“The earth is round, like an orange”: Some notes on Marti and the Neo-Baroque, with an assist from Garcia Marquez

Sliced Osage Oranges (Maclura) Isolated on White

Curiously, this is the first result that appeared when I conducted an image search at DuckDuckGo for “The earth is round, like an orange.”  As Kansans and other South Central U.S. people know, this is the fruit of the Osage orange tree, which goes by several other names depending on the region you find yourself in.  The fruit is inedible, but the Indians in what is now Arkansas used its wood to make bows, and the first white settlers here planted rows of these trees to serve as windbreaks and fencelines.  It seems strangely appropriate to me that a search for an image to accompany a post on the neo-Baroque in the New World would turn up this, an image of an indigenous plant whose surface is about as Baroque as you can get.  Image found here.

Early in Gabriel García Márquez’s magnificent novel One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967), we find José Arcadio Buendía immersed in his studies and neglecting the domestic affairs of his household, much like Don Quixote at the beginning of his own novel. However, while José Arcadio is not studying books of knight errantry but instruments of navigation and Portuguese maps, the effect his studying has on him is a remarkably similar one:

Suddenly, without warning, his feverish activity was interrupted and replaced by a kind of fascination. He spent several days as if he were bewitched, softly repeating to himself a string of fearful conjectures without giving credit to his own understanding. Finally, one Tuesday in December, at lunchtime, all at once he released the weight of his torment. [. . .]

“The earth is round, like an orange.”

Úrsula [his wife] lost her patience. “If you have to go crazy, please go crazy all by yourself!” she shouted. “But don’t try to put your gypsy ideas into the heads of the children.” (14)

In a novel filled with Baroque moments (in the Foucauldian sense of “[s]imilitude [no longer being] the form of knowledge but rather the occasion of error, the danger to which one exposes oneself when one does not examine the obscure region of confusions” (The Order of Things, 51; see a (much) fuller discussion here), this is merely one of those moments.  But for the purposes of this post, not to mention my larger study, it is also a crucial one: as I argue in the post I linked to in the previous sentence, the Baroque begins with Columbus’s claims on his third voyage that the planet is in fact shaped far differently from its assumed shape so as to make his encounters with the landmass of South America square with then-accepted descriptions of the world.  Indeed, when José Arcadio demonstrates to the men in his village of Macondo, “with theories that none of them could understand, the possibility of returning to where one had set out by consistently sailing east” (14), he becomes a kind of Latin American Columbus, one who looks to the east this time as the source of knowledge,  as well as an analogue of Don Quixote.

But what prompts this post is García Márquez’s novel’s extraordinary opening sentence and how it positions the reader relative to the events it refers to: “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice” (11).  This sentence not only simultaneously presents to us the future and the past of this man; it also, we perceive, grants us equal footing with its omniscient narrator relative to the narrative’s place and time, from which we also are privileged to survey the whole, or any one segment, of that place and time, and often, as with that first sentence, looking forward and back in time.  The world of García Márquez’s novel is not our own; we can observe it at our leisure and as we wish.  This ability we as readers have to survey the whole of this narrative at once de-centers, Baroque-like, its author’s authority: José Arcadio’s realization that the world is orange-shaped is madness within his world, but we in ours recognize it as wisdom.  (And to be sure, the very opposite kinds of recognitions occur just as frequently throughout the novel as well.)  Thus, the reader becomes more fully a participant in meaning-making in this fluid, dynamic narrative space, joining in the activity of pointing and naming objects in this still-new world (11).

At first glance, José Martí’s best-known essay, “Our America” (1891), seems to place us in a similar position relative to Latin America (the “Our” of the title) as the speaker in its first paragraph regards the region as a blissful Macondo-like village unaware of the political and cosmic forces that could destroy it.  At one point, Martí writes that the nations of Latin America “arise and salute one another.  ‘What are we like?’ they ask, and begin telling each other what they are like” (294).  However, the penultimate sentence of the following passage, the essay’s first paragraph, signals to the reader that Martí’s voice in this essay will not be an epic but a prophetic one.[1]:

The prideful villager thinks his hometown contains the whole world, and as long as he can stay on as mayor or humiliate the rival who stole his sweetheart or watch his nest egg accumulating in its strongbox he believes the universe to be in good order, unaware of the giants in seven-league boots who can crush him underfoot or the battling comets in the heavens that go through the air devouring the sleeping worlds.  Whatever is left of that sleepy hometown in America must awaken.  These are not times for going to bed in a sleeping cap, but rather, like Juan de Castellanos’s men, with our weapons for a pillow, weapons of the mind, which vanquish all others.  Trenches of ideas are worth more than trenches of stone.  (288)

It is difficult to imagine that García Márquez, a noted Cubanophile and/but also a student of Latin America’s agonizingly-slow movement toward political maturity, had no awareness of Martí, let alone “Our America.”  As one rereads this opening paragraph while keeping in mind the opening pages of García Márquez’s novel’s description of Macondo, “a truly happy village where no one was over thirty years of age and where no one had died” (18)–not to mention that novel’s apocalyptic finale–to imagine such a thing becomes impossible.  Indeed, I am strongly tempted to suggest that we could read One Hundred Years of Solitude as García Márquez’s novelization of Martí’s description of Latin America in “Our America”: the Cuban exile then living in New York and the Colombian novelist then living in Mexico City meet in Macondo and begin telling each other what Latin America is like.

In my last post, I noted Martí’s doubly-removed position in “Our America” relative to his subject: his exile from Cuba and, by extension, from Latin America at the time he wrote the essay; and the fact that the Latin America of which he writes is “a heterotopia-in-formation, a space whose political grammar, at least, has yet to come into being.”  This position allows Martí to speak in his the-days-are-surely-coming prophetic mode.  But this fluid dynamism is also the political manifestation of the neo-Baroque.  I mean no disrespect to Martí when I note that “Our America” reveals why the neo-Baroque, New Worldian though it may be, is not the firmest ground on which to found a politics.  Indeed, Martí’s essay’s lack of a concrete political philosophy, at least as much as his martyrdom for the cause of Cuban independence from Spain, is what allows both pro- and anti-Castro Cubans to claim him as something like their political patron saint.  But Martí himself knows Our America to be the newest of all grounds: “Governor, in a new country, means Creator” (290, author’s italics).  In “Our America” Martí insists again and again that “[t]he spirit of the government musy be the spirit of the country,” that, in a memorable image, “[a] gaucho’s pony cannot be stopped in midbolt by one of Alexander Hamilton’s laws” (290).  For Martí, Latin America’s most grievous political mistake, one it continues to make, has been to assume that the former colonies, having won their independence from Spain, could simply adopt modes of governance from Europe or the United States without moderating or otherwise taking into political account the stratified socioeconomic and, yes, racial vestiges of colonial rule: “America began enduring and still endures the weary task of reconciling the discordant and hostile elements it inherited from its perverse, despotic colonizer with the imported forms and ideas that have, in their lack of local reality, delayed the advent of a logical form of government. [. . .]  No Yankee or European book could furnish the key to the Hispanoamerican enigma” (292; 293-294).

In that last sentence, you would not be mistaken if you think you hear a proto-Foucauldian formulation of heterotopia.  For Martí, moreover, the key to Our America’s solving its own enigma is its recognizing the truth of the paradox that its great unifying strength lies in the ethnic diversity of its peoples.  Martí concludes his essay by arguing on behalf of a political mestizaje, a stance quite at variance with the winds of positivism and eugenics then prevailing throughout the hemisphere.  More on all of that in a future post.

[1] If my post were oriented differently, an equally-apt comparison might be to that of the first paragraph of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Nature” (1836), which Martí almost certainly knew.  (He published an effusive eulogy on the occasion of Emerson’s death in 1882.)  To be sure, Emerson’s essay lacks Martí’s sense of political urgency: Emerson is making a cultural declaration of independence in “Nature”‘s first paragraph, the U.S. already having won its political independence sixty years before, whereas, Martí argues, Latin America had yet to create for itself a genuine, which is to say autochthonous,  political independence.  Even so, when Martí writes something like, “Our youth go out into the world wearing Yankee- or French-colored glasses and aspire to rule by guesswork a country they do not know” (291), we can, with Emerson in mind, see the implicit politics in “Why should not we also enjoy an original relation to the universe?  Why should not we have a poetry and philosophy of insight and not of tradition, and a religion by revelation to us and not a history of theirs?”

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