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CR: The New Centennial Review 5.2 (2005) 107-149

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Folding European Forms into the New World Baroque with Alejo Carpentier

University of Washington, Seattle

How to account for the Neobaroque—the return to the Baroque by twentieth-century intellectuals, writers, and artists? The twentieth-century resuscitation of the Baroque—after having been vilified in the nineteenth century as decadent art informed by a retrograde ideology—is both a European and a trans-American phenomenon: it begins with the art-historical studies of Heinrich Wölfflin; from there it spreads in nonlinear rhizomatic fashion across borders between national languages and literatures, disciplines, and continents. Thus, the movement implicates universalist historians of ideas of the 1920s and 1930s, such as Spengler, Worringer, and Catalan philosopher Eugenio d'Ors; writers of the historical avant-garde of the 1920s, such as novelists William Faulkner and Djuna Barnes, poets T. S. Eliot and Octavio Paz, and Brazilian writer Oswald de Andrade; Cuban essayists and writers of the mid-century Alejo Carpentier, José Lezama Lima, and Severo Sarduy; French philosophers Michel Foucault and Gilles Deleuze; and contemporary writer-critics such as Mexican Carlos Fuentes, Martinican Edouard Glissant, and Brazilian Haroldo de Campos. (I should add that this list, though long, remains reductive.)1 [End Page 107]

What is at stake in the modern and postmodern resuscitation of the Baroque? I argue that the recovery of the Baroque is linked to the crisis of the Enlightenment and instrumental reason. The twentieth-century crisis of Enlightenment rationality opens the way for the rediscovery of an earlier, alternate rationality and mode of thought (Baroque reason) that had been repressed and vilified as an aberration beginning in the eighteenth century and continuing through the nineteenth. In the first decades of the twentieth century, both European and American theorists and writers rediscovered the modernity of the Baroque, that is, its response to the epistemological and religious crises of the Scientific Revolution and the Reformation. In the wake of the twentieth-century crisis of metanarratives, the Baroque, stigmatized by the positivist faith in technological and social progress, newly appears to offer a viable alternative.

A nonexclusive, decentering principle, the historical seventeenth-century Baroque constitutes the West's first modernity. Preceding the Enlightenment, and unlike classical reason, Baroque reason conjoined the contradictory impulses of the premodern and the modern, faith and reason, the scientific and the mythic, marking the crisis and outer limit of modernity—a crisis and outer limit which reappears in the twentieth century under the term "the postmodern." Two examples of such hybrid seventeenth-century thinkers who sought to reconcile premodern knowledge and modern reason are German philosopher Gottfried Leibniz and Mexican scholar Carlos Siguenza y Góngora. Leibniz was not only one of Europe's leading rationalists and scientists—the coinventor (with Isaac Newton) of the differential calculus; he was also the author of a theodicy, and of the claim that "this is the best of all possible worlds." The fame of Leibniz's doctrine is mainly due to Voltaire's biting satire of Leibniz through the model of the foolish philosopher Doctor Pangloss, who persists in his faith despite all evidence to the contrary (Jolley 1995, 1). Leibniz's ridicule by Voltaire marks the dismissal of the Baroque by Enlightenment reason. In turn, Deleuze's 1988 study of Leibniz, The Fold, marks the revindication of Baroque reason following the twentieth-century crisis of the Enlightenment project. [End Page 108]

Baroque and the Question of Emergence

In this essay, I want to pay special attention to the cultural ideology of the Baroque, and differences between the European and the New World Baroque. Surveying the recuperation of the Baroque in twentieth-century Latin American literary and cultural history in her recent study Barroco y modernidad, Brazilian critic Irlemar Chiampi claims: "The Baroque . . . reappears to bear witness to the crisis/end of modernity and the very condition of a continent that could not be assimilated by the project of the Enlightenment" (Chiampi 2000, 17).2 "It is no accident...


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