Alejo Carpentier
Notes on the Baroque, Existentialism, and The Lost Steps

La Citadelle Sans Souci. Palace of Henri Christophe, king of Haiti


Text extracted from Harry Velez's FL380 site

Carpentier and the Baroque

1) THE BAROQUE: The Renaissance represents a reappraisal of all things classic: rectilinear forms, symmetry, order, proportion, and harmony. It is a quest for a stylized beauty, balance, and moderation (el justo medio). The Baroque evolves out of this Renaissance culture and opposes it. * If the Renaissance tends towards what is hailed as "natural" in terms of order, proportion, and reason, the Baroque will cultivate what is deemed to be "artificial", that is all that goes against a reasoned, balanced, and orderly representation of nature and the world. The is an aesthetic of distortion, deception, complexity, and over-elaboration: ie. the novel inside the novel (Don Quijote [1605 and 1615]), theater inside the theater (Hamlet [c1601]), the painting inside the painting (Velázquez's Las Meninas [1656] ), mirrors inside mirrors, etc. It is also a style that prefers intricacy of concepts and forms.

* Renaissance: optimism, hope, confidence.

* Baroque: pessimism, disillusionment, disenchantment.

The European Baroque is a syncretic cancellation of the Renaissance's promises, on one hand, and the atrocious realities of war, misery and power, on the other. Religious wars, the Reformation and the Counter Reformation, The 30 Years War, economic crisis and other ills and plagues form its historical backdrop. It is a response to emptiness and disenchantment.

2) THE LATIN AMERICAN BAROQUE: José Lezama Lima (1912-1976): "The first American is Our Lord the Baroque, and he rises dominating what is abundant. The Baroque is the style of the abundant. But at the same time, the Baroque is the culture of need, passion, scarcity, hunger and poverty. Since it cannot tolerate this vacuum, this need, the Baroque fills it with whatever is available. Fear of emptiness (horror vacui) is its mother. The Baroque is the culture of the Counter Conquest: the response of the new cultures, the mestizo and syncretic cultures of the New World, to the European Conquest. The Baroque is the necessary disguise of religious syncretism. It reflects a radical feeling of absence and desperation. The Baroque is the desperate overflow of the dispossessed."

Alejo Carpentier (1904-1980): "Our art has always been baroque: from the splendid Pre-columbian sculpture to the best modern narrative, and the colonial cathedrals and monasteries of our continent. (...) A Baroque created by the need to name things ...(...) The Baroque is the legitimate style of the modern Latin American writer."

Alejo Carpentier believes that the Baroque is a human constant. The Baroque spirit reappears in cycles through the history of all artistic movements. This spiritual constant is characterized by a fear of emptiness (horror vacui), of bare surfaces and rectilinear harmony. 'Proliferating nuclei' are multiplied in the art of the Baroque. This is to say that decorative elements tend to fill and overflow the available space. It is an art in movement, he affirms, a pulsating art, an art that moves from the center to the outskirts, transgressing its own margins in the process. "If it is our duty to reveal this world, then we must show, we must interpret our things. Those things present themselves as something new. Description cannot be avoided, thus the description of a Baroque world must be necessarily baroque. The 'what' and the 'how' of this proposition fuse together in our baroque reality. Thus the Baroque arises spontaneously in our literature." "For what is the history of Latin America but a chronicle of magical realism?" Alejo Carpentier prologue to El reino de este mundo (The Kingdom of This World) P.16

Carlos Fuentes (1928- ) on Carpentier: "He is, I think, one of the first novelists who, on purpose, goes beyond Realism, goes beyond Naturalism, goes beyond Romanticism, in order to find in the remote past of Latin America the fundamental myths which can nourish our contemporary novels." -Fuentes on Carpentier Civilization v. Barbarism: Rómulo Gallegos, in Canaima (1935), looks at Nature as the defining force of the Latin American type. Nature may be brutal but European civilization is too frail a construct and it is ultimately incapable of expressing what is truly Latin American.

Alejo Carpentier in The Lost Steps (1953) looks back at Nature and the unattainable possibility of Utopia in the New World in The Lost Steps (1953). In the end the return to Nature in search of transcendent truths is but a Romantic notion. Civilization may offer modern mankind a great many exhausted ideas and it may yet undo it, but, unfortunately, there are no utopias left to escape from the contingencies of time, space, history, and culture. It is our duty to face our responsibilities from an ethical posture based on a realistic acceptance of the past and a creative and humane openness to the future.

3) SOME NOTES ON EXISTENTIALISM, AUTHENTICITY, AND THE LOST STEPS: Jean Paul Sartre (1905-1980): Contemporary French existential thinker author of Being and Nothingness (1943). His concept of "authenticity" is important in The Lost Steps. This is especially the case in the protagonist conflictive position: searching for his essence in the past while having an existential commitment to the present-in-history. Other instances of authenticity arise in his conflict with the Curator, falsification of the musical instruments, the elopement with Ruth, etc. In addition, the novel presents itself as a conflictive and unfinished product. Resolution cannot be reached. The narrator's attitude in criticizing in others what are also his own unrecognized or dissembled flaws is also important. His (and Carpentier's) flirtation with autobiographical narratives further underline ambiguity. This is underscored in the tension between a narration in the first and third person. The problem with dates in the entries is also troubling as are the indications on the narrator's part that what we are reading (The Lost Steps) is not a "journal" but a novel, perhaps even a plagiarized text based on texts like Gallegos's Canaima.

Very Short Biography by Encarta

Response Paper Topic     To be turned in on Friday 16