Friday, March 5, 2010

[1b] Allen Young :: The Equivocal Modernity of the Baroque

To be presented in: Workshop 1 // European Discourses and Latin America (read preliminary debate here)

Since the goal of this conference, as I understand it, is to generate debate, I will begin with a polemical and somewhat exaggerated claim, in the hopes that, by overstating the case here, I can strengthen the more limited version of the argument I make in my dissertation. And that claim is this: the neobaroque does not exist—or at least, it is not in any meaningful sense baroque. To put it somewhat differently: the notion that the baroque returns in the twentieth century as a specifically Latin American version of aesthetic modernity is highly problematic.

Most of us are familiar with the concept of the neobaroque. The idea is that the baroque aesthetics of the seventeenth century “reappears” in certain twentieth-century writers, such as Severo Sarduy, José Lezama Lima, Alejo Carpentier, or Néstor Perlongher, among others.[i] This is, I think, a very widespread, commonly accepted view. Mabel Moraña, for example, speaks of “an aesthetic style of imperial origin that reemerges in the context of the Cuban Revolution, is reaffirmed in the settings of the post-dictatorships in the Southern Cone, and is reinstalled in the fragmented settings of postmodernity.”[ii] Or we could cite Irlemar Chiampi: “O barroco, encruzilhada de signos e temporalidades…hoje revém para atestar a crise/fim da modernidade, ao tempo que desvela a condição de um continente que não pôde incorporar o projeto do Iluminismo.”[iii] In both cases, the neobaroque is essentially the return of the baroque, notwithstanding differences in context or political orientation. What’s more, the baroque is for these and other critics a way of describing a specifically Latin American modernity. Under the sign of the “baroque” or “neobaroque,” they celebrate writing that is both irrefutably modern and authentically Latin American—that is, modern, but not merely a belated, derivative version of something European or North American. I would like to suggest today that such a claim for Latin American aesthetic modernity is, at best, equivocal.[iv]

I should note here that by aesthetic modernity I mean something floating and relational—a certain up-to-date-ness with twentieth-century literary practices, be they avant-garde (at beginning of the century) or postmodern (at the end) or something else entirely. I’m using this concept, first, because similar claims about the baroque’s “modernity” are made for writers across the century. And second, because while the content of aesthetic modernity changes, its form—a self-conscious, if partial, break with a past—is repeated throughout the twentieth century (and the nineteenth).

The widespread view that the baroque returns in the twentieth century, and that it is the (or one of the) paradigmatic form(s) of Latin American aesthetic modernity, is what we might call, following John Beverley, the continuity thesis.[v] We should look in more detail at two of the most significant formulations of this thesis.

The classic version is found in Roberto González Echevarría’s 1993 book Celestina’s Brood (whose subtitle is in fact Continuities of the Baroque in Spanish and Latin American Literature). For González Echevarría, the baroque, with such figures as Silvestre de Balboa and Lunarejo, is the origin of Spanish American literature, and when twentieth-century writers enacted a revision of Spanish-language poetry, it was to this period that they turned. He states: “[s]ince it was in the Baroque that a creole sensibility began to assert itself, it was in the Baroque that the avant-garde sought the origins of its own poetic language.”[vi] This sounds reasonable enough, but then the avant-garde poet he’s discussing is Nicolás Guillén, and it is unclear why he should be considered baroque. Guillén surely didn’t call himself baroque, and on the face of it his poetry has little to do with that of Góngora or Quevedo.[vii] The argument is almost a non sequitur: since the first expression of Spanish American identity is found in the seventeenth century, the Spanish American avant-garde is—even when evidence shows the contrary—by definition baroque. While González Echevarría presents Guillén’s poetry as the case of an avant-garde reinterpretation of the past, it comes across more like a continuation of a timeless American essence. Calling Guillén’s poetry “baroque” allows González Echevarría to link him to the origins of Latin America as such; what he calls the “general poetic revision at the core of modern poetry written in Spanish”[viii]—in other words, the modern break that he sees in Guillén and others—is thus recast as a reaffirmation of a centuries-old identity.

The second formulation of the continuity thesis I’d like to cite is from 2006: Lois Parkinson Zamora’s book The Inordinate Eye.[ix] While her approach is not identical to González Echevarría’s, one can nevertheless see the same conjunction of identity and modernity. The neobaroque has

provided Latin American writers the means by which to contest imposed ideologies and recover relevant texts and traditions… With its decentering strategies and ironic perspectives, the Neobaroque has been considered by some critics as a Latin American postmodernism, but the resemblance is misleading. Unlike the poststructuralist categories regularly imposed by, or imported from the United States and Europe, the Neobaroque is deeply rooted in Latin America’s histories and cultures.[x]

The resemblance to postmodernism is misleading because it fails to note the neobaroque’s particular Latin American roots. But the resemblance is also revealing, because it is proof that Latin America is not lagging or belated—it is as up-to-date as postmodernism. The neobaroque, then, looks both forward and backward. Latin American aesthetic modernity, or this version of it, is firmly rooted in its past.

What I’m calling the continuity thesis is, I think, a fairly mainstream, commonly shared way of understanding the neobaroque. Its strength is that it attempts to account for the specificity of Latin American aesthetic modernity: it is a “modernity” that, whether referring to the avant-garde or the postboom, is on par with, but not reducible to, European or North American frameworks. Yet I would like to suggest that this view is also highly problematic. Not because I don’t think the writers grouped under this label are really “baroque,”[xi] but because I find it troubling, even contradictory, to ground Latin American aesthetic modernity in an unchanging national or continental identity. If modernity necessarily implies a break; if, by its very definition, modernity demarcates a before and an after, a past and present; in short, if aesthetic modernity is, in the words of Octavio Paz, “la tradición de la ruptura,”[xii] then the baroque, invoked as continuity, is an equivocal figure for that modernity. Certainly, the notion of rewriting the past is not incompatible with modernity or modernism—on the contrary, it is part of some its most canonical figures (like Eliot or Joyce). But critics like González Echevarría and Parkinson Zamora go further: they imply that neobaroque writers to do not just rewrite the past but identify with it; they do not reimagine the baroque aesthetics but rather perpetuate a timeless baroque identity. Hence, after Parkinson Zamora states that in colonial Latin America the baroque was “a means of projecting an American cultural identity against the colonizing power of Spain,” she immediately adds that its twentieth-century reappeance is just the culmination of this much older process: “it would be the mid-twentieth century before the decolonizing strategies of the New World Baroque were fully articulated.”[xiii]

The baroque thus locates Latin America at once inside and outside of history, as proof of Latin America’s participation in the modern and a sign of its essential difference. This is the strange logic I’d suggest is at work in the continuity thesis: Latin America can only be modern by remaining true to what it is, to what it has always been, to what it was before “modernity” (however we understand the word, wherever we locate it: the Enlightenment, independence, the twentieth century…). To couch my argument in even more polemical terms, for the baroque continuity thesis, Latin America can only be modern by being unmodern.

Since most of this very brief paper has taken the form of a polemical critique of a commonly held view, I’d like to end on a positive suggestion, or at least a question: how can we theorize a Latin American aesthetic modernity that retains what’s laudable about the continuity thesis—i.e., its regional specificity—yet avoids turning that specificity into an unchanging (and hence unmodern) identity?


[i] Other names commonly associated with neobaroque are Roberto Echavarren, José Kozer and Pedro Lemebel. The fact that all of these writers are men, many of them gay, is I think significant, although the reasons for this go beyond the scope of the present paper. Certain critics have extended the term much further: Lois Parkinson Zamora, cited below, has used the term to describe Borges, García Márquez, Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera.

[ii] Mabel Moraña, “Baroque/Neobaroque/Ultrabaroque: Disruptive Readings of Modernity,” Hispanic Baroques (Hispanic Issues 31), ed. Nicholas Spadaccini and Luis Martín-Estudillo (Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 2005), p. 252. I should note that her larger argument is somewhat different than, though not incompatible with, the “continuity thesis” I discuss below. Here I cite her mainly to illustrate the common assumption that the baroque “returns” in the twentieth century, and that this return is intimately bound up with Latin America’s modernity.

[iii] Irlemar Chiampi, Barroco e modernidade (São Paulo: Perspectiva, 1998), p. 3.

[iv] By aesthetic modernity I mean something floating—a certain up-to-date-ness with twentieth-century literary practices, be they avant-garde (at beginning of the century) or postmodern (at the end) or something else entirely. This concept is useful, I think, despite the fact that its “content” changes, because it follows the form of break that it inevitably implicit in the term “modern.” It could be understood as the various points of what Octavio Paz memorably called “la tradición de la ruptura.”

[v] John Beverley, Essays on the Literary Baroque in Spain and Latin America (Rochester: Támesis, 2008), p. 4.

[vi] Roberto González Echevarría, Celestina’s Brood: Continuities of the Baroque in Spanish and Latin American Literature (Durham: Duke University Press, 1993), p. 198.

[vii] The “philological” evidence González Echevarría provides to this effect is unconvincing. Nor does he attempt to show that Guillén participated, from Cuba, in the 1927 celebration of the centenary of Góngora’s death.

[viii] González Echevarría, Celestina’s Brood, p. 194.

[ix] Lois Parkinson Zamora, The Inordinate Eye (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006). The author also edited a special section on the neobaroque in the January 2009 issue of PMLA, and has co-edited another book on the topic that was just published by Duke.

[x] Parkinson Zamora, Inordinate Eye, pp. xvi-xvii.

[xi] Incidentally, I do also object to the label on purely descriptive grounds. Using “baroque” to refer to twentieth-century writers is only possible once the term’s positive content has been reduced to a few extremely vague adjectives (excessive, exuberant, parodic, transgressive, etc.). In other words, such an expansive definition dilutes the word’s meaning and thus makes it less specific and useful for the seventeenth century.

[xii] Octavio Paz, Los hijos del limo: del Romanticismo a la vanguardia (Barcelona: Seix Barral, 1981).

[xiii] Parkinson Zamora, Inordinate Eye, p. xvi.

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