Rolando Pérez, Severo Sarduy and the Neo-Baroque Image of Thought in the Visual Arts. West Lafayette: Purdue University Press, 2012., 318 pp. ISBN: 978-1-55753-604-4.


Severo Sarduy's texts are profound and delightful to read, but also some of the most abstruse Latin American writing and theory. Rolando Pérez's demystifying study of Sarduy and the visual arts is a tour de force. It pulls out all the stops as it takes pains to consider most of the historical and artistic allusions Sarduy employs and also presents in detail the theoretical notions about which he writes. At times, Pérez's thorough and careful analyses uncover misinterpretations of Sarduy's ideas as well as Sarduy's own misapprehension of artistic movements. Overall, the book proceeds lyrically and elliptically as though it were mimicking Sarduy's cosmological models. As remarkable as Pérez's study is, it often tries to be so exhaustive in its considerations, that it finds itself focusing on subjects that are secondary to Sarduy's work itself. Overall, Severo Sarduy and the Neo-Baroque Image of Thought in the Visual Arts, is a welcome addition to Sarduy studies, especially as it looks at texts of Sarduy's that have rarely, if ever, been analyzed by critics.

The goal of Pérez's study is to determine how the image "functions as the axis of Sarduy's theory" (2). This book is chiefly divided into an introduction, four main chapters, and a short conclusion. It opens smartly with a justification for this type of eclectic study. We are told that it is crucial because, in his work, Sarduy himself blurs the line between theory and literature. An interdisciplinary approach is, therefore, fundamental to a thorough understanding of Sarduy's writing. Of course, critics will question the disciplinary expertise of both someone such as Pérez--a polymath for sure, but not an art historian by profession, and Sarduy, who was not a scientist.

Pérez is aware of this canard and attempts to deflect the predicament. He addresses early on any insinuation that true interdisciplinarity demands true expertise in two or more areas, and that very few people in the world are truly bona fide experts in more than one subject. He considers the infamous 1996 article by Alan Sokal, "Transforming the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity," in Social Text and the wave of reaction against postmodern theorists it unleashed. Pérez reminds us that these postmodernists never "claimed that what they were doing was science," but that they instead stated "they were merely making use of scientific concepts for their own purposes" (13). He focuses on this matter, and early on in his book, not just because it was a lively debate in literary studies at one time--which has a bearing on Sarduy's reputation--but also because he must be keenly aware that his readers could pass the same judgment on him, as he is neither an art historian nor a professional practitioner of the visual arts. Pérez does not put the issue to rest (as the title of his own book references the field of visual arts), but does inspire enough trust in the reader to get him or her to suspend disbelief.

In his introduction, Pérez does, in due course, win over the reader by positioning his study as different from other scholars' prior ones. He makes the accurate point that, although there is now an extensive list of critical works that consider Sarduy's writing, the place of the visual arts in Sarduy's body of work has gone almost completely unexamined. His specific aim in his critical study is to "explore the more primordial philosophical question concerning how the pictorial figure functions as the axis of Sarduy's theory" (2). To do this, Pérez analyzes Sarduy's notions of the pictorial figure (i.e. image) in his theoretical essays and "the impact of Sarduy's theory of (visual and writerly) language" on his poetic and theatrical works, which have been largely ignored (2). The practical goal of Pérez's study, one that is applicable to many other disciplines outside of the literary, is to investigate Sarduy's concepts of the social functions of the image: "how it determines gender relations, State and religious power, conceptions of nationality and identity, and ... ethics and morality" (9). Why is this book particularly timely then? We clearly are in a pictorial age, where digital media (the pixel) dominate. The "image" is so omnipresent that it has "ironically been made invisible, by its own, obvious, and pervasive visibility" (9). Pérez contends that Sarduy restored the image to where it belonged--"as an object of reflection" (9)--and, by extension, hopes to do the same thing himself in this book.

Chapter One considers Sarduy's overarching theories of representation and "the place of the scientific and the painterly figure in the totality of [his] oeuvre" (12). Two of Pérez's most important aims here are to establish a working definition of Sarduy's notion of retombée and to tease out the misinterpretations of post-Renaissance aesthetic adumbrations that are key to Sarduy's theories. Although Pérez states that retombée is "the underlying principle that guides Sarduy's theory of Baroque and Neo-Baroque literature, painting, architecture, and science," he also says it is an "untranslatable term" (54). He proffers general definitions, but by the time the reader gets the most concrete definition of this term, "a consequent event without an antecedent condition; the similarity of an object without an antecedent condition; the similarity of an object with one that is yet to exist," he or she has already wondered how exactly this differs from earlier concepts, such as Lezama's eras imaginarias or Auerbach's typological notion of figura (56). It is clear, from Pérez's understanding of retombée that such an achronic reading of literary history and that of other disciplines is crucial to Sarduy's interdisciplinary approach.

One of the most intriguing claims Pérez makes in chapter one is that Sarduy "consciously conflates" Mannerism with the Baroque, and that he does so in keeping with his achronic notion of retombée (11). Pérez's analysis of the history of these two aesthetic currents is quite convincing, if parabolic. He spends much time delving into differences between the two "styles" and tracing their developments, often spending several pages at a time providing very interesting biographical data or the history of science (viz. pages 18-19 and 22-23 for just two examples), which would have better served the strength and focus of his narrative if placed in footnotes. At first, his point is well taken when he writes that this conflation is unfortunate for readers not conversant with these movements or styles. His first footnote in chapter one (related to the definitions of Mannerism and the Baroque), however, proves a bit confusing. This paratextual information takes up more than half of a page and starts out asserting, "The debate concerning the differences between Mannerist and Baroque art is far from settled" (214 n.1). Pérez then discusses critics whose views, basically, see no difference between Mannerism and the Baroque. Although the result is a somewhat befuddled generalist reader--who cannot determine whether there are indeed practical differences between Mannerism and the Baroque, Pérez does ultimately convince the Sarduy expert that his working differential definitions of the two aesthetic movements are both apposite and necessary for a nuanced understanding of Sarduy's work.

After an important discussion of anamorphosis throughout this chapter, Pérez ends with a more satisfying response to the Mannerism-Baroque quagmire. The examples of anamorphic painting and its effect on the viewer is significant, because it supports Sarduy's tactic of trying to see the world's reality by situating oneself off-center. The chapter ends with added details to the meaning of retombée that explain the nebulous definitions of post-Renaissance aesthetic movements. Pérez tells us that it "is not about logical proofs, but about all kinds of asignifying, compossable, transversal connections" and that "Sarduy consciously and purposefully re-shapes, molds, cites, re-cites, cuts, and sutures the Baroque into his own disguise" (58).

Chapter two focuses primarily on the body as a connection between writing and painting. Pérez refers to the human figure as the link between the linguistic sign and the iconic sign. For Sarduy, he says, the body is a "Mannerist entity" (61). This chapter is replete with historical data. In particular, Pérez recounts much of the history of optics, astronomical epistemological shifts, and art history through references to other theorists and critics. These data are always interesting, but, at times, a bit confusing: one point made is that the connection between architecture and the human body is first established in 25 B.C.E. by Vitruvius, but it is not mentioned that caryatids are significantly older and that some scholars say the Golden Ratio applies to such ancient structures as the Parthenon. A very important interpretation of the human body's signification is seen through the prism of the transvestite. This chapter focuses quite a bit on the semiology of the transvestite body. Pérez ends this chapter with a summation of one of the tenets of Sarduy's literary theories: that "surface and depth are reversible, and that the body is the symbol of the floating world's constant mutations" (107). The figure of the transvestite crystallizes the quandary that results from trying to understand a supposed whole or a fixed essence by interpreting its surface.

In his third chapter, Pérez analyzes Sarduy's poetic oeuvre, from which "many critics have stayed away" (109). The writing and publication histories of Sarduy's poetry are not well documented or even known by many critics. Here, Pérez does a vital job of elucidating these: firstly, he brings to light the fact that many of Sarduy's poetic works (in particular Flamenco and Mood Indigo) "were book objects, published in limited editions, and [that] their physicality was as important--or more so--than the printed words contained therein" (125); secondly, Pérez tells his readers that theory and literary writing were one for Sarduy and that the image was the "glue" that bound them together. This chapter is remarkable in that it uncovers and traces the publication histories of significant works of Sarduy's. It also reinforces the overall thrust of Pérez's book--that Sarduy's poetry is inextricably related to his theory of literature, science, and art.

Pérez's fourth and final chapter truly is discursive in style and lyrical in progression, but it generally revolves around Sarduy's least-studied works: his radio plays, "plays that are poems, written/painted with Kandinsky's colors" (159). Pérez laments that the radio plays are practically unknown, because he believes they are some of the most beautiful texts Sarduy wrote in any genre. Although this study spends much time on Los matadores de hormigas, it also articulates an important goal of all of Sarduy's plays, "the decolonization of voices, texts, images, and bodies--the liberation of the sign in all its manifestations" (200). Pérez's analyses of Sarduy's radio plays are enlightening and crucial to a thorough understanding of his oeuvre. He reminds us via these analyses that Sarduy's writing serves to destroy the binary inside-outside, such that what is interior is not the opposite of the surface. Sarduy and Pérez are referring mostly to the human body here. Pérez articulates a very important distinction--that "Neo-Baroque or contemporary Mannerist literature deviates from the Baroque world view (the Calderonian vision of gran teatro del mundo) in its post-Cartesian insistence that there is not and never was anything to uncover behind the world of appearances" (159).

Pérez's conclusion nicely wraps up this critical study; it articulates its main thrust and explains the desultory progression of its prose. We are told that Sarduy purposefully conflated the textual and visual languages of Baroque art, sculpture, architecture, science, literature, and poetry. They were all the same to him. In this summation of his study, Pérez confirms what the reader sensed all along: that his own Baroque writing style, which tries to fill the void by considering an array of peripheral people and topics, is meant to reflect Sarduy's theories and practices; in his own words, "Yet, why--someone is sure to ask--mention all these writers and artists who never read or even knew anything about Sarduy? My answer is this: That we can mention all these other writers, painters, and composers in connection with Sarduy confirms the effective elasticity of the Borrominian ellipse that Sarduy favored over the self-enclosed circle of Galileo" (204). Pérez's consideration of a remarkable number of historical events and personages is expanded in his long "Notes" section. At sixty-three pages, it is quite a bit longer than each one of his four chapters. In the end, Pérez manages his goal of restoring the image to where it belongs, as an object of reflection.

Severo Sarduy and the Neo-Baroque Image of Thought in the Visual Arts is a necessary and welcome addition to Sarduy studies. It takes on works that rarely, if ever, have been studied critically. It practices interdisciplinary studies of a nature similar to Sarduy's own practice. A treasure-trove of historical facts and philosophical connections linked to Sarduy's oeuvre, Pérez's study will serve handily the coming generation of Sarduy scholars.

Carlos Riobó                                                                                                                                  

The City College of New York, CUNY