World Literature

Jose Lezama Lima

 

BORN: 1910, Campamento Militar de Columbia, Cuba

DIED: 1976, Havana, Cuba

NATIONALITY: Cuban

GENRE: Poetry, fiction, nonfiction

MAJOR WORKS:

Death of Narcissus (1937)

Enemy Rumor (1941)

Paradiso (1966)

 

Overview

Jose Lezama Lima is one of Cuba’s most important writers to date and is also recognized as being among the most distinctive Latin American poetic and novelistic voices of the twentieth century. Although he cultivated all genres except drama, poetry interested him the most. Lezama Lima's life was almost exclusively dedicated to literature and to the development of an elaborated poetic system. To this effect, Lezama Lima himself used to say that the events of his biography were so few that they could all be connected to his literary works.

 

Works in Biographical and Historical Context

Early Loss of His Father, and the Trials of a Revolutionary Period. Lezama Lima was born on December 19, 1910, in a military camp near Havana where his father Jose Maria Lezama y Rodda, a military colonel, was stationed. Lezama Lima was the only son of the marriage and developed an extremely close relationship with his mother, Rosa Lima y Rosado, after his father’s death from influenza in 1919—at that time still a relatively common cause of death, even in the industrialized West. The image of his missing father haunted Lezama Lima for the rest of his life and came to figure prominently in his late novel Paradiso (1966).

The young Lezama Lima suffered from frequent attacks of asthma, which kept him secluded from other children and helped instill in him a great love of reading. He studied classical Spanish literature at the Colegio San Francisco de Paula under Fernando Sirgo and afterward enrolled at the Universidad de la Habana as a law student.

Lezama Lima's life began to be impacted by the revolutionary politics of this period while Gerardo Machado was reigning as Cuba’s dictator (1925-1933). Lezama Lima's formal schooling underwent a four-year hiatus when Machado, because of a student protest, shut down the university. Lezama Lima used the period—a difficult one for Cuba and the world, with a deep economic depression shaking the foundations of modern civilization and, in Cuba, hardship leading more to join the struggle against Machado’s increasingly brutal regime— to broaden his exposure to literature and ideas of all kinds, however remote and complex. Yet, as Lezama Lima biographers reveal, he did not intend to ‘‘isolate himself in an ivory tower but rather to find answers that would permit him to address his intellectual anxieties caused by death, discontinuity, and the dilemma between the occult and the profane.’’

Resumed Studies and Significant Journalism. The university reopened in 1934, the year after Machado’s overthrow, and Lezama Lima resumed his law studies—largely to please his mother—but he had come to the realization that his true interests lay elsewhere. In 1937, he published his most significant poem, ‘‘The Death of Narcissus,’’ and began the publication of his first critical journal, Verbum. Verbum was intended to promote a national Cuban culture, but it failed after only six months. It was followed by a series of other publications on aesthetics, including Spurs of Silver (19391941), No One’s Opinion (1942-1944), and Originals (1944-1956).

In 1941, two years into World War II (1939-1945), Lezama Lima published what for many is one of his best books of poetry, Enemy Rumor. The readers of these poems were few, but among them was the group subsequently known as the generation of Origenes (Originals), consisting of poets, writers, and intellectuals who gathered around Lezama Lima as their central figure and who published or exhibited their artistic designs in the journal of the same name. During the war years and thereafter, Cuban internal politics remained messy and, frequently, dictatorial. In the late 1950s, agents of the Fulgencio Batista regime broke into Lezama Lima’s house in an attempt to implicate him in radical activities.

The Cuban Revolution and a Loss of Place. With the Cuban Revolution of 1959 led by Fidel Castro, however, his fortunes changed. The revolutionary forces triumphed, and Lezama Lima became a director of the department of literature and publications of the National Council of Culture. By the time he published the spiritual Dador in 1960, the revolution was being defined as Marxist, destined to affirm Karl Marx’s assessment of religion as ‘‘the opium of the people.’’ With his emphasis on negotiating a spiritual or mystical philosophy, Lezama Lima’s place within an atmosphere so hostile to religion and spirituality would soon become difficult indeed. After years in which his relationship with the state was tense at times, he now found himself under attack by the artistic community itself.

Religion was not the only reason why Lezama Lima became a target for the revolutionary writers. They represented a new generation of poets, and, as such, they used politics to affirm themselves against the members of the Origenes group, with Lezama Lima as its most representative figure. For these poets and writers, associated with the literary supplement of the newspaper Mondays of Revolution, Lezama Lima embodied the elitist, bourgeois, politically uncommitted writer. In 1962 he also became an adviser to the Cuban Center for Literary Research, and to them his retreat into a literary ivory tower was unacceptable.

International Fame and Disgrace at Home. Lezama Lima acquired international fame precisely during this same decade, which marked the beginning of crackdowns in Cuba that had not only intellectuals but also homosexuals as their main targets. Lezama Lima never publicly said whether he was homosexual. But, at a time when many homosexuals were being taken to labor camps, he published Paradiso (1966)—the eighth chapter of which offers an elaborate description of a homosexual encounter. Lezama Lima became the Cuban writer who achieved international fame with Paradiso, but he also suffered a miserable downturn of luck at the same time. Government functionaries classified the book as pornography because of its homosexual content, and in 1971 a former associate accused the writer of antirevolutionary activities. Lezama Lima did not leave Havana, but he did find his life increasingly restricted and suffered the pain of a loss of place in the literature of the country he loved.

Lezama Lima died in 1976, isolated from his friends and from the Cuban cultural life he had wanted to influence—and before he could finish the sequel to Paradiso. The incomplete novel was published in 1977 and was titled Oppiano Licario after its main character. Many more of Lezama Lima’s writings have been published posthumously—including poems, essays, newspaper articles, letters, vignettes, conference presentations, and even notes. These subsequent publications give testimony to the fascination that Lezama Lima continues to inspire in his readers.

 

LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES

Lezama Lima's famous contemporaries include:

Jean Anouilh (1910-1987): A prolific French playwright whose works range from absurdist to high drama.

Albert Camus (1913-1960): A French Algerian writer who was the second-youngest recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature; while associated with existentialism, he actually rejected the title for, more accurately, ''nihilism''.

Fidel Castro (1926-): A Cuban political revolutionary and leader of Cuba from 1959 until his retirement in 2008.

Ernst Jünger (1895-1998): A German author who details his experiences as an officer during World War I in the memoir Storm of Steel.

Vladimir Nabokov (1899-1977): A Russian American novelist most famous for his extremely controversial novel Lolita.

 

COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE

Here are a few works by writers who also explored themes of angst, alienation, and the fall of humanity:

The Catcher in the Rye (1951), a novel by J. D. Salinger. This novel is a cult classic because of the author's portrayal of its protagonist, the angst-ridden teenager Holden Caulfield.

The Handmaid's Tale (1985), a novel by Margaret Atwood. In this futuristic dystopian novel, Canadian author Atwood speculates on the impact of a horrifying future of gender division, reproductive control, and totalitarian takeover by a theocratic elite.

His Dark Materials (1995-2000), a trilogy of novels by Philip Pullman. In this trilogy, the author offers fantasy versions of the Christian notion of the fall of humanity that suggest instead a positive outcome for the fallen.

Snow (2005), a novel by Orhan Pamuk. In this work a clash of ideals is witnessed by a poet in exile as he comes to terms with his alienation through poetry and God.

 

Works in Literary Context

A Poetic System, a Philosophy. It is no exaggeration to say that Lezama Lima’s life was almost exclusively dedicated to literature and to the development of an elaborated poetic system. This poetic system represents a continuation of the tradition initiated by the Romantic poets. His system also reveals a series of philosophical influences: in his study of the poet, Emilio Bejel traces the legacy imprinted in Lezama Lima’s works by Western thinkers and writers such as Giambattista Vico, Friedrich Nietzsche, Martin Heidegger, Stephane Mallarme, and Paul Valery.

Spiritual Bankruptcy and the Search for Answers. Scholar Emilio Bejel further discusses how Lezama Lima’s poetic system is indebted to Western metaphysics, and how it builds on Blaise Pascal’s ideas on the subject of fallen nature. According to Bejel, Lezama Lima’s answer to the idea of a fallen nature—represented in his works by the death of the father—is the freedom of the poet/son who rejects imitation in favor of invention. Lezama Lima developed his system in an effort to find answers in poetry. These answers would alleviate a kind of crisis of the soul, one which began as a generalized feeling of spiritual bankruptcy or emptiness typical among modern poets. The alienation felt by these poets was often experienced and expressed as a sentiment of the orphanhood that Friedrich Nietzsche described as accompanying ‘‘God’s death.’’

In Paradiso, for instance, Lezama Lima penetrates his favorite topic, poetry itself, yet he also offers a sort of allegory to depict his exploration, using a series of sexual adventures in which the theme of incest is often present. This sexuality, marked by the incest taboo, gives the adventures their highly charged covert aspect and points to the angst of a poet in search of answers. The sexual energy of this and other pieces is part of why Lezama Lima’s work exerted such a strong pull on the generation of Cuban writers who followed him, some—including Guillermo Cabrera Infante and Reinaldo Arenas—who saw themselves as not only admirers but also disciples.

 

Works in Critical Context

Despite his untiring dedication to literature, for many years Lezama Lima was only known by a small group within Cuba’s intellectual community. His tight style and the obscurity with which he conveyed his metaphysical concepts prevented this avant-garde writer from gaining popularity for almost three decades. However, he both enjoyed and suffered the consequences of international fame with the publication of his novel Paradiso.

Paradiso (1966). Lezama Lima brought together a lifetime’s work as a literary critic and poet in his novelistic depiction of a young Cuban man’s coming of age. In many ways Paradiso is an autobiographical novel. Paradiso provoked a scandal for the author, largely because of its unorthodox depiction of Cuban family life. For a time, attempts were made to ban the book and suppress Lezama Lima’s work altogether. But the work also gained positive critical attention. In 1972 the Italian translation of Paradiso was selected as Italy’s best Latin American book for the previous year. Julio Cortazar, Mario Vargas Llosa, and Octavio Paz have all acclaimed Lezama Lima’s talent, calling him a master expounder of many of the principal themes of Latin American fiction. Because of Paradiso and all of his writings, Lezama Lima eventually came to be known as one of the writers of the ‘‘Boom,’’ a publicity success experienced worldwide by Latin American literature during the 1960s. Octavio Paz recalls reading Paradiso ‘‘slowly, with increasing amazement and stupefaction,’’ describing the novel as ‘‘a verbal edifice of incredible richness.’’ Literary critic Cesar Augusto Salgado, however, laments that ‘‘Paz’s sense of wonderment has been difficult to replicate in translation,’’ and writes that the Englishspeaking world’s relative ignorance of Lezama Lima is particularly ‘‘regrettable since in great measure Lezama’s exceptionality as a Cuban and Latin American writer lies in his persistent quest for ’universality.’’’

 

Responses to Literature

1. Paradiso models the structure of a bildungsroman— a novel of personal development and growth. Research several common characteristics of the bil- dungsroman. Which of these characteristics appear in Paradiso? In what ways, if any, does the novel differ from a typical bildungsroman?

2. Consider how your own life or the life of someone you know would make a fine bildungsroman. Trace the events and experiences that lead you or the person on a quest (even a short-term one), facing challenges that changed you or the person, and coming ‘‘home’’ to the society that now accepts you or the person you choose to write about. How did you or the other person grow? How did you mature to fit in with society?

3. Lezama Lima lived and wrote in a revolutionary time for Cuba. Research the Cuban Revolution of 1959. How did it impact civilians? How is this impact reflected in the poet’s work?

4. Scholars, such as Emilio Bejel, have pointed out Lezama Lima’s indebtedness to Western metaphysics. In debate with peers, justify Lezama Lima’s personal philosophy as depicted in Paradiso. Find examples from the text that can be associated with philosophical attitudes. How does the writer use images and symbols to express, for example, alienation or angst?

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Books

Bejel, Emilio. Lezama Lima: Poet of the Image. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1990.

Lezama Lima, Jose. Complete Works of Art. 2 vols. Introduction by Cintio Vitier. Mexico City: Aguilar, 1975, 1977.

Salgado, Cesar Augusto. From Modernism to Neobaroque: Joyce and Lezama Lima. Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell University Press, 2000.

Smrez-Galban, Eugenio, ed. Lezama Lima. Madrid: El Carezon, 1987.

Periodicals

Monegal, Emir Rodriguez, ‘‘Paradise in Context.’’ Imagen 25 (1968): 27-33.

Web Sites

CILHT. ‘‘Jose Lezama Lima: Fragmento de ‘Rapsodia para el Mulo’’’ (Spanish). Retrieved April 25, 2008, from http://www.bibliele.com/CILHT/Hispamer/rapsodia.html.

GLBTQ. ‘‘Lezama Lima, Jose (1910-1976).’’ Retrieved April 25, 2008, from http://www.glbtq.com/literature/lezamalima_j.html.

Josei Lezama Lima Literature Excerpts (Spanish). Retrieved April 25, 2008 from http://www.lezama.it.