Mythology of the Extreme
Margaret Ann Harris
October 2, 2010.
The aphorism is to Lara what the aleph is to the labyrinth. I do not want to start by creating aphorisms, like him, but I think it’s an apt idea.
Jesus Lara projects himself, on the Cuban cultural horizon as an artist, and an accomplished man needing communication channels to share his world of emotions, perceptions and knowledge with others, without the least prejudice or academic bias and, with distance from any prohibitions from genres and formats.
With pleasure I wrote “needing channels”, and not a channel. Lara expresses himself in the media he has at hand, or in his head, and travels between one possibility to another with an enviable organic purity. It is curious that the most recent years of Cuban culture have seen this kind of complete creator – who is interdisciplinary or multi-formed, flourishing, away from the Guild, the group, away from a single expressive option.
Amaury Pérez writes novels, Jorge Perugorría and Albert Pujols paint. I myself have moved to narrative works after several books of essays; but in Lara the nonconformity has always been present. Lara is inconceivable without this mutation of genres and conventions that he deploys as he wishes. He has acquired rapid prestige as a landscape artist of distinction, with the landscape as a metonym.
The physical landscape, weeds, the intricate vegetation as an expression of something else: the mental passageways, the maze of the soul, the desire of feelings and passion. Rarely, in the history of Cuban art, has the physical, as virtuous or exhaustive as one would want it to be, served to deepen understanding about something else of a conceptual, poetic, or psychological nature.
Recently, the two-dimensional space has given way to all sorts of experimentation with media: volumetric experiences, installations, interventions, etc. Between Lara and the world, there doesn’t exist a single convincing wall to separate them, to prevent confusion and overlaps.
At the same time, in all these years, Lara’s poems betray – if the landscapes do not already do so – a gargantuan sensitivity, voracious in its quest for knowledge and especially in relation to spirituality. These poems penalize with their fondness, insofar as they offer a vision full of nobility and perplexity in human conduct amidst the twists and turns of the universe.
I don’t think I’m exaggerating, nor would I venture to, when I say that, in spite of the undeniable values of all this production by Lara, the best of his creations is in that difficult genre of the maxim, a philosophical genre, which requires extreme insightfulness and condensation capacity. It is possible that anyone can make a speech, but hardly can anyone build a valuable judgment, sufficiently brief and sharp, in a moral or doctrinal sense without it being moralistic or narrow, common place or a divination truism from Perogrullo.
The aphorism, Epigram, and the Haiku are some of the more difficult literary genres from which major graceful intelligence have emerged, such as that of José Martí, Konstantinos Kavaﬁs or Richard Wright.
Why do I believe that the aphorisms are Lara’s creative high point or peak? In a few seconds, I’ll start to explain reasons I hope are convincing. But before this, I would have to make a firm confession. I am confessing then from the onset, that I have a bias in favour of Lara’s aphorisms: a temptation to applaud that, which being different, is magniﬁcent. But that would be a trivial argument. If Lara’s aphorisms were not good, unfalteringly good, I would go with my lust for synthesis somewhere else.
Someone as Baroque as Lara is speaking to us, someone who, therefore, appreciates minimalism and that’s precisely as it should be, because it doesn’t come from me. I’m a writer of many words, in all directions, in such a way that nothing is as luxurious to me as the eloquence of briefness. I love minimalist film, the sonata, the short poem, (and) genuine judgment which is not pedestrian or a silly catchphrase. I love what I do not have, what escapes me, what is distinctive and what makes me feel particularly good.
I think that the aphorisms simply demonstrate that Lara is first and foremost a philosopher. Then, by extension, he is a poet, a painter, and a sculptor. The body of the work is his philosophy. The other works are like the branches in some of his landscapes: blooms and variations. Lara is a philosopher, and his aphorisms have delivered him thus like wine to the world: naked and with the Bible as an umbrella.
There is no Lara without morality, or moral aspiration. But not in the judgmental sense of one who punishes, or who separates good from evil, or chastises with the word. No. That would cause to escape from him, very strong criteria about humility and austerity.
I’m referring to morality in the sense of a sensitivity that is capable of grieving through observing, much observation and of being able to develop a repertoire for attitudes and behaviors that are the structure for a treatise about the human condition.
Lara sculpts, through his aphorisms, his human comedy, a systematization of the journey of a man on earth who is not happy with descriptions, anecdotes or intransigent evaluation. Lara thinks about all that has been observed for years and it evokes in him the same rejection and criticism as is the devotion to the sensation of beauty. His subject is a moral man, who always passes through the filter of ethics, a prism that is not divorced from religion, but is not limited to this.
Lara’s aphorisms are not alien to the Christian who lives by them, but like everything religious, as any artist, like every man, he practices a faith that remains in perennial debate. That is, a Christianity of kindness and generosity, where vacillation does not fail to exist as well as retractions, clarifications, heresies, morbidities and self-confidence.
In a word: this is where life does not stop beating. Repair to this tasty, human claudication (disability): “Perennial kindness is unbearable.” This is a mature man, a seasoned writer. Because he is alive, Lara knows there is no life, no faith, without sin.
What causes the existence of a touchable joy to be savoured is not the disregard for sin. It is in any case, the wisdom to control sin, to subordinate and subjugate it, and not allow it to subjugate you to be unreasonable. All these “deviations” are nevertheless invited to an entangled high point: honesty and conviction at the trial.
In these aphorisms, occupying twenty years in the life of the author, and belonging to books such as Status Quo, Human Zoology, Sarcasm Exegesis of the Referendum or Orchard of Punishment, Babel and the Demagoguery of Mirrors, Mythology of the Extreme and A Vestige of Remedy, we discover the intelligence of a man who has lived a lot, who has not wasted time and who has known how to extract tenacious learning from every experience.
Lara has, in the poetic prose of the aphorisms, the quiet wisdom of an elder and the feverish vibrations of a teenager in a hurry; vivacious and yet like the sediment of superior wine, amalgamated and sumptuously accumulating.
A civic responsibility that appeals to the best that man has been, runs through these pages. From the most basic observations, to the most philosophically elaborate. Among the former, no less wise: “Human beings survive if kept quiet in archaic representations of survival” or “the infallible nature of man appears in crucial circumstances.” “You need a body to hold a soul, a table that holds a house, an economy that supports a country.”
Sure. Are we happy or unhappy, we who look on such a truth as a temple? Are we stupid or geniuses? Are we martyrs? I for one do not know. Lara at least tells us that we fail to survive alone. The Bible states that wisdom brings much grief. As for the latter, in fact, the essence of man is exposed in defining moments in extreme situations, where anger, pride or temperance denotes deeper qualities or shortcomings.
Humility and simplicity of life, compared to vanity and ostentation, are values that matter greatly to the moral world of Lara, who comes to see the lamb as a “high paradigm of humility. It is below all other animals, but note that when it is thrown by the man to the lion’s cage to be served up as food, it submits to him as his legitimate mother, and so gently does the lamb do this that many times the terrifying lion refuses to kill him.”
This is a beautiful fable, no doubt, with echoes in cultural history that are lost through graceful and timely resonance. Each day man is more beast and less lamb, fiercer and less giving. Lara cannot stand arrogance and impudence. Grace does not go unquestioned: “What are the graves crowded with?” The categorical answer: “Indispensable men.” Therefore “to be needed is a vain delusion.” To aspire to transcendence is a trivial assumption for Lara, when he speaks to us, with astonishing honesty about the fallibility, the vulnerability of the human condition.
Elsewhere he says: “I forgive treason and the traitor, because, in spite of myself, I recognize it, and yet I betray.” That assessment in the form of admission is the same tragic beauty, always penetrating and careful: the awareness of error does not free you from obstinacy and full satisfaction (in having committed the error). There is no other humanity. Error is at the root of the least knowledge. There is no way you can grow without error, the mistake, ambiguity and even treason.
But as we err, so does the world err: “The world rebukes us for our virtues.” It only sincerely forgives errors, because its own failure goes unchallenged”. So, many times the world will respond from its own vanity, and hardly recognises our own demise, nor furthermore does it forgive us, as it saves the wise and generous lamb from impending death.
If Lara does not approve of the insolence of megalomania, neither does he approve of the indolence of envy, nor the indifference of those who are preparing to exploit the weaknesses of others. Our author brings together a collection of warnings in which the human condition is epitomized in a devastating yet hopeful portrait informed by lucid evidence. By telling us that “anyone who prays and thanks so much, is retreating,” he is signalling the danger of humiliation, the natural sentence of submission.
This is so, despite the fact that at another time, it would be possible to see the condescension of the humiliated as a possible virtue. The lightweight reader may wish to consider the contradictions of the maxims as an unforgivable inconsistency.
I see them as complex thinking, such as the ability to see not just one side, as for example escaping the tunnel and understanding that the good person is not necessarily the one that agrees with you, as the honesty to admit that something that seemed terrible in 1985, could seem kind twenty years later, and vice versa. The perception of the artist is that the world is not in a fist; it’s multi-faceted, changing, and is as mutable as the discernment of the artist, who learns and grows, on par with any man.
In another judgement, the author refers to, almost slyly, someone who, shiftily, apologises at the human pleasure of vengeance. Revenge and retaliation are reversed pettiness against those who profess them, not against those who receive them, we know, but we condemn it: that pleasure that they sometimes report.
The author recognises: “… certainly I no longer suffer too much, but when I do, invariably, it’s not to take revenge.” It’s hardly possible to contain the human propensity for vengeance, so that by the way, perhaps explains so many gringo movies, despite the widespread belief about their brazenness.
It would be healthy to clarify at this point, that Lara writes but Lara does not necessarily “speak.” Lara, through his aphorisms, creates “a voice of paper” that can match this text that I have called public spiritedness, but is not necessarily so.
In that voice of paper is his independence, with which he frolics. The author’s relationship with the voice can be ironic, even through inversion or reversion. With this I am clarifying that through the aphorisms we understand a psychological portrait of the human condition, but not of Lara.
At least, not in a linear fashion. To try that, he would have to flee Manichaeism (dualistic religious philosophy) and literalisms. Many aphorisms, though far from each other in the text are connected below, above or behind (such text). Read these two: “One way to own something is to devalue it; this subversion will succeed if need or conceit make themselves felt” and, “Resentment is often a trace of ecstasy.”
Lara knows that extremes meet, that hate and love become confused, that Hollywood and Socialist Realism have far more in common than presumed. I fully share both entries: I’ll be mad, but not infrequently have I felt, under fierce criticism, an unprecedented anger at not being my own friend, or for not writing these “niceties” that I could write myself, not having my luck, etc.
So at least I receive the attacks as caresses and I am grateful for them. I listen to Lara and am given many results. In any case, as he says (or the voice that creates states): “It would be better not to have enemies, but if you have, it’s better to be famous and have a powerful collaborator.”
That is, celebrity and the value of my enemies attest to my talent. And here you have to hold your laughter, because you have no other choice. Lara is just what we were missing; he decided to shout to the four winds, what camouflaged things should be whistled, things that should’ve been kept in the corridors.
Our voice knows that to think with your own head carries a price, which you pay for, for having talent. If being foolish is egotism, being prudish is no less painful. When he writes that, “Whoever forges their spirit puts a price on his head,” he refers to the cost of growth, learning, going one’s own road, and its illuminating emancipation. Among the characters portrayed, is recklessness.
The Voice, this strange, deep, sensible voice, warns us that recklessness is a sign of insecurity and fear: “Who harasses fears.” Of course: who persecutes, is fearful; who harshly condemns, fears; who castigates, is in a panic.
This other one, about the value of resistance is said in such a precious way: “Great patience works against mockery as garments against the winter.” Lara knows that there is no sweeter victory than that tasted by the long distance runner who doesn’t scream, and who shows no bitterness.
At times it seems as if the voice regrets that certain phenomena are how they are and not otherwise: “Ideal liberty would be that liberty which is not made noble through blood.”
It’s presented as a denial, but the amount of interest generated is confirmed by what exists beneath the surface. The ideal would be that blood is not collected, but the real evil that burdens us, costs blood. That’s how it is, with all our illusions. The illusion: fiction protects us from harsh reality, even so, or above all, in the face of such relative and crucial questions as freedom. Our voice is not ever at the surface; it’s as if everything had lived through it and, would have gone through it. To seem to be not as arrogant as those who criticise, we are many times protected by the irony of preferring to address situations in denial. See these two examples: “Equity would not come very far if immodesty did not keep it”; “When I don’t want to sleep, I look for what I have done selflessly for my enemy.” The latter is particularly delicious.
Who writes such outrageous words must be someone who loves to enjoy himself, who is above good and evil. In fact, it costs a lot to retract and to be carrying out philanthropic acts in favour of the enemy. Here again we are back to a scandalous, electrifying sincerity.
The audacity and arrogance of the pompous are registered when we are told to, “reject everything, to take it all.” And so it is. The hypocritical melodrama in the background, in the histrionic and theatrical sense, is captured in the doctrine that, “A wound is a great bonanza of sun, or a selfish excuse for a fight.”
Moreover, there’s hypocrisy in the pathos: “If we dishonour ourselves, it’s only for us to step up to the top of a remote and alien podium.” As street talk now has it in Cuba: when we talk about something that was hidden or secret, the spirit of glory throbs in the background.” Another glory, any glory at all costs, is not important: The important thing is the glory. In the revelation is the glory. The glory is you: the gladly chosen mire.
Our voice distrusts, as did Oscar Wilde, impartiality. You ask yourself: “Does impartiality bring bliss to the soul?” Our voice takes the view just as Wilde, who insists on looking at all sides, that not a single viewpoint is appreciated really. The compromise can be wrong, but it ensures an outcome. The mask of impartiality, objectivity, and yet, other weeds is a shortcut and is not a way forward. Blindness.
Speaking of light and shadow, one of the most interesting thematic areas running through the book like a submerged latent sap systematically manifested, deals with a possible notion about wisdom and knowledge. Knowledge is not a non-critical warehouse, or merely cumulative erudition: Surely, “there are many things that I do not want to know.”
Ethics about knowledge appears here from early on. Knowledge chooses, selects. The world is burning in such a way that it is better not to fully know. Sometimes, ignorance protects. That really tells us. Not all blindness kills. Some enlightens. On another subject, Lara’s written voice recognises that refinement can imply that intelligence is dosing. Intelligence is a force so wildly intense that it comes with such a scale and lack of restraint, that to weaken it is an art among the arts:
“It’s to have a great spirituality, I know, knowing how to hide intelligence.” Although, at the same time, the verb hide warns us of another meaning – in fact, arbored or framed within the aphorism is another possible foe.
With a still deeper philosophical plan, the voice tries to understand processes, the cycles of life. It explains: “It is axiomatic: each expert has no more than one disciple, and this disciple will be deceitful and treacherous because he is predestined to be an expert.”
In a statement like this, lies another psychological picture: the death of the Father. Repair yourself to the following lucid doctrine regarding the interlocking organic, dynamic between object and subject: “The object worshipped hypnotizes the worshiper subtly to their senses, until the two articulate from a single center.”
An emerging role is born of this Alliance. If the object revered is vile, the worshipper becomes non political. When the Alliance is set up by one who operates it, it’s for him to relish. “When the worshipper joins the venerated thing, he can rest.” From this definition, springs another one of Lara’s old and dear topics: the Orchard of Seduction.
The chiaroscuro voice, dazzles the obscure, these intermediate segments that are not definitely one thing or the other but the voice knows, at the same time, that for something, soul and body, night and day, nature and culture, the feminine and masculine, go on existing.
One aphorism undermines the progressive presumption by some tired thought that wishes to appear intelligent in order to discredit binary oppositions: “They ‘treasure’ appearances, but deep down, the same tradeoffs continue to coexist: to pamper or to crush, wage war or evade, dominate or be dependent. As such, it’s useful to preserve the form and understand the background.
There’s little worry in the voice created by Lara about mechanisms of power. We are told that the ambition of power is such that need, comes to be harmful: “The powerful like to be helped, but not overcome.” And that, “All unconditional things are to enable the use or enjoyment of something, (a usufructuary), or to work towards it.”
So that, from the moment that one accepts unconditionality, the soul is sold to the devil – becoming a Faust without Margaret. Another recurring area, is how, one does not stop here and there in the sumptuous and delightful fields of eroticism and love. How would an analytical and sensual taster of seduction not allow it?
From the outset, there is a disturbing confession about the same magnitude of sensuality: “… I do not know what juicy breast feeds off so much of my madness ….” The voice is aware of the source of such a mess. Of course, that source is wide, lush, and unending. Two concrete statements are close to the erotic in a splendid way:
“Near-perfect, almost beautiful breasts, are my art without weapons and this prevents aid from reaching him.” At least two issues intertwine here: the impotence of the subject in front of an invitation of abundance, a sensual object of worship and the phallic virtue of erection, entrepreneurship and penetration, which assists the art.
Art and phallus are each and the same pronoun to the other – interchangeable attributes. What do we understand by “aid”? I leave that to my reader. The labyrinth of interpretation here is good natured, playful and inviting as well. The pleasure of impotence and eventual abstinence under, arising from (but not limited to) good and great eroticism, are summarized in this beautiful construction:
“It’s worth the pain to be bumped into, to see overland all the demons that seek to seduce and squeeze the heat out of my two legs.” With street language said before such an invocation, before such an invitation, the whole world is turned upside down. After all the romping, after all the joy, after the ball, once more to the back corridor:
“A sane seduction is superior to the miracle of love. Exceptional are the spirits that still find and encounter love even after something very disturbing as seduction, something that once happened – so, are you sane?” You have to have – it seems that the voice is leaving us – this backdrop of air, this deep breathing, which persists after something as overwhelming as seduction, after something that seems to have exhausted the world.
Anyone who is interested in seduction remains, of course, within walking distance from artistic reflection. That other house is penetrated by far, and not least of all, by the existence of a whole theory of breathing and wheezing, about beauty and art.
The notion comes from supposed culture and sensitivity through the recognition of beauty: “Anyone, who considers that the muddy tuber is as wonderful as the scent of the flower, loves.” It continues with another observation highlighted about the senses: “The only infant organ to forever covet is the eye.”
Why does the eye fool? Because it reads appearances, the outward forms of things. So it is always innocent: it immerses us nobly in its far more complex nature, which at first glance is stolen. However, no one takes away ownership: Everything starts and “enters” through the eyes.
The voice of the maxims is projected in relation to their radicalism, one might even say, in relation to the cruelty of art: “Art is the prosecution’s evidence that I have destroyed around the globe to intuit ephemeral and vague satisfaction.” The magic of the art exists precisely in its devastation in this sense. It resembles the range of the magnificence, which we saw earlier. There is no art without pomp, but in any case, it is an austere selective splendour. We even noticed some contention about certain positions and postures unfortunately common in the Cuban cultural scene owned as they are, in general, by young people, always interested in beginning the new.”
“It’s ridiculous to look for irreverence in the sublime. It’s clear that he does this and he overflows with it. We witness here a picture of that kind of adolescent “artist” (although it is an attitude that transcends his art) for who rupture, demolition, the “experimental” (intentional, as well as painful, myth) and insolence, constitute the basis of the ascent to the sublime. That, by dint of the caricaturesque and the childish, is grotesque.
We need to live to understand that not even the steepest audacity is enough to touch art. At the mercy of Lara, or his aphoristic voice, or both, art is synonymous with pain, non-participation or doing without, sacrifice, devotion, selflessness.
Other occupations of the moral world that matter to our author would be: war, always silly and sometimes necessary, the risk of compassion and pity, the pretence of consensus, the power of suggestion, the challenge of style. The voice-style estimates that style slows down renovation, since it becomes an accomplice of paralysis and concessions.
Speaking of style, this book does have it, and how. A group of important constants, that inform and fuel the way to construct Lara: the tendency towards the apparent paradox (and I say apparent because in truth I mean the complex thought that likes to explore the value of contradictions, far from shunning them in an high-handed way), the recurrence of a group of figures such as the hyperbole, the pun, the paraphrase of fables and cultural architecture, the construction of proparoxytone ( – a word that has an acute accent on the third syllable from the end.) and the vocation to differ substantively from the sentence, which can be expressed as postponement of the verb or the subject of the period.
In this sense there is a kind of inclination towards an encouragement of the Baroque, typical of a pleasant review of modernist poetry, which is then compressed within the minimalist mould of the aphorism.
Here Lara is once again winding, never linear, and at the same time concise. This tension between the syntax and the forcefulness of the tight Baroque aphorism leads to a very appreciable literary value. Another of the helpful contradictions that fuel Lara’s style, which concedes nothing, but seeks to resolve through aphorisms, is a search that is scattered throughout his remaining prodigious creation. For this reason, I also believe that one has to situate the book of aphorisms at the cusp of what he has sought and achieved.
We note here the correct proportion between the beauty of what is said and beauty in how it is said. Let the reader fixate on this statement: “There are clear rules of learned behavior, but not because of this has terrorism disappeared from convention; it has simply become more subtle.” In this aphorism, the voice codes the idea of the dangerous importance of negotiation. Negotiation is inevitable, civic, facilitating, but can act as a double-edged sword, an alibi, as fuel for the slippery moves of the cunning or for spirited onslaughts. The latter is inseparable from the way it was proposed. “Clear rules of learned behavior” is a noble and impressive edifice, with elegant syntax where there were any. But the term “terrorism of convention” is out in the sky.
The Terrorism of Convention: How well said and thought out is this. In this book, Lara finds the exact words, the precise words. He doesn’t wriggle through the hunt for the right way: he has it at his disposal, and also deploys it with the resoluteness of one who possesses the virtue of knowing how to weigh his own intelligence and culture. And we know that this is an expensive gesture, a very refined cult gesture, a gesture entrusted only to higher spirits.
At least in every decade of his life, Lara should publish a book of aphorisms, a production that definitely never ceases for him. In the present interpretation, I’ve discovered the magnet, the marrow, the core of everything that Lara submits himself to, the gift of the abstract thinker, through which he understands more about how muddled springs function in the world and in the human mind – and about affection. It’s obvious then how lavish he can become in other cultural conventions.
I have no doubt that Lara is a philosopher first of all, from which radiates and comes all the rest. The aphoristic form favours concentration of this very vital summae that one assumes for him means substantial meditation.
I already assumed this from our conversations, where we were supposed to speak about paintings, and always retraced tortuous, comforting, complex paths of the human condition of misfortune, of happiness, about that sacred and fickle thing that humans go after called happiness, about the praise of madness, about essays on blindness or illumination. Concentrated here, is a world of ideas able to fertilize all other areas of creation in which Lara finds solace. Therefore, this book is of cardinal importance, if we try to deduce what is the possible center for this multiple, ductile, integral artist that is Jesus Lara.
Lara is probably satisfied after being satiated with wisdom, intuition, serene knowledge and ability, with what his beautiful and sharp aphorisms are. Confronted by them, I would warn that one feels fear, shame, is startled and begins to recollect. They are sadistic, provided that we submit ourselves to a brutal public nakedness, when we prefer the comfortable demureness of the mask, the dress, and the theatre.
At this point, I prefer to be silent so as to not fall into vile boasting. I realise, and I receive with the discipline of a Benedictine monk, the evidence that “behind so many arguments there almost always is an arrogant spirit.” Therefore let’s be silent, as it’s dignifying to the spirit, a form of prudent asceticism, as it is a form of frugality to highly praise that which is springing forth.
Rufo Caballero, Havana, November 2009.