Deadening Lezama in the Sixties and Seventies

The cultural policies of the sixties and the seventies were mostly guided by Fidel’s ominous pronouncement, “Con la Revolution, todo; contra la Revolution, nada” (“Within the Revolution, everything; outside the Revolution, nothing”). This injunction took on a ghostly power that presided over the creative process of every intellectual; it became the main ethical duty of the writer to practice engaged literature (litterature engagee). Castro’s dictum reaffirmed the idea that under the Revolution, politics were defined in a Schmittian sense as the antagonism between friends and enemies. Those who did not follow Castro’s directive were considered unethical counterrevolutionaries, enemies of the regime. Castro’s injunction made an impossible demand of intellectuals: to obey a law whose limits were undecipherable and unknown. In other words, where did a revolutionary critique of the new existing order begin, and when did that critique become counterrevolutionary? Since the limits of the law were not clearly enunciated, there was ample room for arbitrary decisions.

This is why I posit that Castro’s injunction was also the product of the sovereign regime of power, which, intellectually speaking, unfolded according to its right to make die, as it did with Lezama’s work. Sovereign power also dictated arbitrary cultural policies establishing which intellectuals would be supported and allowed to thrive, and which ones would be silenced and repudiated. Critics rejected Lezama for not conforming to the norms of colloquialism. Scholars condemned his aestheticism, his metaphysical themes, and the autonomy of literature that his writing symbolized. Lezama’s her- metism, which Fernandez Retamar had praised, was no longer acceptable because it contradicted the social function of literature. As I discussed in chapter 1, contrary to Ernesto Guevara’s claim in “Socialism and Man in Cuba,” socialist realism had a significant presence in Cuban art, especially regarding poetry. One of the main premises of colloquialism was that form and content had to mirror each other. Colloquialism or social poetry loosely followed a number of rules devised by Jean-Paul Sartre, whose poetics had considerable influence among Cuban intellectuals in the sixties. These included the requirement that literature give an objective testimony of reality, which precluded a subjective and lyrical account of the world and led to the transformation of realism into social realism. For Sartre, theory and praxis were inseparable: the writer had to be a hero, in the mold of Jose Marti. As a poetic movement based on political imagery and direct language, colloquialism repudiated Lezama’s writing.

In his analysis of the portrayals of Lezama and Ongenes published in the Revista de Casa de las Americas, Juan Carlos Quintero-Herencia quotes some of the most hostile ones, such as Roberto Branly’s remarks in his appraisal of the poet Pedro de Oraa in Casa de las Americas 9:

En ambas vertientes, Oraa trasluce su tiempo horadado por el cristal de la poesia, en imagenes fluyentes y acabadas, como surgidas del pincel barroco, donde una estetica—que obviamente hoy dia el propio autor no comparte plenamente—emerge con sus mitos de remanso quieto, fijo, atento y contemplativo. Es decir: esa mitologia de la imagen “pura” traspasada por la espiral de pensamiento idealista que esplendiera en los poetas de la revista Origenes. Verbigracia del circulo etereo de la “insularidad,” su paisaje venturoso y tenue y otras especies del diminuto universo criollo, vigente solo en la vision parcial de los origenistas. Claro que es ahora, en la Nueva Cuba donde nuestro pueblo ejercita cabalmente su revolucion patriotica, democratica y socialista, donde la realidad genuina—no afiebrada por “intuiciones”; sino eso: genuina—nos es dable aprehender, partiendo efectivamente de su interpretacion raigal y exacta: el marxismo leninismo.

[Oraa reveals his time transpierced by the crystal of poetry. In fluid and refined imagery, as if traced by a baroque brush, an aesthetics (which obviously the author himself no longer fully shares) emerges with its myths of a tranquil, still, attentive, and contemplative haven. That is, the mythology of the “pure” image shot through by the spiral of idealistic thought that flourished in the poets of the journal Origenes, the verbal grace of the ethereal circle of “insularity,” its happy and delicate landscape, and other matters of the diminutive criollo universe, which function only in the tendentious visions of the Origenists. It is clear that now, in the New Cuba in which our people fully wages its patriotic, democratic, and socialist revolution, in which we can perceive genuine reality—not feverish [afiebrada] by “intuitions” but, precisely, genuine reality—basing ourselves in its fundamental and precise interpretation: Marxism Leninism.] (qtd. in Quintero Herencia 1997, 94)

Branly’s hostility is directed toward the poetics that Lezama shared with Oraa. Branly opposes revolutionary materialism to Lezama’s idealism, which, like Vitier, he defines in its most vulgar sense as an idea that can create a reality. During the sixties and the seventies, revolutionary critics dismissed the hermetic and transcendental nature of Lezama’s work because it could not materialize the political ethos that the revolution demanded. During the eighties and nineties, however, official critics began defending the transcendental nature of Lezama’s poetics by interpreting his work as an allegory of the revolution’s teleological project. Cultural policy privileged a certain interpretation of Lezama to ideologically reify his work. Like Santi, Antonio Jose Ponte alludes to this phenomenon in discussing the critical impoverishment of Lezama’s scholarly criticism (Ponte 1998, 2-3.)

 
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