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Uncharted islands: subjects, writings and desires

Denise León | 26 March 2021

A black and white photo of a funnel spider web on the ground
The sticky threads of desire. Photo by Milagro Longo Lasso, Salta, Argentina. Used with permission of the artist.

Academic work assumes linearity: an argument that unfolds evenly and homogeneously from an initial idea or hypothesis. A thread of names and concepts that thought unfolds. But do we actually read like that? Do we write like that? Or rather do we go from one book to another, passing our finger through the crumbs, in each platter, in each dish, and taking to our mouth those words and thoughts that stick to us to continue tasting them like fruit pits? This is a way in which we mysteriously link different texts to each other.

As a result of a journey started in 2011 around the relationships between literature, disease, and biopolitics, I have been working in a particular archipelago made up of the terminal lyric (Tamara Kamenszain) of three Caribbean writers threaded by Baroque and insularity: José Lezama Lima (1910-1976), Virgilio Piñera (1912-1979) and Severo Sarduy (1937-1993). Furthermore, I focused on Severo Sarduy’s work, whose most authentic strategy is, perhaps, non-linearity. Notions such as pre-posthumous baroque by Cristel Jusino or baroque as ethics by Valentín Díaz, were important to think about the relationships between Baroque, illness and resistance. From these readings, it has become clear how Sarduy builds his work from and around the Baroque. He expands it in an atypical and fragmentary way, not only in his novels but also in notes, interviews, articles and poetic discourse. In all his work he practices a system of reciprocal exchanges and robberies. The “Sarduy method” – as Rafael Rojas calls it in La vanguardia peregrina– is similar to the flight of butterflies: a floating and dispersed writing strategy allowing him to move freely between different times and spaces of universal culture, disorganizing the hierarchical relationships between center and margin.

In addition, it was very significant for my research to perceive that the Caribbean writers mentioned above use images that come from the animal kingdom in their poems and essays. This animal knowledge, which is also a knowledge of monstrosity, allows us to read a mixture of rejections and fascinations that are condensed in the representation of socially unrecognizable bodies. As Gabriel Giorgi points out, the animal kind brings knowledge about radical otherness, about what is different from civilization, but it also enlightens us about their capacity to change. What’s more, these creatures projected across the boundaries of human into animal kind, or even monstrosity, also defy the coordinates of what is forbidden and unthinkable. These creatures’ capacities to change and transform becomes a way of questioning Latin American culture. However, none of these authors are pursuing the ghost of an essential identity. On the contrary, they point out certain affinities among living beings, certain echoes where it is possible to hear the pulse of desire and trace its hesitations. Broadly speaking, and following the antisubstantialist sense that Jean Luc Nancy and Roberto Esposito thought for the common, imply that, not being their own, stripped of all possession and essence, affinities are never substance and therefore always a virtuality.

As I said before, I immersed myself in Sarduy’s poetic work, an area largely neglected by the critic which, on the contrary, has focused mainly on his novels and essays. Sarduy has published five poetry collections: first Flamenco (Stuttgart, 1969), Mood Indigo (Stuttgart, 1970) and Big Bang (1975) published as small editions. In 1974, he published both Big Bang as an individual book and a volume collecting all his poetry published until then under the same title. Furthermore, the edition included some texts of Poemas bizantinos (Byzantine Poems) that were never published as a book during the poet’s lifetime. The quintet is completed with the sonnets and décimas included in Un testigo fugaz y disfrazado (A fleeting and disguised witness) (1985) and Un testigo perenne y delatado (A perennial and betrayed witness) (1993) published posthumously.

As a result of the feedback of my publications and exchanges with colleagues in the field, it was evident that, although the connections and presence of philosophies and religions such as Taoism or Buddhism surrounding Sarduy’s work had received profuse critical attention, the study of Judeo-Christian mysticism in his work was a vacant area of research. Consequently, in the last two years, I have devoted myself to studying how it is possible to cast new light on the late Sarduy texts, if we think of them as a resonance box or an echo chamber where the voices of the Carmelite mystic will offer Sarduy not only a rhetoric but also an erotic discourse, very much in tune with the philosophies that interested him so much. In a time devoid of religiosity, Sarduy’s poetry speaks a language in which religion and desire are connected with death. As George Bataille points out, the mystic does not seek efficacy. What animates him is desire. But in turn, that desperate search, as ecstatic people from different confessions have pointed out, implies a movement of loss, of dissolution. Or according to Simone Weil: just as God withdraws from the universe to create the world, humans have to imitate that renunciation and “undo the creature within us” (Weil, Gravity and Grace, 2007) through a process that she called decreation. Thus, surrounded by the skin of desire, the mystic advances attracted to God, at his own expense, like a moth to the flame.

In 2019 I received an invitation to join the research project on Feminist History of Argentine Literature coordinated by Laura A. Arnés, Nora Domínguez and María José Ponte. The project allowed me to rethink certain lines of work from previous stages of my research on gender and its connections with tradition and the construction of the domestic space. The proposal implied a collaboration on a chapter about the construction of domestic spaces in poetry by Argentinian women. Broadly speaking, it is evident that there is implicit violence in the sexual division of labor that tries to capture that radical feminine alterity in the domestic universe, defining or ensuring certain limits. However, in the voices of many women poets, houses, families and their nuclei of painful desires reappear pointing out the “politics of location” (Adrienne Rich). And by “politics of location” I mean how the material conditions of existence, that is, the fact of being women, living and publishing in Latin America during the last decades of the 20th century, locates these poets in a particular geography in which they take definitive or provisional positions when they construct their own biographical spaces.

Then, it is possible to affirm that I have been developing two paths in parallel: on the one hand, the study of Judeo-Christian mysticism in Severo Sarduy’s late production, as a language or an intensity that allows him to explore the passionate impossibility of approaching what you want to embrace. It was possible to hear in his poems the retombée of a voice which, sorrowful like pilgrims in the night or the desert, cries for the divine absence. On the other, I made a series of readings on how poetry written by Latin American women appropriates supposedly masculine traditions or spaces and "contaminates" them, as Anne Carson proposes: women contaminate traditions with their bodies, their experiences, their fluids and their words that destabilize the limits already set.

On the whole, the challenge consists of putting these two lines of research into dialogue or, better yet, into “friction”. In order to do so, I’m working with the books of three Latin American women poets who dare to talk about and to God. I am referring to Blanca Varela, Gloria Gervitz and Adelia Prado. I find it possible to read a gesture of resistance in their work, not only because mysticism comes from religion, and can be distinguished from it, but also because of how these poems tense the corporal and emotional limits like an arrow shot into the void. The contemplative life and the emptiness that are part of mystical rhetoric, oppose the active, productive and reproductive life that contemporary societies sustain. Significantly the mystical enjoyment implies to cede control, to “decreate” the self (Simone Weil) and, enter into a certain type of poverty, because this kind of desire is doomed to pure loss and possessed by destruction.

Consequently, I am interested in reading female mysticism not as a historical phenomenon but rather as a space set in the borders of official religion where desire is always happening. In many cases, criticism in general, but especially feminist criticism, is full of prejudices about religious discourse or experiences which, in most cases, can only be looked on as oppression. Supported by foundational works such as Luisa Muraro’s or by experiences such as the Mystic Festival, coordinated by Ana Contreras in Spain, I consider it absolutely pertinent to think about a tradition of female agencies based on the experiences and religious writings that in Latin America can even be traced to the figure of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz.

As it has been pointed out many times in relation to Héctor Viel Temperley’s work, mystical poetry has practically not been developed in the 20th century in Latin America. Rather, a kind of programmatic desacralization has been imposed and, apparently, God has stopped speaking through art. However, we find the work of poets like Varela, Gervitz or Prado in which the music of religiosity still resounds. When Maurice Blanchot – fascinated by Emmanuel Levinas– tries to think of his own “project of coming out of being” he will arrive at notions such as the other night, the neutral or the writing of disaster. As Levinas understood it, and as it used to happen in the scenes that many of the poems written by these women describe, that other way of being implies “breaking the most radical perception: the fact that the self is itself.” And, even more, if in the vital impulse we go towards the unknown but with some direction “in evasion we only aspire to get out” and “what we are trying to capture with all its purity is this category of output that cannot be assimilated either to renewal or to creation”. In an age deprived of religiosity, mysticism offers poetry an alternative vision that articulates subject, writing and desire.

Walter Benjamin discovered in Proust’s texts something that would also be the mark of his own work: nothing can be completely finished. All work supposes a construction in abyss in which each fold refers to another fold. When we read and write, we unfold bodies and words. Unfolding the range of texts that we read leads to the encounter of new folds, information and images. To smooth an image is to find the lines of the previous surface on the new surface, but modified. As in the collections that Benjamin was passionate about, the work of reading is cumulative and infinite, always incomplete. Poets, in fact, allow readers an approach to that forbidden image; it is a detour, a work of deciphering – though also of imagination – that covers the void with words.


Denise León was born in Tucumán, Argentina, in 1974. She has a Ph.D. in Latin American Literature and is a Researcher at CONICET (Council for Scientific and Technical Research). She currently works as a teacher in the chairs of Hispanic American Literature at the National University of Salta and Communication Theory at the School of Philosophy and Letters of the National University of Tucumán, Argentina. She has published Izcor. The lit candle. Five stories of women who made the Shabbat (2002); The story of Bruria (2007) The world is a thread of names. On the poetry of José Kozer (2013) and numerous essays in national and international magazines on poetry and mysticism in the Latin American literature of the 20th and 21st centuries.


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