Severo Sarduy’s “Cuba”: Invented, simulated and cross-dressed
Not nation, that is, no national state, has an ethnic basis, which means that nationalism cannot be defined as an ethnocentrism except precisely in the sense of the product of a fictive ethnicity.
Étienne Balibar, “Racism and Nationalism”
In La invención
de América, Edmundo
O’Gorman, convincingly argues that “America” was not discovered but rather
invented, since no such entity existed at the time that Columbus encountered
the lands and the continent which he mistook for Asia. O’Gorman writes: “[Cu]ando se
afirma que Colón descubrió el continente americano por casualidad por haber
topado con algunas tierras que creyó eran asiáticas, es decir, cuando se nos
pide que aceptemos que Colón reveló el ser
de unas tierras distinto del ser que él les
atribuyó, lo que en realidad se nos está pidiendo es que aceptemos que
esas tierras revelaron su secreto y escondido ser cuando Colón topó con ellas…”(57, my emphasis).(1)
The tacit implication here is that we accept something akin to
Heidegger’s notion of the concealing and revealing of the truth of Being. In
other words, that
And here I think a little philology perhaps may shed some light on
O’Gorman’s use of the word invention, even if he was not thinking of it in
these terms. For originally invention, or invetione was also the term used
to refer to the art of rhetoric, “el arte del arreglo,”
of which Sarduy wrote so much, especially in his
writings about the connection between literature and the tropes of science.
From Cicero’s De inventione
to Rodolphus Agricola’s De inventione dialectica,
regardless of whether the object was the orator, as in the case of Cicero, or
the writer, as in the case of Agricola, the aim was the same: the construction
of an argument. And that is where the
art of invention or construction comes in. “
Todos mancebos, como dicho tengo, y todos de muy buena estatura, gente muy fermosa: los cabellos no crespos, salvo corredíos y gruesos, como sedas de caballo, y todos de la frente y cabeza muy ancha, más que otra generación que fasta aquí haya visto, y los ojos muy fermosos y no pequeños, y ellos ninguno prieto, salvo de la color de los canarios.
Gente farto mansa. (OC- I Cobra 570)
[All young, as I have said, and all of a good height, a very fine people: their hair is not curly, but straight, and all have very broad brows and heads, broader than those of any people I have seen before, and their eyes are very and not small, and they are not all black, but the color of Canary Islanders. A most tame people]. (Sarduy 1995 Cobra 134)
Here Sarduy has cited an entire passage from
Columbus’ Diary in a section “Las indias” in his
novel Cobra. And why
not? Cobra is no more an invention, a fiction than that of
Ayer el mar estaba anaranjado y en calma. Vimos atravesar junto a la nave un banco de sirenas, algunas de la cuales se prendieron a la proa y nos acompañaron durante muchas leguas. Los marinos les echaron nueces y avellanas, que a ellas tanto les gustan. Daba gloria verlas juguetear en el agua. (OC-I 293-394)
[Yesterday the sea was orange-hued and calm. We saw a school of sirens come near the ship, some of them caught on the prow and kept us company during many leagues. The sailors threw them walnuts and hazelnuts, which they like so much. It was joyous to see them frolic in the water]. (Sarduy 1994 110)
This is quite comical, especially when one considers that Sarduy quotes from Columbus’ Diary in both De donde son los cantes and Cobra, without ever attributing these
passages to Columbus. And in Cobra, the
Con un círculo rojo entre las cejas, cuatro espesas sonríen—dentaduras de d oro—bailando en el proscenio un Auspicio a la Aurora; por el fondo, sobre una carroza lumínica que asciende entre nubes de celuloide, con bigoticos engominados y círculos de oro en los pómulos, aparece el Dios-Sol: a sus pies, foquitos intermitentes de todos los colores, el trono del marajá, su favorito. (OC-I Cobra 570)
[With a red circle between their eyes, four thick girls are smiling—golden dentures—dancing a Beckoning to Dawn, on the proscenium; in the background, on a luminous float which climbs among celluloid clouds, the Sun God appears with a slick moustache and golden circles on his cheekbones; at his feet, blinking spotlights of all colors, the throne of the maharajah, his favorite]. (Sarduy 1995 Cobra 134)
The voyage or voyages were never anything other than an enterprise driven
by desire, like Auxilio and Socorro’s hunger for the
transcendental image of Mortal, the white Spaniard. Nothing could quench their desire except “noticia
de un gallego de piel como trigo espigado, de lengua casta y ojos de venablo”
(OC-I 389). And so they venture
out from Cádiz to arrive at
¡Metafísicas estamos y es que no comemos! ¡Vámonos al Self-Service! /”My, we are metaphysical, we must be hungry! Let’s go to the Self-Service!” cry out the transvestites, Auxilio and Socorro, in De donde/From Cuba (332/15), and off they go to the Self-Service restaurant where they will have to negotiate their identities without the help of fixed metaphysical categories of Being. Here, unlike with Kundera, what is unbearable is the heaviness of Being. And so begins De donde son los cantantes with an affirmation of lightness, of “pájaros” (the Cuban slang for gays) dressed in feathers. Sarduy writes:
Plumas, sí, deliciosas plumas de azufre, río de plumas, arrastrando cabezas de mármol, plumas en la cabeza, sombrero de plumas, colibríes y frambuesas: desde él caen hasta el suelo los cabellos anaranjados de Auxilio, lisos de nylon, enlazados con cintas rosadas y campanitas, desde él a los lados de la cara, de las caderas, de las botas de piel de cebra, hasta el asfalto la cascada albina. Y Auxilio ayada, pájaro indio detrás de la lluvia. (OC-I 329)
[Feathers, yes, lovely brimstone feathers,
heads of marble carried down a river of feathers, feathers on her head, a
feather, hummingbird, and raspberry hat in fact, from which Help’s smooth
orange nylon hair stretches to the ground, braided with pink ribbons and little
bells; from her hat the albino locks cascade down the sides of her face, then
hips, down her zebra-skin boots to the pavement. And Help, in stripes, as
Indian bird behind falling rain]. (1994 From
The humor of
this passage in a novel about Cuba’s multicultural history is unique in the
history of literature. Nervous and hysterical Auxilio
and Socorro venture out amidst a number of literary citations that recall in
the most irreverent way Sarduy’s own literary origins
in the Spanish baroque. “Auxilio aparta las mechas. Se asoma
quevediana,” writes Sarduy,
and says “Polvo seré, mas polvo
enamorado”/”I will be dust, but dust in love” (Ibid). The “curriculum cubense,”
as Sarduy calls it is about Cuba’s three existing
cultures. Tres culturas se han superpuesto
para constituir la cubana—española, africana y
china—tres ficciones que aluden a ellas
constituyen este libro”/”Three cultures, at least, have been superimposed to
constitue the Cuban—Spanish, African, and Chinese--;
three fictions alluding to them constitute this book” says Sarduy
in a ironical note at the end of the novel (Ibid. 422/154). These three
cultures that make up Cuban identity, says Sarudy,
constitute “Cuba”….as a fiction. And he adds to the mix--since missing from
Se acabó lo que se daba...Ésta es la situación: nos hemos quedado y los dioses se fueron, cogieron el barco, se fueron en camiones, atravesaron la frontera…Se fueron todos. (Ibid)
[Our cupboard is empty. This is how it stands: we stayed behind and the gods went away, they took the boat, they left in trucks, they crossed the border…They’ve all gone.] (Ibid 12)
The gods have all left, declares Socorro in echo of Heidegger’s conclusion that the gods had departed which is why we have forgotten to consider the question of Being and the Being of Being or the ontic-ontological difference, to which Auxilio responds: “Calla. Eso querías…Que te trague el Ser…Que a tu alrededor se abra un hueco. Que te chupe la falla lacaniana”/“Shut up. That’s what you wanted…May the Being swallow you…May a hole open all around you. May the Lacanian fault suck you under” (Ibid). Auxilio wishes Socorro “que seas absorbida…por inadvertida…” in a statement that reminds us of Tirso de Molina’s “condenado por desconfiado,” which in this case, can either mean that she deserves to be swallowed up by Being, or that she deserves to be punished for no longer believing in the gods. In the Dolores Rondón’s monologue in which she confronts her imminent death, the cabaret singer regrets not having believed in the gods: “No oí, no creí. No abrí la puerta,”/”I didn’t hear. I didn’t believe” but now she claims, everything has returned to its origin: “Vuelve el río a la fuente….Cada uno en su agua, cada. Cada pájaro en su aire. Vuelvo al fondo del mar, con la bata blanca de Obatalá, en la noche, bandera de los muertos”/”The river returns to the source…Each one in his water. Each one in his air. Each bird in his air. I return to the bottom of the sea, in the god Obatala’s dressing gown, in the night, flag of the dead” (OC-II De donde 363/ From Cuba 62,63). Cuban orishas or the Greek gods of Heidegger’s mytho-philosophy is what is needed for an ontology of nationhood. But this is the problem for Sarduy; nationalism is the attempt to fill an ontological hole, the “la falla lacaniana” which is what Auxilio and Socorro mean when they say “¡Metafísicas estamos y es que no comemos!” And that ontological hunger, which Auxilio and Socorro call “metaphysical” is also what led Heidegger to support the Nazi party: believing that only through the logo-metaphysical mission of the German people could the [Greek] gods be ushered back in. “…Western grammar from the reflections of the Greeks on the Greek language. For along with German the Greek language is (in regard to its possibility of thought), at once the most powerful and most spiritual of all languages,” declared Heidegger even as late as 1953 (1961 47). And in the same text he once again unabashedly so reaffirms the same brand of nationalism he had invoked in his rectoral address at the University of Freiberg twenty years earlier (1985 476) . In An Introduction to Metaphysics, he writes:
These digressions are important because they point to the philosophical/political import of Sarduy’s deconstruction of the ontology of origins and his textual parody of “cubanidad”. For the German philosopher the trans-national destiny of the Fatherland, as the leader of and savior of Western culture was inextricably connected to its close kinship with the Greek language. Heidegger, the philosopher of the poem, of the saying of poetry viewed Hölderlin as the intermediary of the Greco-Germanic of the forgotten tradition of Being. “[W]hen Hölderlin composes ‘Homecoming’ he is concerned that his ‘countrymen’ find their essence,” writes Heidegger in his “Letter on Humanism,” (1977 218) which reminds us of Sarduy’s opposite project, i.e. his questioning and parodying of essentialism through transvestism—something which would have been inconceivable to Heidegger as a category of Kultur. But Heidegger continues: “‘German’ is not spoken to the world so that the world might be reformed through the German essence; rather, it is spoken to the Germans so that from a fateful belongingness to the nations they might become world-historical along with them. The homeland of this historical dwelling is nearness to Being” (Ibid 218). Taken in its totality, the argument goes something like this: the language of Being is German (with its roots in the Greek language), and
Hölderlin is the santero of Western culture whose poetry will make manifest “the history of Being”—poetry here understood, as Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe has pointed out as myth. “Myth [Heidegger’s die Sage] is the originary Poem (Urgedicht) of every people. For all Romantic politics, this means that a people originates [my emphasis], exists as such, or identifies and appropriates itself –that is, it is properly itself, only on the basis of myth,” says Lacoue-Labarthe (2007 88-89) calling our attention to the fact that when Heidegger says “poem” what he means is myth. There is no History without myth, poiesis, the creation of a culture. “For if...the knowledge of originary History, of Ur-Geschicte, belongs entirely to mythology, then it comes quite clear that art, precisely as the power of re(beginning), is essentially myth” (Ibid. 9). It is with myth—nacional-esteticisimo--that one forges nationalism and the kind of messianic State politics romantically endorsed by Heidegger—or what Lacoue-Labarthe calls Heidegger’s “archi-fascism” (Ibid. 66) And therein resides the danger that Sarduy came to express when he was writing De donde son los cantantes, under the influence of Heidegger’s famous 1966 Spiegel interview. Two things stand in direct contrast with Sarduy’s anti-ontological stance, and they are Heidegger’s belief in cultural and racial purity—even in 1966—and in his belief in the exceptionality of national identity. Here is “el lechosito de la Selva Negra”/ “the wise stud of the Black Forrest” (OC-I 336)”: in the Der Spiegel interview: “[Great change] cannot come about by the adoption of Zen Buddhism or other Eastern experience of the world. The help of the European tradition and a new appropriation of that tradition are needed for a change in thinking. Thinking will only be transformed by a thinking that has the same origin and destiny” (1990 64). This appeal to purity and sameness, this unwavering faith in the historical destiny of Germans (Ibid) and denial of the difference and the Other, is precisely what Sarduy deconstructs vis-à-vis his choteo and intertextuality (non-originary becoming)--the cultural-literary ajiaco he calls “curriculum cubense.” Cuba is Romeo y Julieta cigars, Cuba is the son of the Matamoros trio, Cuba is a colibrí, Cuba is African, Cuba is Spanish, Cuba is Chinese, Cuba is transvestism, most of all Cuba is a canvas like the colors of Portugal’s flag (without it mythic symbolism) of Sarduy’s Los matadores de hormigas/The Ant-Killers.
“Cuba”: simulated and cross-dressed
“Ellos andan todos
desnudos como su madre los parió,”/”They
all go around naked as the day they were born” writes Columbus in the Diary entry of October 12, 1492, and he
will continue to comment on the nakedness of the “Indians,” throughout the Diary, always in admiration of the
beautiful bodies. But of course, aesthetics soon gives way to more practical
matters, and the Indians’ nakedness ultimately becomes, in the eyes of the
admiral, a surface awaiting European inscription. By December 18th,
birthdate of modernity is 1492, even though its
gestation, like that of the fetus, required a period of intrauterine growth.
Whereas modernity gestated in the free, creative medieval European cities, it came
to birth in Europe's confrontation with the Other. By controlling,
conquering, and violating the Other, Europe defined itself as discoverer,
conquistador, and colonizer of an alterity like-wise
constitutive of modernity. Europe never discovered (des-cubierto) this Other
as Other but covered over (encubierto) the Other as part of the Same: i.e.,
Interestingly, Dussel’s notion of encubrimiento and
O’Gorman’s idea of the invención
of America align perfectly well with Sarduy’s own
view of culture and History. For according to Sarduy
culture is a disguise, a fiction which often times pretends to be otherwise. “
Entre sus figuras constantes, a lo largo de los siglos, la Retórica ha catalogado la excusatio propter infirmitatem, esa confesión de modestia, de incapacidad ante el tema a tratar, que debe preceder todo discurso. No la utilizo aquí (aunque esta denegación sea una de sus formas: la impertinencia de las paginas que preceden la declaran por mí, de sobra. (OC-I 422)
[Rhetoric has catalogued the excusatio propter infirmitatem, that confession of modesty, of incapacity before the theme to be developed, that must proceed all discourse. I don’t use it here (although denial is one of its forms): the impertinence of the preceding pages declares it for me, more than enough]. (156)
This comes after a well-rehearsed explanatory, academic
conclusion to a novel about “Cuba’s” “tres ficciones”—the Spanish, the African, and the Chinese. As
Guillermo Sucre has succinctly put it, in Sarduy
“rhetoric goes from the decorative to the essential, or dialectically plays
between these two poles; it is a mask (makeup) and a face at the same time”
(OC-II 1730). And because this is so, it liberates the object of language (the
signified) from the essentialism of Being; which
incidentally, it is the reason why it snows in Sarduy’s
No es asombroso que el cuerpo, el sacrificado de nuestra cultura, regrese, con la violencia de lo reprimido, a la escena de su exclusión; son notables los subterfugios que hoy le dan acceso a la representación y que a través de los libros, exposiciones y espectáculos podemos repertoriar con cierta complacencia de etnólogos: tatuaje, maquillaje mimikry, body art. (OC-II La simulación 1301)
[It is not surprising that the body, the entity sacrificed by our culture, returns with the violence of the repressed to the scene of its exclusion; and it is noteworthy that its strategies today are found in representation: that trough books, exhibitions, and shows, we can observe with a certain ethnological distance, the body’s representational repertoire, which include: tattooing, makeup, mimicry, and body art]. (my translation)
In a way, the transvestite Other
refuses to be covered over, clothed, made to dress “as part of the Same” (Dussel 12). In other words, he/she refuses to be colonized.
What does the transvestite know? asks Sarduy. Quite simply that woman as a totality, as a transcendental category of Being or some
sort of Platonic Form, does not exist. “Lacan would
say [that transvestism] is all about a fantasy if it
means being the total woman, since
for him (the transvestite) Woman does not exist, precisely because she can’t possibly
be that totality,” writes Sarduy in Simulación (OC-II
1298, my translation). “El travesti no imita a la mujer. Para él, à la limite no hay mujer—y quizás, paradójicamente sea el único en
saberlo--, que ella es una
apariencia…”/“The transvestite does
not imitate woman. For him à la limite,
there is no woman; he knows—and paradoxically he may be the only who knows
this—that she is just appearance” (Ibid.
1267/1989 Simulation 93). This is
only but a step removed, and perhaps not even that, from Judith Butler’s critique
of “the metaphysics of substance” in relation to gender identity.
Sucede, decía, en Portugal, sobre un fondo azul unido, muy fuerte, acrílico. Y superpuesta, pegada, recortada, excesivamente nítida, una tela con listas de colores desplegándose lentamente, abriéndose, como un flor en cámara lenta. Geometrías simples, rojo sangre brillante, verde clorofila. Simples: como papeles recortados por los niños… (Ibid)
[So this takes place in Portugal, on a solid blue background, bright acrylic. Overexposed, pasted, cut up, with a close-up’s clarity, a striped, colored fabric is unfolding slowly, opening like a flower, in slow motion. Plain geometries, blood red, chlorophyll green. Plain: like paper cut by children]. (Sarduy 1985 116)
But “Portugal,” the locus of “action” of this play, is in effect an
acrylic painting. And just as there is no Cuba in De donde
son los cantantes/From Cuba with a Song, but a “Cuba” of writing
and pictorial images, the Portugal of Los matadores
Ant-Killers is a “Portugal of flat surfaces, of canvasses,
of overexposed photographs, of cut-ups, of souvenir T-shirts, of plane
geometries of red and green stripes. And because it is the
Does this mean that Cuba does not, or did not exist for Sarduy? That
M1: Como todos los alemanes, según se anunció la revolución de abril, en Portugal, cambiamos nuestros planes y decidimos ir a de vacaciones a ver el nuevo régimen, como un hotel de tres estrellas o un exotismo más. (OC-II 1079-1080)
[Just like all the French leftists, we changed our vacation plans when we heard the first reports on the April Revolution in Portugal, and decided to go and see the new regime, as if it were a matter of a three-star hotel, or something really quaint]. (1985/The Ant-Killers 117)
The “Cuba” of tourists (intellectuals among them) is just like that, a vacation destination that even includes tours of Cuba’s architectural ruins. The other Cuba, however, is the one Sarduy tells Guerrero, is always on his mind—the one that afflicts him.
(1). “When it is affirmed that Columbus discovered the American continent by chance, just because he happened to come across some lands which he believed to be Asia; that is, when we are asked to accept that Columbus discovered the being of these lands which he in fact mistook them for something else, what we are actually being asked is that we accept that these lands revealed their secret and hidden being when Columbus encountered them…” (57, my emphasis). All translations of O’Gorman are mine.
(2). “We are here alluding, as you may have guessed, to the very ancient and venerable idea of things-in-themselves; that things are already constituted according to one unique reality, or to put it in more technical terms, that things are fixed in their being, predetermined, and unalterable, for all subjects everywhere, from all eternity” (59, my emphasis).
(3). “Columbus’s voyages were not, nor could they possibly be ‘voyages to America,’ because no interpretation of the past can or could have, as would be the case with just laws, retroactive effects” (101-102).
(5). “Each of these becomings brings about the deterritorialization of one term and the retorritorialization of the other; the two becomings interlink and form relays in a circulation of intensities pushing the deterritorialization further. There is neither imitation nor semblance…” (Deleuze 10), only the breaking apart of ontologically arborescent identities.
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