The Body, Pleasure, and Baroque: Lezamian Poetics of the Early Nineties

The children of the revolution also took part in the general upsurge of scholarship dealing with issues of sexuality and gender in Lezama’s work. They did this for two reasons. First, they sought to challenge past scholarship, including of the kind we have just discussed. Second, they hoped to develop a new model of poetics that, like Lezama’s, would focus on language. Until the eighties, Lezama had been studied in Cuba from social or philosophical perspectives, but issues of sexuality had remained taboo. The possibility of open debates about queer representations in Paradiso or Oppiano Licario marked a crucial ideological shift in Lezama studies. While these new critical perspectives were certainly welcome and well received, cultural officials were concerned that postmodernity, and especially the arrival of a market economy, would be accompanied by the wrong values.

In fact, young intellectuals had lost trust in the grand narratives of the Left and had turned toward postmodernism. Official cultural discourse, however, was still grounded in ideologies of emancipation. Both official and emerging discourses focused on the representation of sexuality in Lezama’s work, which not only experienced a revival in the eighties, but also nurtured the discourse about life, reproduction, and sexuality that official ideology was so intent on promoting. This focus on sexuality was also very revealing because, paradoxically, both the newer and older generations of critics revived the fifties’ view of Lezama as a transcendental writer. The generations took different political positions, however: official critics praised Lezama’s transcendentalism, whereas younger poets were critical of it. Official critics used transcendentalism to disavow the presence of homosexual desire and puissance in Lezama’s writing. By opposition, younger intellectuals celebrated the inclusion of homosexual and sexual desire in Paradiso and Oppiano Licario. Marques de Armas’s Fasaculos de Lezama, which offered a psychoanalytical reading of sexuality in both novels, was a good example of the latter. This debate demonstrated the importance attributed to life and reproduction, and the decisive role they played in shaping cultural policies geared toward the ideological control over life, as opposed to a repressive politics. Power had not relinquished its ideological manipulation of the population. What had changed was the way of exerting it. This debate had larger ideological implications for different interpretations of Lezama, and for the ethical understanding of power.

Lezama’s baroque representations of the body were decisive in this debate about language and life, because the baroque is deeply ingrained in Christianity, a system of belief based on the relationship between the body and the word. As is well known, the body plays a crucial role in the symbolic representation of the Christian rituals. The word becomes flesh; that is, the Word of God is materialized through the body of Christ. We attain the word (truth) through communion with God and by incorporating His body through the sacred ritual of the Eucharist. By eating holy bread, Christians receive the body of Christ and become one with Him. The revelation of the word of Christ brings plenitude, bliss, or jouissance, because it also means truth. The debate about Lezama revolved around the relationship between truth (word) and pleasure (sexuality). Was Lezama’s representation of sexuality a vindication of pleasure or Lacanian jouissance, or was it umbued with theological undertones? In other words, did it articulate an ideology motivated by the control and power over the body (or life), or did it, on the contrary, represent an affirmation of sexuality as pure desire? These were the points of contention at the heart of the debate between the generations of the fifties and the eighties.

Diaspora(s) rejected the transcendental representation of sexuality articulated by the baroque body. Whereas in the eighties, as we saw in the previous chapter, members of Diaspora(s) as well as other young poets reappropriated Lezama’s baroque style in search of a more complex understanding of language, in the nineties they rejected the baroque and its concomitant transcendentalism.13 Marques de Armas took his generation of writers to task for adopting Lezama’s transcendental, baroque style. In his assessment of Lezamian-influenced poetry of the early nineties, Marques de Armas implied that Lezama was a transcendentalist poet because Lezama believed in the unity of word and spirit:

Con Lezama se iba a producir una avalancha del signo, y una nueva puesta en escena del barroco. De modo que las tres “D” que le constituyen en tanto estilo, pronto cayeron sobre nosotros.

Claro que hubo en la mayoria de los casos como era de esperarse, mas “delicia” que “delirio y aun mas que “derroche.” La solucion pues se abrio en lugar de hacia el verbo hacia el espiritu. Y puesto que el propio Lezama sostenia la unidad de ambos en vez de sus diferencias, el resultado fue, en la manera en que le asumimos, puro trascendentalismo.

[Lezama created an avalanche of the sign and a new mise en scene of the baroque, such that the three D’s that comprise it as a style would soon fall upon us. Of course, as one might expect, in most cases, this was more “delight” than “delirium” and still more than “dissipation.” The solution, then, revealed itself not toward the word but toward the spirit. And given that Lezama himself argued for the unity of the two rather than for their differences, the result was, in the way we consider it, pure transcendentalism.] (Marques de Armas 1997,


Marques de Armas offered here one of the main critiques of the baroque present throughout Diaspora(s)’s work. This view equates the baroque with Christianity, the spirituality that it represents, as well as the Aristotelian paradigm on which it is based. That is to say, this critique rejects the idea that conceives the body and the soul as a unity. The main goal of Christianity and the baroque is the knowledge of truth, whose revelation, Lacan argues, causes jouissance: “everything is exhibition of the body evoking jouissance” (Lacan 1998, 113). That is, in Christianity, truth can always be reached, and when that occurs, a feeling of plenitude ensues because the body and the soul become one. Lacan argues, however, that the union with the body of Christ may produce jouissance, but it does not produce knowledge. What produces jouissance is the phantasy of a union with God and the promise of bliss. If there is no knowledge, and the soul is one with the body, then the plenitude can only be expressed in sensual terms. Thus, according to Lacan, everything in baroque art is an exhibition of obscene bodies.14 What is at stake, then, is the fact that, as in Christianity, baroque is a vehicle allowing the body soul, and the word to form a transcendental unity. In other words, this poetic language shows the quest for a transcendental otherness, which in Christianity is God qua truth.

Victor Fowler, who was at the forefront of the nascent critical literature about homosexuality and pleasure, read sexuality in Lezama in the same Lacanian way. He was one of the first who debated and defended the sensual pleasure of the text. La maldicion: Una historia de placer como conquista (The Curse: A History of Pleasure as Conquest) was the collection of essays that he devoted to that topic. One of the collection’s essays dealt with the representation of sexuality in Lezama’s Paradiso. In his interpretation of Lezama, Fowler went farther than Marques de Armas because, like Lacan, he interpreted Lezama’s writing as a symptom of Lezama’s sexual fears. He did this by asking first why sexuality in Lezama never ends in the body and instead transcends the physical in search of a relationship with God. That is, for Lacan, sexual relations only happen as a phantasy, such as the Christian one in which the subject, by incorporating the body of Christ, becomes one with Him. Obscenity is what is “being said”—it corresponds to language. But why is the Christian passion represented by bodies instead of words? Lacan explains that this points to a lack, which needs to be filled with the word or truth that cannot be reached. Lezama’s baroque language is, as Fowler indicates, a constant tropological amalgamation of words. It is the revelation that jouissance, in the form of truth incorporated as body, is sexual pleasure (hence the erotic undertones of Santa Teresa de Jesus’s or Fray Luis de Leon’s mystic poetry). For Lacan, “The baroque is the regulating of the soul by corporeal radioscopy [Le baroque c’est la regulation de l’ame par la scopie corporelle]” (1998, 116 [1975, 147]). The soul cannot be explained by the body. Instead, the soul “speaks” through the presence or absence of the body, that is, through a body that is present as phantasy but not in a symbolic form:

Laberintos y citas eruditas, torcimientos tropologicos, enrevesada sintaxis, juego de los conceptos, acciones de los personajes, mul- titud de figuras miticas, difuminacion del significado, todo esta al servicio de la tarea escrita. Sorprende entonces, desde nuestra optica, la violenta pureza que el cuerpo necesita para no despenarse en lo que se imagina como abismo o caos. Fronesis acechado por Focion, pero salvado al transformar la copula con Lucia en acto de poesia, posesion casi por imagen; Focion enamorado de Fronesis y condenado en Paradiso, aunque salvado en Oppiano Licario al colocar el placer con la imagen en el lugar del goce de los cuerpos; el Tio Alberto rodeado en la adolescencia por figuras demoniacas que se cruzan con el despertar de la sexualidad. El gran peligro de la poesia es entonces la carne, la inmediatez, el goce que principia y termina en el cuerpo, la idea implicita a esta actitud de que nada existe mas alla. A fin de cuentas, la negacion de Dios.

[Labyrinths and erudite allusions, tropological meanderings, convoluted syntax, playing with concepts, actions of characters, a multitude of mythical figures, blurring of meaning, all of this is in service of the written task. From our point of view, we are thus surprised by the violent purity that the body requires in order not to fall into what is seen as an abyss or chaos. Fronesis is pursued by Focion but saved when he transforms his copulation with Lucia into an act of poetry, into possession almost by image; Focion enamored of Fronesis and condemned in Paradiso but later saved in Oppiano Licario when he replaces the pleasures of the flesh with pleasure in the image; Uncle Alberto surrounded in adolescence by demonic figures that encounter each other to awaken sexuality. The great danger faced by poetry is thus that of the flesh, of immediacy, of pleasure that begins and ends in the body, the idea implicit in this attitude that nothing exists beyond the body. In sum, the negation of God.] (Fowler 1998, 68)

In his analysis of Paradiso, Fowler argues that sexuality and pleasure are at the core of the novel. Fowler claims that in Lezama’s Catholic representation, the body and the soul are always united by transcending sexuality and reaching the “imago” (the poetic and ontological image of Lezama’s symbolic system). He then asks why there is always an excessive presence of sexuality in Lezama that always transcends bodily pleasure. Sexuality leads to pleasure, but it is always a pleasure in words, and not just in the senses. Since poetry (words) and sexuality are one, the fear of pure sexuality is also a fear of words. Ultimately, according to Lezama’s Catholic practice, words are the Truth of God. Therefore, the fear of an absence of words actually conceals a deeper fear: that of God’s nonexistence. In other words, knowledge and truth are a horror vacui that words try to shroud, and Lezama is represented once more as the transcendentalist writer Fernandez Retamar “created” in the fifties.

This view of Lezama reflected Diaspora(s)’s anxiety about their political position. The excessive stylistic ornamentation of the early nineties was the symptom of a disavowal. Baroque expresses the subject’s unwillingness to recognize that truth is absent. In other words, baroque’s convoluted language hid the impossibility of reaching truth. Consequently, Diaspora(s)’s hermeneutic position was as a sign of its members’ anxiety about the lack of a political referent. That is, ideologically speaking, Diaspora(s) members did not believe in the existence of absolute truth. Their representation of the world clearly stated this absence. At the same time their poetics was devoid of sexuality, sensuality, or pleasure. Their sober language revealed emotional restraint. We have to remember that some of these writers had developed a baroque poetics in the eighties. Consequently, some of them experienced a pendular movement from baroque to scarcity. They went from the excessive jouissance of baroque poetics to the lack of affect. Did this new movement reveal a reaction to biopolitical power and to the sentimentalist and transcendental rhetoric it had produced?

Biopolitical power is the regulation of the soul, which is simultaneously a control of the body. Unlike disciplinary control, which aims to repress and silence sexuality, biopolitics produces discourses to control the practice and representation of sexuality. Why did all critics, of the older and the newer generations alike, reinterpret Lezama as a transcendental writer? In baroque art, as in Christianity, plenitude is always conveyed through sensuality, which does not necessarily imply the revelation of truth. In Christianity, truth and plenitude are reached through the union of the body and the spirit: the body of Christ, which is also the word of Christ. If truth is absent, however, we are left exclusively with the body. The body bereft of spirituality becomes pornographic. Thus, to avoid sexuality qua degeneration, criticism reads Lezama as a transcendental writer. This is also the latest mechanism to control the soul. Sexuality as pornography is what the regime fears the most, because it is also what the market brings forth. But why is this new form of governmentality required? The answer lies in the development of the market economy and its corollary, an independent civil society.

Whereas official critics wished to obliterate the body to foster a politics of reproduction, the new poetics of the eighties, including Diaspora(s), sought to obliterate the word. For these writers, reaching that goal without falling into pornography meant to annihilate the body. Since the baroque transcendental movement demanded the union of the body and the word, by erasing the body, these writers were also erasing the word (baroque poetics). But the members of Diaspora(s) denounced this gesture as insufficient. For them, poetics had to do away with the sexual and physical bliss represented in Lezama’s work. These poetics also had to eliminate the sentimentalism that had replaced jouissance in their early poetry of the eighties. Diaspora(s)’s rejection of sentimentalism was also a rejection of the bucolic, which is according to Rojas, the genre that articulates the paradisiac imaginary of Marxist utopia (Rojas 1998, 146). Their reaction to sentimentalism and biopolitics was to completely erase the body and affect.

We have seen in previous chapters how the poetics of the sixties also lacked a representation of genuine emotion and affect. These poetics were characterized by artificiality, and I have defined them as melodramatic because of their sentimentality, the strong ethical polarity, and the Man- ichaeism they conveyed. As in melodrama, the goal was to create a strong bond between the reader and typified heroic characters willing to sacrifice their lives for the cause. Instead, Diaspora(s)’s poetics displays no artificial or exaggerated sentiments, no genuine plenitude or bliss, no dramatic spleen. How does one read this absolute lack of emotional indexicality?

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