Irony as Parabasis of Allegory
Allegory becomes a fundamental and instrumental trope to create a utopian political discourse. This fact is so decisive that for the Cuban poetic imaginary, allegory and official discourse have always been indistinguishable. This is what some poets have interpreted as a “usurpation of the language.” I am referring specifically to the Diaspora(s) group, whose members have expressed their wish to dismantle the trope of allegory. In “Olvidar a On- genes [Forgetting Ongenes],” one of the most important texts of the group’s journal, Diaspora(s), Sanchez Mejias argues that all poetics are susceptible to being appropriated by political rhetoric: “Nunca hubo una escritura tan hermetica o dificil que no haya podido ser ‘leida’ por los imaginarios de la politica [There has never been a writing so hermetic or difficult that it cannot be ‘read’ by the imaginaries of politics]” (Sanchez Mejias 1997a, 18). Commenting on Paul Celan’s poetry, Sanchez Mejias argues that history always precedes poetry. He also says that poetry cannot avoid the catastrophe of history, and by referring to Lezama Lima’s “poetic extension,” he condemns its allegorical nature:
Incluso si esas palabras bastaran para revivir todos los muertos, no alcanzarian a borrar el horror que circulo entre ellas en nombre de la Historia—esa misma Historia que les concedio la forma de Poesia. Por eso toda extension poetica se vuelve sospechosa. Toda imagen avanzando por una extension debe sentirse amenazada por los huecos negros de la Historia. Y toda mente fajada con una extension vacia debe saber reconocer en la blancura una posibilidad del horror.
[Even if these words were enough to bring all the dead back to life, they could not erase the horror that circulated among them in the name of History—that same History that bestowed on them the form of Poetry. As a result, all poetic extension becomes suspect. Any image advancing through an extension must feel itself threatened by the black holes of History. And any mind tagged with an empty extension must be able to recognize in
blankness the possibility of horror.] (Sanchez Mejias 1997a, 19)
By “poetic extension,” Sanchez Mejias is clearly referring to Lezama Lima’s frequent use of the word in its metaphysical connotation as that which extends itself beyond the letter and into the world. This quotation clearly actualizes Theodor Adorno’s paradox between barbarism and civilization: after Auschwitz, poetry has become a barbaric act. A history that has created barbaric acts also fecundates the poetry that negates them. According to Adorno’s reading, culture and barbarism have become synonymous; however, culture is subjected to another aporia, namely, the fact that it needs art despite its impossibility.
A poem by Marques de Armas titled “Claro de bosque (semiescrito) [Forest Clearing (Semiwritten)],” from his most recent collection, Cabe- zas (Heads), deals precisely with this issue. Marques de Armas’s poem is a reflection on the historical experience and its representation. The poem suggests that there is a mutual overdetermination between history and its representation. It also proposes looking at history in three different ways: as an experience, as an abstraction, and as a representation. In other words, the poem tries to understand the relationship between universality, particularity, and their representation, taking into account that they have a relation of mutual determination. Universality refers to history and its development, particularity to the experience of being, and representation is the unveiling of being. I will first comment on the representation of history in the poem. In “Claro de bosque (semiescrito),” the act of naming and the experience of historical catastrophe are in constant tension. This conflict is represented in the poem as the margin between the outside as experience and the inside as thought: “las puertas se abren hacia / dentro y / con horror infinito / hacia afuera los pensamientos”22 (Marques de Armas 2002, 26). The poem discusses the impossibility of enunciating the historical catastrophe through the act of naming. “Claro de bosque” is a reflection on the conditions of possibility for the unveiling of being in a nonlinguistic or representational realm. The poem’s “claro” is thus what Heidegger termed “Die Lichtung,” or the unveiling of being: “las puertas se abren / hacia / dentro y / con horror infinito / hacia fuera los pensamientos/ pienso / en una escritura-intensidad / pero no es escritura la palabra exacta / (exacto es claro de bosque).”23
Although this nonrepresentational desire is clear, the poem also argues that “el claro,” or the clearing, can only happen in the form of a thought. The poem thus emphasizes the paradox behind such nonrepresentational desire: the clearing cannot be made of anything but words, since once it is expressed by thought, it is also already made of words. There is another paradox, however, since language cannot express the experience of the clearing: “en algun punto o claro de bosque / calculado / (en la cabeza) / aunque el termino punto tambien inexacto / y aun, todavia las rayas-excavan / cada uno de esos puntos dispersos”24 (Marques de Armas 2002, 26). There is an alternation between the event and the impossibility of its representation, making it clear that words no longer have a performative function. The materiality of language, which is represented by tropes, cannot express what the clearing could express. Materiality is also represented in the poem through reference to Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra: “molinillos-orga- nillos en Mandelstam, / Nietzsche (ique crujen!)”25 (ibid.). The passage in Nietzsche to which this line refers also talks about the difficulty of representing thought with language; the materiality and power of language to represent are thus called into question (Nietzsche 2006, 173-74). At the same time, history resists writing because the event always questions its representation: “pero no es escritura la palabra exacta / (exacto es claro de bosque) / ni siquiera la que mas se aproxima / ya que / ninguna palabra es tan intensa / para ser escrita”26 (Marques de Armas 2002, 26).
Let us discuss historical experience in the poem, or what I have also called particularity. The “cerebro desenterrado [disinterred brain]” that appears isolated in one of the poem’s lines—referring to a poem by Osip Mandelstam—points to the ineffability of history: “ninguna palabra es tan intensa / para ser escrita / en el horror infinito de unos caracteres de tierra / el cerebro desenterrado” (Marques de Armas 2002, 26).27 The poem alludes to the earth because these brains and thoughts are also related to a historical event that took place in the gold mines of Serra Pelada in Brazil. The mines are represented through the ravages of a globalized world that takes advantage of an underworld inhabited by dehumanized beings and that produces a history that cannot be narrated: “los caracteres se desprenden / al simple roce de las manos / asi tambien la tierra / al borde de ciertos farallones o mantos de pizarra”28 (ibid.). Yet, as I have already mentioned, the “cabeza” and “cerebro desenterrado” allude to another historical event that is mentioned in one of Mandelstam’s poems. The line “los campus (de ojos) y los campus (de cabezas)”29 alludes to “Stalin’s Ode,” specifically the last lines, in which Mandelstam describes Lenin addressing the multitude: “The hillocks of people’s heads are growing more distant: / I am diminished in them, won’t even be noticed” (Mandelstam, cited in Coetzee 1991, 75). Scholars have traditionally interpreted these lines as pertaining to Lenin, but J. M. Coetzee explains that it alludes to Mandelstam’s private mythology. According to Nadezdha Mandelstam, this mythology includes a reference to Genghis Khan. Coetzee argues that the subtext of these lines is the narration of the resistance to Genghis Khan’s army, symbolized by the thousands of heads in a mound outside of the city’s ramparts, and that this analysis extends to the last line of the last verse in “Stalin’s Ode.” The narration of two different historical events, one by Marques de Armas and one by Mandelstam, bears a similitude since both recount those who are at the margins, those who have neither voice nor history.
I can now talk about history as a universal concept, that is, as a science or as a narrative that explains the study of past events. “Claro de bosque (semiescrito)” constitutes a critique of the Marxian epistemological tradition that has determined the interpretation of history in Cuba. The poem thus questions historicism as an epistemological model that is based on the interpretation of history as a scientific event. This critique becomes clear in the poem when the identity of the workers of Serra Pelada is described as a molecular existence in a shattered world. These men have amputated bodies, and it seems as if the writing of the poem, the soil of the mines, and these bodies had all been subjected to neurological surgery. In thus characterizing the historical event as a scientific event, “Claro de bosque” alludes to the supposed scientific nature of history, and also introduces the first ironic element in the poem: “asi en las minas al aire libre de Serra Pelada / 400 kms al sur de Belen / donde los humanos (moleculas rientes de negror corredizo) han sustraido / en un corte sagital / la orbita de un ojo infinitamente horrible”30 (Marques de Armas 2002, 27). This poem, like the work of the Proyecto Diasporas generally, is also ironic, but in a very de Manian way. This irony, however, is also quite present in its most Schlegelian sense, that is, as self-reflexive poetry and as a paradox: “Irony is the form of paradox. Paradox is everything which is simultaneously good and great” (Schlegel 1971, 266). But, like Schlegel’s irony, the poem reveals the break between aesthetic representation and the world. As for Schlegel, for Diaspora(s) there is a fusion between poetry and philosophy. Schlegel wanted that poetry be “in touch with philosophy and rhetoric” (ibid., 175). For Paul de Man, irony is a disruption of the tropological system, in that it calls into question tropes such as allegories and metaphors and their ideological representation of the world. For Schlegel and for de Man, irony is about poetry’s inability to communicate. De Man describes irony as the interruption or the permanent parabasis of the allegory of tropes. The para- basis of allegory refers to the interruption of two different codes in the same discourse. By “codes,” de Man refers to different types of stylistic elements (genre, subgenre, tone, etc.). The allegory of tropes has its own systematicity, and it is precisely this coherence, as well as the internal dialectics of the allegory, that irony interrupts (de Man 1996, 178). In Marques de Armas’s poem two discursive codes coincide and interrupt each other: the poetic language and the scientific language. Neither can be defined without the other. Science gives a rendering of the physical world through observation and experiment, whereas poetry does not need an experimental justification to be what it is. But experimentation always has limits because it refers to materiality but does not tell us what it means, and as such science is also metaphoric. Poetry evokes a physical or emotional reality with metaphors, but metaphoric language also has limits. The ineffability of reality exposes the limitations of language and opens up different possibilities of representation, one of which is accomplished through linguistic experimentation. The irony resides in the fact that the historical catastrophe cannot be interpreted as a scientific event but is not an unmediated event either. Irony only displaces the two codes to introduce a different representation of history.
This new representation of history needs to be defined through the relationship between thought and representation, a question that, as I have noted, is one of this poem’s main driving forces. The relation between thought and representation is also what Heidegger calls the relation between Denken (to think) and Dichten, which literally means “poetry” or “the act of writing poetry.” It is important to note that I am speaking of this Hei- deggerian distinction in light of Jacques Derrida’s comments in his essay “Le retrait de la metaphore” (“The Retreat of Metaphor”). It is also necessary to explain Derrida’s reflections on the metaphor to further understand the difference between Denken and Dichten. For Derrida it is impossible to interrupt the presence of the metaphor (Derrida 1987, 64). Etymologically speaking, the metaphor alludes to the vehicle, to transport. Metaphors are the vehicle of writing. This is why one cannot talk about metaphors without talking through them. Indeed, metaphors do not have a proper name; language itself is a metaphor. This explains the double meaning in Derrida’s title. Every time the metaphor retreats, it always leaves the sign of a supplementary stroke, of a re-trait (retreat) in the trait (stroke) that it had left in the text. The rhetorical margin of this discourse is no longer determined by an indivisible simple line (ibid., 80). Derrida explains that for Heidegger Denken and Dichten always form a pair and go together. But they run parallel to each other and never meet, and, thus they can never be confused or translated by one another. The paradox is that in spite of these two distinct parallel paths, Denken and Dichten are so close to each other that at times they intersect and they cut across one another. When they cut across each other, they each mark the other. This cut does not create a wound; rather, it is a cut that opens up their difference, cutting back their own stroke and its supplement. This cut does not belong to either one, nor is it a common stroke, a general concept, or a metaphor (ibid., 87).
The relationship between Denken and Dichten is expressed in the last lines of “Claro de bosque”: “en la intersection / el corte sagital del cerebro / de manera / que / la cabeza y el ojo / el ojo y la cabeza y / asi los campus (de ojos) y los campus (de cabezas) / expresen la superficie / (ya, / exclu- sivamente extirpada) / solo es, / exclusivamente, / el fondo de la mina”31
(Marques de Armas 2002, 28). The language of the poem resists determination and adjectives. It is also full of “cuts” and “intersections” marked not only by the words that appear isolated in the poem but also because of the cuts (enjambments) in many of the lines. These cuts also represent the moments when Denken and Dichten overlap, and yet they do not belong to either of them. That is why the poem offers two alternative endings. On the one hand, it offers a scientific representation of the historic catastrophe related to the mine: “(ya, / exclusivamente extirpada).” On the other hand, it gives us an unmediated representation of the historical catastrophe by describing the mine as, “exclusivamente, / el fondo de la mina.” What the poem finally reveals is that the Lichtung or clearing is also the moment of the “cut” that shows the difference between the scientific history and the unmediated history, or between thought and poetry. This moment does not belong to either one of them, yet it reveals the stroke and the supplement of both of them.
Marques de Armas’s work has abandoned an allegorical interpretation of reality and a scientific explanation of a historic finality, thus creating the “writing of disaster.” Although the poem does not theorize about other plausible political answers, it does pinpoint the aporias of art and its representation. This theoretical gesture is a critique of both the aestheticization of politics and the subsumption of art by the market. Far from arguing that contemporary art is futile because it no longer articulates a political message, Marques de Armas’s work underscores the important ethical nature of the writing of disaster. This is not to say that this writing aims to establish a moral injunction as opposed to offering articulations of political utopias. On the contrary, by pointing to the complex relations among thinking, poetry, and history, Marques de Armas’s work lays out the conditions of possibility to go beyond the mimetic or utilitarian function of art and of the political itself.