Encyclopedia of
a Life in Russia and Livadia by Jose Manuel Prieto, two novels set in
Russian scenes that owe more to the great European tradition of Proust,
Mann and Nabokov than to the Cuban school of Carpentier, Lezama or Cabrera
Infante. The invisibility of those texts in the history and criticism
of Cuban literature speaks of another powerful mechanism of power within the
national canon: that of the negation of exteriority.
     The desire to construct a counter-canon of Cuban literature starting from
those exterior texts, or starting from that archaeological subsoil that constitutes
the feminine, gay, black, dissident, or minority literatures, is tempting.
That is the road that seemed to allow some interesting studies published in
recent years, like The Pin and the Butterfly: gender, voice and writing in
Cuba and the Caribbean (1997) by Nara Araujo, The Curse: a history of
pleasure as conquest (1998) by Victor Fowler and Gender and Nationalism
in Colonial Cuba (1998) by Adriana Mendez Rodenas. But the trap in the counter-
canon lies, precisely, in its tendency towards redefinition of
the "national" through undervalued, marginal, forgotten, or rebel
discourses. Today, the true challenge for the criticism and the history of
Cuban literature would be to transcend canonical rationality by means of
abandoning that "narration narrative" which imposes the national identity. This
cannot even be glimpsed in our time, when the critics seem more interested in
the revenge of discarded identities than in a radical exercise of discernment.
Even so, foreseeable in the coming years is the articulation of a discussion of
exteriority that shall profile the new subjects and the new practices of a
post-national culture.

77) George Yudice, "We Are Not the World", Social Text, Duke
University, 1992, v.10 nos.2-3 pp.202-15; John Guillory, Cultural Capital:
the problem of literary canon formation, University of Chicago Press,
Chicago, 1993, pp.vii-xiv.
78) Ottmar Ette, Jose Marti - Apostol, Poeta, Revolucionario: una historia
de su recepcion, UNAM, Mexico City, 1995, pp.49-62.
79) Virgilio Piñera, Poesia y Critica, Editorial Conaculta,
Mexico City, 1994, pp.235-41.
80) Doris Sommer, Foundational Fiction: the national romances of Latin
America, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1991, pp.6-7.
81) Rafael Rojas, "Jose Marti o la invencion de Cuba" in Uva de Aragon (ed.)
Repensando a Marti, Cuban Research Institute FIU, Miami, 1998,
82) Cintio Vitier, Critica Cubana, Editorial Letras Cubanas,
Havana,1988, pp.236-37.
83) Adriana Mendez Rodenas, Gender and Nationalism in Colonial Cuba,
Vanderbilt University Press, Nashville, 1998, pp.226-27; Cintio Vitier, Lo
Cubano en la Poesia, Instituto del Libro, Havana, 1970, pp.127-30.
84) See the excellent essay that provides the title to the book by Nara Araujo:
El Alfiler y la Mariposa: genero, voz y escritura en Cuba y el Caribe,
Letras Cubanas, Havana, 1997, pp.112-15.
85) Catherine Davies, A Place in the Sun? Women writers in 20th century
Cuba, Zed Books, New York, 1997, pp.3-5.
86) Juan J. Remos y Rubio, Historia de la Literatura Cubana, Mnemosyne
Publishing, Miami, 1969, v.3 p.309.
87) Raimundo Lazo, op.cit. p.89.
88) Ibid. p.224.
89) Catherine Davies, op.cit. pp.68-82.
90) Cintio Vitier, Lo Cubano en la Poesia, Institute del Libro,
Havana, 1970, p.378.
91) Cintio Vitier, Cincuenta Años de la Poesia Cubana, Direccion
de Cultura del Ministerio de Educacion, Havana, 1952, p.157.
92) Cintio Vitier, op.cit. p.481.
93) The young Cuban essayist Victor Fowler has studied these two novels in his
book La Maldicion: una historia del placer como conquista, Letras
Cubanas, Havana, 1998, pp.50-72.
94) See the excellent monograph by Uva de Aragon, Alfonso Hernandez Cata:
un escritor Cubano, Salmantino y universal, Universidad Pontifica de
Salamanca, 1996, pp.27-31 and 71-73.
95) Antonio Jose Ponte, La Lengua de Virgilio, Ediciones Vigia,
Matanzas Cuba, 1993, pp.19-24.
96) Proof of the disconnection of the canons is that the idiosyncratic author
that Dario includes in his celebrated gallery is Jose Marti, an author
completely normalized within the island's criticism. In the Cuban national
canon, Julian del Casal, whose poetry became so familiar to Dario, is truly
"rare." Ruben Dario, Los Raros, Espasa Calpe, Buenos Aires, 1952,
pp.193-203. See also the essay "Casal Disputado y Nota al Pie", in Victor
Fowler, Rupturas y Homenajes, Ediciones Union, Havana, 1998, pp.57-89.

                    THE WHIMS OF THE CANON

THE FACT THAT HAROLD BLOOM includes six Cuban authors in his work The
Western Canon: the books and school of the ages only reflects the
substantiality that the island's literature achieved at the middle of the 20th
century and, more specifically, between the Thirties and the Sixties. Bloom
divides his study into four ages: the theocratic, which embraces
Antiquity and the Middle Ages; the aristocratic, from the Renaissance
to the Enlightenment; the democratic, which covers the entire 19th
century; and the chaotic, which goes from William Butler Yeats to
Seamus Heaney, from Marcel Proust to Marguerite Duras, from Ruben Dario to
Octavio Paz. In this latter, in addition to Dario and Paz, another 16 Latin
American writers appear, of whom, as we said, six are Cubans: Alejo Carpentier,
Nicolas Guillen, Jose Lezama Lima, Guillermo Cabrera Infante, Severo Sarduy,
and Reinaldo Arenas. The other great national literatures of Latin America
possess, at most, two writers in Bloom's canon: Octavio Paz and Carlos Fuentes
for Mexico, Pablo Neruda and Jose Donoso for Chile, Cesar Vallejo and Mario
Vargas Llosa for Peru, Jorge Luis Borges and Julio Cortazar for Argentina.
     An actual literary canon, as Bloom recognizes, can no longer be that
compendium of aesthetic values practiced in modernity since the times of
Baumgarten and Kant. More than the "invisible hand" or the shrewdness of
critical judgment, it is a solid presence in the market and the academy that
makes certain books and authors canonical. But not just any academy or market
can set itself up as the Western aesthetic authority. The Western
Canon, though it may be a personal creation of Harold Bloom, records the
most pondered works among academic circles in the United States. The European,
African, Asiatic, and Latin American writers that appear there are those who
have been canonized by the literary criticism of Harvard, Yale or
Princeton: those most studied, those most recommended to their pupils and,
above all, those who cite the North American professors the most.
     This explains some absences, like that of the Mexicans Alfonso Reyes and
Juan Rulfo or that of the Argentinians Leopoldo Lugones and Adolfo Bioy
Casares. Bloom's canon only contemplates the membership authorized in Latin
American literature by a community of critics. It little matters that Rulfo be
an essential narrator of modern Mexico or that the writings of Lugones or
Macedonio Fernandez be those which best represent Argentine history in the 20th
century, that is, in the chaotic age. Those authors and classic works,
according to Bloom, are not those that comprise the abstract and paradoxical
"national narrative of the continent." Latin America intervenes in the canon,
beside Catalonia, Poland and Scandinavia, as a culturally homogeneous region,
as one more territory of Western literature. Once, Guillermo Cabrera Infante
inveighed against the "European narcissism" of considering the so-called
narrative of the "boom" as a textual effluvium of a single space, a single
language and a single subject: "Latin American literature does not exist. What
exists are some writers of America who seem to write in the same idiom, at
times"(97). The other continent whose national writings are not itemized in
Bloom's canon is Africa.
     Understanding Latin America as a single literature, even more surprising
is that "Cuban majority": not less than 33 percent of the canonical
writing that the region contributed to Western letters during the 20th century
came from the island. Such a preference, which could exalt our poetic ego up to
a paroxysm, has its explanation. One of Bloom's closest colleagues is Cuban:
the Yale scholar Roberto Gonzalez Echevarria. To him we owe, in addition to
indispensable works on Alejo Carpentier, Nicolas Guillen and Severo Sarduy, the
important studies The Voice of the Masters: writing and authority in modern
Latin American literature (1987), Island in Fugitive Flight: critical
essays on Hispano-american literature (1983) and Myth and Archive: a
theory of Latin American narrative (1990). The catalog of Latin American
authors and works that Harold Bloom includes in the Western canon reproduce
several general valuations from those three books. Together with Neruda
and Borges figures Carpentier, of whom Gonzalez Echevarria is an exhaustive
student, thus constituting the foundational triad of contemporary
Hispano-american writing.(98) They are the Latin American writers who merit
the most books in the Western canon: there are five titles by Neruda, five
by Borges and four by Carpentier.
     The unitary perception of Latin American culture as a voice, subject or
"writing person" is revealed in this hierarchy. Neither Neruda nor Borges nor
Carpentier "narrate, centrally, their nations" in the sense that Homi K. Bhabha
would give to this phrase. They narrate the post-colonial Latin American world
more as if they dealt with a great nation. Thus the resistance that they exert
on the Western canon, that is, upon the literary canonization of the Latin
American identity, self-absorbed or immaterial, resolved in a minimal or
fugitive space, set either within a country or totally outside of it. Macedonio
Fernandez, Ernesto Sabato, Adolfo Bioy Casares, Virgilio Piñera, Lino
Novas Calvo, Enrique Labrador Ruiz, Arturo Uslar Pietri, Luis Cardozo y Aragon,
Juan Rulfo, and Juan Jose Arreola would be some examples. Therefore it is not
exactly the works nearest to national narrative by Carpentier (Ecue-Yamba-
O! Manhunt, The Consecration of Spring) and by Borges (Fervor of
Buenos Aires, The Size of My Hope, The Argentine Language, Evaristo Carriego)
that count in Harold Bloom's canon, but instead those that serve as emblems of
a virtual "Latin American writing."
     In the case of the others canonized from Cuba a similar logic is followed,
which we could call "denationalization." The catalog lists, for Nicolas
Guillen, an anthology of poems and not his fundamental books: Motives for
Being, Songoro Cosongo, The Entire Being, in which he crystallizes a sonorous--
and resounding--poetry of the island. From Severo Sarduy there do not appear
Where the Singers Are From or Cobra, but Maitreya, which is
one of his texts where he most departs from "narrative metaphor of the
Cuban" to involve himself in a baroque review of Buddhism. Among all the novels
and stories of Reinaldo Arenas, the canon includes The Illusionary World:
a fictional autobiography of brother Servando Teresa de Mier that refers
to the intellectual epic of Mexican independence. Any other novel
by Arenas, Starlit Before Daybreak, The Palace of the White Skunks,
Once Again the Sea, The Color of Summer, Graveyard of the Angels, or
even The Doorman, would have introduced a "centrally Cuban" narrative
into the Western canon. Yet this eagerness to displace the center of the
island's, of the nation's, writings to the subcontinent, collides with two
authors difficult to decentralize: Jose Lezama Lima and Guillermo Cabrera
Infante. Paradiso, the crown of Lezama's entire poetic and essayistic
work, Three Trapped Tigers and View of Dawn in the Tropics
are the only books which, in Bloom's catalog, properly canonize a
literature by Cubans about Cuba.
     Guillen, Lezama, Sarduy, Cabrera Infante, and Arenas are writers who
rarely abandon the Cuban symbolic matrix. Guillen is a poet who understood his
writing as a replica of the cultural integration of the island. Already in
1930, Alberto Lamar Schweyer noted that, for his definitive expression of mixed
ancestry, Guillen was not a Cuban poet, but "the poet of Cuba." Lezama,
however, through his idea of "oblique experience," could link the most distant
spaces and times. The American Expression is the testimony of his
passage through the baroque identity discussion in Latin American. Yet Latin
American culture was not for him a more important reference than Egypt, China
or medieval Europe. His writings moved from his texts to those of others, in
Cuba or anywhere; to later return to the origin of all his output. This
dialectical or circular notion of the culture was considered in a sentence from
his Talk with Juan Ramon Jimenez: "a distinct element in the cosmos,
or what is the same thing, an indistinct element in the cosmos." Cuba within
the world--and Cuba not within Latin America--was, according to Lezama, the
cultural localization of the island.(99)
     Severo Sarduy presented his novels as "epilogues" to the "monumental
Lezama" or as an "inscription of his passage through the Lezama era." A
singular version of that which Bloom calls "the anxiety of influence." Much
comment has been made on this desire to remain "inserted" in another's
writing.(100) Sarduy thought that the nation should never be narrated
"frontally," but instead through a "transmogrification of marginal discourse,"
which was nothing else but the "oblique experience" of the image proposed by
Lezama. Just that his work was further from an allegorical narrative of Cuban
culture. For him the articulation of the text did not derive from the poetic
metaphor of a body, but from its possible reincarnations. The obsession with
travel, transvestism, celebrities, vaudeville, sequins, tattoos, scars, slang,
and mortality that are seen in Cobra, Colibri and Cocuyo speak, in the
words of Gonzalez Echevarria, of a neo-Baroque idea of the body "as
a dummy, marionette, doll, as a field to be inscribed and painted"(101)
Sarduy encounters that world of displacements, fictions, imitations, and
bodily signs as much in the Latin quarter of Paris as in India. Yet Cuba always
appears as the anthropological archetype of that possible neo-Baroque culture.
It follows that Sarduy, the inverse of Lezama, does not seek the metaphors of
the nation in a neo-Baroque narrative, but instead that Cuba is made the
national metaphor for all neo-Baroque narrative.(102)
     This centrality of the nation in Cuban literature is delivered, from
other angles, by Guillermo Cabrera Infante and Reinaldo Arenas. Three
Trapped Tigers offers the first rewriting attempt by the island literary
authorities. Cabrera Infante makes parody and wordplay instruments for
re-articulating the word of the great Cuban writers and, at the same time, the
slang of popular speech. In Mea Cuba we see how that edifying vision
of the language and the island's writing moves from parody to apology. Here
Cabrera Infante celebrates, sometimes with grandiloquence, the highest
tradition of Cuban literature: Heredia, la Avellaneda, Villaverde, Marti,
Casal, Guillen, Lezama, Piñera, Carpentier. However, his literary musical
Cubanophilia--see his Guilty of Dancing the Cha Cha Cha--and Havana
fixation--above all in Havana for a Dead Prince-- has as a correlate
disillusionment with history: the bad conscience of Cuba's political
fortune. View of Dawn in the Tropics is another rewriting, this time
of the history of the Cuban nation, in which the protagonists are violence,
cruelty and deceit.(103)
     Reinaldo Arenas also understood the disillusionment of history as a basis
of literature. His novels reclaim a zone of liberty for desire, imagination and
pleasure that could well be associated with another "metaphor of the Cuban
nation." But always in that metaphor, in that sensual utopia whose recurrent
landscape is the beach, eroticism and writing are interlaced. Unlike Sarduy,
Arenas does not take the body as a domain for writing and displacement, but as
a cavity for possession and enjoyment. The loss of the scenery, which was the
central motif of Romantic exile in the 19th century, reappears in Cuban
literature with Once Again the Sea, Journey to Havana and The
Color of Summer. The national tale that Arenas conceives does not try to
deconstruct the elements of nationality, in the manner of Sarduy in Where
the Singers Are From, or tragically parody Cuba's history, like Cabrera
Infante in View of Dawn in the Tropics. Its goal is, simply, the
narrative disposition of the literary topos: an autonomous space for
the literature and the eroticism of the island. Two texts so dissimilar as
Starlit Before Daybreak and Graveyard of the Angels--an
"irreverent, sarcastic, hard and at the same time sweet and amorous" rewriting,
to quote Arenas himself, of the Cuban Romantic novel Cecilia Valdes--
both sought precisely that topology of liberty.(104)
     Given the strong matrix of national centrality that dominates the literary
work of Guillen, Lezama, Sarduy, Cabrera Infante, and Arenas it is difficult,
not to say impossible, to dissolve those writers in a Western canon of Hispano-
american letters. As we have seen, none of them, with the exception of
Carpentier, wrote out of Latin American poetics, or even departed, for a
minimal time, from narrative dialogue with the nation. Dario, Vallejo,
Asturias, Garcia Marquez, Donoso, Cortazar and other writers of the canon have
spoken with the voice expressing the subject of Latin American culture. Vargas
Llosa and Fuentes, although they have dedicated a good part of their work to
their countries' dilemmas, also sounded that voice. The case of Octavio Paz
may offer greater difficulty. It is undeniable that some of his most recognized
works, in poetry and essays, are lucid immersions into the history and politics
of Mexico. Nevertheless, its intellectual registry overflows Mexican and Latin
American culture to embed itself in modern poetry and painting, Surrealism,
Western metaphysics, mythology, Levi-Strauss, Buddha, eroticism, haiku,
democracy, and totalitarianism. Paz's writing is not dominated--as is, for
example, that of Lezama--by national poetics: his texts are not given,
primarily, to the literary restitution of the historical tale of the
     It is such that the "Cuban majority," in addition to disequilibrium,
signals an incoherence in the selection criteria presupposed by the Western
canon. If the Latin American writers who appear in Bloom's catalog are
considered canonical, it is not because they are the best interpreters of their
national cultures, but instead because they express the spiritual plight of
Latin America in the Chaotic age, so the inclusion of Guillen, Lezama, Sarduy,
Cabrera Infante, and Arenas is hardly justifiable. If to be canonized
it is required that writing gravitate towards narrating a regional historical
subject, then Carpentier is the only Cuban author whose presence in the canon
is indisputable. Bloom himself recognizes this in one of the most questionable
passages in the book:

     "Twentieth-century Hispanic American literature, possibly more vital
     than North American, has three founders: the Argentine fabulist Jorge Luis
     Borges (1899-1986); the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda (1904-1973); and the
     Cuban novelist Alejo Carpentier (1904-1980). Out of their matrix a host of
     major figures has emerged: novelists as varied as Julio Cortazar, Gabriel
     Garcia Marques, Mario Vargas Llosa, and Carlos Fuentes; poets of
     international importance in Cesar Vallejo, Octavio Paz and Nicolas
     Guillen. I center on Borges and Neruda, though time may demonstrate the
     supremacy of Carpentier over all other Latin American writers in this era.
     But Carpentier was among the many indebted to Borges, and Neruda has the
     same founder's role for poetry that Borges occupies for both fictional
     and critical prose, so I examine them here both as literary fathers and as
     representative writers"(106).

     In addition to Carpentier, one might only think, following the preferences
of Roberto Gonzalez Echevarria, of Lezama and Sarduy as canonical authors.(107)
It is true that for both the territory of a neo-Baroque poetics, although quite
circumscribed in his texts by the Cuban reference, could be extended beyond
Cuba and the Caribbean to the rest of Latin America. But it is difficult, at
least for now, to view them as founders of some Latin American writing. The
sequels are not visible. The only writer who has felt the "anxiety of
influence" in relation to Lezama is just Severo Sarduy. And in turn, the
narrator or poet has not yet emerged to establish such marked continuity with
regard to the author of Where the Singers Are From. If she emerges,
the most probable is that she will be Cuban and will agree by heredity not to
transcend the porous limits of the fragmentary city of the island's letters.

97) Guillermo Cabrera Infante, Mea Cuba, Editorial Vuelta, Mexico
City, 1993, p.599. See also the suggestive book compiled by Gustavo Perez
Do the Americas Have a Common Literature? Duke University Press,
Durham, 1990.
98) Roberto Gonzalez Echevarria, Alejo Carpentier: the pilgrim at
home, University of Texas Press, Austin, 1990, pp.15-16.
99) Gustavo Perez Firmat, "The Strut of the Centipede: Jose Lezama Lima and the
New World exceptionalism" in Do the Americas Have a Common Literature?
op.cit pp.316-32.
100) Roberto Gonzalez Echevarria, La Ruta de Severo Sarduy, Ediciones
del Norte, Hanover, 1987, pp.141-52.
101) Roberto Gonzalez Echevarria, Relecturas: estudios de literatura
cubana, Monte Avila Editores, Caracas, 1976, p.131.
102) Roberto Gonzalez Echevarria, La Ruta de Severo Sarduy, Ediciones
del Norte, Hanover, 1987, pp.185-87.
103) Nivia Montenegro, "Que dise! mi! nacion: island vision in Guillermo
Cabrera Infante's View of Dawn in the Tropics" in Cuban
Studies, no.28, University of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh, 1999,
104) Enrico Mario Santi, "Entrevista con Reinaldo Arenas", Vuelta, v.4
no.47, Oct.1980, pp.20-22.
105) Alberto Ruy Sanchez, Una Introduccion a Octavio Paz, Joaquin
Mortiz, Mexico City, 1990, pp.109-15.
106) Harold Bloom, op.cit. p.473.
107) Roberto Gonzalez Echevarria, "Lo Cubano en Paradiso" in Isla
a su Vuelo Fugitiva, Ediciones Jose Porrua Turanzas, Madrid, 1983,


THE BEST OF the century's Cuban poetry and narrative are produced between
Motives for Being by Nicolas Guillen (1930) and The Illusionary World
(1968) by Reinaldo Arenas. Surprisingly, the climax of literary
imagination in the island coincides with another not less significant: the
climax of political imagination. Why does this collection of writing always
result in a national narrative? Why does contemporary Cuban literature, as
distinct from other Latin American literatures, remain so tied to the cultural
tale of the nation? Seemingly, the answer will be found in history. The
inconclusive experience of island sovereignty generated during the Republic
(1902-1959) a literary discourse of historical restitution that emphasized
national identity. Later, with the Revolution, this discourse, instead of being
superseded, acquired greater force. The intellectuals who celebrated--and still
celebrate--the revolutionary order imagined that, finally, the nation had
attained full sovereignty. Those who rejected--and still reject--the
revolutionary order felt that a State, a government or a person was expelling
them from their country, its sovereignty and their culture. A few, from the
island or from exile, have narrated the Cuban nation as conquest or as defeat.
     The six writers who appear in Harold Bloom's canon illustrate that
national gravitation in the writing.(108) Nevertheless, except for the
hereditary link that Sarduy establishes with Lezama, it is difficult to find
meeting and continuity points between their poetics. How were they read among
themselves? What did one think of the work of the other? Are there crossroads,
interchanges in the writing, that permits imagining them within a literary
community? It is not easy to respond to these questions. The intellectual
relation among these writers has been scarce, unverifiable and, on occasion,
considerably conflictual. The texts that would permit reconstruction of that
relation are few and disparate. Guillermo Cabrera Infante, in Mea Cuba,,
has amply documented his judgment concerning the other five writers.
Reinaldo Arenas tried something similar, although with less precision,
in his memoirs Before Night Falls. Outside of this, there only remain
some letters by Lezama and Sarduy, a pair of stories by Carpentier and various
gratuitous opinions of Nicolas Guillen.
     To reconstruct the relationship among these six writers one would have to
invent a canonical banquet in which the dinner guests embark upon a
fictional colloquy. We know that in his Dialogues Plato put his hand
to that device with the goal of depicting the polemics between Socrates and the
Sophists. An encounter like this never occurred: it never could have happened.
Someone was always missing. In 1960, some months before Severo Sarduy's one-way
trip to Paris, our six writers lived in Cuba. It is probable that, at some
time, Guillen, Carpentier, Lezama, Cabrera Infante, and Sarduy would all have
been in the same place in Havana. But for that date Reinaldo Arenas was very
young, hallucinating in a military base, near Holguin, where he must have
memorized Nikitin's Manual of Political Economy.(109) So there was no
recourse but to imagine that canonical agape, that fictional colloquy.
And like every banquet, the first thing to be decided is the seating of the
guests: the geography of the writers on a table. In this sense one could make
some classifications, attending to generational, ideological, aesthetic, and
sexual differences.
     Guillen was born in 1902, Carpentier in 1904 and Lezama in 1910; so that
these writers belong to the same chronological generation. The other three left
are born in different decades: Cabrera Infante in 1929, Severo Sarduy in 1937
and Reinaldo Arenas in 1943. Carpentier and Lezama are from Havana, Cabrera
Infante and Arenas westerners--Arenas was born near Gibara, the town of Cabrera
Infante, actually located in Holguin's province--and Guillen and Sarduy from
Camaguey. Lezama, Sarduy and Arenas are joined in a homosexual erotic that
leaves its mark in the writing. Guillen, Carpentier and Cabrera Infante share a
passion for Cuban music and the atmosphere of the communist intellectuals
during the Republic. The cult of Havana interweaves three views of a single
city: Carpentier's colonial Havana, Lezama's Republican Havana and Cabrera
Infante's modern Havana; Old Havana, central Havana and "el Vedado"(110). The
baroque seduction is expressed in three threads from the classical world:
Carpentier or the baroque as American "magic realism," Lezama or the baroque as
neo-Gongorian metaphor and Sarduy with the baroque of false theater and bodily
     The first generation decided to remain on the island after 1959; while the
second needed to follow the road of uprooting. Guillen and Carpentier figured
in the political class of the new State and always praised the revolutionary
order. Cabrera Infante and Arenas, from exile, have combated the Revolution,
its leaders and all the intellectuals who support it. Lezama and Sarduy,
however, stayed on the margin of political passions, in the spell of feverish
literary creativity. Three stances before power, three variants of the
post-colonial man of letters: the officialist, the dissident and the marginal.
     Carpentier and Guillen entered Cuban letters at the end of the Twenties.
Havana culture in that era was illumined by the European vanguards, communism,
the Afro-Cuban imagination, and Spanish poetry of the generation of 1927. Both
authors share the same atmosphere in the origin of their works. However,
neither of them left a record of having read the other. In Guillen's few
essays, in Hurried Prose or in his memoirs Turned Pages,
we do not seem to have a text that bases its judgments on some novel by
Carpentier. There are only isolated opinions that highlight, with the greatest
bureaucratic courtesy, the "importance of Carpentier in Cuban culture," or some
other remembrance of the Twenties and Thirties as the "time of the Tallets, of
the Carpentiers, of the Villenas." Yet neither did Carpentier exhibit his
reading of Guillen's poetry. In his Essays, Interviews and Conferences
there are only superficial allusions made to Guillen as a figure of
the Cuban political and cultural vanguard, as a mulatto and communist
poet. The most consistent of Carpentier's opinions on Guillen's poetics, which
appears now and then in his Interviews, is that which notes the
presence of an Afro-Cuban element in the Spanish poetry of the Golden Age: in
Gongora, Lope de Vega, Simon Aguado, and other readings of the young
     In the Chronicles that Carpentier sent from Paris to the Havana
magazine Carteles in the Thirties judgments appear a little more
elaborated. There he speaks of the "Afro-Cuban sense as an innate virtue"
existing in Songoro Cosongo where, as Carpentier puts it, "some of the
most accomplished poems that have been written in Cuba are found." Yet she who
reads these texts carefully will notice that Guillen's poetry is not eulogized
as literature, but instead as music. In Paris Carpentier promoted the taste for
sound, the rumba, the conga and the symphonic compositions of Amadeo Roldan and
Alejandro Garcia Caturla. His Chronicles describe a true "consecration
of Cuban rhythms" in The Cave, The Cuban Cabaña, The Plantation, and other
Latin bars of Paris. One of those articles, that titled "Songoro-Cosongo in
Paris," is dedicated not to Guillen but to the musicalization of his poems by
Moises Simon and Eliseo Grenet. And in this musical and literary confluence of
the Afro-Cuban, Carpentier always took care to establish he himself as
precursor: "even Nicolas Guillen had not published his black poems...when I
collaborated with Amadeo Roldan on La Rebambaramba and The Miracle
of Anaquille"(112).
     Carpentier is the only one among the great Cuban writers who has defended
a vanguardist, fully modern idea of the culture. His historical image of Cuban
art, literature and music was arranged beginning with the "climax" presupposed
by the vanguardists of the Twenties and the Thirties. This can be clearly seen
in two texts that attempt to view contemporary Cuban culture historically: "Un
Camino de Medio Siglo" and "Un Ascenso de Medio Siglo." They deal with two
conferences. The first is in 1975 in which Carpentier proposed to summarize, by
means of his intellectual autobiography, the work of an entire generation. The
second is from 1977 and was presented during the celebrations for the 50th
anniversary of the Revista de Avance. Here is presented, as in no
other text, that vanguardist image of Cuban cultural history by which the poets
and painters of the Twenties, who sympathized with the Communist Party and
opposed themselves to Machado's dictatorship, were the founders of an
intellectual and political modernity that resulted in the Revolution and in
     It is logical that a poetics like that of Jose Lezama Lima, which is
formulated in great measure in opposition to the European vanguardists, would
not be highly valued by Carpentier. Within that vanguardist teleology of Cuban
culture, Lezama and Origenes only represent a minor moment of "poetic
immersion in our own." One of the most complete of Carpentier's opinions of
Origines, which dates from 1954, that is, from before the Revolution,
assumes the stereotype of bought and sold originist nationalism: "it
is indubitable that Origenes gave us a way of seeing and feeling the
Cuban that redeems us from abominable folkloric and nativist realism as the
only solution for claiming our own"(114). Confronted with the modernity of the
aesthetic and political vanguard of the Twenties and the Thirties, Lezama and
Origenes were, alone, a singular re-immersion in the mixed race roots
of Cuban culture.
     In his only known text about Lezama, Guillen admitted that he had never
published in Origenes because he "maintained criteria frankly opposed
to those of its publishers"(115). Further on, he remembered with affection the
years when Lezama worked together with him as vice president of the Union of
Cuban Writers and Artists. And, lastly, one refers to his gracious poem "Pom,
pom!" that he wrote on the occasion of the 60th birthday of the author of
     Lezama, however, was a much more generous reader. The few letters that he
exchanged with Carpentier, toward the end of the Fifties, illustrate the
imbalance of that intellectual communication. Carpentier, from Barbados,
describes the marine scenery of the "unlikely island," the "English
Romanticism" of the presbyters and the tombs, and concludes reflecting--in the
Lezama mode, to be sure--upon the "transformation of the Antillean scenery by
the British spirit." Lezama responds with a letter that duplicates the length
of Carpentier's. In it the poet expounds generously on his reading of the
events that comprise the book War of Time. He speaks of the "anagnorisis"
and "American happiness" of "The Road from Santiago," of the "verbal
courage" in "Journey to the Seed," of the "surprising home in the temporal"
offered by "Just Like Night." These praises surpass the textual moderation
of criticism and approach the formulation of a poetics of the other: "you excel
in that moment in which you have constructed a history of styles. When you
describe a musical instrument, a fruit or a endow them with
naturalness"; "your pages are full of those nuances or shows of force that you
provide with a delicious superabundance"; "your construction lifts the
sentence, as if the verb traversed the entire phrase and lifts it into what the
Greeks call the logos opticos"(117).
     This generosity is evident too in his reading of Guillen, whose lyrics
attracted him since the time of Verbum. In the first issue of that
magazine, precursor to Espuela de Plata and Origenes, Lezama published
the essay "The Elective Grace of Juan Ramon and his Visit to our Poetry,"
where he lamented "the absence of critical, qualified and revisionist studies"
concerning the work of Guillen or of Florit.(118) Lezama was always a writer,
always a poet. His judgment of any text wore the penetrating and inclusive form
of its own literature. Thus, although he left few indications of his view of
Guillen, those that exist are very revealing. It is known that Lezama, out of
prudence, terminated his monumental Anthology of Cuban Poetry with
Jose Marti. In a letter to his sister Eloisa, from September 1965, he wrote:
"if I continue into this century, I have to reach our own times and that is
very polemical material... How many collections have I criticized upon seeing
him not included?" Nevertheless, his valuation of Cuban poetry after Marti was
already fully profiled and, somehow, is almost identical to that which appears
in Cintio Vitier's Anthology and The Cuban in Poetry. Therefore
in that letter Lezama concluded: "After Marti, one may solely like Boti,
Poveda, Nicolas Guillen, E. Florit, Emilio Ballagas and the poets of
Origenes. Also Retamar, Fayad, Oraa, Cleva Solis"(119).
     Another signal from the reading Lezama did of the author of Motives for
Being is the brief text "Guillen's Response to Mortality." Apparently it
deals with an elegy written by Lezama on the occasion of Nicolas Guillen's 60th
birthday, wherein the verses are: "I went along a road / when I met mortality /
but did not respond." According to Lezama this courtesy facing finality is due
to a "bubbling cordiality," to a "tactic of finesse," that it is "something
akin to that musical reason of which Marti spoke." At the end of the page,
Lezama cannot avoid that common area of criticism that consists in postulating
Guillen's poetry as a cipher for Cuban sensuality: "every Cuban experiences
Guillen as penetration through the mystery of his rhythm, in new and ancestral
dance steps. A penetration of the house in the woods and of the woods by the
house"(120). The tree here is a metaphor for the national family. Guillen hears
its roots, its crown: he caresses its bark. Thereby his writing achieves such a
golden sonority.
     But the most animated duet at the banquet will be, without a doubt, that
which Lezama and Sarduy establish. One night in 1960, after a function by the
Bolshoi Ballet in Havana, both writers exchanged some words. Lezama, exhaling a
mouthful of smoke, said to the curious youth that the Soviet ballerina "had the
class and majesty of Catherine the Great of Russia when she passed on her
sorrel by the frozen edges of the Volga"(121). Years later, in December of
1967, in a letter that accompanied his study of Paradiso and where the
next edition of that novel in France was announced, Sarduy spoke to Lezama of
that encounter. Lezama did not remember it. However, for Sarduy it was the
first index of that "Lezama demarche, in which the metaphor operates
by duplication, as a mirror, becoming a double devourer of reality, displacer
of the center..."
     In addition to his essay about Paradiso, Sarduy wrote for the
magazine Vuelta (May 1978) a brief critique of Oppiano
Licario. Yet already in his book Written on a Body he had
included the text called "Dispersion: false notes, homage to Lezama." It
presents a collage in which Sarduy's commentaries and poems on
Lezama's work are intercalated with passages by William Burroughs, Octavio Paz,
Roman Jakobson, Cintio Vitier, Mario Vargas Llosa, Roland Barthes, and Emir
Rodriguez Monegal. In The Christ of Rue Jacob, Sarduy delivers
another homage to Lezama. There he publishes a letter from 1968 in which Lezama
accepts the invitation from Ediciones Seuil to Paris, for the French
publication of Paradiso. As a corollary, Sarduy writes a series of
notes on some expressions by Lezama: "the baroque pineapple that is Sceaux,"
"like mounted clouds, followed however by the ray of grace," "a prairie of
snow," "Saint Augustine himself requires the existence of heretics"...
Nevertheless, beyond these tributes is testimony as to the narrative
appropriation of the Lezama baroque in his transgressive writing. In the "Page
on Lezama," after lamenting not having been able to "prove some assertions
about the author of Paradiso," Sarduy reveals a link that, more than a
legacy or an inheritance, expresses membership, a belonging: "I write, in this
country which is the page, in small letter ciphers, my steps through the Lezama
     The notion of belonging also appears in "An Heir," another text on Lezama
by Sarduy. Here, after comparing the Lezama baroque to the acts of the Council
or Trent--where "the same fury to re-read and remodel history, the same passion
for the efficacy of the sign" appears--Sarduy admits that Lezama's
poetics, for all the space opened by the coral imagery and multitudinous
writing, is something that cannot be inherited. It is he who inherits: he who
deciphers, he who reads, he who founds. "How to inherit not that which precedes
us, but instead that which succeeds us, that which will come after ourselves
and which no one can surpass?" - Sarduy asks, rewriting in turn Foucault's
question about the impossibility of surpassing Hegel. The answer is:

     Maybe, interpreting against the current, causing by the reading
     of his words that the future becomes a presence, in the present. To be
     Lezama's heir is to practice that original, unique listening, which
     escapes from display and imitation. To intuit, more than decode; to
     include, graft on meaning, even if behind the play of his hieroglyphics
     the meaning is an excess, overdone, and that precisely like the landscape
     those signs are known by that amplitude, for those superfluous attributes;
     to deconstruct, more than to structure.(123)

     From Lezama about Sarduy there only remain the seven letters that he sent
him, from Havana to Paris, between 1966 and 1975.(124) In one of them, Lezama
says he has read "a bombshell," Where the Singers Are From, "for its
center of verbal convergence contains strength and fascination." And further on
he remarks of Sarduy's study of Paradiso:

     It reveals how your critical and creative gifts have continued to refine
     themselves, the diversity of your tactics and resources, your very
     criollo palate for recognizing the most diverse mixtures by
     taste. And since we are making paradoxes, we see that your years of
     learning in Paris have made your native days more creative, those of your
     adolescence and those that now remain for you to live among us.(125)

     Beneath that magisterial tone with which Lezama validates the "progress"
of the young writer a politically very bold argument is emphasized: Sarduy's
mixed blood and "Cuban-ness." For the official Cuban culture of the Sixties and
Seventies, Severo Sarduy was an exile, a "counterrevolutionary" and, to that
extent, an "enemy of Cuba," an "anti-Cuban intellectual." Lezama, however, not
only stresses the Cuban plenitude of his work, but also prophesizes his virtual
return to the island. And by insisting on Sarduy's "mixed race palate" he
recognizes an identity, national as well as poetic, with his own writing. That
identity, that sympathy, is what, in Lezama's view, allows Sarduy to approach
Paradiso: "I have always believed that to approach my work one had to
have a stoic sympathos, that is, a previous sympathy, by temperament
or by preference"(126).
     Sarduy was the one responsible for Paradiso, in the Didier Coste
translation, being published by Seuil. In 1969, when the book was at the point
of going to press, Sarduy invited Lezama to Paris, using the allegory of a
possible encounter with "the baroque pineapple of Sceaux." Many political and
personal obstacles impeded that trip, leading Lezama to excuse himself with
extremely baroque paragraphing:

     A lamentation for the candied pineapple, frugal obelisk that rises like a
     dome where Sarduy sleeps. Perhaps there are still years for flying between
     the Estatua de la India and the Arc de Triomphe and then we can catch the
     wind in a predetermined direction. One would arrive at the Seine with the
     perfume of pineapple. That reminds me that during the past century they
     made silks from pineapple that increased the brilliance of our opulent
     equatorial natives, and a pineapple champagne that began like a surprise
     but could not end in that baroque wonder.(127)

     The entire relationship of Sarduy with Cuban literature and that which he
understood as its baroque spirituality is manifested through Lezama. It follows
that the other canonical writers should have a more properly marginal
participation in his poetics. In Carpentier's case, this hegemony of the Lezama
reference is particularly disadvantageous.(128) In his Conversation with
Emir Rodriguez Monegal Sarduy laments "how much they speak of a baroque
Carpentier." Whereas the "only baroque (with all the charge of meaning that
that word carries, that is, the tradition of Hispanic, Manueline, Borrominian,
Berninian, Gongoresque culture is, in his judgment, something very different.
Thus he concludes: "...the true Baroque in Cuba is Lezama. Carpentier is neo-
Gothic, which is not the same as baroque"(129).
     For his part, Carpentier does not seem to have interested himself in the
work of Severo Sarduy. Despite that they were the two most recognized Cuban
writers living in Paris during the Seventies and Eighties, there are no
indications of an intellectual link between them. This distance could be due to
one of them being an exile and the other an official representative of Havana's
government. But a substantial interest by Sarduy in the texts of an author like
Reinaldo Arenas, who would be nearer to him by the experience of exile and by a
quite similar homoerotic vision of Cuban culture, cannot be detected
either.(130) In addition to Lezama, the other canonical writer who has valued
the literature of Severo Sarduy is Guillermo Cabrera Infante. In Mea
Cuba he frequently mentions him and distinguishes him, among the great
literature of the island, for his humor, his cosmopolitanism and his poetic
     Cabrera Infante is the only one of the great Cuban literati who has left a
clear testimony of his opinion concerning the other authors of the canon. In
the chapter "Lives to be Read" we find narrated portraits of Lydia Cabrera,
Enrique Labrador Ruiz, Carlos Montenegro, Lino Novas Calvo, Reinaldo Arenas
and, above all, of the four writers who, in his judgment, crown the Cuban
literature of the century: Nicolas Guillen, Alejo Carpentier, Jose Lezama Lima,
and Virgilio Piñera. More than aesthetic or literary validations, these
portraits comprise small fables of the life of those writers or brief
intellectual biographies, which emerge from the author's memory. Such that the
chapter is headed by the following epigram: "all biography always aspires to
the condition of history." Nevertheless, in that animated and witty narration
that identifies Cabrera Infante's prose, where anecdote and gossip abound,
moral and poetic judgments are not lacking either.
     The essay on Lezama and Piñera, entitled "Theme of the Hero and the
Heroine," is a counterpoint--owing as much to Plutarch as to Mr. Fernando
Ortiz--of those antipodes of Cuban writing. The fat and the thin, the high and
the low, the active and the passive homosexual, the poet of density and fixity
and that of emptiness and levitation... Yet at root, beneath these and other
antinomies, both share two intense passions: literature and Havana. Here
attention is called to the weight that the writer's Cuban culture has--or
better, his Havana-ness ("Havana of Havanas, all is Havanity")--in his
literary evaluations of Cabrera Infante. Lezama and Piñera are described
not only as great men of letters, but also as incorrigible "Havaneros" and as
fanatically Cuban authors: excessively Cuban.(131)
     Cuba and literature, which are also the two passions of Cabrera Infante,
sustain an all-embracing intellectual complicity in these essays. Mea
Cuba forcefully transmits a certain notion of the school that motivates
its author: the impossible ideal of a Cuban Republic of Letters. It is for that
that in "Un Poeta de Vuelo Popular," dedicated to Nicolas Guillen, the profound
political differences are left to one side and the celebration of talent,
Cuban-ness and poetry prevails.

     But Guillen, even beneath a flowering mango, furious yet dying of fear,
     was a poet. Capable of sounding medieval meters with a modern and
     colloquial tone, he knew classic Spanish poetry like no one in America,
     except perhaps Ruben Dario, the indian with the blank verse.(132)

     The judgment on Carpentier also invokes that duality which forms the
nation and its literature. For Cabrera Infante there is no doubt that the
author of Explosion in a Cathedral is the most important Cuban narrator
of all time. His parody of "El Acoso" in Three Trapped Tigers--called
"El Ocaso"--describes a tense relation of literary continuity, which is
verified by means of the rewriting. Among the seven versions of the demise of
Trotsky "related by various Cuban writers," that by Carpentier is the most
developed.(133) Such that, even when Cabrera Infante finds unacknowledged
adaptations of other texts in the work of that great writer--like that of the
"singular resemblance between The Lost Steps and The Royal Way
by Andre Malraux"--he always concludes that "the copy is much better
than the original." However, what he does question sarcastically is
Carpentier's Cuban-ness. In this case, his rancor has a motive: in Oxford,
1971, Carpentier, referring to Cabrera Infante said: "that gentleman is not
Cuban." The aggrieved retaliates with a humorous essay whose title is
"Carpentier, Cuban to the Sugar Cane."
     The last of the texts in "Lives to be Read" is dedicated to Reinaldo
Arenas. Here Cabrera Infante warns that the most tangible contact between the
writing of Arenas and the Cuban nation is given through sex. His homoeroticism
resists the oblique, indirect and aestheticized forms of Lezama, Ballagas,
Piñera, or Sarduy, and seeks a crude, almost brutal, transfusion in the
text. This carnality descends from an inveterate rebelliousness that leads him
to confront all the nation's authoritative discussions with the image of a
"culture ruled by sex"(134). Cuba is profiled, then, like a gay utopia that
attempts to deactivate the political and moral powers over the territory.
Arenas, more than any other Cuban writer, understood literature as a reality
destined for the inscription of desire.
     His autobiography Before Night Falls is, perhaps, the best proof
of that vision of a homoerotic country. In that book, the author's own
literary ascendancy seems tied to the Cuban tradition of homosexual poets.
Arenas places Jose Lezama Lima and Virgilio Piñera on the most elevated
seat of honor in the literature of the island. He emphasizes the intellectual
honesty and the intellectual rigor of both and praises the enlightenment they
exercise upon their generation. Arenas cannot resist the temptation either of
invoking the now classic Lezama-Piñera counterpoint.(135) Nevertheless,
his allusions to Carpentier and Guillen, although they fulfill a certain
criterion of authority, are scarce and anecdotal. More significant, however,
are the apparitions of those writers as ridiculous personages in his novel
The Color of Summer: or new garden of earthly delights. Not even Sarduy
and Cabrera Infante, two exiled writers, are exempt from the sharpness of
Arenas, who dedicates to the first of them a series with the fragment "Abre,
obra, obre, ubra, abra, ebro," a perverse imitation of the unmistakable texture
of Cobra, Colibri or Cocuyo, and as to the second, the vile
caricature "La Jibaroinglesa"(136).
     In the hilarious opening of that the most parodic of his novels titled
"The Flight of la Avellaneda," Arenas includes Jose Lezama Lima and Nicolas
Guillen as characters, always located at "the harbor of Havana." It is
interesting--a sign of respect, perhaps, from the most insolent of the six--to
observe that Guillen and Lezama, like Virgilio Piñera, always keep their
names and surnames as characters, unlike for example Cynthio Metier (Cintio
Vitier), Miguel Barniz (Miguel Barnet), Baston Dacuero (Gaston Baquero),
Primigenio Florit (Eugenio Florit), or Zebro Zardoya (Severo Sarduy).(137) In
Guillen's character who, for his political complicity with the regime, would be
the most uncomfortable for Arenas, we notice he appears shouting these
dissident verses from the harbor at la Avellaneda, who emigrates from Cuba, in
his famous poem "Al Partir": "you cannot leave / if not with me... / You
tremble at the gate / as I so tremble. / For I like you am from Camaguey. /
Listen now for the bus, / to take both of us"(138). Guillen, in Arenas's
parody, becomes like a rebel poet who is mutilated by the island's government:
a personal allegory, perhaps, of the author of The Illusionary World
himself, incarnated in the emblematic figure of Havana officialdom. Certainly,
Guillen does not resort to the caustic humor of Arenas, who dedicates another
fragment, that titled "Guille, galle, galla, gulle, guello," to "Nicolas
Guillotina"(139). Likewise Carpentier does not escape unscathed as "Alejo
Sholejov," whom we observe using his baroque rhetoric to guide a tour through
Old Havana which ends with the sarcastic collapse of "the venerable city"(140).
     Arenas's parodies concerning the author of "Paradiso" are, instead,
revelatory of a greater moral and literary empathy. That rare solemnity in the
literary treatment of Lezama, before that in The Color of Summer,
appears in two political articles, "The Truth about Lezama Lima" and "Demise of
Lezama," included in The Need for Liberty, where Arenas criticizes the
indifference of the Cuban government to Lezama's demise, and above all in the
splendid essay "Desgarramiento y Fatalidad en la Poesia Cubana," where he
affirms that "beyond the nastiness or frustration of our history and even as a
feature of our landscape, Lezama preferred the disorder of the verb and
populated his intemperate island, that nothing which nourishes and destroys us,
rebukes and calls to us, with gardens and invisible rainbows"(141). Therefore
in The Color of Summer, a relentless book towards the Cuban literary
community, the fragment titled "Lezama's Reunion" is a virtual homoerotic
manifesto that Arenas writes within the Lezamian symbolic universe, and the
final pages of "Demise of Lezama," another section of that novel, narrate a
singular "act of exorcism and homage":

     Then, Delfin ran into the vast field of butterflies, threw himself among
     all the flowers and returned to the dam where he continued flagellating,
     now more violently, the body and the face of Tetrica Mofeta who bled and
     cried out Lezama! Lezama! Finally, letting out an enormous  wail, the
     madwoman, covered in blood and flower petals, threw herself into the
     waters of the dam. After that act of exorcism and homage, Tetrica Mofeta
     emerged fresh and soggy... At dawn, fragrant, livid and ethereal, the two
     madwomen left Lenin Park. Each of them carried in her hand a large
     cornstalk topped by a red butterfly. Hurriedly, they went by foot to Colon
     Cemetery, in Havana, and deposited the flowers upon the still fresh tomb
     of Lezama.(142)

     In two little known essays, "Underdevelopment and Exoticism" and "The
Blessed 60," Arenas expounds his literary valuation of Lezama, Carpentier
and Cabrera Infante with greater transparency. Those three authors are
considered within a single writing strategy: "exacerbated culture, dazzling
rhetoric, the researched word, the uncommon linguistic exhibitionism"(143) For
Arenas that neo-Baroque is nothing more than a rhetorical confrontation between
the Latin American writer and his European cultural references. The modern
narrative of Latin America, in his judgment, reaches its greatest splendor
during the Sixties with the following works: Alejo Carpentier's Explosion in
a Cathedral, Julio Cortazar's Rayuela, Mario Vargas Llosa's The
City and the Dogs, Jose Lezama Lima's Paradiso, Guillermo Cabrera
Infante's Three Trapped Tigers, and Jose Donoso's The Obscene Bird
of Night. They represent, it is clear, the canonical texts of the so-
called boom in Latin American literature.(144)
     Nevertheless, Arenas was and, in a certain sense, continues to be marginal
to Cuban and Latin American literature. His solitude, the circle of
indifference that the other authors trace behind him, convert him into a
disquieting figure, aloof, unknown. There is no doubt that Arenas is the least
authorized of the six canonical authors. Except for a lucid essay by
Eliseo Diego on Starlit Before Daybreak and the text by Cabrera
Infante we have mentioned, the approaches of the great literature of the island
to his work are not abundant. Perhaps the best celebration of his writing
derives, once again, from who best achieved a blend of moral affect and
critical judgment: Jose Lezama Lima. I refer to the verses dedicated to
Reinaldo Arenas in his "Decimas de la Querencia." Here, in addition to that
gift, to that grant, by which the poem confirms a sympathy, we find a
testimonial to its reading. In his ten-line verses for Reinaldo Arenas, Lezama
describes the satisfaction that Starlit Before Daybreak and The
Illusionary World gave him. The imaginary universe of those novels is here
an horizon of memory where the body of its author also lives.

     A rope and a clock,
     silhouette of a fork,
     velvet leaves of box
     seen as clouds rework,
     hummingbird does not lurk
     but flits a thousand years.
     Without blood or tears,
     the garnet lacks eyes.
     Does the fire have ears
     or grandmother, fears?

     Through a letter to his sister Eloisa, in 1970, we know that Lezama was
flattered by the interest awakened by his work in a writer as young as Reinaldo
Arenas.(145) The latter had written an article about Paradiso entitled
"The Reign of the Image," and various passages of The American
Expression had inspired him to conceive his novel The Illusionary
World.(146) Years later than the homage to Lezama's decimas,
Arenas produces another, in which the figure of the "castrating mother" seems
to displace that of the "fearful grandmother." In a conversation with Fernando
Soto concerning the topic of the ambiguous maternal emanation, which is
presented in Once Again the Sea and in the tale "Old Rosa," he reveals
his poetic connection with the author of Constancy:

     The mother is destructive and tender at the same time. She can destroy yet
     she can love. The relation that she has with son is one of power. She
     dominates him, but loves him; destroys him, yet loves him. I see in this a
     tradition of the Cuban mother that is, let us say, a somewhat Spanish
     tradition. The son loves the mother yet at the same time feels that he
     should distance himself from her. I think that the Cuban mother has been a
     negative/ positive influence on the writers. For instance, Lezama
     publishes Paradiso after his mother dies. Perhaps before he might
     not have dared to publish that novel, which is, among other things, an
     homage to the mother.(147)

     Arenas here demonstrates a substantial similarity with Lezama, the Oedipal
resemblance. In an instant he paraphrases, entirely, those verses from "Llamado
del Deseoso": "and, from whom do we flee, if not from our mothers from whom we
flee / who never want to play the same card, the same night of equal enormous
loins?" Here Arenas, the youngest and most furious of the six, is weaving a
possible solidarity, the utopia of a canonical banquet, more linked to
intellectual legacy than to affective contact. The passage from The
Doorman in which appear, together with himself, Guillermo Cabrera Infante
and Severo Sarduy, as three writers censored by an imaginary and at the same
time, real Cuban magazine, signals that moment when literary empathy becomes
moral friendship, in an identical politics of the spirit.(148)
     But not even the skeptical prophecy of Giorgio Agamben of a future
community, where moral redemption will be born from the pleasure of the
irrevocable, will permit even a glimpse, on the island or its diaspora, of a
cordial city of letters.(149) Every time that during the Thirties and Forties
the Spanish poet Pedro Salinas visited Havana he found "all the writers in a
harmonious state of discord and backbiting." In a memorable letter to his
friend Jorge Guillen, Salinas sketched that definition of the agonistic joking
which always has mortified the sociability of Cuban literature: "the guerrilla
is a very loose unity of the Cuban literary struggle...with the actual snipers
in pairs"(150). In Cuba, a nation where a tender Republican tradition was
diluted by a totalitarian communist order, those politics of friendship that
impose decency and civility upon the literary camp are especially feeble.

108) As opposed to the Mexican, Cuban literature lacks a strong cosmopolitan
tradition to compensate for its marked nationalism. See Christopher Dominguez
Michael, Tiros en el Concierto: literatura mexicana del siglo v,
Ediciones Era, Mexico City, 1997, pp.457-90; and Guillermo Sheridan, Mexico
en 1932: la polemica nacionalista, FCE, Mexico City, 1999, pp.71-80.
109) Reinaldo Arenas, Antes que Anochezca, Tusquets, Barcelona, 1992,
110) Jacobo Machover (ed.) La Habana, 1952-1961: el final de un mundo, el
principio de una ilusion, Alianza Editorial, Madrid, 1994, pp.17-25.
111) Alejo Carpentier, Entrevistas, Editorial Letras Cubanas, Havana,
1985, pp.25 and 425.
112) Alejo Carpentier, Cronicas, Editorial Letras Cubanas, Havana,
1985, v.2 pp.108, 133-35.
113) Alejo Carpentier, Essays, Editorial Letras Cubanas, Havana, 1984,
pp.90-107 and 275-303.
114) Recopilacion de Textos de Jose Lezama Lima, Casa de las Americas,
Havana, 1995, p.317.
115) Nicolas Guillen, "Algunos Recuerdos de un Afecto Reciproco" in Carlos
Espinosa, Cercania de Lezama Lima, Editorial Letras Cubanas, Havana,
1968, p.28.
116) Ibid. pp.305-06.
117) These letter have been recently published by Luisa Campuzano in Casa
de las Americas, no.197 Oct.-Dec.1994, pp.116-19.
118) Ivan Gonzalez Cruz, Archivo de Jose Lezama Lima: miscelanea,
Ramon Areces Study Center Press, Madrid, 1998, pp.79-80.
119) Jose Lezama Lima, Letters (1939-1976), Editorial Origenes,
Madrid, 1979, p.182.
120) Jose Lezama Lima, Fascinacion de la Memoria: textos ineditos,
Editorial Letras Cubanas, Havana, 1993, p.20.
121) Severo Sarduy, Escrito sobre un Cuerpo, Editorial Sudamericana,
Buenos Aires, 1969, pp.61-62.
122) Jose Lezama Lima, Letters (1939-1976), op.cit.
123) Severo Sarduy, "An Heir" in Paradise, critical edition by Cintio
Vitier, UNESCO, Coleccion Archivos, 1988, p.597.
124) Jose Lezama Lima, Cartas a Eloisa y Otra Correspondencia,
Editorial Verbum, Madrid, 1998, pp.335-44.
125) Jose Lezama Lima, Letters (1939-1976), op.cit.
126) Ibid. p.115.
127) Jose Lezama Lima, Cartas a Eloisa y Otra Correspondencia,
op.cit. p.339.
128) I have the impression that Roberto Gonzalez Echevarria exaggerates the
"anxiety of influence" that Severo Sarduy might have felt in relation to
Carpentier. Roberto Gonzalez Echevarria, La Ruta de Severo Sarduy,
op.cit. pp.74-78.
129) Severo Sarduy, Escrito sobre un Cuerpo, op.cit.
130) Roberto Gonzalez Echevarria, La Ruta de Severo Sarduy,
op.cit. p.243.
131) Guillermo Cabrera Infante, Mea Cuba, op.cit. p.406.
132) Ibid. p.471.
133) Guillermo Cabrera Infante, Three Trapped Tigers, Editorial Seix
Barral, Barcelona, 1967, pp.241-251.
134) Ibid. p.512.
135) Reinaldo Arenas, Antes que Anochezca, op.cit.
136) Reinaldo Arenas, El Color del Verano, o nuevo jardin de las
delicias, Ediciones Universal, Miami, 1991, pp.63 and 217-19.
137) Ibid. pp.11-13.
138) Ibid. p.21.
139) Ibid. p.95.
140) Ibid. pp.87-90.
141) Reinaldo Arenas, Necesidad de Libertad, Kosmos Editorial, Mexico
City, 1986, pp.98, 170-73 and 203-07.
142) Reinaldo Arenas, El Color del Verano, op.cit.
143) Reinaldo Arenas, Final de un Cuento, El Fantasma de la Glorieta,
Huelva Spain, 1991, pp.17-18.
144) Ibid. pp.23-26.
145) Jose Lezama Lima, Cartas a Eloisa y Otra Correspondencia,
op.cit. p.153.
146) Criticism rarely recognizes that El Mundo Alucinante owes as much
to Lezama as to Carpentier. Roberto Gonzalez Echevarria, "The Reign of 'El
Mundo Alucinante': the imaginary era of Brother Servando" in Isla a su
Vuelo Fugitiva, op.cit. pp.253-57.
147) Francisco Soto, Conversacion con Reinaldo Arenas, Editorial
Betania, Madrid, 1990, p.45.
148) Reinaldo Arenas, El Portero, Dador Ediciones, Malaga, 1989,
149) Giorgio Agamben, La Comunidad que Viene, Pre-Textos, Valencia,
1996, pp.71-74.
150) Pedro Salinas/ Jorge Guillen, Correspondencia (1923-1951),
Tusquets, Barcelona, 1992, p.333.