Academic journal article The International Journal of Cuban Studies

Making Prophecy: Time in José Lezama Lima's Cultural Thought

Academic journal article The International Journal of Cuban Studies

Making Prophecy: Time in José Lezama Lima's Cultural Thought

Article excerpt

In essays written over the course of his literary career, the Cuban author José Lezama Lima (1910-1976) complicates simplistic concepts of time. His thinking challenges restrictive temporal linearities of various kinds, most importantly the primacy of historiography, the deadening limitations of traditionalism and the absurdity of nostalgia. Underlying these ideas is an optimistic orientation towards the future. As has been well established, Catholic theology influences Lezama's thinking about time, though the result is not dogmatic in a conventional sense.1 Close examination reveals that theology stands as a support for art, rather than the other way around. The creation of images in visual or literary art for Lezama is the highest of all human activities, and its essence is freedom. Though he asserts that art offers freedoms of different kinds, the present study examines specifically the ways the author sees imagistic creation as loosening our bondage to the past and resisting the limitations of linear notions of time.

For Lezama, literature's proper orientation is towards the future. Nostalgia is of little use to the writer who aspires to lasting cultural relevance. Lezama generally sees the past negatively, a stance shared by many Cuban intellectuals, as Rafael Rojas (2006) explains: 'En la cultura cubana de la primera mitad del siglo XX abundan los testimonios de un malestar, provocado por una sensación de ausencia de mitos fundadores' (51). Founding myths help resolve the question of national identity, providing a sense of collective cohesion. A crucial point for the purposes of this study is the fact that this sense of cohesion lends meaning to history; without founding myths, the national story is not a coherent narrative.

In his thinking about Cubanness, Lezama denigrates nostalgia in part because he sees the national past as ruination or vacuity, as 'una desolación que no muestra ni un fantasma que la recorra' (Lezama Lima 1945: 51). As Roberto González Echevarría (2010) explains:

La obra de Lezama se inicia en un clima de desilusión muy distinto al de optimismo y euforia de sus antecesores más inmediatos, los escritores de la vanguardia, que en los años veinte habían hecho del fervor artístico y político un credo. (62)

Lezama laments that his is a nation without a tradition, lacking a shared narrative in which the Cubans might glimpse an arc of collective self-realisation. In large part because it transitioned directly from colonial to neocolonial status at the moment of its purported national independence, Cuba never achieved a substantive and coherent image of itself. What substance Lezama did find in the national past was largely execrable:

Aún los jouisser más optimistas, tendrán que reconocer que las fuerzas de desintegración han sido muy superiores a las que en un estado marchan formando su contrapunto y la adecuación de sus respuestas. A la honradez municipal y foradada de los primeros años republicanos, ocasional y pintada, desde luego, pues si en aquellos venturosos años eran diez las familias que salieron beneficiadas de empréstitos y contratos, hoy son cien las que salen de cada Gobierno girando contra su propio banquero, que es la hacienda pública. (Lezama Lima 1949: 60)

In place of a sense of national commonality, Lezama finds a corrupt plutocracy walled off from the victims of its greed. In a Cuban context, nostalgia is myopic; it might rescue moments of individual happiness but at the expense of recognising two unfortunate realities: a historical pattern of degradation and the painful fragmentation of collective identity.

In his essay 'Después de lo raro, la extrañeza', Lezama expresses a humorous disdain for the literature of personal recollection: 'Cuando se opera con los recuerdos parece como si una mancha de aceite se fijase imperativamente en un paño de turbulencia inapresable' (51). His playful metaphor posits reminiscence as a futile attempt at clarity. …

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