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Critical Essay by Raymond D. Souza
SOURCE: "The Sensorial World of Lezama Lima," in Major Cuban Novelists: Innovation and Tradition, University of Missouri Press, 1976, pp. 53-79.
In the following essay, Souza discusses the structure of Paradiso, focusing on Lezama Lima's symbolic use of characters and the story's themes, which include time, chaos, and freedom.
Carpentier's and José Lezama Lima's works are often considered by critics as baroque, that is, complex and ornate. When used in this general sense, particularly with Lezama Lima, the term is an appropriate one, for Paradiso is the most complex novel ever published in Cuba. Indeed, it is perhaps the most intricate novel in Spanish America, and the author's imaginative genius both attracts and baffles the readers. This explains in part the mistaken proclivity of some to consider Lezama Lima as the Cuban answer to James Joyce. The works of both authors are complex, and Lezama Lima and Joyce reflect an amazing ability to use language in unusual and unexpected manners, but the essence of their art is different. Lezama Lima's work is as much an affirmation of one cultural context as Joyce's is a denial of another. Lezama Lima was relatively unknown in Spanish America before the publication of Paradiso in 1966. As with Carpentier, international fame and recognition came to him late in his career. Prior to the appearance of Paradiso, Lezama Lima was mainly known to those interested in Cuban literature for his poetry and to those outside of Cuba for his distinguished editorship of the literary journal Orígenes (1944–1956). Paradiso won quick acclaim, for it gained the praise and support of writers such as Julio Cortázar, one of Argentina's and South America's most eminent and internationally accepted writers. The novel also received a great deal of notoriety for its frank and explicit exploration of homosexuality, a theme practically unheard of in Spanish-American letters. However, the homosexual theme has been greatly overemphasized, for it is not the most important motif in the novel. Rather, it is only one of the many ways the author explores an adolescent's movement from multiplicity to unity.
Lezama Lima narrates in Paradiso the fortunes and destiny of the Cemí family, a process that examines several branches of the family tree. In this respect, the novel represents a search for meaning in the past and a quest for significance in origins. The main events in the work take place between the waning years of the nineteenth century and the third decade of the present. A series of characters occupies central stage in Paradiso, but José Cemí, who is only five years old when the work opens, emerges as the main subject in the novel. Many of the excursions into the past that transpire in Paradiso investigate the origins of people who greatly influence José's life. His parents, important relatives, and intimate friends inspire or govern decisive phases of his development, and by the end of the novel José is ready to enter into the world alone and to embark on adventures of his own. Thus, Paradiso can be considered as a compendium of forces that move through time and space to converge on the living entity formed by José. Like Carpentier, Lezama Lima deeply respects the influence that the past has on the present and the future.
Paradiso opens with José desperately struggling for air as he experiences a severe attack of asthma. His frantic efforts to breathe attract the attention of Baldovina, a servant who has been left to care for him while his parents attend an opera. Terrified and uncertain of how to cope with the situation, Baldovina seeks the help of two other servants. They respond to Baldovina's plea by performing a ritual that involves the formation of crosses on the sufferer's body. When they complete this strange ceremony, they suddenly and without explanation depart, leaving Baldovina to handle the situation as best as she can. She rubs José with alcohol and pours hot drops of wax on the welts that have appeared on his entire body. When José's parents arrive later, the attack has subsided, and after being informed as to what has happened, they conclude that their son "estaba vivo por puro y sencillo milagro."
There is much in the content and presentation of the introduction to Lezama Lima's novel and the way he creates and moves through it. After presenting the reader with José's critical situation, he gives an elaborate and poetic description of the Cemí family's home. It is not a description that is designed merely to give an objective picture of a certain material reality, but one that also captures the essence of the people who live there and their relations to one another. Baldovina, for example, is fearful of the consequences of her responsibility to care for José, and in her mind she has already suffered through the questioning that experience tells her she will be submitted to once again. Her feelings on the matter and her relationship to José's father, an army Colonel, are conveyed in a striking passage that uses sound and space as the basis of most of its images:
Después llegaba el Coronel y era ella la que tenía que sufrir una ringlera de preguntas, a la que respondía con nerviosa inadvertencia, quedándole un contrapunto con tantos altibajos, sobresaltos y mentiras, que mientras el Coronel baritonizaba sus carcajadas, Baldovina se hacía leve, desaparecía, desaparecía, y cuando se la llamaba de nuevo hacía que la voz atravesase una selva oscura, tales imposibilidades, que había que nutrir ese eco de voz con tantas voces, que ya era toda la casa la que parecía haber sido llamada, y que a Baldovina, que era sólo un fragmento de ella, le tocaba una partícula tan pequeña que había que reforzarla con sus nuevos perentorios, cargando más el potencial de la onda sonora.
We are left with an impression of a timid and almost mute Baldovina, contrasted with the strength and loquacity of the Colonel and his authority. She is like a small echo of an autumn leaf whose destiny is controlled and ordained by the capricious nature of the wind.
As noted, the author opens the first chapter with José's attack of asthma and then pauses in the midst of it to describe the home. The description does not close in on itself but proceeds from a specific reality and then moves outward in a continual movement of expansion. For example, the author goes beyond merely enumerating the books in the Colonel's study, he evokes all the mystery and excitement of their contents. When his attention falls on some papers on the Colonel's desk, a whole new world is created. The Colonel is an engineer who uses his mathematical skills in the practice of artillery, a complex manipulation of time and space that the men under his command do not understand.
They are simply mystified by his ability, and their attitude toward the Colonel's domination of this enigma is captured in a masterful exercise of the imagination. "Sobre el pupitre, cogidos con alcayatas ya oxidadas, papeles donde se diseñaban desembarcos en países no situados en el tiempo ni en el espacio, como un desfile de banda militar china situado entre la eternidad y la nada." In one brilliantly structured sentence, Lezama Lima has humorously synthesized the preciseness of the Colonel's knowledge with the mystification that his ability produces in the soldiers under his command.
After such digressions, the author returns to the narration of José's attack of asthma. He has moved his reader's attention from a specific occurrence to the totality of the world of his characters. This is a creative process that he uses continually throughout the novel. It is something like circles that emanate when an object is dropped into a pool of water—a specific occurrence can open up one's awareness to a much greater area of reality. Lezama Lima continually moves in concentric circles, both in the process of exteriorization and interiorization, and once the reader has grasped this fact, his participation in the novel becomes more meaningful. Lezama Lima creates an entire world, and he does so, in part, by his attempts to portray the total essence of his characters and their surroundings. The reader feels somewhat as if he were blindfolded and on a snap-the-whip at an amusement park. He never knows when the movement will suddenly throw him outward from the center, or when it will cease and bring him back. But the experience is an exciting and stimulating one, as it is a creative process that continually challenges and expands the reader's awareness of the world in which he lives.
José's suffering and the symbolism of the crosses that are placed on his body are significant, for they set the stage for much of the novel's meaning. Paradiso can be taken as the narration of José's search for a basic understanding of the world and the universe. The association of his difficulty breathing during the attack of asthma with the application of the symbol of the cross to his body reveals human existence as a painful struggle, a struggle in which a search is made for a conjunction or synthesis of opposites. The servant's use of the cross represents an appeal to the spiritual world that contrasts vividly with the world of phenomena of José's illness. The crosses can be taken as a symbol of the conjunction of life and death and of the earthly and celestial worlds, a symbol of the mystery and suffering of existence. José's recovery is regarded as a miracle, and no explanation is ever given of his sudden and spontaneous recovery from his bout with death. The setting for José's attempts to penetrate the mystery of life in the novel is really the narration of his process of becoming, his slow movement from a self-awareness that closes in on itself, to an appreciation of all that is exterior. It is a movement from unawareness to awareness, from multiplicity to unity, from chaos to form and order, and its narration is as fascinating to watch as a slow motion film of a blossoming flower. The act of creation mystifies and enchants and fills us with a sense of awe and appreciation for life that is difficult to convey except by means of art. The creative process of the novel is as important as the end result, and Lezama Lima constantly delights his reader with his startling and imaginative images.
The Colonel emerges in Chapter 1 as the center around which all the other members of his family revolve. He is a picture of strength and vitality, a man who knows how to enjoy life to its fullest. He fills the house with sound, and his jovial and forceful loquaciousness is only matched by his gastronomical feats. As the novel progresses, the sickly José, much to his dismay, discovers he cannot live up to his father's expectations. The Colonel finds it difficult to accept that his only son is asthmatic and not athletically inclined.
During the First World War, the Cemí family departs for Jacksonville, Florida, where the Colonel receives advanced military training. While there the Colonel is weakened by a virulent influenza and is hospitalized. His wife Rialta becomes terror stricken as the possibility of his death enters her mind:
Había cobrado pavorosa conciencia de la magnitud del hecho familiar que se avecinaba. Empezaba a comprender lo que para ella resultaba incomprensible, la desaparición, el ocultamiento del fuerte, del alegre, del solucionador, del que había reunido dos familias detenidas por el cansancio de los tejidos minuciosos, comunicándoles una síntesis de allegreto, de cantante alegre paseo matinal.
The Colonel slips into an indescribable loneliness that he associates with death. "Estoy entrando en una soledad, por primera vez en mi vida, que sé es la de la muerte." Although afraid of his approaching death, he dominates his fear and refuses to have his family called to his side, as he does not wish to frighten them. As a result, he dies alone in the most abject loneliness, and Rialta is notified of his death by telephone. "De pronto, como una campanilla que se dilata el rocío de las hojas nocturnas, el teléfono pinchado desde el hospital, pareció querer hablar como un estrangulado." The news of his death and her loneliness remain in her memory and are associated with the sound of the windblown pine trees outside their Florida home. "Así como el coronel José Eugenio Cemí había muerto en la soledad sin término del hospital, Rialta recibía la más sombría noticia de su vida rodeada de extraños, alejada de su madre doña Augusta, oyendo como un hacha el viento lento del enero americano recorrer los pinares."
Rialta returns to Havana with her children and begins to reconstruct their lives, and she finds that she must now take the place of her dead husband. The image of the center and circle is often employed by Lezama Lima in Paradiso. It is perhaps the most significant image in the novel, and he uses this imagery in various ways. Often it is used to connote an individual who is the most important figure in another person's life, and during the novel we see the process of time and change at work, as we witness the dissolution of one circle and the emanation of another. This is the case when the Colonel dies and Rialta is forced to take his place. In another episode when doña Augusta, José's maternal grandmother, feels that she may die, she advises her children that "cada uno de aquellos fragmentos, de los que ella ocupaba el centro, tendría que comenzar en un nuevo centro con nuevas irradiaciones." In a sense, Paradiso can be considered as a set of spirals converging in a circle. Reading the novel is like tracing the course of several spirals, as they move through time and space and slowly come together.
The wedding of Rialta and the Colonel represents the circle image of the formation of an everlasting unified entity:
José Eugenio Cemí y Rialta atolondrados por la gravedad baritonal de los símbolos, después de haber cambiado los anillos, como si la vida de uno se abalanzase sobre la del otro a través de la eternidad del círculo, sintieron por la proliferación de los rostros de familiares y amigos, el rumor de la convergencia en la unidad de la imagen que se iniciaba.
Rialta is pictured as the person who will form the center of a "trenzado laberíntico" during a period of fifty years, in a reference the reader does not fully understand until the Colonel dies. "Comenzaba un extenso trenzado laberíntico, del cual durante cincuenta años, ella sería el centro, la justificación y la fertilidad."
At other times rather than being a symbol of unity, the circle is used as a means of conveying the search for meaning that each individual must experience in his life, with its attendant confusion and chaos. In a fit of rage against a worthless son, Abuela Munda, José's paternal grandmother, states, "Eres un viejo accidente ya entre nosotros, y eso quiere decir que debes ir a buscar tu centro al extranjero." In a more complex manifestation of the circle image, we see José at the age of ten leaving school with a piece of chalk. As he walks he drags the chalk on a wall, and as he does this someone attempts to grab the chalk. Behind the wall there is a large circular patio partially surrounded by small dwellings, and as José nears the end of the wall he is greeted by the shouts and taunts of a child who wants to harass him and to take the chalk from him. The sudden appearance of his tormentor startles him, and the transition is described as if the wall had disappeared and a circle had emerged. "Le parecía a Cemí aquello un remolino de voces y colores, como si el paredón se hubiese derrumbado e instantáneamente se hubiese reconstruido en un patio circular." The taunts of the child continue until an elderly woman recognizes José as the Colonel's son and rescues him. The association of the wall, a straight line, with the circular shape of the patio can be interpreted as a process of interiorization or search that José is to experience in the future. The shouting child could represent the confusion of the exterior world through which José must move; and the chalk, a writing instrument, his means to impose order on chaos—the written word.
The circle image also can represent a momentary escape from time and a return to unity. It is usually presented as a geometrical progression that begins with a square that changes to a circle. Thus, the multilateral shape of the square becomes a unified circle, an image of the movement from multiplicity to unity, from space to spacelessness, from time to timelessness. This progression is skillfully handled in an episode that evokes the memory of the dead Colonel. Rialta is watching her three children playing with a ball. They have formed a circle, and as they play the element of time is introduced:
Los tres niños estaban tan abstraídos que el ascender de la pelota se cristalizaba como una fuente, y la fijeza de la mirada en el esparcimiento de los yaquis, los extasiaba como cuando se contemplan, en demorados trechos de la noche, las constelaciones. Estaban en ese momento de éxtasis coral que los niños alcanzan con facilidad. Hacer que su tiempo, el tiempo de las personas que los rodean, y el tiempo de la situación exterior, coincidan en una especie de abandono del tiempo, donde las semillas del alcanfor o de las amapolas, el silencioso crecer nocturno de los vegetales, preparan una identidad oval y cristalina, donde un grupo al aislarse logra una comunicación semejante a un espejo universal.
Rialta joins her children in the game, and the four figures form a square that begins to change into a circle. "El cuadrado formado por Rialta y sus tres hijos, se iba trocando en un círculo." The movement of the ball, the spontaneous mood of happiness the game produces, and the unity the formation of the circle gives them, produce an almost hypnotic state that momentarily erases time, and the memory of the Colonel becomes a living entity:
El contorno del círculo se iba endureciendo, hasta parecer de un metal que se tornaba incandescente. De pronto, en una fulguración, como si una nube se rompiese para dar paso a una nueva visión, apareció en las losas apresadas por el círculo la guerrera completa del Coronel…. Y sobre el cuello endurecido, el rostro del ausente, tal vez sonriéndose dentro de su lejanía, como si le alegrase, en un indescifrable contento que no podía, ser compartido, ver a su esposa y a sus hijos dentro de aquel círculo que los unía en un espacio y en un tiempo coincidentes para su mirada. Penetrando en esa visión, como dejada … por la fulguración previa, los cuatro que estaban dentro del círculo iluminado, tuvieron la sensación de que penetraban en un túnel; en realidad, era una sensación entrecortada, pues se abría dentro de un instants, pero donde los fragmentos y la totalidad coincidían en ese pestañeo de la visión cortada por una espada.
The momentary spell makes Rialta feel her solitude even more intensely than usual, and she buries her face in her arms and cries. The spell is broken and the children scurry off.
The geometric progression from a square to a circle also appears during the sexual encounters of some of the other characters in the novel. It is used to convey the attempted movement from inner confusion to inner unity, or the movement from a pluralistic to a unified state. The sexual act becomes then one of many manifestations of the search for meaning in life and the control over chaos. Its appearance in the novel is mainly associated with friends and acquaintances of José during their adolescence. Two of José's closest friends during this period of his life are Fronesis and Foción, and the circle image appears in their lives as they struggle to free themselves from some fear or obsession.
Fronesis has difficulty having sexual intercourse with a young girl during one of his first exposures to sex. His inability to function adequately is related to some vague and illogical fear that he cannot express, or even bring to the awareness of his conscious mind. He resorts to a tactic that restores his virility. He cuts a circle of cloth from his undershirt; then, in this round piece of material he cuts a hole large enough for his penis and uses the piece of undershirt as an intermediary between his body and his partner's. When Fronesis leaves, he takes the shirt with him, and its presence constitutes a heavy psychological burden for him. He walks down to the sea wall that surrounds Havana, throws the undershirt into the sea, and watches it slowly disappear:
La camiseta misma antes de anegarse, se fue circulizando como una serpiente a la que alguien ha trasmitido la inmortalidad, pero al mismo tiempo en las concavidades gordezuelas del cuerpo del hombre fue apareciendo la serpiente fálica, era necesario crear al perder precisamente la inmortalidad. Así el hombre fue mortal, pero creador y la serpiente fálica se convirtió en un fragmento que debe resurgir. Fronesis sentía que los dos círculos de la camiseta al desaparecer en el oleaje, desaparecerían también de sus terrores para dar paso a la serpiente circuncidada. Desaparecían las dos abstracciones circulares, también desaparecían los yerbazales, las escoriaciones, los brotes musgosos, donde el nuevo serpentín del octavo día se trocaba en un honguillo con una pequeña corona planetaria en torno al glande de un marfil coloidal.
Fronesis has used the circle as a means of dominating and bringing under control psychic forces that threatened to destroy his masculinity. He experiences a fear of losing his identity by associating the sexual act, which can lead to a momentary loss of identity, with death. He successfully dominated these fears and is now ready to sublimate and direct them toward creative ends. He has imposed form on psychic chaos and has brought negative forces under control by the image of the circle. This enables him to begin the transition from adolescence to manhood and from potentiality to creativity.
Foción, José's other friend, is confronted with a problem similar to Fronesis's, but in his case it occurs after he has married. Foción proves impotent, and his father's ill-directed efforts to help him cause him to be influenced by a homosexual. As a result, Foción becomes a participant and exponent of this sexual practice. Fronesis explains much of Foción's background to José, "Foción tenía, por el abstracto desarrollo de su niñez y adolescencia, el complejo de la vagina dentada, veía la vulva de la mujer como una inmensa boca que le devoraba el falo." Foción's sexual orientation is presented as a chaos that he cannot dominate, "pues la naturaleza le regaló un caos pero no le dio la fuerza suficiente para luchar contra él. Se siente destruido, pero no tiene fuerza destructora."
Foción becomes, in effect, a symbol of primordial chaos, and his bisexual activities reveal the anarchy that precedes the organization of all creative forces. This is the basic meaning of the homosexual theme in Paradiso, for Foción's activities are a symbol of all the forces of the creative process. His anguish conveys the turmoil and confusion of formlessness, and his struggle to move from this state represents the movement from anarchy to order. Therefore, the treatment of sexuality in Paradiso is not an affirmation or denial of any particular sexual activity. Rather, sexual acts are exterior manifestations of inner conflicts or goals and the means by which the characters resolve their problems. Lezama Lima employs the homosexual theme as another way of dealing with the creative process.
Foción is greatly attracted to Fronesis to the extent of obsession. "Fronesis era para él un arquetipo de lo inalcanzable, cosa que sólo existía porque comenzaba por ponerlo a horcajadas en un punto errante que oscilaba en un claroscuro inmenso." His attraction toward Fronesis eventually allows him to escape from his inner chaos. José recognizes that the friendship between Foción and Fronesis is related to Foción's attempts to escape from his state of confusion and tells Fronesis, "Es un caos, el de Foción, que tú dominas, ordenas, distribuyes. Es un caos que tú necesitas para las hogueras de tu cosmos." Cemí's statements reveal that Fronesis has gained control over his own chaos, whereas Foción has not. Yet, Fronesis needs Foción in the sense that his own creative acts represent his imposition of form over the chaos that Foción represents.
Fronesis's father attempts to terminate his son's relationship with Foción. It is an effort that nearly provokes a rebellion in Fronesis, but his stepmother resolves the conflict between father and son. For the first time in her life, Fronesis's step-mother speaks freely of Fronesis's mother, who was her sister. This frank appraisal of origins restores harmony to the family, and Fronesis agrees to take a trip abroad.
This episode is followed immediately by one in which José visits a clinic where his grandmother, doña Augusta, is dying. While at the clinic, he discovers that Foción is a patient there:
Al lado del álamo, en el jardín del pabellón de los desrazonados, vio un hombre joven con su uniforme blanco, describiendo incesantes círculos alrededor del álamo agrandado por una raíz cuidada. Era Foción. Volvía en sus círculos una y otra vez como si el álamo fuera su Dios y su destino…. La enorme cuantía de círculos que sumaba durante el día, la abría en espirales, tan sumergidos como silenciosos, mientras la nocturna lo acogía.
José concludes that the tree represents Fronesis. The next time he returns to the clinic, he discovers that a bolt of lightning has destroyed the tree and that Foción has disappeared. "El rayo que había destruido el árbol había liberado a Foción de la adoración de su eternidad circular."
The tree is a dual image. On the one hand, it represents Foción's obsession with Fronesis, and, on the other, it could represent the tree of life that embodies all the positive and negative aspects of existence. Foción's incessant circling of the tree reveals his attempts to control the chaos in his life and, by extension, to resolve the enigma of existence. It is significant that the circle image is combined with the spiral, for the spiral indicates evolution, growth, and the movement from multiplicity to unity. Foción's motion is circular and spiral, suggesting a progression toward a solution to his problems. The bolt of lightning that releases Foción indicates the sudden gaining of an illumination and insight that frees him from his obsessive anguish.
Of all the characters in the novel, Foción represents, more than any other, multiplicity and chaos. His sexual activities are indicative of the disunity and formlessness that precede ordered creativity. His tumultuous emotions are like a primordial chaos, the earliest stage of disorganized creation. There is much in the novel to suggest that Lezama Lima regards the creative impulse as one of the underlying principles of existence.
The friendship that exists between Foción, Fronesis, and José is related in many ways to creativity. To a certain extent, it is possible to regard each one as a separate phase of the creative process. Foción represents primordial chaos, Fronesis the most elemental imposition of order on formlessness, and José the observation and refinement of the first two phases. When José visits his dying grandmother in the clinic, she comments on his ability to observe and remember "impresiones":
Tu memoria les da una substancia como el limo de los comienzos, como una piedra que recogiese la imagen de la sombra del pez. Tú hablas del ritmo de crecimiento de la naturaleza, pero hay que tener mucha humildad para poder observarlo, seguirlo y reverenciarlo … la mayoría de las personas interrumpen, favorecen el vacío, hacen exclamaciones, torpes exigencias o declaman arias fantasmales, pero tú observas ese ritmo que hace el cumplimiento, el cumplimiento de lo que desconocemos….
This conversation takes place immediately after Fronesis's decision to terminate his relationship with Foción and just prior to Foción's liberation from his obsession with Fronesis. After these events, Fronesis and Foción no longer appear in the novel, and José moves toward a fuller comprehension of his direction in life. A particular phase in José's development has ended, and he moves to another. Fronesis and Foción, having served as points of reference on his journey, now fade into the past as José's life embarks on a new path.
There are two other characters in Paradiso who have a decisive influence on José and his commitment to creativity. They are his Uncle Alberto and the shadowy and mysterious Oppiano Licario. Alberto resembles the Colonel, in that he is a strong-willed and assertive individual who is a picture of strength. On one occasion, he sends a letter to the family, and one of José's relatives invites José to listen to it,
acércate más para que puedas oir bien la carta de tu tío Alberto, para que lo conozcas más y le adivines la alegría que tiene. Por primera vez vas a oir el idioma hecho naturaleza, con todo su artificio de alusiones y cariñosas pedanterías.
Although José does not display any reaction, the letter greatly impresses him and introduces him to the potentialities of language.
Alberto dies suddenly in an automobile accident, and his death, like the Colonel's, causes shock and consternation. It is hard for those who are left behind to comprehend why such young and active individuals should die suddenly. However, although the significance of death is not revealed, there are suggestions that it has meaning within a larger context that is unknown to the participants. In the last two chapters of the novel (13 and 14), Licario emerges as the central figure in José's reasoning of the enigma of death, for Licario knew Alberto and witnessed the death of the Colonel.
Death and time are the central concerns of the chapter that immediately precedes the reappearance of Licario. Chapter 12 represents an unusual flight of the imagination, for its contents are bizarre and, at first reading, much removed from the main content of the novel. There are four separate stories in the chapter, and they are presented in alternating segments that make it difficult for the reader to follow the sequence of events. The reader goes through the first segment of each story, and then the sequence repeats itself as the reader moves through the second part. The last three stories take place in Havana, but the first narration goes back to the exploits of the Roman general, Atrio Flaminio, in the second century B.C. The chapter begins with a specific historical orientation and moves to a highly imaginative realm. At the same time, however, the author moves his reader toward a consideration of time and eternity, and the separate stories converge on one point. Therefore, on one level he expands his reader's awareness, and, on the other, he focuses the attention on a certain problem of existence. In one of the stories, there is a vase that is broken into many fragments, reassembled, and later replaced. To a great extent, the vase parallels with what the author is doing in the chapter. He takes a subject, in this case, which is time, and breaks it down into several components or fragments and then rearranges them into a new form. Again, it is the process that is emphasized rather than the end result.
The first story narrates the exploits of Flaminio and his struggle and conquest over rational and irrational forces. His bearing depicts an open disdain for death. At one time, he announces to his troops, "Nada más que sabemos vencer, desconocemos a la muerte, que tendrá que esforzarse hasta cansarse para reconocer a uno solo de nosotros." And his troops reply, "si se acerca la muerte la decapitaremos." Flaminio is the astute and courageous conqueror who lives so close to death that he seems to defeat it. His fondest wish is to die in battle, but he succumbs to an illness and loses the opportunity to die on his own terms.
In the second story, a small child breaks a large vase while he is cared for by his grandmother. The broken vase produces a great deal of concern, and the grandmother picks up the fragments and carefully puts them aside. The event is significant, and it is apparent that the vase is a symbol of wholeness and the integration of the morning of life (the child) with its evening (the grandmother). After the vase is broken, the child and the grandmother feel vaguely threatened, as if a unifying force in their lives has been destroyed. The child reappears in the third and fourth stories and serves as one of the several bridges that connect the four sections.
In the third story, an anonymous narrator relates his encounters with invisible forces in his home and the things he sees as he wanders through Havana. This section of the chapter conveys, better than any of the others, the mystery of existence and the secret working of forces that are only vaguely recognized. During one of his walks, he sees a man on a bench sewing. The man extracts an ivory egg from a stocking he is using, and he holds it up so it can be seen better. Soon after this, the narrator observes a sailor with a knife in his chest being removed from a bar.
The act of sewing could symbolize creation, as it is a process of accumulation and growth; and the egg, the mystery of life or the egg of the world. They are symbols of positive forces that are under control. The egg is contained in a stocking, and sewing requires the mastery of the materials being used. The shape of the egg suggests an organized reality that can be grasped and understood, and, therefore, one that has established limits. The dying sailor, however, is the victim of a knife wound, indicating the unleashing of primary and instinctive forces that are destructive and not under control.
Although the phenomena observed are open to interpretation, it is clear that the narrator has come in contact with forces or laws that govern existence, and that a definite organization and order exist. The geometrical progression from a square to a circle is also present in this section and attests to the narrator's movement toward an apprehension of the keys of existence. During one of his walks, he sees a child within a circle, and he attempts to approach him, as he wishes to see his face. He fails and the child disappears. We later discover that this child, and the one that appears in the second story, are the same.
The fourth story concerns an aging music critic, Juan Longo, whose young wife tries to impede the effects the ravages of time have on her aged husband by putting him into a cataleptic trance. His wife places him in a glass urn and carefully watches over him. As the years pass, she slowly becomes insane and is obsessed with the preservation of her husband's body. Longo's colleagues become curious about what happened to him, and they visit his home. His wife partially revives him, enough so that he can babble some nonsense that is taken as profound pronouncements. The delegation of music critics leaves, and Longo's wife dispatches him back to the world of dreams. The delegation unexpectedly returns and becomes fully aware of what is transpiring, and a decision is made to place Longo on public display. He is regarded as the "gran vencedor del temporal" and "el burlador del tiempo." Sensational statements are made about his unusual feat, and people flock to see him.
At this point, the four stories begin to merge, for among those who come to see Longo is the anonymous narrator of the third story. When he peers into the crystal urn, however, he does not see Longo but the child in the second story. And when Longo's wife glances into the urn, she is shocked to see a Roman warrior who is, in effect, the Atrio Flaminio in the first story:
Al poner su rostro en la urna, se oyó tal chillido, que bastó también para astillar la noche y hacer que la cuidadora del sueño infinitamente extensivo descendiese al tenebroso Erebo. ¿Qué vio al asomarse a la urna? El rostro de un guerrero romano, crispado en un gesto de infinita desesperación, tratando de alcanzar con sus manos la capa, las botas, la espada de los legionarios que pasaban para combatir en lejanas tierras. El rostro revelaba una acometividad gimiente e impotente, lloraba por la desesperación de no poder sumergirse en el fuego de la batalla. En su lecho de paja, el rostro encendido por la piedra, cuando había jurado el devenir y las alas de las tropas transportadas hacia las pruebas de la lejanía, sentía que la sangre se negaba a obedecerle y se le enredaba en el rostro, formando falsos círculos negados a la movilidad. En lugar de un crítico musical, rendido al sueño para vencer el tiempo, el rostro de un general romano que gemía inmovilizado al borrarse para él la posibilidad de alcanzar la muerte en el remolino de las batallas.
Longo's wife begins to scream and disturbs him in his trance, causing him to die.
Ya el crítico percibe las gotas de lo temporal, pero no como el resto de los mortales, pues la muerte, no el sueño, comienza a regalarle, ahora sí de verdad, lo eterno, donde ya el tiempo no se deja vencer, ha comenzado por no existir ese pecado.
Atrio Flaminio, Juan Longo, and the child represent different aspects of time. Flaminio is the past; Longo is the present; and the child is the future. They all die, but it is important to realize that death is presented as a means of passing from the realm of the temporal to the realm of the eternal. The temporal is an imperfect world ruled by change or time. Flaminio and Longo's wife attempt to control time by either suspending it or dictating how it should flow. Their error is in trying to control a realm ruled by change, and their attempts only result in the perpetuation of imperfection. Flaminio becomes a victim of suspended imperfection, encased in a moment that can only produce frustration. And Longo's victory over time is only an illusion that is easily destroyed by the disharmonic intrusion of reality. Their attempts to attain perfection in a realm of imperfection are doomed to failure, for they mistakenly regard death as their enemy, when in reality it is their passport to eternity. And eternity represents a realm in which time and imperfection do not exist. They have wronged in attempting to suspend the process of becoming, for it is a course that must be experienced on the road to being.
Chapter 12 ends with a vignette that is not directly related to any of the prior content in the chapter. The sketch is open to interpretation, but it is related to the creative process. Two centurions arrive at the ruins of a Christian temple, which was built over the remnants of an academy for pagan philosophers. They plan to entertain themselves with a game of dice. As they prepare to play, a bust of a geometrician holding a compass falls from one of the decaying walls. They pick up the bust and casually throw it aside, and it becomes wedged in an iron support that holds up the railing of a cupola. They begin to play with the dice, and the first numbers that appear are a two and a three. At this point, the bust of the geometrician falls again, and the point of the compass strikes a die showing the number three, causing the die to tumble over by the other one and both now show the number two. "El cuatro aportado por los dos dados, uno al lado del otro, como si las dos superficies hubiesen unido sus aguas." The two centurions cover themselves with a single cape, leave, and the sketch ends.
The numbers used in the vignette have symbolic meaning and most likely refer to the artistic organization of reality. The compass itself is symbolic of the creative process because it is the instrument with which circles are drawn. The number two most likely stands for duality or separateness, whereas the three denotes synthesis and unity. The creative act breaks down an image into its diverse parts and rearranges the different components into a new form. The unity symbolized by three is destroyed by the compass, and the formation of the four indicates the orderly arrangement of a new form. Therefore, a chapter that deals with man's war against time and his thirst for eternity ends with affirmation of the creative process. It can be surmised that daily and continual change is related to an overall process of creation. Birth and death, growth and decay are only aspects of this process, and man can live his life to its fullest by his own creativity. The essence of life then is to create rather than to preserve what was.
Chapter 12 brings into consideration questions concerning the structure of Paradiso, for the contents in this chapter are well removed from the main development of the novel. For the most part, Paradiso follows a traditional chronological approach and demonstrates great cohesiveness as it explores the Cemí's family tree. However, José's life has little to do with Atrio Flaminio or any of the other characters who appear in Chapter 12. Nevertheless, the chapter's theme can be related to the development of José's appreciation of time and death and his concern with creativity. These matters are presented as being common to all men at all times, and Lezama Lima succeeds in presenting a universal view that is valid in any setting. The chapter also serves as a good example of a technique used throughout the novel. The author begins with widely dispersed factors and unites them into a cohesive whole. He takes characters and events that are separated in time and space and telescopes them into a unified view of reality. As a result, the reader experiences a movement from multiplicity to unity as the fragments of the mosaic swirl into place.
The same technique is used in the presentation of Chapter 13. A disabled bus in Havana is the setting for the introduction of a number of people of diverse interests and backgrounds, and it serves as an ideal site for chance encounters. One of the persons that boards the bus is an old coin collector who turns out to be Licario. During a conversation in the bus, Licario states, "la vida es una red de situaciones indeterminadas, cada coincidencia es algo que quiere hablar a nuestro lado, si la interpretamos incorporamos una forma, dominamos una transparencia." Although life is viewed as a series of chance occurrences, it is asserted that it has form and can be understood. There is system and order in the apparent chaos of life that is accessible to those who will observe and reflect on what they see.
Shortly after the above statement is made, José boards the bus, and Licario notices the initials "J.C." on his wrist. Licario recognizes José as a descendant of the Colonel and concludes that he "ya no se moriría intranquilo, incompleto. Se había verificado el signo que le permitiría recorrer su último camino, con expresión para su pasado y con esclarecimiento para su futuridad." José, of course, does not know Licario, but fate brings them into contact. One of the passengers, Martincillo, picks Licario's pocket only to discover that he has stolen some ancient coins. Not knowing what to do with them, he decides to put them in another passenger's pocket. José witnesses the whole operation, takes the coins from the passenger, and returns them to Licario.
The following day José notices a note in his pocket from Licario. Licario thanks José for returning the coins, invites him to visit, and explains past events that link Licario to José's family:
Conocí a su tío Alberto, vi morir a su padre. Hace veinte años del primer encuentro, diez del segundo, tiempo de ambos sucedidos importantísimos para usted y para mí, en que se engendró la causal de las variaciones que terminan en el infierno de un ómnibus, con su gesto que cierra un círculo. En la sombra de ese círculo ya yo me puedo morir.
The purpose of Licarió's life is closely linked to the destiny of the Cemí family. Having witnessed the death of the Colonel, he now has the opportunity to participate in José's development from adolescence to manhood. Since he knew Alberto, he is also aware of the great talent that was lost to the family by Alberto's untimely death, and he is greatly relieved to be in a position to preside over José's emergence into a full awareness of creativity. Vital creative forces that have been momentarily suspended by death are about to surface, and Licario feels that his destiny is to be fulfilled.
José enters Licario's apartment building and is "mistakenly" taken to the seventh floor by an elevator operator. As he is walking down the corridor, he runs his hand along the wall, an act that reminds the reader of José's episode with a piece of chalk in Chapter 2. He stops and looks out of a window and sees Licario several floors below. Licario is with some of the people who were on the bus, and they are involved in a strange game involving many of the arts. It is a scene of great diversity and confusion. For example, Martincillo, the pickpocket of the earlier part of the chapter, is present and is using a piccolo to poke a crab that is howling like a dog. Licario is presiding over the whole affair as he strikes a bronze triangle and exclaims "estilo sistàltico." The elevator operator says he has made a mistake and that Licario lives down-stairs. They descend to the lowest floor, and Licario opens his door before José has a chance to ring and gives the impression he has been waiting for him. None of the individuals José had seen from the seventh floor are there, and, except for a table and the triangle Licario had been striking, everything is different.
Oppiano Licario presentaba un pantaleón negro y una camisa muy blanca. Mientras se prolongaba la vibración exclamó:—Estilo hesicàstico." Cemí replies, "Veo, señor … que usted mantiene la tradición del ethos musical de los pitagóricos, los acompañamientos musicales del culto de Dionisos." Licario immediately comments, "Veo … que ha pasado del estilo sistàltico, o de las pasiones tumultuosas, al estilo hesicàstico, o del equilibrio anímico, en muy breve tiempo.
The episode conveys a movement from chaos to order and from diversity to unity. The reference to Dionysos is significant, as it is a deity that represents the unleashing of uncontrollable and immense creative energy. This explains Licario's use of the term "estilo sistàltico" during the ritual and his later reference to it as a symbol of "las pasiones tumultuosas." His "estilo hesicástico" refers to order and psychic equilibrium. José has gained control over his inner passions and is now capable of imposing order on chaos. He has, therefore, escaped from the dangers of self-annihilation and dissolution and can now affirm life and existence. This is the symbolism of the white shirt and black trousers, for they are symbols of the positive and negative. Black represents the chaos that precedes organized creativity, that is, the initial stage of the creative process. And white can be the purification of these forces through the imposition of guidance and form. The two colors form a duality in which white (the shirt) is the upper and superior force. Now that this equilibrium has been attained, José is ready to embark on his own career, and Licario ends the chapter with the comment "Entonces, podemos ya empezar."
Licario is a very important factor in José's development, as he connects both José's past and future. His acquaintance with the Colonel and Alberto represents an appreciation of the past that operates as a kind of self-knowledge for José, and his understanding of the creative process helps José to become more fully aware of the potentialities that the future can hold for him. A section of the last chapter in Paradiso is devoted to Licario's past, once again reflecting Lezama Lima's approach to the novel by examining the past so that an appreciation of the present can be gained. Reading Paradiso is like tracing the paths left by several spirals as they wander and swirl through space and slowly converge to form a circle. To a certain extent, Licario represents knowledge of the past in a cultural and historical sense and, therefore, is endowed with the aura of mystery and authority that such wisdom imparts.
Near the end of the novel, José takes a nocturnal walk. His strolling in the night is an allegory of his attempts to penetrate the mysteries of life. The enigmas of existence are presented as a challenge that must be answered and struggled against, for they are riddles that can only be unraveled by great effort. Much of what happens to José during his walk parallels the call to adventure, which is an integral part of the presentation of the hero archetype. José feels that some strange force is compelling him to struggle against the night, and he senses that he is being called to accomplish some feat:
Cemí siguió avanzando en la noche que se espesa, sintiendo que tenía que hacer cada vez más esfuerzo para penetrarla. Cada vez que daba un paso le parecía que tenía que extraer los pies de una tembladera. La noche se hacía cada vez más resistente, como si desconfiase del gran bloque de luz y de la musiquilla del tiovivo. Le pareció ver un bosque, donde los àrboles trepaban unos sobre otros, como el elefante apoyando las dos patas delanteras sobre una banqueta, y sobre el lomo del elefante perros y monos danzando, persiguiendo una pelota, o saltando sobre un ramaje, para caer de nuevo sobre el elefante. La transición de un parque infantil a un bosque era invisiblemente asimilado por Cemí, pues su estado de alucinación mantenía en pie todas las posibilidades de la imagen. No obstante sintió como un llamado, como si alguien hubiese comenzado a cantar, o un nadador que después de unir sus brazos en un triángulo isósceles se lanza a la piscina, más allá de la empalizada. Era un ruido inaudible, la paràbola de una pistola de agua, una gaviota que se duerme mecida por el oleaje, algo que separa la noche del resto de una inmensa tela, o algo que prolonga la noche en una tela agujereada por donde asoman su cabeza de clavo unos carretes de ebonita. Era un pie de buey lo que pisaba a la noche.
The ox is usually a symbol of cosmic forces, and apparently it is used in this context in the above quotation. José is moving into a state in which his awareness of these entities is expanding. The process of becoming is greatly accelerated, and an apprehension of being is more accessible to him. The reference to "todas las posibilidades de la imagen" is important, because it indicates that the poetic image can become a challenge that must be approached with a keen sense of intuition combined with the force and strength of intellectual discipline. Lezama Lima gives the impression that these are the implements that are necessary to gain insight into existence, and that this process is re-created every time one approaches a poetic image. The poet then becomes a leading exponent and glorifier of life, continually challenging his listeners to participate fully in it by increasing and expanding their own awareness.
José continues to move through the night, and among the many things he sees is a mosaic of the Holy Grail located in the center of a circle formed by King Arthur's knights. This is another example of the circle image in the novel, for the quest for the Grail represents the search for the mystic center. José's wanderings finally lead him into a room where a wake is in progress and Licario's sister is waiting for him. Licario has died and as José contemplates the significance of this event, memories of his father and other members of the family come to him. Licario's sister hands him a poem that Licario wrote shortly before dying.
The poem concerns Licario's impending death and its significance to José. It expresses belief in an existence after death and affirms the importance of the spiritual in man's life. The last line reads, "Vi morir a tu padre; ahora, Cemí, tropieza." José is confronted by life's greatest enigma—death—with a poem written by Licario. The word re-creates the enigma of life and also indicates that José's time of trial and tribulation is at hand. Both his father and Licario are dead, and he must now make his own way in the world. However, he is armed with a basic understanding of life's challenges and a definite sense of belonging as he feels that he is part of a tradition formed by those who came before him. José has been bequeathed the most precious of gifts, a spiritual inheritance.
José leaves the wake and stops for a drink in a coffee shop. He begins to idly tap his glass with a spoon, and the sound reminds him of Licario saying "ritmo hesicástico, podemos empezar." With these words the novel ends, marking José's emergence from adolescence and his readiness to venture into the world. One cycle has drawn to a close and another begins.
Paradiso is a remarkable novel, complex, and difficult but extremely rewarding to the reader who expends the effort the novel demands. The world that Lezama Lima creates and his unique way of viewing it leaves an impression that lingers indefinitely, and with the passage of time the novel's magneticism has a persuasive influence on the reader. The world is not quite as terrifying after having read Paradiso, for the novel encourages its reader to see life in its totality. And the view that emerges from this perspective is one of cohesiveness in which there is meaning and purpose. In this respect, Lezama Lima's outlook is not unlike Carpentier's, as both present a panorama that captures essential truths of human existence. Both are very much aware of the vast cultural currents that are operating in human society and of the debt that each individual owes to the past. And both tend to view history as a struggle against formlessness in which man continually battles to impose order on chaos.
However, their emphasis is quite different, for Lezama Lima considers how all these forces focus on the individual, whereas Carpentier's concern is to integrate the individual into the currents that engulf him. The individual is much more a master of his fate in Lezama Lima's view than in Carpentier's. All of the characters in El siglo de las luces, even the formidable Víctor Hugues, are dominated and swept along by the forces operating around them. The characters in Paradiso, on the other hand, discover that true freedom involves the control of one's own inner passions, and that they are victims of themselves as much as by exterior forces. Carpentier's characters struggle to transcend themselves by attempting to create a more perfect social order and world. Lezama Lima's search for an adequate expression of their creative impulse and their integration with life is seen as a celebration of the creative act. Creativity and its relation to time and eternity is a main theme of Paradiso.
The two writers show intellectual discipline in their writings and control their creations. Lezama Lima is more imaginative, and his language is more suggestive than Carpentier's. Conversely, Carpentier's control of form is more polished than Lezama Lima's, and it is unlikely that Carpentier would ever have included a chapter such as Paradiso's Chapter 12 into his works.
Lezama Lima's imagery tends to weaken the structure of his novel at times and would involve him in difficulties were it not for his remarkable control. Paradiso contains indications, however, of a development toward a free use of creative language at the expense of novelistic structure. The control he exercises over the creative process enables him to present his reader with a fairly uniform creation. It is not as cohesive a product as Carpentier's, but it is considerably more structured than Cabrera Infante's Tres tristes tigres, which was published one year later in 1967.
Paradiso and El siglo de las luces explore the workings of time in the historical process and the human psyche, and both works consider chaos to be a definite threat to human existence. It is fair to surmise that both authors are fascinated with, yet somewhat threatened by, the diffusion that chaos represents. Carpentier sees this breakdown of order as part of a cyclical pattern that creates and destroys a countless number of social forms. For Lezama Lima, the process is related to the creative impulse, but one senses a resistance to the destruction of a creative entity once it has come into being. In some respects, the baroque nature of their art seems to be a way of resisting the destructive diffusion caused by the flow of time, an intricate series of bulwarks that guard against the penetration of time's erosive forces. Carpentier finds solace in man's collective unconscious and Lezama Lima in the hermetic image. They both look to the past with nostalgia, when there existed a freshness of spiritual and psychic energy that has become more diffuse and weakened with time.
Although El siglo de las luces and Paradiso do not focus on the contemporary period, their struggles against formlessness reflect some of the basic dilemmas of the present, an era haunted by the specter of complete and total disintegration. It remains to be seen whether man's need for constraints can be balanced with his desire for complete freedom and self-expression. A degree of control is necessary for the orderly progress of humanity and the conservation of a sense of decency, but it can easily degenerate into cruel and stifling repression as in the case of Víctor Hugues. Personal and collective freedom are desirable goals, but it is difficult to ascertain where freedom ends and chaos begins. Foción's avowals of sexual freedom bring him to the brink of chaos and self-destruction, and Sofía's unrestrained desire to transcend the inequities of a social order results in the senseless deaths of Esteban and herself.
There has been a gradual breakdown of form in all the arts in the twentieth century, and in the novel the constraints of structure are weakened by the impulse of creative language. Signs of the beginning of this transition are seen in the novels under discussion in the movement from the presentation of chaos merely as the thematic content of a work to its incorporation into the artistic fabric of a novel. Carpentier considers the problems of formlessness by using them as a major part of the content of his work in his study of the revolutionary process. Formlessness is also a topic in Lezama Lima's novel, but in addition it finds expression in images and becomes partially incorporated into the novel's form.
Cabrera Infante's Tres tristes tigres represents an almost complete embodiment of formlessness into the very language and structure of the novel. This novel creates a world that seems chaotic and without any apparent form, a universe ruled by chance. I will attempt to ascertain whether its chaos is absolute or if there is a new order being created from the ashes of the old.
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