By Dmitri Prieto
HAVANA TIMES, Dec. 26 — This past December 19 would have been the 100th birthday of Jose Lezama Lima (1910-1976). He was a controversial Cuban writer, the author of prominent books and the intellectual godfather of generations of creators, many of whom are still active. Among many other cultural initiatives, Lezama founded the magazine “Origines” (1944-1956), one of the best in Hispano-America in its time and in which were published the greatest writers in the Spanish language.
Celebrated in his life for his “hermeticism,” Lezama originated a “poetic system” that took an effervescent look at the cultures of the planet through the use of poetry. In this, Cuba would demonstrate itself in the “imaginary era of the infinite possibility” unveiled by Jose Marti. In 1959 Lezama greeted the Cuban Revolution enthusiastically.
He was seen — it was said — on the roof of his house with a shotgun when the Bay of Pigs invasion occurred. But quickly, due to his supposed elitism, he was attacked by political opportunists as well as several noted intellectuals.
Known as a poet and a critic, in 1966 he published Paradiso, a novel that was instantly embroiled in scandal due to its explicitly erotic Chapter 8. This work, once forbidden, even today is considered difficult to understand. Though knowledgeable of continents, Lezama visited only three of our neighboring countries. He never traveled after 1950 (we don’t know what weighed most in that decision, whether it was a restriction by the government or a personal choice of the writer himself).
He died in the middle of the “gray period,” during which time he published only one short note, as ideological censorship reigned supreme in Cuba then. Today Lezama is considered one of the greatest authors in the Spanish language.
The poet and journalist Felix Guerra was one of those fortunate youths who were able to interview Lezama (throughout 1965-1976, in the book Para leer debajo de un sicomoro, published in 1998). I became familiar with Lezama through Felix Guerra’s interviews and met Felix personally through his participation in the Critical Observatory Network. He is also an environmentalist and the author of children’s books on caring for the environment.
Today it is this interviewer’s turn to be interviewed.
HT: Felix, you are an author of a famous interview with Jose Lezama Lima. What are your most outstanding memories of that great Cuban writer?
Felix Guerra: To tell the truth, Lezama was a person of constant originality and someone really out there. His Basque manner and huffy voice, for example, had no precedents in my memory. He had a high-sounding and solemn way of speaking, but his gestures and movements were simple and natural; all of this was an unusual contrast that I had never seen.
If you paid attention to what he said, then his originality was impregnated in each word of his vocabulary. I have the curious memory of having gone with the heavy-set poet for a milkshake at the Anon de Virtudes, which was on the corner of Havana’s Industria and Virtudes streets back in the 1970s. I was enjoying my milkshake when Lezama suddenly put his fingers on his temples and said: “Ah! But no.” It was not what I thought but what he was going through. This elite poet was suffering the famous and popular “hillbilly headache” [from drinking the freezing refreshment too fast], he confessed to me smiling.
In daily conversations, while he greeted some neighbor who would stop at his window, Lezama spoke of the regal human universe and of its most remote holes. He lived in the Colon neighborhood, which was low-income and full of prostitutes at that time, but it was as if he lived on the Little Prince’s planet and rubbed shoulders with kings, princesses and hanging flowers. His way of understanding ordinary people and the elite was for me one of his surprising qualities.
HT: Is it possible that Lezama speaks to those who read other languages or have always lived outside of Cuba?
Felix Guerra: I am convinced of that. In fact, the language of Lezama was at the same time very Cuban and very universal…and cultured. Culture is a meta-language that allows you to understand anyone, while ignorance doesn’t allow you to understand even your neighbor.
In my view, the work of Lezama Lima has enormous world import, particularly to poetry and essays, because he speaks of what takes place with human beings anywhere, in their intimate dramas as well as their public ones, which turn out to be the same. His novels, particularly, transmit a certain fidelity to some very specific dramas. These dramas, through a prism of Lezamanian colors, I don’t know why, but they sometimes shocked people. But that lasted for a time, which was for a few years. Later they turned out to be appendixes to his literary stories.
To write dramas is not an unalterable routine. Great human dramas don’t change in essence, but they occur in new technological environments and with ethical and aesthetic details previously banned to authors and readers. Ethics and aesthetics do indeed change, but just as writers change so does the thinking of readers everywhere.
Communication is reestablished when taboos and prejudices give way and culture creates new spaces for understanding.
HT: What’s most significant in the life of Lezama before and after l959? Was Lezama a revolutionary? And if so, why?
Felix Guerra: A true poet is always someone people call a revolutionary. During the 20th century, Jose Lezama Lima contributed considerably to the world’s view of Cuban culture. He also widened the Cuban perspective toward the adjacent territory. If we look closely, Marti created a literary work that doesn’t resemble previous Cuban literature. He enriched it considerably, giving it new resonances; he transformed it into something more extensive and more sweeping. Marti did not leave Cubania or our identity where they were, he took them quite a bit further.
Lezama, as student and follower, worked in the manner of Marti and was an extension. He extended to new territories and narrative languages, he conceptualized even broader, more general and more generous demarcations.
Lezama developed in those limits without limits, before and after. His ambition was to provide Cuba with more paths internally and externally.
He, like Marti, felt Cuba to be so encompassing that he confused it with the world.
HT: Characterizing Jose Marti and Julio Antonio Mella (that rebellious student and founder of the Communist Party of Cuba in 1925, who Lezama called “Apollo” because of his striking masculine looks), as well as himself, Jose Lezama Lima used the word “mystery.” A coincidence?
Felix Guerra: Marti cannot be explained easily. What dimension did he come from? How did a poor Cuban boy, the son of a Spanish soldier, throw off his own yoke and grow amid obscurity? Marti is among the most cultured and renovating people of the 19th century. His learned classical humanism grew until he became a creator, an advocate of the Third World and the periphery, an anti-racist, anti-slavery and pro-independence.
He was at the same time the greatest poet and warrior who wrote “Versos Sencillos” and died on horseback at Dos Rios. He was a romantic who assumed tradition and a modernist who assumed the future. He labeled the empires imperialist, though he didn’t hate the Spanish or any other people; he expanded love to everyone and with everyone. He thought when he dreamed and he dreamed when he thought.
Is it strange, or does what Mella and Lezama appreciated have great precision? They calculated the stature of Marti and called him a “mystery.” Mella drank from Marti; Lezama drank from Mella and Marti. One can never become locked in a definition, or politics or ideology; it’s a mystery that accompanies us and continually offers us something to drink.
HT: What can you tell me about the “poetic system” of Lezama?
Felix Guerra: He said that his system was made of systems. It was an incomplete system to which he was always adding. It was a growing, restless, renovating system, so it was not closed, rigid or confined, which are the mortal defects of systems. Can anyone imagine a poetic system with a padlock on the door? Closed systems create dogmas, one behind the other. The system that closes — no matter how great it is or how much truth and logic that people believe it to possess internally — it quickly becomes something like a Great Dane covered with ticks.
A closed system stops in time, it ferments and becomes corrupt. Because of his encyclopedic knowledge, Lezama laid out the system, with an extended and linked vision, but after navigating along that current and observing the riverbanks, he then noted the dangers of fanaticism and dogma. “Open your doors,” he said, “to all knowledge and stay young. Don’t learn how to be old, not even from the years.”
HT: Is the appreciation of Lezama inevitably a phenomenon of “cultural elites”? Can there be a “popular Lezama”?
Felix Guerra: Dmitri, I don’t believe that this still needs to be demonstrated. Lezama, as he himself desired, will soon begin to be read perhaps even by children. The formerly unknown writings caught in unpublished texts and on the walls of his house in Trocadero are now in bookstores, in debates, in libraries, on shelves in homes, in the press, in book fairs, at the cinema, on TV, in the street. Everywhere people talk about Lezama. The elite spread and extend his work, blanketing the population almost in its entirety – to citizens, individuals, cinephiles and readers. People are unraveling that mystery. A specter is haunting Cuba.
Isolation doesn’t come from poets or literary circles. Isolation is configured and created by rumors, propaganda and the news media, in addition to taboos and prejudice. I believe that some elites were not self-created but created from the outside. Omissions and censorship create self-censorship and the elite. The lack of debate, critical thought and information do indeed create elites and create unknown and forgotten people. Who wants to be present alone, lonely or in poor company? Who will be present if they’re not invited and not included? To promote culture, to swing open the windows to diversity, to report without hiding reality, are effective antidotes against the so-called elites.
Of course, to reach Lezama there needs to do one expansive reading and another one that is detailed. To read a great deal builds access, removes masks, and cracks the most enigmatic codes. Different from other authors, Lezama didn’t seek readers; rather, he left his work in the open where each person finds their own road to it. On the other hand, he offered unexpected, calculated dramas in a kind of code that forces the reader to an arduous and stimulating exercise of intuition, imagination and knowledge.
HT: What would Lezama tell us today?
Felix Guerra: Dmitri, pardon me. I’m not responding to that question because I don’t find it very operative. It’s like saying, perhaps, if he had not died. It’s speculating about something impossible. And anyone who responds to it becomes overly sentimental, and subsequently the reader does too.
I liked very much responding to the rest of your questions.
HT: Thank you, Felix.