A Cuban Imprint on Cornelius Castoriadis’s Thinking?

Dmitri Prieto

Cornelius Castoriadis. Photo: columbia.edu

Cornelius Castoriadis (1922-1997) is for me one of the most interesting philosophers of the 20th century. Born in Constantinople, this Greek anti-fascist guerrilla and Trotskyist activist in his youth began creating in the 1950s and ‘60s a highly original conception of the social being where the central place is occupied by the notion of “social imaginary.”

He suggested making a critique of capitalism and modernity beyond the classical propositions of Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud. He included in his analysis a decided questioning of the so-called “real socialism,” bitterly re-interpreting the abbreviation “USSR” as “four letters, four lies.”

A practicing economist and psychoanalyst, after 1945 he resided in France, where he co-edited the journal Socialism or Barbarism.” His thinking matured with the renewed inspiration of his Hellenic ancestry.  From this he came to appreciate in personal and social autonomy the desirable intentions of present and future liberations.

In 1975 appeared his greatest work: The Imaginary Institution of Society.

In addition to that work, Castoriadis wrote numerous articles and essays (among them I wish to mention “The Hungarian Source,” on the 1956 rebellion – recently published in Cuba).

In the late 1990s and at the beginning of this century, the work of Castoriadis slowly began revealing itself to me. I was fascinated by the critical thrust and vigor of his theoretical proposals.  They were fresh, robust and transgressors in the face of the apparent “neoliberal” (or neo-conservative) triumph that turned the capitalist consensus into something commonplace in that era from which we have certainly still not recovered.

But something interesting happened: Castoriadis’s ideas helped facilitate my study of the great Cuban writer Jose Lezama Lima, commonly considered a difficult author.

One of the most remarkable of Lezama’s essayistic collections are in fact called “Las eras imaginarias” (The Imaginary Eras). Social imaginary is at the heart of his “poetic system of the world,” which was incubating since around the early ‘50s.

I was impressed by the confluence of approaches of Castoriadis and Lezama, about which I dedicated a short paper presented at several conferences and published in the magazine Esquife.
In addition to Castoriadis, I was helped with the thinking of Lezama by another Cuban author: Severo Sarduy, an interesting writer who moved to Paris and mingled with French theorists.

Reading Sarduy, I realized that he had a passionate friendship with the Mexican poet Octavio Paz. But Paz was also a great friend of Castoriadis! It even turns out that both Sarduy and Castoriadis had their works put out by the same publisher, Le Seuil.

Recently, while studying more about Lezama, I realized that Octavio Paz was a faithful collaborator with the magazine “Origenes,” promoted by the Cuban in Havana around the time when Castoriadis was editing Socialism or Barbarism in France. The Mexican writer was also one of the earliest and most enthusiastic critics of Lezama’s major work: the novel Paradiso.

Cornelius Castoriadis himself recognized that only a limited number of authors admitted to philosophical sovereignty of what he called “imaginary” (among the few he mentioned was the German romantic Fichte).

But certainly the ideas of Jose Lezama Lima are of exemplary coherence, even if the Havanan himself described his poetic system saying “it’s madness.”

Couldn’t it have been possible that Castoriadis’s interest in deepening the esoteric theme of the imaginary emerged from conversations with Octavio Paz, who could have perfectly been referring to the Lezamian “poetic system”?

Did Cornelius Castoriadis and Sarduy — two curious exiles in Paris — ever happen to meet?
Does it make sense to speak of a “Cuban connection” in Castoriadis’s thought?

I want to clarify that I don’t wish to challenge the originality of the Greek, and even less establish false chauvinist “influences.”

The ideas of these writers are related, but not identical – and each has their merits.

In addition, this may be an interesting detail in the paths of critical thinking of the twentieth century. Such a detail would lend us much concerning the relation between the center of the world system with its periphery.

Perhaps there are some people still alive who knew Paz, Castoriadis and Sarduy, and perhaps they were able to witness their ties, or can even provide some enlightening document…

Could there be among those reading this epistle someone who can clarify this issue?

Dimitri Prieto-Samsonov

Dmitri Prieto-Samsonov: I define myself as being either Cuban-Russian or Russian-Cuban, indiscriminately. I was born in Moscow in 1972 of a Russian mother and a Cuban father. I lived in the USSR until I was 13, although I was already familiar with Cuba-- where we would take our vacation almost every year. I currently live on the fifth floor of an apartment building in Santa Cruz del Norte, near the sea. I’ve studied biochemistry and law in Havana and anthropology in London. I’ve written about molecular biology, philosophy and anarchism, although I enjoy reading more than writing. I am currently teaching in the Agrarian University of Havana. I believe in God and in the possibility of a free society. Together with other people, that’s what we’re into: breaking down walls and routines.

One thought on “A Cuban Imprint on Cornelius Castoriadis’s Thinking?

  • November 18, 2011 at 11:38 am

    thanks to Dmitri Prieto for this very interesting contribution

    Marcello Lorrai (Milano, Italy)

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