Lezama’s Fiestas (1)


Roberto González Echevarría

Yale University


The most significant Cuban literature and art to emerge after the Avant-Garde were associated with the poet and cultural promoter José Lezama Lima, the central figure in a movement organized around Orígenes, the influential magazine that he co-directed with José Rodríguez Feo between 1944 and 1954. Lezama’s work and that of many of his associates began in the late 1930s, as Cuba emerged from the Depression and many artists and intellectuals, among them Alejo Carpentier and the painter Wifredo Lam, returned from Europe, fleeing the end of the Spanish Civil War and the impending world war. The fall of the dictator Gerardo Machado and the abortive revolution that followed it in 1933 led to a certain recovery and stability, under the guidance of Fulgencio Batista, who ruled as head of the army while several puppet presidents succeeded one another and the frustrated revolutionary groups fought amongst themselves. Toward the end of the decade, a kind of national unity was achieved. A constitutional convention in 1939, composed of members of most political factions, drafted the very progressive 1940 constitution, which was enacted as Batista took power after a legitimate electoral victory in which he was supported by a broad coalition that included the Communists, who would have two of their own in his cabinet.

In addition to the returning Cuban artists and intellectuals, there arrived in Cuba a host of Spanish exiles –professors, intellectuals, artists-- who would have an immediate and lasting impact on Cuban culture. They found on the island the numerous Spanish immigrants who had come during the first thirty years of the Republic, many of whom had done well and created powerful economic and social institutions. Some of these and their descendents were partial to Francisco Franco and his newly installed dictatorship, but they did not prevent the exiles who were fleeing his regime from being well received on the whole.  Batista was not favorable to Franco, which helped them. Many of the newly arrived and arriving Spanish intellectuals and writers were disciples of the Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset, who had a substantial following in Cuba and throughout Latin America. This made their integration smoother. Their impact on Lezama and his group was decisive, specifically through the figure of the great Spanish poet Juan Ramón Jiménez, who spent several months in Cuba in 1937 and took a liking to the young Cuban poets of the moment.

If an overarching principle had to be named as defining Lezama’s group, it would be “transcendental nationalism;” the search for the essence of Cuban culture not in race or history but in and through poetry and art. Lezama did not partake of Afrocubanism, nor did he indulge in the exaltation of the white guajiros (peasants) as the source of nationality, though he occasionally used their traditional stanza, the décima, in his poetry.  He sought a higher synthesis in which all those cultural components already would have been absorbed, with the result that, unlike Afrocubanism, his work and that of his associates, including the great mulatto poet Gastón Baquero, is devoid of exoticism. This does not mean that Lezama and his group were “pure” poets, or that their art eschewed Cuban social reality or history, but rather that these were interpreted by a hermeneutics seeking to discover their poetic essence.

Lezama, and many of his friends were Catholics and although certainly not pious or orthodox their approach had a Christian foundation, as did their attitude toward life, which was, on the whole, optimistic. While they were evidently heirs to the Avant Garde, they did not share that movement’s nihilism and negativity, and they were decidedly opposed to Existentialism, the philosophic trend that emerged after World War I and that had, through the works of Ortega y Gasset, a disciple of Heidegger, and later through Jean Paul Sartre, great influence in the Spanish-speaking world. The Ortega y Gasset Lezama and others favored was an earlier one, whose main influence was Oswald Spengler.(2) They also rejected Freud, a pillar of the Avant-Garde who did not have widespread influence in Latin America. Transcendence through poetry –i.e. art—was their goal, the discovery and achievement of beauty through an immersion in the nation.  The Cuban fiesta, particularly in Lezama’s writings, was a central topic or motif, in some measure because it could lead to a sublime sense of delight at the possibility and achievement of resurrection in the poetic as a way of defeating death, but also and concomitantly because the fiesta comes folded within a transcendental understanding of time.

Though a poet, Lezama’s greatest and best-known work is his novel Paradiso, published in 1966 but in the making since the forties; one of its chapters appeared in a 1949 issue of Orígenes.  It is one of the most audacious and original texts published anywhere in the twentieth century. As opposed to Carpentier’s, Lezama’s artistic development cannot be charted against the backdrop of the evolving avant-garde movements, like Surrealism.  He seemed to work oblivious to literary fashions, and he wrote in a style that shocked the likes of Julio Cortázar, the Argentine writer, who said that upon reading Paradiso he exclaimed “one cannot write like that;” such was Lezama’s apparent untutored naivety.(3)  Cortázar was right. Lezama wrote in a style that was “prelapsarian,” devoid of guilt and before the law, ignoring grammar, the rules of style, and good taste.  It is a mixture of kitsch and the sublime. This stance is one with his poetics and philosophy of life, which was profoundly Christian in its inclusiveness, and with his view of Cuba as a festive nation.

Fiestas are not only frequent in Lezama’s fiction, but his entire poetic system is predicated on a concept of the festive.  In fact, one of Lezama’s best known lines of poetry, which graces his tomb in Havana’s Colón Cemetery, is “La mar violeta añora el nacimiento de los dioses,/ya que nacer aquí es una fiesta innombrable,” or “the purple sea longs for the birth of the gods/because to be born here [i.e. Cuba] is an unnamable fiesta.”(4) The festive, for Lezama, shares with poetry a quality that he considers essential to both, and that he called “lo hipertélico,” the “hypertelic,” from the Greek hyper, superior or excessive, and telos, end or goal. The hypertelic is that which goes beyond the end, beyond the “telos,” absorbing it, destroying it–I would say illuminating it-- as it emerges from it. It is in the hypertelic that the “image,” which is the basis of poetry according to Lezama, reveals itself. Elements that constitute the fiesta or are like it –poetry, music, dance, sports, gluttonous eating and drinking-- are not predetermined by anything and partake of the hypertelic. These activities obey no specific need, are not guided by a definite intention, and do not try to reach a specific goal.  Like beauty, which all of them contain in some measure, the hypertelic is self-sufficient yet fundamental to the structure that they surpass, defining it backwards, as it were. The hypertelic is at the foundation of Lezama´s Baroque aesthetics, which is an aesthetic of excess.

This concept has much in common, precisely, with George Bataille´s notion of excess, and even with Jacques Derrida´s “supplement,” being that which, going beyond the system, paradoxically characterizes it from its borders or actually beyond them.  Lezama’s excess, however, though homologous to Bataille’s notion of expenditure, which to him is the violent residue of Hegel’s and Marx’s dialectic, is its correlative opposite. Bataille’s orgiastic potlatch is a destructive feast driven by his obsession with shit –an eschatological scatology. In the end, Bataille’s system is a metaphysic of shit, if such a thing is conceivable. Lezama’s excess, on the contrary, is a festive incorporation of the material, a communion with an abundance whose existence is to be celebrated.  Derrida’s supplement is more abstract. It was applied at first to writing, seen in the West, he claims, as a suspect (parasitic) supplement to the oral, which is presumed to be the carrier of truth (being allied to the pneuma, the breathing spirit).  But writing, from that exiled and vulnerable position, revealed through its inner workings (différance) the impostures of the oral and the impossibility of achieving knowledge or the revelation of being through language.  Lezama’s excess joyfully brims over the limitations of language by means of a doctrinal act of the will (a faith) whose validity is untouched by corroboration, preferring to remain in the realm of the poetic.(5) These hypertelic activities are related to another decisive concept in Lezama, which he draws from his Christian foundation: resurrection. Lezama often insisted that “man is not for death,” as Heidegger had proclaimed, but for resurrection, which for him meant a rebirth through poetry.(6) The fiesta, an amalgamation of all the basic customs and practices of Cuban culture, is a joyous celebration of this triumph over death. In this sense, all of Lezama’s works are a fiesta, including his massive Paradiso, which constitutes a victorious creation sparked by a tragic misfortune, the death of the father in the fiction, which is, of course also the death of Lezama’s own father in real life.

Paradiso is an autobiographical bildungsroman that narrates the sentimental and artistic education of José Cemí and the history of the Cemí family in the wake the death of Colonel José Eugenio, an officer in the army of the Republic who died of an unspecified illness in Pensacola, Florida, while on training exercises with the U.S. army.(7) Cemí, a boy when the beloved Colonel dies, grows up in the care of his mother, grandmother, and uncles. We follow him through his education, his acquisition of a coterie of friends, some of whom are intellectuals and aspiring poets, his sexual awakening, and eventually his entrance into the university. The novel ends as Oppiano Licario, an enigmatic poet who witnessed the death of the Colonel, conveys to Cemí a poem that ignites his own poetic imagination and makes him fit to “begin again,” the last words of the novel. There are obvious echoes of Goethe, Proust and Joyce in this story, particularly of the latter’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, because of the Catholic context of Cemí’s education and his poetic inclinations and those of his friends; at the same time there is also a good deal of Ulysses in the minute descriptions of Havana and the protracted discussions about literature and philosophy among Cemi’s friends.

This is merely the narrative frame of the novel, which describes Cuban everyday life in ever accumulating details and luxuriantly chronicles the development of the family, as its center shifts from the deceased father to Rialta, his widow and Cemí’s mother. The historical context of the novel, though not precise, is a suitable backdrop to what is, apart from its style, fairly conventional; it is the early decades of twentieth century Havana, when Lezama, who was born in 1920, was growing up. But Paradiso displays frequent passages of bravura or of elevation in the sense of Longinus’ sublime, in which apparently insignificant objects or activities are highlighted with great intensity, acquiring symbolic meaning.  Among these are family dinners, food, drink, dress, sexual organs and acts, games, all of which are described in a style that never makes concessions to clarity or brevity, or reflects the relative dignity or importance of its subject matter; it is a style that is Lezama’s signature and the same in which he spoke in real life, regardless of the situation.(8) The novel’s language is consistent with Lezama’s relish of sensuality, which he opposes to death with a cornucopia of pleasures, physical, metaphysical, and artistic, in a language that acts as if it were itself a form of resurrection. It is, in a word, festive, and fiestas play a prominent role in Lezama’s poetics, particularly lavish dinners, or Baroque banquets, on which he focused in one of the lectures collected in his book of essays La expresión americana (1958).

Through the microcosm of the Cemí family, which through the marriage of the Colonel to Rialta includes the Olayas, Lezama endeavors to create a summa of Cuban culture.  In fact, because the Cemís are involved in sugar and the Olayas in tobacco, their union is a kind of allegory of Ortiz’s thesis about Cuban culture being a “counterpoint of tobacco and sugar,” the title of his famous 1940 book.(9) Moreover, Cemí, is not a Spanish surname (much less Basque, as the characters allege, and which Lezama is), but the Taíno word for their stone idols. Cemís were the three-cornered figures that the Taínos, the original inhabitants of Cuba worshipped. There are other suggestions in the name, such as “sema,” unit of meaning, and “soma,” body. But “cemí,” in Cuba, is a Taíno deity about whom we learned at school, not through any kind of veneration. With this word Lezama invokes the pre-historical origin of Cuba, an origin, of course, more poetic than anything else, as the Taínos were exterminated thanks to the arrival of the Europeans at the end of the fifteenth century; what remains of them, other than many words, are archaeological curiosities. Lezama himself claims that the first Cuban poetic expression was a metaphor used by Columbus, when he referred to the Taíno women’s hair as silky as a horse’s mane.(10)

As an origin, Cemí is more poetry than historical reality, but that is precisely why Lezama uses the name.  Like Vico, who had a profound influence in Latin America, Lezama believed that a people’s poetic conception of themselves, their mythological or epic origins, was an important part of their history. By calling the family whose history constitutes the central story of Paradiso “Cemí,” Lezama endows the novel with an allegorical dimension: this microcosmic group’s vicissitudes represent the origin and evolution of the macrocosmic society in which they are embedded. Cuba is to Paradiso what Ireland is to Ulysses, and the universe to Dante’s Commedia. The protagonist’s growth leads him to acquire a poetic knowledge of himself and the world, which highlights the primacy of the self-contained, allegorical conception of poetic language as the key to comprehending the world.

Fiestas, as mentioned, are a key component of Lezama’s poetic universe; they serve as keys to his understanding of Cuban culture and of culture and poetry in general. The festive, in all its sensuality and struggle against death, endows matter, most significantly the body, with a transcendental dimension expressed through poetic language. Lezama’s fiestas display all the main features of the event viewed from an anthropological perspective: they mark a transition, being a moment of union and dispersal, they occur at special places and times, involve a variety of activities the principals of which are eating, drinking, music, and dancing. There are two that I consider crucial to Lezama’s conception of the Cuban fiesta because they establish a counterpoint between the domestic and the public, between the home and the street as privileged sites; a counterpoint that illuminates his comprehensive conception of Cuban culture, both in its intimate and public manifestations. These fiestas are the family dinner that takes place in chapter seven of Paradiso and the carnival scene that is the focus of the poem “El coche musical.” Both take place in Havana: the first in the home on Prado Boulevard where the widowed Rialta, Cemí’s mother, has moved with her family after the death of the Colonel, and at the Parque Central, the elaborate park to which the center of Havana was moved after independence in 1902. Now that the Colonel is gone, the house is “the Olaya household” (162).(11)

Chapter seven of Paradiso narrates José Cemí’s passage from boyhood to young adulthood. The novel has fourteen chapters, so seven marks the turning point to the end.  The chapter centers on a family reunion and dinner and on the charismatic, iconoclastic and iconic figure of Uncle Alberto. A ne’er-do-well who squanders money on gambling and other vices, he serves to the protagonist as a counterpart to the dead father (uncles are supplemental fathers, often looking like them, but being devoid of their menacing authority). Uncle Alberto, who is killed in a car crash at the end of the chapter, is like a “joker” in all senses of the word; in dying he becomes the principal scapegoat of the feast celebrated in the chapter –the turkey that they eat is his double or emblem. Described in loving detail, the family dinner is, as mentioned, the principal scene of the chapter; it is one of the most memorable in Lezama’s oeuvre, which has even given rise among Cuban writers and intellectuals to the expression “cena lezamiana,” “Lezamian dinner,” to allude to any copious feast.

With a Balzacian eye for economic detail that one would hardly expect of him, Lezama describes a house that, because of its location on Prado Boulevard, its elaborate doors, windows, inner patio and multiple rooms, bespeaks of past glories in colonial times, yet the fact that the upstairs is usually rented out reveals that the owners are no longer wealthy. There are, for instance, squabbles in the family because of the financial assistance that Leticia, a sister of Rialta who lives in the provinces in some comfort, provides the widow. Grandmother Augusta scolds Uncle Alberto severely because he shows up infrequently and then only to ask for money, which he proceeds to squander.  She stills gives it to him. Fine china and an elaborately embroidered tablecloth are brought out for the dinner, with explicit indications by the narrator that they hark back to an era of splendor no longer known by the family. Rialta anxiously awaits the mailman who will deliver the check with the Colonel’s pension. It arrives, to her relief, as the chapter ends. This is the house prepared for the feast that will celebrate the coming together of faraway members of the family, like Leticia and her husband Santurce, a doctor, who live in Las Villas, the central province, and Demetrio, a dentist who now lives in Havana in modest circumstances, and whose wife is a mulatta whom he married on the Isle of Pines, where she ran a pool hall. All these representatives of various social classes gather in the Prado Boulevard house, brought together by the ritual organized by Doña Augusta, the maternal (Olaya) grandmother.

The time of this fiesta is also significant. The dinner takes place on a stormy November evening, drizzly, windy, and with large waves pounding the seawall of the Malecón, the seashore drive on the edge of the Gulf of Mexico, not far from the house. It is, appropriately, an autumn ritual, one marking with forebodings of death the impeding arrival of winter. Although the turning of the seasons is not as important in the Caribbean as it is in northern regions, there are vestiges of autumnal rituals that derive from the Spanish Catholic tradition. In early November, for instance, the Day of the Dead is observed, not with the grandiosity of the ritual in Mexico, but the Día de los Fieles Difuntos, or Day of the Faithful Dead, as it is called in Cuba, is an important holiday. All this underscores the presence of death at the dinner and in the entire chapter, as well as the role the house plays in providing shelter and refuge to this clan that is soon scatter again.

Like all fiestas, this celebration marks both reunion and dispersal, people who come together for the occasion but part ways, often through death, afterwards. The narrator alerts the reader to this: “A family dinner mingling gravity and simplicity had warned them that the time for dispersion had come...” (185).(12) This ominous quality of the dinner makes the time of the reunion especially worth seizing and elevating; it is a time that celebrates itself, as it were. The signs of impending departures are everywhere, such as the cancerous tumor of the beloved grandmother Augusta, Uncle Alberto’s dangerous adventures in a bar, in which he is entangled with a Mexican charro who is a figure of the devil, and eventually his death. But the presence of death at the dinner is also evident in the animal flesh and vegetables being consumed and the conversations they elicit. To be sure, conversation is a significant component of the dinner both as a festive activity in which the guests display their rhetorical skills and wit, as well as the ways by which their words invest the food with meaning.

The dinner is, needless to say, lavish. It includes six courses: a plantain soup, a beet salad, a seafood soufflé made with prawns and lobster, a roasted turkey, a frozen cream for desert, made with grated coconut and pineapple, and fruit. These dishes are lovingly described, with commentaries on their colors, shapes, and origins. Eating in Lezama is a poetic process by which matter is metabolized into flesh, making of the feast a collective communion whereby, in eating the same foods, all become one substance. Hence, eating these meats, sea foods, vegetables, and fruit, all products of Cuba’s nature, makes the dinner guests, more than family, one with the motherland, and one in flesh and spirit (when speaking, Lezama always used “incorporar” instead of “comer” to signify eating). Of course, to consume these fish and fowl they first have to be killed; they have to die to be reborn in those who consume them, just as the legumes and fruits must be transformed in the passage from field or orchard to the dinner plate and the stomachs of the diners. This sequence from death to life is brought out in the conversation in three ways.  First, when one of the children refers to the turkey as a “zopilote” and is corrected by Cemí, who explains that the proper Mexican word for the bird is “guajolote,” if a Mexican word is to be used. Someone adds that “zopilote” refers to a carrion bird whose Cuban name (aura, buzzard) he declines to even pronounce because of its ominous connotations. The turkey thus has been associated with death, and eating with the consumption of carrion.  Grandmother Augusta brusquely changes the topic of the conversation. The prawns are next addressed, and it is mentioned that Cuban fishermen believe that when these animals feel the nearness of death they let themselves be carried by the current to a place where they join many others whose bodies make up the coral foundations of the island of Cuba.  Here the metaphor of eating as a metabolic process is clear: they are partaking of the nation’s material foundation.

The third is the most complicated and noteworthy. Uncle Demetrio awkwardly knocks a slice of beet onto the fine cream-colored tablecloth, making three very visible, embarrassing red stains on it:

It was then that Demetrio blundered. As he cut his beet, he lost the whole thing, and while he was attempting to recover it, the untimely pricked red ball began to bleed. Demetrio trapped it for a third time, but it broke and slid away; half was stuck to the fork and half, with a new malign insistence, laid its wound once more upon the delicate cloth, which soaked up the red liquid with slow avidity.  As the ancestral cream color of the tablecloth mingled with the beet´s monsignorate, three islands of bleeding showed up among the rosettes” (182).(13)

The suggestion of blood could not be clearer.  Uncle Alberto comes to the rescue, jokingly trying to cover the stains with the shells of prawns already consumed by him and José Cemí.  But in spite of the mirthful turn he gives the accident, the ominous signs of the red spots on the tablecloth are evident: “In the way the threads absorbed the vegetable blood, the three stains opened up in somber expectancy” (182).(14) The announcement of Alberto’s death lodged in this apparently trivial accident is fulfilled at the end of the chapter.  After the taxi in which he is riding smashes into a train, hurling Alberto’s face against the windshield and snapping his neck, the railroad guard who approaches his prone body “took a handkerchief out of Alberto’s pocket, on which from lack of use the [ironed] squares could still be seen, and he covered Alberto’s face with it, but the blood was still pouring out and followed the careful creases down to one corner, where his initials had been delicately embroidered by Doña Augusta” (195).(15) Like the tablecloth’s fabric absorbing the beet’s juice, the handkerchief absorbs Uncle Alberto’s blood. This textile image binds together the text of the chapter and seals, as it were, its festive theme. Alberto is the scapegoat of the fiesta; he, the charming chosen one, who embodies life and poetry, is the sacrificial victim. It is the price extracted by death for the revelry, its revenge for the affront made by the lavish dinner in flaunting the unity of the family. We might say that Alberto’s death is embedded in the fabric of the fiesta, revealing the tragic element of Cuban, of human culture.

For Cemí the death of this supplemental father signals the beginning of his adult life.  Henceforth he will become increasingly involved with his friends; although still within the family home, he will make the city more and more his world. The mysterious figure who appeared in the bar room fracas between Alberto and the Mexican, the darkly attired Oppiano Licario, will become his new guide. The family dinner proved to be the ritual of dispersal conjured up by the unity that it celebrates.  It is the bright and dark center of the novel, its chiaroscuro play of white and black. 

If in Paradiso the fiesta is an intimate, family ritual celebrated within the home, in “El coche musical,” first published in 1960, Lezama focused on a street festival, the once famous Havana Carnival, taking place not just outdoors but in Central Park.(16) Whereas in the nineteenth-century depictions by Landaluze’s and Miahle’s of the “Fiesta del Día de Reyes” Havana’s hub was the Plaza de San Francisco by the docks, the center of the capital’s urban life is now the Parque Central, a space that embodies civic society and represents, by its location, buildings, and monuments, the power of the State. Built in 1903, just after the proclamation of the Republic, Havana’s Parque Central is nothing like its counterpart in New York, which, being a large green area, owes much to the fashion of English gardens. Havana’s Parque Central is a very European public square that celebrates the new nation in paving stones, masonry, and concrete. There is a statue of national hero José Martí in the middle of the park, palm trees (symbols of Cuban nationality), and imposing buildings all around. These are edifices that boast of the nation’s prosperity in the early decades of the Republic, such as the huge and lavish Centro Gallego, with the National Theater next to it, as well as the Hotel Inglaterra with its Louvre Café and famous portals on the ground floor facing the Parque Central. The Centro Gallego or Galician Center, was the palatial building erected by the numerous Galician population of Cuba.  It rivaled the Centro Asturiano, Centro Vasco, and Centro Español, whose equally ostentatious structures located nearby had been erected by other Spanish regional groups.

The Louvre Cafe was the favorite meeting place of poets and baseball players in the nineteenth century, the acme of Havana’s cosmopolitanism.(17) One corner of the Parque’s Central Square led to the Manzana de Gómez (“Gómez’s Block”), a pedestrian mall that housed many elegant stores. The Parque itself is located at the head of  Prado Boulevard (where the Olaya house is situated), which leads out toward the sea, and the Morro Castle guarding the entrance to the bay –the Prado was named after the one in Madrid. The blue sea and the Morro’s lighthouse can be seen from the balconies of the Inglaterra Hotel. This fusion of public spaces connotes continuity, for the Prado was the boulevard on which the ostentatious carriages of the Cuban elite paraded in the nineteenth century, as depicted in Cirilo Villaverde’s Cecilia Valdés and Frédérick Miahle’s famous prints. The Parque Central, more compatible with the automobile era, boasts of Havana’s belonging to a cosmopolitan world of travel, American tourism, and European immigration. Lezama could not have chosen a setting more representative of the modern Cuban nation for his fiesta poem.

The timing, of course, need not be elaborated upon: it is Carnival, the season of revelry, relaxation or inversion of customs, rules, and mores, taking place just before Lent, when prohibitions will return with exceptional rigor and remain in place for over a month.  During the early decades of the Republic, the Havana Carnival achieved great splendor, with floats and comparsas (dancing quadrilles) parading through the streets of the city. It was not quite New Orleans, but it competed favorably with the renowned Santiago Carnival, celebrated on the eastern end of the island. In the poem, which is narrative in structure, Lezama has placed a leading figure, a protagonist, who presides over the proceedings: the composer, musician, and band leader Raimundo Valenzuela. He was a prominent and popular mulatto performer from San Antonio de los Baños who was instrumental in the creation and dissemination of the danzón, the first popular form of Cuban music, which bound together social classes and races with its alluring rhythms and capacity to incorporate melodies from a great variety of sources. “El coche musical” is dedicated to Valenzuela´s memory.

It is noteworthy that Lezama should have focused on Valenzuela, whom he portrays as a key figure in the fulfillment of an all-encompassing Cuban cultural synthesis. He was a dark mulatto, probably from the colored petty bourgeoisie that had emerged on the island during the nineteenth century, and a musician, as were others of the same background.  Lezama did not engage in identity politics, much less racial ones, but his poetic insight about Valenzuela’s significance in combining elements from various levels of culture in the creation of his popular art –i.e., an art for the masses—makes of “El coche musical” a poem whose importance transcends its aesthetic merit. The first danzón was composed and played by another mulatto musician, Miguel de Faílde, in Matanzas in 1879. It was derived from a mixture of the French contredanse, brought to Cuba by Haitian colonists fleeing the Revolution, as well as African rhythms and melodies absorbed pell-mell from a wide range of sources, including operas like Rigoletto, Tosca, and Madame Buttefly. Everyone danced danzones, even in the fiestas after baseball games, in which Valenzuela’s band often performed (see The Pride of Havana). Valenzuela also composed canciones, rumbas, guarachas, and he even wrote some zarzuelas, and was active in the struggle for independence from Spain.(18) As far as I know, Lezama is unique in his awareness and celebration of Valenzuela’s prominence and decisive historical role. His inspiration was based on a childhood memory.

Before reading “El coche musical” in a recording of his poetry, Lezama recalls:

I remember that when I was very young, towards the end of the year, when Carnival time came, Central Park acquired a festive animation that was truly vertiginous. When Carnival came, then the Park was surrounded by little orchestras, and when one waned the next one started up, in such a way that the Central Park square was constantly animated, sparkling with light. There was a true street-party atmosphere. And then Valenzuela, who was fine-looking, with his taffeta frock, would go from orchestra to orchestra as if giving each the beat, and then, at once, the orchestra started up with its Cuban sones. And this made a great impression on me because I saw the music, relentless, as if it were fire, mobilized music emerging from each of the four corners of the Park. Valenzuela gave me the impression of being Orpheus, who would be supplying the flute’s melodies, the harmony’s numbers.  And that impression, with the passing of time, endured in me until one day I wrote the poem “The Musical Coach, in Remembrance of Raimundo Valenzuela and his Carnival Orchestras.(19)

Aside from the fact that Lezama conflates the year’s end holidays with those of the Carnival, which arrive three months later, one problem with this poignant reminiscence is that Valenzuela died in 1905 and Lezama was not born until 1910. Could the Carnival scene be something that a family member related to him? Could the Raimundo Valenzuela he remembers be a son of the original Raimundo Valenzuela? I have not been able to answer this question, but it does not really matter; what is significant is how Lezama transmutes this childhood recollection into a poem about fiestas, and what he does with the figure of Valenzuela, whom he turns into Orpheus, thus offering a stunning dramatization of Cuban culture in the making.

“El coche musical” follows Valenzuela, as he triumphantly rides around Central Park in his horse-drawn carriage, deploying his twelve orchestras which presumably correspond to the signs of the Zodiac; this is the first of several cosmic connections. He goes from one to another, infusing each with energy and music as he performs other activities, such as magnanimously distributing cigars, assessing the value of a piece of fine cloth by the mere sound of the rustle of its pleats, sweetening what appear to be balls of cotton candy, creating pillars and pyramids of sound, that reach up to the stars. Valenzuela is in possession of the “secret code,” the Pythagorean numbers whose combination establishes a cosmic correspondence between the earthly and the heavenly, the mundane and the astral; it is the cipher that encrypts the key to the music of the stars, wherein this festive Cuban time is lodged. This measured time, this music, can confront death because it is a full synaesthesia of colors, light, sounds, flavors, and rhythms that is presumably innate to Cubans and prepares them for their journey to the afterworld.  I cannot resist quoting the original, which I will follow with a prose translation of my own and a commentary:

Aquí el hombre antes de morir no tenía que ejercitarse en la música,

ni las sombras aconsejar el ritmo al bajar al infierno.

El germen ya traía las medidas de la brisa,

y las sombras huían, el número era relatado por la luz.


In prose translation this goes something like this:  “Here [i.e. in Cuba, in Havana] man did not have to learn the appropriate music, nor shadows teach him the rhythm of his steps to descend into hell. The [Cuban] seed already brought within it the measures of the breeze [the notes of the wind instruments], hence the shades fled, the [secret] number was revealed by the light.” Valenzuela wanders regally around the Park in his carriage dispensing “avisos pitagóricos,” that is to say, the Pythagorean clues needed to enter into this cosmic accord wherein death can be, at least temporarily, vanquished.  The clues are, needless to say, musical, and the proper response to them is to dance, for Valenzuela’s music is no abstract sound to be enjoyed in self-absorbed solitude, but music created for dancing, because “Bailar es encontrar la unidad que forman los vivientes y los muertos,” or, “To dance is to find the unity binding the living and the dead.” This is a material, carnal accord of bodies, matter, sound, rhythm and cosmic links involving all the senses, thus the allusions to cigars, food, and drink –and the projected scapegoat, that Cuban figure dancing in his journey to the afterworld (an Uncle Alberto?). The depiction of matter, literally concrete or stone, melting Dalí-like, as in the last words of the poem “la cornisa que se deshiela” [the cornice that melts], adds to the sensation of a softening process; this is a world that is more like molasses in its consistency than hardened substances.

In this bubbling mixture hierarchies are abolished, everything has its own dignity and significance, as it is sucked into the creative vortex of Valenzuela’s entrancing music. He presides over a universe in flux, oblivious to fixed categories, such as distinctions between high and low art, between classical and popular music. In his danzones, as mentioned, Valenzuela often adapted tunes from opera and other forms of European music. It is clear to me that Valenzuela, a heroic figure, is a persona of Lezama himself and his poetics of Baroque accumulation.  In developing the danzón, the mulatto composer and musician founded a Cuban musical blend that binds the population, regardless of class or race, in moments of ecstasy in which, by forgetting themselves, they remember a lost unity. This is the reason why Valenzuela can parade himself, sashaying in his fancy taffeta frock coat, commanding respect and admiration from all and obedience from his musicians, whom he conducts with verve and conviction. Larger than life, Valenzuela is a fabulous figure, a hero.

“El coche musical,” in fact, begins with a correction in that regard.  Its first line reads: “No es el coche con el fuego cubierto, aquí el sonido” (“It is not the carriage covered with fire, here it is sound”), that is to say, this is not Phaeton’s chariot, shrouded in flames, but a carriage radiating music, a kind of roaming calliope. Valenzuela may be no Phaeton, but he too is a mythological figure, Orpheus, who, while not setting the world on fire, will by filling time with measured sound crack the mysteries of fate to prepare his fellow revelers to confront death.  Orpheus is the god chosen because he crossed death’s limits and, lulling Hades’ gatekeepers Pluto and Persephone with his music, descended into it to rescue Eurydice. The poem’s impenetrability is like the music of the danzón; it is melodious, rhythmical sound without an ostensible verbal meaning translatable into rational discourse. Since to Lezama Valenzuela is Orpheus, his music is Orphic; prophetic, ritualistic, and mystical like “El coche musical.”

Even then, there are flickers of meaning, the overall narrative structure can be grasped, and some of the obscure allusions can be ultimately deciphered. These are clues that situate the poem in a specific Cuban geographic and historical context, linking the contingencies of Cuban culture to the broad cosmological resonances suggested by Orpheus and his music. For instance, a place referred to as “lágrimas compostelanas” [Compostelan tears] must be the Centro Gallego, the imposing building of the Galician mutual aid society already mentioned (Santiago de Compostela being the capital of Galicia). There is something of a condescending smirk in the phrase, as Galicians were mocked by Cubans because many were uneducated peasants who spoke a somewhat garbled Spanish (it is not their native language); they are also seen as being maudlin, hence the tears. Mention of the “gaiteros,” or bagpipe players, is also a jokingly mocking allusion to the Galicians, as they are known for playing that mournful instrument. There is some Cuban humor too in “El coche musical,” in consonance with its Carnival atmosphere. “La querida de White,” or “White’s mistress,” is a reference to José White, ironically (given his name) another mulatto musician of great renown in Cuba during the nineteenth century, who triumphed in Paris, and who was also a composer of both classical and popular music. The recovery of all these oblique but specific traces adds to the enjoyment of the poem but does not alter its principal effect, which is to provoke in the reader an emotion comparable to that of music, a “fiesta innombrable,” an unnamable, sublime fiesta. “El coche musical” is a carnivalesque poem about the Carnival: the Havana Carnival performed as a celebration of national communion. At its deepest level it is a poem about poetry and transcendence, a poetic fiesta that encompasses all fiestas.

Lezama’s writings have contributed to our knowledge of Cuban history and culture. His highlighting of Raimundo Valenzuela’s significance, for instance, is an original contribution to our knowledge of the history of Cuban culture. Lezama underlines the sacred nature of certain common practices that we take for granted (fiestas, foods, and family relations). These are also insights of the highest value whose importance has extended beyond his group of followers and admirers. Lezama’s judgments about figures in the history of Cuban literature are also unique and have been influential among critics and scholars. But although Lezama’s poetic fiestas have had an impact on younger writers, particularly Severo Sarduy, they are an end in themselves, a culmination. They are not a probe into Cuban culture that yields any applications, being in a sense inimitable. To enjoy them, one must allow oneself to be carried away by their powerful allure, suspending not so much disbelief as the desire to know and understand rationally.  Lezama is a writer of the stature of Proust, whose vision and language absorb reality, creating with it another world that, once one enters into it, feels coherent, total, and sufficient.  It is not an alternative or parallel world, it becomes the only world. The greatest pitfall of Lezama criticism is to be sucked into that world and produce commentary that is either a pale reflection of Lezama, or, at worst, a parody of him; much of the criticism devoted to his work has fallen into this trap.  It is easy to do so. To resist Lezama, however, may be tantamount to resigning oneself to not understand him, to be left out of the fiesta altogether. To take ironic distance feels like a profanation; besides, from what secure vantage point might one cast an ironic glance that is not as arbitrary or predicated on a faith, even a nihilistic one, as Lezama’s? What I have done here aspires to be the isolation and interpretation of a topic or recurrent scene in Lezama, but as happens with every detail of his work, to tease it out means to bring the whole along with it. In that sense I too have failed to hold off Lezama and I too have joined, with my unsure steps, the dance.



(1). This essay is part of a book in progress about Cuban fiestas in literature, art, and sports.  I use fiesta, which appears in my Webster’s, because –unlike “feast”--it refers to an event, a celebration, that involves more than eating.


(2). See my Alejo Carpentier: The Pilgrim at Home (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1977).


(3).  “Para llegar a Lezama Lima,” en su La vuelta al día en ochenta mundos (Mexico: Siglo XXI Editores, 1967), 135-55.


(4).  “Noche insular: jardines invisibles,” in Órbita de Lezama Lima, ensayo preliminar selección y notas de Armando Álvarez Bravo (Havana: UNEAC, 1966), 81.  All quotes are from this version.


(5). See Georges Bataille, Visions of Excess: Selected Writings, 1927-1939, translated and edited by Allan Stoeckl, with Carl R. Lovitt and Donald M. Leslie, Jr.  (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1985), and Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology, tr. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivac (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1974.  [Original French 1967]


(6). “Y cómo la mayor posibilidad infinita es la resurrección, la poesía, la imagen, tenía que expresar su mayor abertura de compás, que es la propia resurrección.  Fue entonces que adquirí el punto de vista que enfrento a la teoría heideggeriana del hombre para la muerte, levantando el concepto de la poesía que viene a establecer la causalidad prodigiosa del ser para la resurrección, el ser que vence a la muerte y a lo saturniano.” In Iván González Cruz,  Diccionario: vida y obra de José Lezama Lima (Generalitat Valenciana, 2000), 134.  [And since the greatest infinite possibility is resurrection, poetry, the image, I had to articulate its widest compass opening, which is resurrection itself.  It was then that I attained the point of view that I oppose to the Heideggerian theory of man for death, raising the concept of poetry which establishes a prodigious causality of being for resurrection, the self who defeats death and the Saturnal.]


(7). Though the chronology of the novel is vague, this must have happened, if the fiction parallels Lezama’s life, late in the second decade of the twentieth century.  The army corps of the Republic, which had been trained by the U.S. Army, many of whose officers had studied in the United States, was violently deposed by Fulgencio Batista’s “sergeants’ revolt” of 1933.  By dying before this happened, Lezama’s father was spared the humiliation, and in not a few cases extermination, to which the officers were subjected.  His widow and family lived in relative poverty on the father’s modest army pension.


(8). It is notorious, for instance, that Lezama’s usual greeting was, “¿Qué tal de resonancias?” , which we might render as --“Getting any vibes?”  There are many anecdotes about Lezama’s convoluted everyday speech.

See my “Lo cubano en Paradiso,” in Isla a su vuelo fugitiva: ensayos sobre literatura hispanoamericana (Madrid: Porrúa Turanzas, 1983), 69-90.


(10). “Prólogo,” Antología de la poesía cubana (Havana: Consejo Nacional de Cultura, 1965), vol. I, 7.


(11).  “la casa de los Olaya” (217). Paradiso I quote from the first edition (Havana: UNEAC-Contemporáneos, 1966) and Gregory Rabassa’s translation (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1974).


(12).  “Una comida familiar, que había mezclado la gravedad y la sencillez, les avisaba que había llegado la dispersión” (249)


(13).  “Fue entonces cuando Demetrio cometió una torpeza, al trinchar la remolacha se desprendió entera la rodaja, quiso rectificar el error, pero volvió la masa roja irregularmente pinchada a sangrar, por tercera vez Demetrio la recogió, pero por el sitio donde había penetrado el trinchante se rompió la masa, deslizándose: una mitad quedó adherida al tenedor, y la otra, con nueva insistencia maligna, volvió a reposar su herida en el tejido sutil, absorbiendo el líquido rojo con lenta avidez.  Al mezclarse el cremoso ancestral con el monseñorato de la remolacha, quedaron señalados tres islotes de sangría sobre los rosetones” (244).


(14). “en los presagios, en la manera como los hilos fijaron la sangre vegetal, las tres manchas entreabieron como una sombría expectación” (244).


(15). “extrajo del bolsillo de Alberto, con los cuadrados aún marcados por no haber sido usado, su pañuelo, le tapó el rostro, pero la sangre aún brotando se fue extendiendo siguiendo las cuidadosas divisiones de aquella pieza de hilo, luciendo en una de sus esquinas sus iniciales, delicadamente bordadas por Doña Augusta” (262).


(16). The poem appeared in Dador (1960) and was also published that year in the literary supplement Lunes de Revolución, no. 76, september 12, 1960, 16-17.


(17). See my “A Cuban Belle Epoque” in The Pride of Havana: A History of Cuban Baseball (New York:  Oxford University Press, 1999), 75-111.


(18). I draw this meager information on Valenzuela from Helio Orovio’s Diccionario de la música cubana: biográfico y técnico (Havana: Editorial Letras Cubanas, 1992), 495-96.  [Second edition, the first is from 1981].  On the history of Cuban popular music I follow María Teresa Linares, La música popular (Havana: Instituto Cubano del Libro, 1970).


(19). “Yo recuerdo que cuando yo era muy joven, al llegar los carnavales, los fines de año, el Parque Central cobraba una animación fiestera verdaderamente vertiginosa.  Cuando llegaban los carnavales, pues entonces el Parque se rodeaba de orquesticas, y cuando una se remansaba comenzaba la otra, de tal manera que aquel cuadrado del Parque Central estaba constantemente animado, reverberante de luz; había un verdadero ambiente verbenero. Y entonces Valenzuela, que era de muy buena presencia, con su levita de tafetán, pues iba de orquesta en orquesta y daba como el compás, y entonces inmediatamente la orquesta empezaba sus sones criollos.  Y eso me causaba mucha impresión porque veía incesantemente la música como si fuera candela, la música movilizada y surgiendo por cada una de las esquinas del Parque. Valenzuela me causaba la impresión de un Orfeo que iba dando los sones de la flauta, los números de la armonía.  Y eso, al paso del tiempo, esa impresión perduró en mí, hasta que un día hice el poema “El coche musical, en recuerdo de Raimundo Valenzuela y sus orquestas de carnaval.” José Lezama Lima.  Poemas.  “Palabra de esta América,” No. 22 (Havana, Casa de las Américas), side B.