Baroque is an artistic movement of the 17th century that was distinguished by a complicated style full of adornment. Several Cuban artists of the 20th century, who were admirers of the European Baroque, proposed reviving the aesthetic and updating it to the reality of the Caribbean.

Although the Cuban neo-Baroque movement can be traced back to the works of Alejo Carpentier (principally in Los pasos perdidos), its most obvious representatives are the Cubans Severo Sarduy and José Lezama Lima. Carpentier contributed the following observation to the notion of the Baroque: in Latin America (and most especially in the Caribbean) there is a deep and tangled syncretism of traditions and cultures. This syncretism established the basis for seeing the setting as Baroque. Because Carpentier’s literary style (although complex) is not inscrutable, some critics prefer not to place the writer in the framework of the neo-Baroque movement.

Lezama also recognized the importance of Latin America’s cultural hybridity in the development of Baroque art in his book La expresión americana. While Lezama called Baroque a centuries-old American style, he endowed his own work with very particular characteristics. Hyperbole, long lists of elements, plays on words, countless literary references and parodies are some of the rhetorical complexities that fed the author’s poetry. His most important book of poetry is Muerte de Narciso (1937). It was, however, with the novel Paradiso (1966) that Lezama became an essential point of reference in Latin American literature of the 20th century. The novel caused controversy the moment it was published because of the sexual content of some passages. Paradiso tells the story of José Cemí, a young man living in post-revolutionary Cuba who is discovering that he is homosexual. Lezama left unfinished his second novel, Oppiano Licario, in which he continued with the neo-Baroque style.

Sarduy, meanwhile, being very closely linked to intellectual circles in Paris, contributed various principles of French semiology that were in vogue for a time to the Baroque aesthetic. Starting with the theories of psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, Sarduy pondered the erotic element of literature – that excessive sexuality was an integral part of neo-Baroque writing. Sarduy also wanted to suggest that the process of reading implied a pleasure related to the eroticism. This idea is analogous to that of le plaisir du texte (the pleasure of the text) that critic Roland Barthes used to explain the reading process. In fact, Barthes used Sarduy’s most famous novel, De dónde son los cantantes (1967), to illustrate his point, just as Sarduy had done with the novel by his fellow Cuban Lezama. In this novel, specifically, Sarduy explored the use of various resources to produce an exuberant and very difficult text that played with the language. With his second novel, Cobra (1972), the author makes use of the story of two transvestites to play with the concepts of reality and fiction.

These three Cuban authors had a great influence on several generations of writers. Although their admirers have followed various courses, it is clear that the neo-Baroque aesthetic had considerable influence.


Author: Alejandro Carpio
Published: December 16, 2011.

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