The Horizon, the Black Sun, or the Utopia of the Melancholic
That in black ink my love may still shine bright.
—Shakespeare, Sonnet 65
pero en el reino de la muerte tambien rompe la luz.39
—Flores, Los pdjaros escritos
As is well known, melancholia is a serious state of depression. For melancholics, their passion is absolutely tragic since their final destiny is clear and ineluctable. For Julia Kristeva, however, melancholia is also the Nervalian black sun. The image of the black sun can refer to a force that is luminous but also bears its own tragedy, its death.
The metaphor of the black sun attains its full force in the work of Jean Starobinski, in which the effect of melancholia appears in turn as the ink with which it extracts its reflection. The reflection of the ink is the black sun of the soul and of writing. Both reflect the same contradiction: melancholia as an at once destructive and hopeful passion. This is the same contradiction we find in the Saturnine condition of Lezama Lima’s work: Kronos’s merciless struggle against himself; the inclemency of time devouring creatures that he himself has conceived, as we see in the disturbing painting by Goya—the paradox of Kristeva’s black sun and Starobinski’s brilliant ink. For Abraham and Torok the reflection of ink is just this, the patina of the shine after which there can only be shadows, shadows or fantasies that the melancholic incorporates in order to close and encrypt the open wound, the lack. This fantasy is thus a delirium, a hallucination. But its paradoxical nature results in its being at the same time hope and death, terminus, end.
Without a past, no history can be established. If there is no memory this is because an alienation exists with respect to it. This happens as a consequence of a process of interrupted mourning that has not allowed for an adequate transition, or because official history is not part of a personal patrimony. Marques de Armas’s poem “Antigona” (“Antigone”) is a reflection on the historical suffering brought about by not having been able to bury the dead in accordance with the unwritten laws of the polis. Why, for example, was it impossible to commemorate Origenismo without having to fall into officialist and nationalist exaltation? This desire to experience a different history is symbolized in the poem through the creation of an Antigone who, unlike in the myth, is described as an erotic woman. Antigone furthermore surrenders to a man’s desires: “fue mio el casto pie de Antigona.”40 Antigone’s eroticism, her otherness, expresses the hope of fulfilling a desire through a different writing of history. And yet this possibility is quickly extinguished: “porque ya nadie alza el cuerpo claro de un destino / blandamente cayendo en estas islas. [Because nobody raises the clear destiny’s body / gently falling in these islands]” (Marques de Armas 1993, 6). No epistemological possibilities exist that would allow us to rewrite history. Antigone cannot contravene written laws. What remains is therefore a pure, unfulfillable desire: “Hoy me he tendido entre las flores bajas. / Una y otras cancion son a la noche / como un mar de Antigonas, lleno de pies desnudos, / de vagos cuerpos que avanzan hasta confundir sus ganas” (ibid.).41 In other poems, this frustrated desire is also associated with the New Man, as in “Tu no iras a Troya” (“You won’t go to Troy”). The conquest of Troy cannot cause Achilles’s being to burst forth, nor will the ship anchor offshore. Nor will the New Man find his being through war: “No iras a Troya a desmentir su sombra /
Como el amor, solo ese cuerpo gotea y se recoge y en el yaces tendido sin despertar.”42 Achilles’s being will not emerge through the struggle, but the journey or flight from the island will not conclude with a promise either, since there are “mil puertas que no fugan.”43 The desire for the object exists, but the possibility of reaching it does not: “De pronto la ciudad no signa con tu fiebre / Pero no vale el amor / no vale la angustia de los dias / que van sajando el alma.”44 Thus, the longing for conquest, like the desire for another future, symbolized by the arrival at another shore, remains drifting, unattainable, awaiting the promise that can fill their void. And yet this promise and this desire lack a referent; they are pure affect without specific object. Desire is as empty as a night without stars: “Esta noche sin astros / imita a mi deseo / carne de lo imposible / Esta noche yo me pregunto / cuanto pie de Antigonas / alcanzare a besar ante mi muerte”45 (ibid., 8). Nonetheless, in some poems desire is incarnated in the sea as in poem “II.” In a clear gesture against nationalist insularism, the sea is outlined as an object of desire. This sea to which one aspires is not synonymous with conquest, as in Homer’s epic: “No es el mar de Odiseo, es la extension.”46 Nor is it the nostalgic sea of Marti: “No es el mar de Marti, es el jubilo.”47 This is a sea as symbol of the infinite: “Es el no mar huidizo, errante / Mi fuga”48 (20). Desire is defined as the unlimited and the pleasurable—as the vast and jubilant sea—and yet it represents the most absolute suffering as in “II (Variante de Antigona o El cuadrado amarillo)” (“II [Antigone’s Variation or the Yellow Square]”): “Cuanto mar de pies desnudos / cuanto de cuerpo o bruma / hacia otro limite imparable / y acabado como el deseo / La angustia es el deseo. / Es la mujer que se abre por la herida, / —lo que no alcanza el deseo / mientras me ocultan a los ojos / el cuadrado amarillo”49 (21). In these lines reminiscent of Luis Cernuda, desire is defined as what cannot be satisfied, and what therefore can only be suffering. “La paradoja lamentable / A su regla otra vez te pliega: ‘Conocer lo que no conoce / Desear lo que no desea’ ”50 (Cernuda 1993, 543). As for Cernuda, the object of desire is always absent because by definition the lack can never be filled. This is the great paradox of desire, and, as a result, the final refusal of any approach to a utopia.
Flores’s poem “Naturaleza muerta con albatros” (“Still Life with Albatross”) clearly evokes Julian del Casal’s poem “Nostalgias,” in turn influenced by Charles Baudelaire’s “L’Albratros” and “L’Invitation au voyage.” The poem refers to a still life depicting birds that are as dead as everything surrounding them. It thus alludes sardonically to insularity as a myth of national identity. In this way it ironizes on the appearance of still lifes that exotic islands take on in certain orientalist poets such as Rimbaud, Casal, or Baudelaire. Thus, instead of appearing as a liberating paradise, the exotic island to which Casal would escape becomes in Flores’s poem an apocalyptic place: “He visto a la ciudad quemada y a los cuerpos / quemandose / eran desiertos los pechos, eran cisternas las bocas / de acordeones”51 (Flores 1994, 22). The island is demystified and ceases to be an exotic landscape symbolizing flight. The insularist utopia is now a dystopia. Like Marcabru, the Provengal troubadour whom he claims as a literary ancestor, Flores refuses to approve and venerate the feats of recent history. Flores denounces the feats of history in an enigmatic and metaphysical poetry that could easily be compared to Marcabru’s trovar clus: “Escribo estas ponzonas y es como si llevara / pleamares a una ermita / Pero soy el escollo, eunuco si quereis y no lo que / se suponia / no el cantor de ferias, el que reparte el vino y recibe / otras monedas”52 (ibid., 22). One also finds here a critique of the revolutionary utopia. Desperation arises from a vision of history’s contradictions, as in “Defensa del olvido” (“Oblivion’s Defense”), where those who fought for the coming of the utopia know that utopias also become ominous nightmares: “Los que vieron al pez en la terraza / ya vieron un oasis en medio de la guerra”53 (ibid., 81).
In spite of everything, Flores appears to lament the lack of a new Messiah, an absence that leads to the truncating of words: “labios mios, puertas del pais, la lengua no es un lago / es como un cepo / porque nos falta el grande, el curador.”54 Asking to be protected by the mother or the nation is like asking to die, so the paternalist figure of a redeemer is rejected. Like Marques de Armas’s sea, the open ocean appears here as an allegory of utopia: “Ayer, mientras recogia guijarros en la playa vi / a dos aves / ardiendo, el polen del mar en sus pupilas”55 (Flores 1994, 7). As in Ponte’s poems, ruins also speak to us of an object of desire: “Un barco. Un barco. Limites / Ciudades que se nombran con el mismo amor / con que se nombran las ruinas en la infancia / No solo queda quien mira el fin”56 (ibid., 39). Unlike for other poets of his generation and for Julian del Casal’s “Nostalgias,” for Flores exile and travel are not thematized as a horizon, or as a desire. Instead, his work proposes the agonistic experience of the limit as a source of knowledge: “No es partir sino taner el agua con que aliviar / los limites, tanerla para que el fiel se alce y haga un nido / en la madera.”57 On the one hand, “Naturaleza muerta con albatros” is a clear critique of Casal’s exoticism. The Casalian paradises are places ravaged by war, and in that regard they are no different than the place inhabited by the poetic voice. On the other hand, the city in ruins also evokes the crisis of the subject, which is why the poem says that the differences between exteriority and interiority have collapsed: “^Te has detenido tu, entre el bullicio de las puertas / que ya no significan nada, no has borrado el afuera / y comprobado la ausencia de esos pajaros?”58 ( 23). The power of the subject does not reside in movement or escape, but in his ability to experience the uneasy and painful space of the lack. There’s no outside to this immanent structure, but the poetic voice does not choose annihilation, instead it offers the movement of a “mano de ovillo” (skein’s hand), which is the paradoxical movement that can be found in the action of recoiling: “El movimiento de mi mano de ovillo tiene la belleza/ que no tiene el movimiento de la mano hacia la sien” (ibid.)59
In Flores’s poetry utopia is ultimately incarnated in the word, in the poetic substance, as we see in the final stage of Lezama Lima’s work. Flores’s poem “Idea de la poesia” (“Idea of Poetry”), evokes Lezama Lima’s reflection on the Saturnine or melancholic quality of poetry: “La poesia en el duer- mevela / como el ave de la resurreccion / a cada instante nace, se aniquila.”60 He also repeats the vanguardist idea of the transformative dialectic between poetry and reality: “La libertad, timon hacia la poesia / la poesia, timon hacia la libertad”61 (Flores 1994, 57). This idea recurs in “Destino de la ninfa” (“Fate of the Nymph”), a poem in homage to Garcilaso de la Vega that establishes a parallel between the aesthetic and transformative power of the sea nymph Galatea (who turned her lover into a river) and the power of poetry: “la poesia es capaz de transformar la memoria, la memoria es capaz de transformar la poesia.”62 The answers to truth are found in poetry: “Hombre, mujer, isla o coagulo que anuda el paraiso: entre lineas andamos buscando, preguntandonos”63 (ibid., 21). Truth is not found in the transformative capacity of a politics isolated in its governmental praxis, which is why the concluding line of “Idea de la poesia” shows the death of this type of power: “El cadaver de un rey flota en el pasto”64 (57).
Return of Melancholic Utopia amid the Ruins of Socialism in Pedro Marques de Armas’s Poetry and Antonio Jose Ponte’s Fiction
Many poems of the nineties are formulated from a mythical story of the sort found in the Greco-Roman or biblical traditions, as in the works of Antonio Jose Ponte, Juan Carlos Flores, and Pedro Marques de Armas. The allegorical form of mythical history is characteristic of the poetry of Jose Lezama Lima, and in the poetry of the nineties it is a way not only to circumvent censorship but also to express the need to build and imagine a different destiny for the nation. “Monologo de Augusto” (“Augustus’s Monologue”) by Marques de Armas is an allegory based on Roman mythical history. The poem begins by evoking the reflections of Augustus as he prepares to pacify the Republic after the fall of Julius Caesar’s dictatorship. This allegory about the imperial renaissance of Rome should be read on a second level as a poem about the Cuban Revolution. Like Augustus, the generation of Marques de Armas is the heir of the ruling class. Not finding this function appealing, many members of this generation leave the country. This parallelism justifies the desire to travel that initiates the poem: “Aqui yo escucho el soplo de los barcos pasar y no pretendo volarme los ojos como Edipo”65 (Marques de Armas 1993, 5). Despite Guevara’s predictions, the New Man no longer believes in revolutionary sacrifice, and his desire to leave the island has to be read as a transgression against the law of the father. Unlike the first inheritors of the revolution such as Fernandez Retamar, the New Men do not feel indebted to it. These New Men, like Augustus, had the mission to create a new beginning for history, but the New Men can no longer emerge from Guevara’s heroic sacrifice. That is why the New Man can only be present as a statue, such as the ones commemorating Augustus as a pacifier: “Desde los pies me alzo como estatua”66 (ibid., 5). For the New Men, history is no longer unfolding and the Cuban Revolution has reached its end: “Veo caer el tiempo piedra a piedra: brumosa percepcion es el destino que se hunde”67 (ibid.). The New Men, like Augustus, are powerless because they face the catastrophe of history as well as an uncanny revolution. Yet the New Men, like Augustus, are also ready to fulfill their duty to pacify the Republic through a new reformist project: “todo lo que pude contra el tiempo es una hoja de laurel”68 (ibid.). This reformist political praxis, to which the previous stanza alludes, refers to a real project undertaken by a group of Cuban intellectuals between 1986 and 1993. Marques de Armas and Ponte were among the artists who launched the Paideia Project, which, as its name suggests, was a program of cultural action influenced by the Gramscian ideal of cultural praxis as an active social reform. One of the project’s most challenging claims was that artistic practices could no longer be developed without taking into account the country’s new economic and social realities that those practices represented. As I will show in the final chapter, the goal of Paideia intellectuals was to establish a dialogue with the state to fight for their artistic autonomy.
Returning to the poem, we notice that although the poet wants to attempt a reformist project within the revolution, his yearning to escape the island is even stronger. The existence of an outside symbolized by the arrival of the boats awakens a very last hope for all those who want to abandon the island: “Con vehemencia estrujaria esa hoja, pero se escucha el soplo de los barcos ultimos. El horizonte es una linea, otra serpiente se abre en mil cabezas”69 (Marques de Armas 1993, 5). As the New Man considers leaving the island and thus taking on a new identity, the horizon soon becomes a fate rendered unattainable by the mythological monster that blocks his departure from the island. The poem tells us that there remains one alternative, since the New Man may destroy his work before it can destroy him. The poem reminds us that this is what Virgil was going to do with the Aeneid before Augustus decided to publish it. Thus, if we follow the allegory, Virgil could have destroyed the Aeneid, and the New Man could have given up on a Paideia project that could not fulfill its promise:
“Quemo Virgilio su Eneida, quemaria yo mi Roma o no tendremos el valor de Edipo que nos apunta con su baculo ciego”70 (ibid.). As we all know, however, neither the Aeneid nor the Paideia project were burned, and the New Men could not alter the revolutionary course of History, since in both cases the hegemonic ideological power banned it. That is why the New Man can predict his new future in an island in turmoil, as was Rome when Augustus took power: “Arde la ciudad y estoy al centro”71 (ibid.). Preventing the burning of the Aeneid helped achieve the goals of the hegemonic power that the epic poem was defending. It also helped Augustus to become the emperor who achieved the pax romana. Why can the New Man not burn the city and end the revolutionary dream? Because there is no outside to the ideology of the Cuban Revolution. This is why when the city burns it generates a new image replicating the old order: “Pero el humo tambien crece. Alla arriba dibuja una ciudad semejante”72 (ibid.). The revolutionary order has an infinite temporality like the mythological serpent whose heads appear again every time they are severed. We thus see that the poem reveals a melancholic internal logic. In the paradigm of this logic, intellectuals still believe that the revolutionary order can transform itself ideologically from within. That is why the object of desire is the arrival of a different revolutionary order such as the one proposed by Paideia. This order would not be defined through a cultural exceptionalism in the vein of Marti, as Marques de Armas’s intertextual reference to one of his poems indicates: “Habria mas memoria si no asomara tanto ciervo entre laminas de humo”73 (ibid.). As we have already seen, the deer is a reference to one of Marti’s most famous poems: “Mi verso es de un verde claro y de un carmin encendido: / Mi verso es un ciervo herido / Que busca en el monte amparo”74 (Marti, 2007, 307). In Marti, national identity is defined through the fantasy of an original materiality. Marques’s poem refers ironically to this ideological Cuban history to show how it prevents the emergence of a historical memory. For Marques, the new era emerging with a different historical sense is symbolized by the arrival of the other deer: “Tras las huecas canas otean otros ciervos, avanzan presurosos como las llamas por la noche”75 (Marques de Armas 1993, 5). This desire closes the poem, however, as a fantasy for restitution of the lost object, which is also a different revolutionary order amid the Cuban Revolution of the present: “En mis manos una hoja de laurel”76 (ibid.). As we know, Lacan argues that desire only exists as a lack, and Abraham and Torok characterize this lack as an open wound. Melancholics, according to Abraham and Torok, tend to close this wound by incorporating a fantasy (Abraham and Torok 1994, 135). The delirium thus translates into the notion that the lack, the void, can only be avoided by holding on to the lost object: the revolutionary order, which is symbolized by the bay leaf that Augustus holds as the city burns. This fantasy is of the possibility of changing the revolution from within, as the Paideia project endeavored to do. The poem’s rhetorical choices also tell us that one of the goals of Marques de Armas’s poetry is to recover and reuse the Lezamian metaphor. After the silencing of Lezama Lima’s works during the seventies and the hegemony of conversationalist poetry, many works of poetry revived Lezamian baroque style.77 The dense Lezamian metaphors allowed these works to acquire a philosophical and spiritual depth that the conversationalist poetry lacked. This stylistic choice meant two things. On the one hand, it indicated that the New Man was no longer willing to sacrifice his future for the revolution. On the other hand, it implied that the New Man, like Fernandez Retamar’s Caliban, was going to use the revolutionary language of his masters to fight against them. In the poem it becomes clear that Marques de Armas’s style both points to these two goals and, simultaneously, reveals a lack that the New Man cannot confront. It is “the void” that appears after the destruction of the city and its infinite replica: “Entre ambas esta el vacio y los cuerpos que giran sin tocar la sal”78 (Marques de Armas 1993, 5). The only thing left is a void, the horror, and there is nothing worse than approaching a (w) hole. This void is there to show that the poem still longs for a melancholic restitution of the past symbolized by a Lezamian approach to the revolution from within the revolution itself. The New Man is left with a history that is a fantasy and with a void he dares not approach. This (w)hole symbolizes the absence of the New Man’s own language. No longer wanting to be Caliban, the New Man needs to find his own voice.
A similar uncanny reproduction of the lost object occurs in Ponte’s fantastic short story “Un arte de hacer ruinas” (“An Art of Making Ruins”). This Borgesian story narrates a conspiracy in present-day Havana, but in allegorical terms it is a story about memory. The story explores one of Ponte’s most recurrent and Benjaminian metaphors, the representation of history and memory through architectural spaces. In this case, the story addresses the architectural decay of Havana, as well as the social problem created by the lack of housing, with the consequent need to build new living spaces. As I will explain, these two opposing forces—destruction and construction—are the two key concepts on which the allegorical meaning of the story is deployed. More specifically, the story uses the barbacoa as a spatial metaphor, because it conveys both ideas in a paradoxical manner, as we shall see. Barbacoas have become a very typical way to cope with the housing problem. Cubans take advantage of the high ceilings of their colonial houses to build newer rooms or barbacoas in the underused space of the ceilings. This means that Cubans can only solve their housing problem by contributing to the decay of the city and the destruction of its buildings. This is the paradox that the narrative will emphasize by creating a plot where two professors and a doctoral candidate in civil engineering are caught up in a conspiracy imagined by evil creatures, the tugures, who plan to destroy all the buildings in the city. Tugures are fictional characters whose name comes from the word tugurio, which in Spanish refers to a small, cheap place. The story takes place in an unknown time and place that the reader easily associates with contemporary Havana. Thus, in Havana, buildings are ruined by their excessive interior changes, and by urban policies that fail to plan newer constructions. In this context, tugures occupy buildings to turn them into ruins. Tugures do not intend to live in the buildings, which they ruin because their real objective is to build downward. Thus, the first allegorical level of the story has to do with construction, as I will explain below.
The story ends when the narrator finally finds his way into Tuguria, the underground city that the tugures have been constructing. When he reaches the entrance to Tuguria, he discovers to his horror that before him lays an exact replica of Havana. After the buildings collapse in the real city, the tugures rebuild them underground: “Y frente a un edificio al que faltaba una de sus paredes, comprendi que esa pared, en pie aun en el mundo de arriba, no demoraria en llegarle [And facing a building that was missing one of its walls, I understood that this wall, still standing in the world above ground, would soon arrive here]” (Ponte 2000, 39). This reproduction is indeed the only memory of the city as it used to be in the past, before buildings began collapsing, thus turning the city into a wasteland: “Solo asi . . . habria llegado a Tuguria, la ciudad hundida, donde todo se conservaba como en la memoria [Only thus . . . would I have arrived in Tuguria, the sunken city, where everything was preserved as in memory]” (ibid.). Tuguria is a boundless space, but it is also a place without exit. Tuguria is the simulacrum of the old city of Havana, and that is why it is a dead city whose uncanny appearance inspires both horror and familiarity. This mix of love and horror, recognition and alienation, produces in the narrator an infinite nostalgia.
Slavoj Zizek agrees with Graham Greene who, in The End of the Affair, claims that the protagonist’s sorrow at the death of his wife should be less painful than his sorrow for her absence while alive. Zizek finds the protagonist’s rummaging through his dead wife’s belongings unrealistic. While she was still alive, the husband felt her unexplained absences, when he might imagine she was with her lover; but after death she cannot be anywhere: “Because she’s always away, she’s never away,” Zizek writes. “You see, she’s never anywhere else. She’s not having lunch with anybody, she’s not at a cinema with you. There’s nowhere for her to be but at home” (Zizek 2001, 144). For Zizek, this episode perfectly illustrates the logic of the melancholic identification, because the object is overrepresented in its unconditional and irrecoverable loss.
This is exactly what occurs in Ponte’s story, because Tuguria the city is overrepresented in its unconditional and irrecoverable loss. Tuguria and Havana are inversely proportional, and that is also how nostalgic identification works, which is why Tuguria grows at the same pace as Havana deteriorates and crumbles. Havana’s decadence and the projection of its well-known disappearance augment its spiritual image. The narrative thus expresses the impossibility of getting rid of the lost object and of Havana’s need to become “la ciudad hundida, donde todo se conserva como en la memoria [the sunken city, where everything was preserved as in memory] (Ponte, 2000 39). The melancholic never lost anything, because he never had it. He never possessed Havana, which explains why, through his unconditional fixation on the city, he can possess what he never had. It is only at the end of the story that the narrator understands the melancholic investment that so many Cubans—including Reina Maria Rodriguez, to whom the story is dedicated—have had in the revolution. All of them have been tugures at some point in their lives: “Entonces las circunstancias hacen de ti un tugur [So the circumstances make you into a tugur]” (Ponte 2000, 34). Their blind and intense belief in the revolution made them all desire the restitution of an object that they thought was lost but that never existed, as the narrator discovers at the end of the story. This explains why he suddenly recalls and understands the enigmatic meaning of the Lord Dunsany story that his grandfather used to tell him: “Mi pensamiento esta muy lejos, en la soledad de Bethmoora, cuyas puertas baten en el silencio, golpean y crujen en el viento, pero nadie las oye. . . . No hay luces en sus casas, ni pisadas en sus calles. Esta muerta y mas alla de los montes, y yo quisiera ver de nuevo a Bethmoora pero no me atrevo [My thoughts are very far away, in the solitude of Bethmoora, whose doors swing in the silence, slam and creak in the wind, but no one hears them. . . . No lights are on in its houses, no footsteps in its streets. It is dead and beyond the hills, and I wish I could see Bethmoora again but I don’t dare]” (ibid., 40). The narrator finally understands that the melancholic memory can only lead to a pathological re-creation of a revolution that was never there to begin with.
As I have indicated, the destruction of the city inaugurates the second level of the allegory. If we measure history in spatial terms, as in the story, we realize that history does not progress toward the future, since the city grows inward. Like space, history and time do not progress. They can only go in circles accreting wreckage upon wreckage. The wreckages of history pile up, arresting its course. As a result of the city’s spatial extension, one can live in different ages simultaneously, among ruins each from its own historical period. The narrator tells us that because of the city’s present condition, its destruction is imminent. How does one interpret the ruins of the city? In Havana, as in Benjaminian German and baroque drama, fragments superim?posed upon one another to create new metaphors and meaning. The result is a whole that is more perfect in its destruction than the ruins of the past to which it refers. History slips through the interstices of the ruin, and what appears through those ruins is the decadence of history. History can come into existence only as a ruin and never as the hope for a different future.
Yet the Benjaminian city, like Havana, miraculously resists: “Una ciudad con tan pocos cimientos y que carga mas de lo soportable, solo puede explicarse por flotacion . . . Estatica milagrosa [A city with so few foundations and that bears more than is bearable can only be explained by floatation . . . miraculous statics]” (Ponte 2000, 30). What makes the city resist is the complex dialectics to which it is subjected: “podia entenderse como la lucha entre tugurizacion y estatica milagrosa [It could be understood as the struggle between tugurizacion and miraculous statics]” (ibid., 31). This constant tension between these two forces is never resolved, and this is also what makes it so crucial, since what it is telling us is that any possibility for a future or a progress will be foreclosed unless our memory of history achieves this particular balance between destruction and reconstruction. In other words, although the Cuban Revolution will not be forgotten, we can no longer ask it to deliver the promise we once thought it would bring. Thus, we must listen to what the ruins are telling us about history and understand that history has been defeated. Like the Benjaminian angel of history, we cannot forget to look back at the ravages of the past when we are being pushed by the winds of progress. Yet we should not wish to inhabit the past either.
If the ruins reflect the state of history, the allegories reflect the state of language or form. We know that, according to Benjamin, “Allegories are in the realm of thought, what ruins are in the world of things” (Benjamin 1998, 178). But if the ruins of the city make us think of baroque German drama, Ponte’s language does not. Ponte’s metaphors are not knotty; they do not arise out of a conglomerate of diverse signifiers, as happens in the baroque prose of Lezama Lima or in “Monologo de Augusto.” Ponte’s metaphors do not dwell on parody, and, in contrast to a predominant pattern characterizing his generation, his style does not convey the idea of a language that is in ruins and that reflects on its own impossibility to speak about history. On the contrary, following the Benjaminian tradition, Ponte speaks through allegory. In this sense, allegories help us understand the materiality of thought and its possibility to speak about the historical in an ontological manner, transforming things into signs. For Benjamin, the allegory is an experience of the world, but it is always a fragmentary and incomplete one. This is exactly what happens in Ponte’s story, which gives us an unfinished image of what the future and the work of memory could be. The emphasis in Ponte’s prose is articulated through the choice of certain signs that speak to us about the world. For Ponte, language does not evoke history through its ruins; it evokes history through its allegorical power.
The conversationalist poetry and the detective novels of the seventies best symbolize the national allegories of closure and plenitude promoted by the state. As we have seen, however, all of them are haunted by the melancholic rhetoric of the New Man. This melancholic force returns again in many of the works of the early nineties, as “Monologo de Augusto” exemplifies. There is a substantial difference, however, between the works of the early nineties and those that preceded them. While “El otro” by Fernandez Retamar demands a sacrificial act and the restitution of an imagined revolution, “Monologo de Augusto” is an allegory about the scarcity of the revolution. Yet the poem is still anchored in a revolution that believes in its ability to reform. This fantasy is precisely what turns the scarcity into a void. In the later poetics of Marques de Armas, we will see how this lack is articulated through a language that is in ruins and can no longer speak about history.
This void also symbolizes Cuba’s ongoing historical crisis, which is reflected by the historicity’s disavowal in contemporary Cuba, as I argued in the introduction. “Un arte de hacer ruinas,” however, unveils the melancholic attachment to the revolution and its hopeless political results. Its allegorical nature is not an attempt to create a vicarious system to compensate for the lack of a historical totality, as was the case with much conversationalist poetry. Instead, it opens up history to a future whose condition of possibility is the remembrance of the wounds of the past. In other words, Ponte’s prose tells us that history can only unravel through a process that will foster progress (expenditure or construction) through a politics of memory (scarcity or destruction). Unfortunately, the allegorical nature of Ponte’s work also leads to the creation of images, such as the ruin, that like the “imago lezamiana” lend themselves to easy ideological appropriation by official state discourse and to commodification by a neoliberal world market whose machinery of production cannot survive without constantly creating desires and needs.