Academic journal article Romance Notes

Severo Sarduy on Galileo, Kepler, Borromini, and the Coded Language of the Anamorphic Image

Academic journal article Romance Notes

Severo Sarduy on Galileo, Kepler, Borromini, and the Coded Language of the Anamorphic Image

Article excerpt

CUBAN writer, Severo Sarduy, author of numerous essays, novels, books of poetry, and radio plays, remains even among Latinamericanists a relatively marginal writer; and this, I believe, is due to the inherent difficulty of his neobaroque, post-modern, fragmentary style. And yet there is an order to everything he wrote, and an aesthetic and theoretical project that becomes evident when one puts all the pieces of the puzzle together. For instance much of what Sarduy wrote about art and culture can be found in an understandable--albeit cryptic manner--in his 1974 book, Barroco. And what prima facie seems to be a nonsensical stew of disparate ideas, for Sarduy the ideas and concepts he explored were all in some ways logically connected to each other--even if transversally. For instance, that Sarduy would consider Rothko, Kline, and Larry Bell, as a continuation of the Baroque--art styles that seemed so removed in their "abstraction" and minimalism from the classical Baroque-only makes sense when one considers that it was precisely this group of artists who rediscovered Mannerism in the 1950s. For as Arnold Hauser argued in Mannerism: The Crisis and the Origin of Modern Art, modern artists, like their predecessors, were also concerned with the materiality of art. And it was precisely this general aesthetic that they shared with the Mannerists. If Sarduy dared to put Larry Bell and Robert Morris in the same line as Velazquez and Cervantes it is only because they all shared the belief that, as Sarduy was to put it "the work was in the work," and nowhere else. And further, if Sarduy could see a relation between Kepler's theory of elliptical movement and Borromini's architectural designs, and between the Borrominian ellipse and the hidden code of the anamorphic image, it is only because for Sarduy the structuralist theorist, language, no less than the pictorial image, called not so much for a reading, as a deciphering. Hence, in the pages that follow I will briefly examine how Sarduy puts seemingly unrelated ideas together to give us an anamorphic picture of painterly and writerly language, be it scientific or poetic. And thus begin with his treatment of Galileo.

As is well known to the history of science, for the Aristotelian Galileo the natural orbits of celestial bodies had to be downward and centripetal. No other kind of motion would do. And interestingly this Aristotelian metaphysical position also influenced his lesser known theory of aesthetics--something to which Sarduy alludes, and Erwin Panofsky notes in his article, "Galileo as a Critic of the Arts." According to Panofsky, Galileo seems to have rejected Kepler's theory of elliptical orbits, primarily because it was incompatible with the very principles which dominated his thought as well as his imagination ... Where we would consider the circle as a special case of the ellipse, Galileo would not but feel that the ellipse is a distorted circle: a form which was, so to speak, unworthy of celestial bodies ... and, which, we may add, was as emphatically rejected by the High Renaissance as it was cherished in Mannerism. (10, 11-12, my emphasis) (1)

For Galileo the figure of centrism and circularity represented a moral imperative, founded on the notion of "the natural." The Italian scientist, says Sarduy, confused the notion of the "natural" with that of the "rational" (OCII/Barroco 1216). Sarduy writes: "[E]l barroco sera extravagancia y artificio, perversion de un orden natural y equilibrado: moral" (OC-II/'Barroco 1216). In other words, whatever was un-natural (e.g., the elongated figures of Parmigianino, the figural distortions of Giuseppe Arcimboldo (c. 1527-1593), the anamorphic, off-centered image of Hans Holbein's The Ambassadors, etc.) all constituted a species of perversion for Galileo. And of Galileo's rejection of anamorphic painting vis-a-vis his more specific denunciation of the Mannerist overturning of linear perspective, Sarduy argues:

El imperio de lo natural obliga a Galileo a proclamarse agente del terror, como se ha llamado a esa tradicion, moral, denotativa, que asimila las figuras retoricas a una perversion de la naturalidad del relato . …

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