- Reading Anew: José Lezama Lima’s Rhetorical Investigations by Juan P. Lupi
It is difficult to say anything meaningful about Lezama without deep engagement with his work. His work demands it. Casual reading is not an option. Inevitably, therefore, studies of Lezama generally demand a similar degree of close engagement. Little of the critical scholarship is untouched by the intricate language and complex interplay of concepts, images, and ideas of Lezama’s works. This book is no exception. Casual reading of Reading Anew is not an option.
Bravely setting out to explore some of Lezama’s more idiosyncratic and mysterious ideas, in particular the conceptual schema of el sistema poético, Las eras imaginarias and La expression americana, the author has by necessity entered and inhabited similar puzzling intellectual landscapes. He does so keenly, and whilst the reader may at times struggle to keep up during the moments of deepest reflection, the exercise is a challenging and rewarding one.
The book is based on certain principles that are central to all critical readings of Lezama, most importantly the tension between poetic expression and explanatory exegesis. Lezama explained in interview: “cuando me sentía claro escribía prosa y cuando me sentía oscuro escribía poesía” (Fossey 17), and from there the reader may consider his critical essays, spanning four decades, to be the elaboration of hermeneutic strategies for understanding his poetry—the oft-declared “sistema poético del mundo.”1 However, as Lupi poignantly identifies, there is a beguiling circularity in this, as the essays are written with the same mystifying language and style as his poetry. As such, the reader grapples with the articulation of a poetic system in order to understand the very articulation of the poetic system. “The authority of the sistema poético,” Lupi suggests, “partly rests on the assumption that it can be an explanatory key or justification for Lezama’s obscurity. But on the other hand the sistema’s very formulation rests on a highly idiosyncratic use of the figural and of strange modes of discourse—neologisms, bizarre analogies, erudite extravagance, false attributions, anachronisms, etc.” (38). In this respect, Lezama’s critical essays are distinguished from his poetry not so much through form as through the presence of reflective clarity between the ever-present tumult of imágenes. This, of course, is Lezama’s appeal; the reader becomes lost in the enchanted spectacle of images, stories, and exuberant language.
Fortunately for the reader, Lupi makes no pretence of tidying up Lezama and providing a methodical explanation of the “sistema”. On the contrary, this stated tension serves as motivation for profound analytical immersion into his work in order not to explain it, but to ask, how might we read it? “What strategies,” he asks, “exist for reading texts like Lezama’s that have been qualified as “hermetic,” “obscure,” and “impenetrable”? Does Lezama’s verse admit something like “explanation”? What is at stake in attempting to derive meaning from these cuerpos resistentes?” (70). In order to address these, and other, questions, Lupi has left no stone unturned, appraising Lezama’s theory and practice of metaphor in its location within Aristotelian poetics, considering Lezama’s creative inventiveness regarding his dialogues with Juan Ramón Jiménez, and examining lucidly the mystifying poem “Dador.” [End Page 593]
In this theoretical analysis, there are moments of great clarity, where the development of the argument is refreshingly apparent; and yet, as with Lezama, the sheer weight of the prose is, at times, exhausting. This is partly because of the intricate and complex interplay of concepts, ideas, and biographical data that leave little daylight through the cracks, and partly because of the pressure of citations, mostly from Lezama himself. As I have come to understand over fifteen years of immersion in Lezama, hauling hefty quotes on board can overload the vessel and risk swamping. It is no easy task for the eye and the mind to glide from dense analysis in English (with the occasional French citation) to an image-laden syntactically and lexically-challenging quote from Lezama. Perhaps...