The Body: Biopolitics in Official Criticism of Lezama in the Nineties
Once Lezama was rehabilitated by cultural policies, the topic of sexuality raised an enormous interest. In previous decades, his novel Paradiso had inspired polemics because of its explicit pansexuality (Triana 1998, 111 ).7 It was thus logical that some critics and scholars were eager to reconsider the controversy and the novel’s sexuality in a new light. The discussion of Lezama’s sexuality was part of the state cultural project to rectify the sixties’ and seventies’ policies against homosexuality. But more was at play in this ideological gesture, which was also part of a larger political endeavor. As we will see in analyzing this critical revision of Lezama, sexuality was accepted as long as it remained true to a reproductive goal. That is, the control of discourses on sexuality was part of a set of governmental measures to regulate and control sexual conduct. It was a way of controlling sexual discourse without force. This type of control no longer required the eradication of evil or of the enemy. Instead, it manifested itself through a rhetoric centered on the conservation and administration of life. This type of rhetoric can be seen in many official discourses throughout the nineties. For example, in 1998, the journal Trabajadores’s headline about UNEAC’s Sixth Congress read, “UNEAC Lives” (8). The journal then quotes keynote speaker Abel Prieto’s citation of Fidel Castro: “Culture is what must be saved.”
This rhetoric of life responded to the European and North American rhetoric about the death of socialism. It was also a governmental mode of subjection over a population whose desire to emigrate was increasing as rapidly as the ruler’s political legitimacy declined. Whereas during the two previous decades policies censured and suppressed ideological dissent, during the nineties they emphasized the quality of life, as Prieto, again citing Fidel Castro, claimed: “El propio concepto de ‘calidad de vida,’ tan envi- lecido por el comunismo habria que asociarlo a la cultura: ‘Las actividades culturales (dijo Fidel, esta vez en el IV Congreso de la UNEAC) pueden convertirse en una de las mas altas expresiones del nivel de vida del pueblo’ [The very concept of ‘the quality of life,’ so debased by communism, should be associated with culture: ‘Cultural activities (said Fidel, this time in the Fourth UNEAC Congress) can become one of the highest expressions of the people’s standard of living’]” (8). Never had the Cuban economy suffered so much, and thus the government strove to convince Cubans that they should be able to sublimate their hunger into art in lieu of food. Not coincidentally,
Ponte wrote a very lyrical, evocative, and to a certain extent ironic book of essays titled Las comidas profundas. Ponte’s book is a commentary on the opposition between lack and plenitude, where the association of the terms is reversed. Nationhood has always been represented by plenitude and exoticism. Reading the canon against the grain, however, Ponte argues that Cuban culture should be defined by the lack resulting from the unfulfilled promise of a continually deferred nationhood. Referring to the nineties, he inverts the state’s biopolitical logic by asserting that human life is curtailed by the shortage of food. The lack of a national identity produced a cultural narration of Cubanness, which filled that void with words. This explains why the baroque became so prevalent in Cuba. Ponte closes the essay by arguing ironically that during the food shortages of the nineties, literature was offered as a substitute.
It was also no coincidence that the National Center for Sex Education (CENESEX, Centro Nacional de Educacion Sexual) was created in 1989, a year after the reemergence of queer literature in Cuba (Alonso Estenoz 2000, 1).8 The center announced its mission as “the application of the Cuban policy of Sex Education by coordinating the participation of entities and organizations devoted to social communication, community work and sex education, guidance, and therapy to help ensure that human beings can live their sexuality in a healthy, full, pleasing, and responsible way.” Thus, the government no longer censored the practice of openly gay sexuality and its literary representation as in times past. Instead, as the CENESEX proclaimed, the strategy was to regulate sexuality through public discourses of utility.9
In scholarly work, critics from the fifties also discussed the reproduction of life from a sexual perspective, especially as a critique of homosexuality. In “Invitacion a Paradiso,” an essay written in 1989, Vitier erases the importance of homosexuality and offers a transcendental reading of Paradiso, specifically concerning chapter 8: “Este capitulo, por lo tanto, mas alla de las argumentaciones contrapuestas en torno al tema de la homosexualidad, concluye visionariamente con una exaltacion y apoteosis del culto a la fecundidad heterosexual, si bien en las paginas finales de la novela sera completada o superada por el sentido egipcio original del culto falico (mito de Isis y Osiris) como alusivo a la resurreccion o fecundacion trascendente [This chapter thus goes beyond the opposing arguments on the subject of homosexuality, concluding with a visionary exaltation and apotheosis of the cult of heterosexual fecundity, even if in the novel’s final pages this view is completed or superseded by the original Egyptian sense of the phallic cult (the myth of Isis and Osiris) as alluding to resurrection or transcendental fertilization]” (Vitier 2001, 387). Vitier condemns the representation of an incestuous sexual relationship as a “repugnant account” (ibid., 391), and he warns the reader to go beyond the explicit sexual scenes of chapter 8 (the reason the book was poorly received when first published). He represents sexuality in the novel as an immoral stage that needs to be superseded by subsuming pleasure under knowledge: “Los que solo leyeron el capitulo VIII y pasajes analogos (sorprendidos por una tendencia a la hiperbole que es cons- tante en el estilo lezamiano), sin duda no entendieron nada porque ignora- ron el contexto de una historia que le confiere a esas paginas su verdadero sentido: el del hitos de un camino que, al salir el protagonista del agridulce paraiso de la infancia, conduce del submundo de las pasiones tumultuosas a la pasion estelar del conocimiento [Those who only read chapter 8 and analogous passages (surprised by a propensity for hyperbole that is a constant of Lezama’s style) will doubtless not understand anything not knowing the context of the story that gives these pages their true meaning: that of milestones along a road that, after the protagonist leaves the bittersweet paradise of childhood, leads from the underworld of tumultuous passions to the celestial [estelar] passion of knowledge]” (380-81). Vitier interprets the novel as a process of desexualizing pleasure arriving at a transcendental word: “El sexo, pues, aparece aqui primero, como concupiscencia sin amor, como derroche amoral de energia, en escenas simetricas mentalmente construidas o reconstruidas, y despues de una torcida espiritualidad, como locura [Sex thus first appears here as lasciviousness without love, as amoral dissipation of energy, in symmetrical scenes mentally constructed or reconstructed, and later as deformed spirituality, as madness]” (384). For Vitier, then, Catholicism needs the presence of the body in order to reach the “truth.” Vitier cannot make his argument without alluding to the body because the “imago” only comes from the union and division of body and soul. Instead of being repressed, this sexuality is brought up continuously in a discourse that at the same time negates it (Foucault 1990, 148).
Referring also to Paradiso’s chapter 8, Prats Sariol, another Lezama scholar, criticizes the Christian understanding of sexuality as a mere reproductive function, but he then contradicts his own position. Sariol argues that sexuality need not be justified: “Sex, like any other human reality, requires presences. Its discovery and knowledge do not require explanations. To require such explanations is a form of alienation, whether subliminally as described by orthodox Freudians or through repression, as in Judeo-Christian dogma. Paradiso is free of ‘sin.’ It enjoys perfect sexual health, in the manner of Vatsyayana’s Kama Sutra or Kalyana Malla’s Ananga Ranga” (Prats Sariol 1996, 661). By claiming that sex requires no justification, Prats Sariol is also arguing that no moral principle should censor it. He thus rejects Freudian analysis or Judeo-Christian religion. Both discourses describe sex according to their ideologies, and both judge certain sexual practices. Instead, he proposes that Paradiso displays “sexual health,” valuing sex as a beneficial or nondiseased practice. But if we follow this argument to its logical conclusion, the proposition that characterizes sex as a healthy practice is based on an type of medical discourse, which regulates sexual behavior by classifying it as “healthy” or “unhealthy.” Vitier’s and Sariol’s essays are examples of how power exerts itself around the principle of reproductive life. The control over the human body and its administration permits the calculating administration of life, so that life becomes useful and productive (Foucault 1990, 140). This explains why a discourse around sexuality is so important and was so prevalent in disciplines such as literary criticism: “It is through sex—in fact, an imaginary point determined by the deployment of sexuality—that each individual has to pass in order to have access to his own intelligibility (seeing that it is both the hidden aspect and the generative principle of meaning)” (ibid., 155).