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CR: The New Centennial Review 1.1 (2001) 229-255
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Culture and Anonymity
The Other Voice of Los pasos perdidos
Southern University of New York-Buffalo
OUR USE OF THE WORD CULTURE BETRAYS AN AMBIGUITY THAT, WE MIGHT SAY, belongs to us, to what we call our "culture." On the one hand we use it to refer to a communal unit defined variously by language, customs, politics, to some extent even geography or physiology. On the other hand, we use the word to refer to art, literature, and learning, to what Germans call "das Geistliche," as in Geisteswissenschaften, what we in the United States call the Liberal Arts. This second sense tends to ignore the boundaries of the first: a cultured German has exposure to more or less the same things as a cultured Spaniard or a cultured American. That this access differs in selection and judgment according to the country or even the region alerts us to the tension embodied in our usage of the word. One sense excludes through its drawing together of a particular community among other communities and the other sense creates a rift in each community's self-containment, introducing it into what it otherwise excludes and providing entrée for others to intervene in it. One can speak, for example, of a French reception of Faulkner, or of the German encounter with Greece. "Cultures" are concerned with their own internal coherence while "culture" lets in and addresses what lies [End Page 229] outside individual cultures. In a temporal dimension, cultures concern themselves with their own present, where the past is understood as a history from which the present has stepped, and the future is understood as the provisional aim of present actions. "Culture" in the other sense hearkens to the past and projects itself into the future, opening the present to what might seem in danger of being lost or to the range of future possibilities.
Alejo Carpentier's novel Los pasos perdidos (aptly translated by Harriet de Onís as The Lost Steps) throws this tension into relief like no other. Its narrator-protagonist describes the modern society in which he moves in the first chapter in terms of a predominance of art and erudition. Practically every scene in the first chapter emphasizes the circulation of immense artistic and intellectual currency. The narrator-protagonist's ruminations suggest a familiarity with the history of literature, music, and plastic arts going back through the Middle Ages to the Greeks and the Paleolithic; his wife yearns to play Antigone while acting in a successful historical play; his friends, including his French mistress, Mouche, perform, in the narrator's words, a kind of "mental gymnastics," a "high cultural acrobacy [alta acrobacia de la cultura]" 1 in which Pythagoreanism shares the stage with the Cabala, Tibetan tantras, the early Heidegger, Mallarmé's Un coup de dès, and the words of Ecclesiastes, to name just a few.
At the opposite extreme are the communities the narrator-protagonist encounters deep in the jungle, one an indigenous tribe and the other a settlement-dubbed-city, Santa Mónica de los Venados. He understands his trip into the jungle as a descent through the ages, back through the colonial period of the Americas and the European Middle Ages, to the inception of human communities. Whether it is a question of traveling through time or not, the narrator perceives a dazzling harmony and coherence in the relationship of these communities to an environment (medio ambiente) which is at once the setting (ámbito) in which their lives take place and, more emphatically, the medium (medio) which defines their individual and communal possibilities. "All around me," the narrator says,
everyone was busy at their own work in a harmonious concert of duties that were those of a life moving to a primordial rhythm. Those Indians, whom I [End Page 230] had always seen through more or less imaginary stories [relatos fantasiosos] that situated them at the margins of man's real existence, struck me here, in their own setting...