Latin-American liberation theology and the Neo-Baroque: a point of connection

This is one of those “I have more reading to do, but . . . ” posts.  Some context, first of all: as part of a chapter, on New World rhetoric(s), for the book project, I’ve been reading essays by the early 20th-century Peruvian socialist José Carlos Mariátegui and Latin American liberation theologians of the ’70s and ’80s.  The former was an important influence on the latter, in that each believed that socioeconomic theory and theology, respectively, had to have as their starting points the actual conditions of–and solidarity with–the people being witnessed to (that verb being as appropriate a description for Mariátegui’s arguments for a distinctly Latin American style of socialism as it is for describing clergy and laypeople engaged in making the arguments for a theology of liberation).  While my reading has so far confirmed all of this for me, the reason for this post is the diagram you see below and its strong evocation by analogy of Cuban theorist Severo Sarduy’s discussion of the Neo-Baroque.

Dussel The synchronic and diachronic dimensions of analogy in theology

from Enrique Dussel’s “Historical and Philosophical Presuppositions for Latin American Theology,” found here.

In this chart, Dussel seeks to illustrate his argument that, as represented by the shaded area of the chart, the Church throughout history has always held in common the divinity of Jesus as the Son of God and that humankind finds its salvation through belief in him.  At the same time, however, “We can also have participation in that same catholicity in different historical epochs, thereby forming one and the same tradition through time (i.e., diachronically); but the “sameness” would not be of a univocal sort” due to the “analogical ‘distinctions’ that are characteristic of the metaphysical innovativeness of a given theologian or a given culture in all its inimitable uniqueness” (193; italics are Dussel’s).  This recognition that the Church is located in particular spaces and times may seem quite obvious, but theologians of liberation use as their starting point the recognition that European theologies would too often presume that their teachings have always and everywhere been true, which had the effect of marginalizing non-Europeans and the non-powerful.

All those ellipsoid shapes in Dussel’s diagram are where Sarduy and his discussions of the Baroque come in.  In his essay “Baroque Cosmology: Kepler,” Sarduy argues (and I’ll be quoting from an earlier post of mine),

“Though Copernicus’s heliocentric model of the cosmos (and Galileo’s confirmation of it) was indeed truer than Ptolemy’s description, it nevertheless retained the circle as its shape and thus, for Sarduy, implicitly continues to value a social politics in which power emanates from a single, clearly defined center.”

Kepler’s discovery that the planets orbit the Sun in ellipsoid orbits, by contrast, Sarduy says,

alter[s] the scientific foundation on which rested the entire knowledge of the age [and] create[s] a reference point in relation to which all symbolic activity, explicitly or not, is situated. Something is decentering itself, or rather, duplicating, dividing its center; now, the dominant figure is not the circle, with its single, radiating, luminous, paternal center, but the ellipse, which opposes this visible focal point with another, equally functional, equally real, albeit closed off, dead, nocturnal, the blind center, the other side of the Sun’s germinative yang, that which is absent. ( “Baroque Cosmology: Kepler” (trans. Christopher Winks), p. 293 in Baroque New Worlds.)

I have much to say in that earlier post about how the brute facts of the Americas’ landmasses, its indigenous flora, fauna, and peoples and, later, its mixed-race populations are the cause of the decentering that Sarduy describes.  For now, I’ll just add here that those theologians of liberation whose work I’ve read likewise note that, as Juan Carlos Scannone puts it, “it would be a completely new reworking and formulation of theological activity as a whole from a completely new standpoint: i.e., the kairos of salvation history now being lived on our continent” (215).  Dussel’s discussion of the various manifestations of the Church as having, in effect, dual centers of attention is a direct reflection of that new standpoint as well.

As I said at the beginning of this post, I have more reading to do; moreover, what you see above is no more than a sketching-out of these links.  But it’s a good feeling to see some initial confirmation of some claims I’m making even when I’m not actively looking for something to confirm my biases.

“I was listening to myself”: African-American space and the forcing of Faulkner’s narrative hand in Go Down, Moses

GoDownMoses_musicofyesterday

An arrangement of the spiritual “Go Down, Moses,” which is the source of Faulkner’s novel’s title.  The Wikipedia article for the spiritual notes that Harriet Tubman used this song as one of two for codes with slaves she helped to escape.  I have no idea if Faulkner knew that history of the song, but for purposes of this post I do like the happy coincidence of Tubman’s using the song as a means by which to create black space for the people she helped to liberate.

Here is part of the compositional history of Go Down, Moses as told in Heart in Conflict: Faulkner’s Struggles with Vocation by Michael Grimwood (my source for this is p. 147 of Philip M. Weinstein’s book Faulkner’s Subject: A Cosmos No One Owns): after he added additional material to “Pantaloon in Black” and “Delta Autumn,” Faulkner both created “The Fire and the Hearth” out of three previously-existing stories and, even more crucially, added the long fourth section of “The Bear.”

What happened, that compelled Faulkner to engage in writing this additional material?  Basically, Roth’s lover is what happened.

(Here and below the fold follow some speculation inspired by Minrose Gwin’s insightful readings of Faulkner.)

While, yes, it was Faulkner’s conscious decision, when reworking the first version of “Delta Autumn,” to have Roth become Ike’s kinsman and to make Roth’s lover the granddaughter of James “Tennie’s Jim” Beauchamp, something in that new material compelled Faulkner to add that section to “The Bear.”  In that fourth section, we learn why Ike decided not to inherit his grandfather’s plantation (something we learn nowhere else in the novel), and we learn of Ike’s attempts to find and pass on to them the money bequeathed by Ike’s grandfather to his (the grandfather’s) black descendants.  (Regarding the specifics of Ike’s passing on the money to Lucas Beauchamp, Faulkner provides a fuller description of that moment in the material added to “The Fire and the Hearth.”)  All of this is past information that Roth’s lover at least alludes to in the new material in “Delta Autumn.”  Ike signals his reluctance to revisit those past memories when he says to her, a couple of times, “Never mind that” (341, 343; except where indicated, all quoted passages are from this edition of Go Down, Moses).  Yet, here we are in Go Down, Moses, reading these things.

In this post on the novel I wrote a while back, referring to Gwin’s excellent essay “Her Space, His Hand: The Spaces of African American Women in Go Down, Moses” (found here), “Faulkner is not completely in control of the forces created by certain of his black characters’ narratives as they push against the confines of the world in which they find themselves.”  I think this is especially true of what we see happening in “Delta Autumn” and Faulkner’s post hoc emendations to, in particular, “The Bear.”  Ike may not have wanted to hear or think about what Roth’s lover says to him in that hunting camp; but then again, it’s probably the case that she does not much care what Ike thinks: her description of herself while on her sojourn with Roth, “I was listening to myself,” could just as easily apply to her conversation with Ike as well.  Even so, she sure gets Faulkner’s attention.  Still, as I’ll discuss below, that additional material does not neatly close up what otherwise would have been narrative gaps in the novel.  Rather, they reveal still other spaces in his narrative created by African-Americans that Faulkner himself only vaguely understands but, to his immense credit, lets stand as vaguely understood.

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Franco Moretti on what digital humanities can and cannot do

Here’s a snippet from Franco Moretti’s 2016 interview in the Los Angeles Review of Books as part of its series “The Digital in the Humanities.”  My book project has no connection with digital humanities; but, just as Moretti observes that one can do things in/with digital humanities that one cannot do in traditional approaches to reading and writing about texts and vice versa, the same is also true of the various critical approaches to texts within traditional scholarship.

I would say that DH occupies about 50 percent of my work. You can’t possibly know this, but when my last two books were going to be published — Distant Reading and The Bourgeois — I convinced my publisher (and it took some convincing) to have them come out on the same day because they were for me two sides of the coin of the work I tried to do. And what I find potentially interesting is that the two sides don’t add up to a whole. I do things in the mode of Distant Reading that I could never do in the mode of The Bourgeois. But it also works the other way around. When I write a book with zero digital humanities content, or very little, like The Bourgeois, I find myself doing things that I cannot do with the other approach. Exactly what things are available in the one and in the other and are they mutually exclusive, I still haven’t figured out how to think about this. But for me, this is going to be the problem for the years to come because I don’t want to give up any of these two realities. They are equally dear to me.

For whatever it might be worth to you reading this, I’ve been thinking about this a bit regarding my own reading and writing.

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The New World as “textual drama”: Julio Ortega on Borges and “El Inca”

 

Ortega [b. 1942; apparently still living] is a poet and critic. He was born in Peru and has lived and taught in the U.S. for many years. In the passage below, he is rebutting the familiar critical observation that Borges’s work is an anomaly in Latin American writing:

Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986), in his natural habitat.

 [T]he mechanisms that produce [Borges’s] writing confirm, in fact, an operative tradition that is characteristic of the Spanish-American text. In this sense the novelty of Borges’s prose is not its negation of previous Spanish-American languages but, on the contrary, its privileged manifestation of those languages.

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/5/55/Inc_Garcilaso_de_la_Vega.png

Garcilaso de la Vega (1539-1616), known as “El Inca” to distinguish himself from his uncle, the Spanish poet of the same name. “El Inca” was the son of a Spanish soldier and an Inca woman who was a member of that people’s royal family.

 Let us look, for instance, at the interaction of various genres. At least since Inca Garcilaso de la Vega’s Royal Commentaries of the Incas [1616-1617], Spanish-American writing has been constituted through the polyvalence of its formalization. Beginning with that text, Spanish-American writing has reflected the following characteristics: it dramatizes its manifestation in a textual space based on history understood as politics (the Incan utopia as the realized projection of the Neoplatonic order); it is formalized through a critical sum of texts (chronicles that are refuted or inserted as a probatory intertext); it is self-referring as a way of producing itself (the narrative that unfolds, splits, and is rechanneled); it shares frontiers with novelistic and philosophical treatises with criticism; and, finally, it reveals the web of history and fiction in a context that generates the cultural discourse of a Spanish America whose first existence is as a textual drama. (“Borges and the Latin-American Text,” p. 22 in Poetics of Change: The New Spanish-American Narrative.)

This passage struck me on more than one account.  It so happens that I’ll soon be writing about de la Vega’s Royal Commentaries, but that’s less important than Ortega’s placing of Borges firmly in the mainstream of the larger tradition of writing in Latin America (and I broaden this from Ortega’s “Spanish America” because I see, certainly, Brazilian writing as fitting that list of characteristics in the paragraph above).  I’m not an expert on Borges, but it is clear that the traditional take on him is that his perceived European-ness makes him stand out from the pack–and, indeed, is one of his virtues as a writer.  Ortega clearly doesn’t have much patience with that take.

The real hook for me, though, is Ortega’s assertion that (and sure, I’ll broaden his remark here still further to include the United States) writing in this hemisphere “reveals the web of history and fiction in a context that generates the cultural discourse of a Spanish America whose first existence is as a textual drama.” 

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Wallace Stevens in Wonsevu

Wonsevu Christian Church. Wonsevu, Chase County, Kansas. Taken by me, March 2019.

The church you see here is, not counting the large barn and cattle pen facing it, one-third of the buildings in the village of Wonsevu [“ONE-seh-voo”], Kansas. There is also a small community hall and a frame one-room school house, built in 1885 and long since closed. The house nearest to these buildings (which happens to be blocked from view by the church in this picture) is between a quarter- and a half-mile away.

You are reading about this because I and some students of mine and two colleagues made Wonsevu our first stop on a driving tour of Chase County, Kansas, this past weekend. For a couple of years now in my first-semester composition classes, I have had the opportunity to teach William Least Heat-Moon’s book PrairyErth, a book whose subject is Chase County, a sparsely-populated farming and ranching county in the Flint Hills about an hour northeast of Wichita. As part of the class, I schedule two optional field trips into the county: the driving tour, in which we visit some of the places Heat-Moon mentions in his book; and a trip to the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve to have the experience of walking land that still looks pretty much like it did when the Kaw and other tribes lived there. Before this past weekend, these trips, admittedly, had not been ringing successes: students wouldn’t show, or the weather wasn’t ideal. This time, though, two students attended (out of six; a third would have come except that a day or so before he’d gotten a new job), and two of my colleagues joined us as well. Last but certainly not least: the predicted drizzly day never materialized–indeed, after an overcast start, the sun broke through and the day was sunnier and pleasantly cool. But it was at our stop at Wonsevu that, in a small way, the hopes I’d had for teaching Heat-Moon’s book and making the trips out to the county became larger than the logical kind of sense they made for me.

While we walked around the three buildings situated around the T-intersection that constitutes Wonsevu’s center, I pulled out my cellphone to see if I had any messages from my wife.  There was no signal out there.  I looked around me, and I realized what I was hearing–the wind, some birds–and what I was not hearing–no road noise (the nearest paved road of any kind is about 10 miles away), no trains (the railroads, though frequently traveled in the county, are even farther away), no aircraft overhead.  I felt, for a fleeting moment, the full weight of the landscape on me; I offered no resistance to it.  I felt the meaning of the concluding lines of Wallace Stevens’ poem “The Snow Man”: I was beholding “Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is” (l. 15).  And that’s when I knew with absolute certainty–something the rest of the day only confirmed–that I am right to want to create opportunities for our students to have moments of this full immersion in a space right next door to them that they are almost completely ignorant of, and earn academic credit to boot.

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“Spunish language” and neo-Baroque Aesthetics: Cabrera Infante and Fuentes

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The cover of the U.S. edition of Christopher Unborn

As I’d mentioned in my previous post,  I am in the middle of revisiting and expanding on a chapter whose two central texts are Cabeza de Vaca’s Naufragios and Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans.  As part of that work, this morning I thought I would re-read the opening chapter of Carlos Fuentes’ 1987 novel Cristóbal Nonato (Christopher Unborn), since that section in particular is one of the other texts I take up in that chapter.  In so doing, I realized that earlier remarks about another novel I’ll be discussing in that same chapter, along with commentary by Fuentes himself, will serve to reinforce some of my project’s larger claims about the Baroque and the New World, this time with a focus on literary aesthetics.  All of that, I hope, will tie in (I hope not hog-tying style) with the politics of Martí and Mariátegui that I’ll also be adding to this chapter.

(The perils of “quick re-reads”: This post’s original title, when I started on it two days ago, had in it the phrase “a few quick comments.”  So you see . . . )

Dalkey Archive edition of Three Trapped Tigers.

The other novel is by Cuban novelist Guillermo Cabrera Infante: Tres tristes tigres (1967; translated as Three Trapped Tigers).  Its title (the first line of a Cuban tonge-twister) and its description by its English translators, David Gardner and Susan Jill Levine (with assistance from the author) of having been translated “from the Cuban” alert the reader that it is no ordinary novel.

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Book Project news

John processing Nash

Yes, I’d fallen asleep.  But I was thinkin’ stuff, I tell ya!  (Photo by Megan Buaas)

Spring break is here for us, and for me in particular that means a window of time has opened up that has let me return to book-project work in earnest, if only for a little while.  (In case you are wondering about how the recent posts on Edna Ferber’s Show Boat fit in, I had already written much of that material and thought that re-engaging with it might shake some new ideas loose, which it did.  At least some of that work will find its way into the book.)  So far this weekend, I have made a substantive content/organizational decision, and I will be doing some additional writing for a chapter that’s about ready to go but still feels thin.

In looking ahead to the next chapter to be blocked out, I decided that what I had originally planned (a discussion of Garcilaso de la Vega “El Inca,” Faulkner’s Light in August, Octavio Paz’s The Labyrinth of Solitude, casta paintings from Mexico, and the Virgin of Guadalupe) would be too unwieldy.  So for the moment it has become two chapters: Faulkner and Paz will be in the new chapter, along with discussions of other works whose subject is people of indeterminate ethnicity and how their presence destabilizes social and political orders predicated upon rather clearly demarcated ethnic boundaries.  Now, I hope, everything will have some space to breathe.

The additional writing will appear in a chapter whose central figures are Cabeza de Vaca and Natty Bumppo as he appears in Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans.  Each figure, his thinking and deeply-held beliefs transformed by his long sojourn among indigenous peoples, struggles to find language to make his thought understood to his audience. The rest of the chapter takes up discussions of other writers who through various experiments with language seek to convey something of the experience of living in this hemisphere.  The additions will be discussions of José Martí’s essay “Our America,” José Carlos Mariátegui’s arguments for shaping Marxist theory to conform to the historical and economic realities of this hemisphere, and, I hope, something about liberation theology.

Below the fold, the curious can find rather chatty discussions of the chapters as I presently have them imagined.  Any comments/advice/warnings would be most welcome.

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“It probably was true”: The Curiously Incurious Narrator of Edna Ferber’s Show Boat

Edna Ferber

Edna Ferber

 Note: This is the long-promised Part II of a post on Show Boat that began here. In that post, I suggest that trying to firm up Show Boat‘s chronology introduces questions that might not have occurred to the reader to ask beforehand, because the narrator makes that chronology almost absent: just what is Andy Hawks’ family background; and does that background have anything to do with his being in Massachusetts in 1862 or ’63 instead of serving on a military warship on the Mississippi in either the Union or Confederate army?  I further suggest that on these questions the novel’s narrator, who is otherwise a conventional omniscient 3rd-person narrator, seems curiously incurious.

In this part of the post, then, I want to do what I hope is an attentive reading of these few pages of Chapter Two to show why these questions occur to me.  As of this writing, I have no theories as to why the narrator chooses this strategy–or even if it is a strategy on their part. However, I believe I have a starting point for beginning to think about how the narrator positions theirself relative to the uncertainties surrounding Andy’s–and, by extension, Magnolia’s–ethnicity. Continue reading

Show Boat, Huckleberry Finn, and Intertextuality

huck finn hamlet's soliloquy

The Duke strikes a pose during his rehearsal of (a version of) Hamlet’s soliloquy, in Chapter XXI of Huckleberry Finn.  (Illustration from first edition, via First Edition Huck Finn Illustrations. 

This is not the promised Part II of the previous post but, instead, an elaborating on the following passage from that post:

Meanwhile, beneath (quite literally) all of this, enabling the narrator’s and characters’ lack of interest in these matters, is the brute fact of the Mississippi River and its tributaries and, more to the point, the Cotton Blossom‘s ability to travel upstream as well as downstream.  In Show Boat‘s jacket art, the other unseen-yet-constant presence, in addition to the riverboat itself, is the river.  As in Huckleberry Finn, this novel is obsessed with the various features of its setting; also as with Twain’s novel, though, the river becomes, in Lauren Berlant’s words from a slightly different context, “an apparatus of forgetting” (414).  Or, more accurately, in both those novels at least some of their respective characters fervently hope, even if subconsciously, that it become such an apparatus.

In no place do the characters in Ferber’s novel mention Twain’s novel; indeed, it would be very surprising if they were to do so, seeing as most of Show Boat‘s action takes place before or right around Huckleberry Finn‘s American publication date of 1885.  Moreover, as of my writing this post I do not know if Ferber had Twain’s novel in mind as she composed hers.   Even so, the correspondences between these novels are striking.

In the world of the novel itself Andy Hawks begins his career as a riverman in the 1850s, about ten years after the time in which Twain’s novel is set.  We can fairly say, then, that these novels’ respective worlds’ starting points, at least, are contemporaneous with each other.  However, I want briefly to point out that, as alluded to in the quoted passage above, these novels have more in common with each other than the same chronological starting point, or even their shared setting of the Mississippi River. Continue reading

The Narrator of Edna Ferber’s Show Boat: A Speculative Reading (Part I)

Show Boat dust jacket

A facsimile of the dust jacket for the first edition of Show Boat.   Via.

The dust jacket for the first edition of Show Boat (1926) is fascinating to contemplate.  Laid flat as it is here, you can see how the procession of people moves from left to right, up the Cotton Blossom‘s gangplank to the very edge of the book’s front-right edge, their movement seeming to invite the reader to open the cover and process into the novel.  The paddle-wheel itself, though, is out of the frame; the gangplank rests not on the deck of the boat but on the text of the jacket blurb that describes the novel.  The Cotton Blossom itself is not exactly invisible (the novel’s title tells us it is there), but neither is it yet seen.

This procession toward an unseen boat that nevertheless serves as the titular character of the novel fits, I think, the reader of the book that this dust jacket enveloped.  As a novel, Show Boat itself seems on its surface to be rather conventional, its style often quite gaudy and given to flights of sentimentality.  It is, as it were, a bit show boat-like in quality.  But when we look closer at certain crucial moments in the story it tells, the novel’s narrator, ostensibly a rather ordinary third-person omniscient narrator, suddenly reveals herself** to be ignorant of important matters.  At best, she seems uninterested in knowing the truth of those matters, but it may also be the case that she would simply not rather know the truth.  Or, she does know the truth but will not say them out loud.

While it is difficult to say precisely what is the narrator’s relationship to that knowledge, there is no doubt that those matters, as it happens, are part of Show Boat‘s persistent subtext of secretiveness regarding race.  We encounter this secretiveness despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that much of the music and plays at the heart of the Cotton Blossom‘s troupe’s repertoire originates in minstrelsy, a genre whose trappings are dependent on the exaggerated-verging-on-offensive mannerisms of African-American speech and gesture.  Moreover, it is a secret regarding race that serves as the catalyst for the novel’s (and the musical’s) most famous moment, the revelation that Julie Dozier and Steve Baker, two members of the boat’s acting troupe, are a miscegenated couple.  But even as Andy Hawks, the Cotton Blossom‘s captain, sends the couple away from his boat, the subtext of racial secretiveness accompanies the rest of the novel’s plot, Magnolia’s transformation into a noted singer of songs associated (correctly or not) with 19th-century African-American folk music who performs them in an “authentic” style, shaping the novel’s subsequent action but otherwise never examined directly.

This post and one following it will explore that subtext, beginning, here, with an attempt to firm up the novel’s hazy chronology.  Because Show Boat is, as much as anything else, a celebration of nostalgia, we can safely assume that Ferber intentionally wants to impart a dreamy feel to the novel’s events.  However, nostalgia also happens to facilitate the maintaining of secrets about race, and not just in this novel, either. Whether this facilitation is also Ferber’s intention is difficult to say, but the effect is undeniable.  It seems equally undeniable to me that once we have a firmer chronology for the novel, it begins to reveal its possible secrets–or, better put, we can see that the novel has secrets that no one in it seems especially interested in but which are of the utmost importance.

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