Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Buddhism and the Postmodern Novel: Severo Sarduy's Cobra

Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Buddhism and the Postmodern Novel: Severo Sarduy's Cobra

Article excerpt

Buddhist studies is a somewhat recent invention. Indeed, as some scholars of religion point out today, the very idea that there exists a thing called "Buddhism," a category that can effectively synthesize diverse beliefs and practices across space and time, was itself an invention of nineteenth-century European scholarship (Lopez 2005, 7; Masuzawa 2005, 121-46). This does not mean that the category is in fact meaningless but only that its codification is historical, mutable, and constantly transforming. As Donald Lopez has written, Buddhism is "less the inevitable unfolding of a distinct and self-identical entity and more a dynamic process of borrowing, conflict and interaction between and within traditions that have been identified as Buddhist" (1999, 56). But while Buddhist studies proceeds to map these transformations and interactions, scholars in literary studies have often continued under the assumption that there is a static essence of the teachings of the Buddha. This supposed essence frequently becomes a framework for understanding the appearance of the heterogeneous schools of Buddhism within twentieth-century literature. (1)

Another approach to understanding Buddhism in Western literature takes Buddhism's dynamism to its absurd extreme, arguing that we can understand cultural representations of Buddhism in the West as completely separate from Buddhist histories and, thus, as completely enmeshed in global capitalism. Perhaps the most prominent instance of this critique is Slavoj Zizek's, who writes, for example, that "although 'Western Buddhism' presents itself as the remedy against the stressful tension of capitalist dynamics ... it actually functions as its perfect ideological supplement" (2001, 12). There is a degree of truth here (a certain neo-Buddhist "let it go" attitude is not far from a laissez-faire approach), but without considering how this came to be, and what other forms of Buddhism exist in the world today, this view offers an incomplete account of both Buddhism and its place in modern and postmodern literature. (2) This is especially so given the variety and quality of research in Buddhist studies around the world over the past few decades.

This essay represents an attempt to more closely align such research with the criticism of a single novel, Severo Sarduy's Cobra (1972). (3) A Cuban exile in Paris from 1960 to 1993, Sarduy was among the first writers of fiction whose work participated in the rising tide of poststructuralism. Roland Barthes, Helene Cixous, and Philippe Sollers were among his most ardent supporters. And Sarduy, like many writers in both Paris and Havana, developed a lifelong interest in Buddhism. In his middle period, particularly in Cobra and later in Maitreya (1978), the question of how to engage the culture and ideas of Buddhism became a central preoccupation.

I argue in what follows that Cobra does a remarkable job of attending to Buddhism in both its historical and philosophical aspects. Sarduy represents the complicated context of its transmission to the West without letting the historical moment overwhelm his serious engagement with the philosophy. He thus raises questions--about representation, the politics of refusal, the entanglements of political and spiritual liberation, and the relation of Buddhism to modernity--that parallel in provocative ways those at the center of Buddhist studies today. By considering his novel, its criticism, and contemporary Buddhist studies together, we can better understand the historicity of intercultural exchange in postmodern literature, as well as the complexity of Sarduy's own engagement with Buddhism. Rather than reading Cobra merely as an Orientalist novel, then, I read it as a work written in an Orientalist context that it strives to move beyond. Against a current of Sarduy criticism, I suggest that Cobra presents not an intercultural philosophy--a banal coupling of East and West--but, rather, a demand for a philosophy of the future, one that better accounts for the complex historical and theoretical relation between modes of thought and practice across space and time. …

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