I find the idea that we write alone laughable, even egotistical. Poetry is a palimpsest that has been endlessly rewritten—it’s a social space we share with others.
Carpentier’s antic portrait of an autocrat astride the two halves of the world.
Alejo Carpentier’s 1974 novel Reasons of State, a sardonic and microscopically observed jet-black comedic study of the long decline and fall of the dictator of a fictional Central American nation, has been reissued by the Neversink Library of Melville House. Translated into clear and lively English by Bloomsbury Group member Frances Partridge, Reasons of State was first published in the United States in 1976 and has been out of print for decades, though it ranks among the best of Carpentier’s major works, including The Lost Steps and The Kingdom of This World. Its republication is another gift in this golden age of reprints. Effective as political allegory and entertaining as sarcastic commentary on the role of culture in politics, the novel’s greatest achievement is its bewildered recognition of the Western Hemisphere’s masked ball of identities.
The book navigates misperceptions between the Old World’s understanding of the New World and the New World’s appreciation of the Old World, all while following the fortunes of a leader who narrates his own protracted downfall. The Head of State, as he is called, is cultured to the point of parody and deeply cynical. He once lived “the miserable existence of a provincial journalist”1 before his political ascent, the details of which remain mysterious, aside from the fact that he is a man of letters who has figured out how govern through rhetorical panache. Obsessed with French culture, the Head of State is also wrapping his mind around the enormity of the meaning of the Western Hemisphere and its new cultural syntheses, ever grasping for their definitions. It is as if he has decided that nothing but total knowledge of the Old World is requisite for understanding the New. Stanley Crouch writes in his introduction to the new edition:
The magnum dream drunk by Carpentier was the New World, sensibly in need of new ways to match new works, sights, and the distance of deep thoughts, safe in the mind, if not in the air or on the earth. […] Carpentier was, in other words, alienated from nothing, having taken seriously the modern freedom of utilizing all things that could be connected to one another. Choosing that route makes him a descendent of the first great and internationally effective writer from the Americas, Walt Whitman, who swallowed all the fish in the bowl of life and spat them out as fire and brimstone, ready for war against separation, garbed in the audible mufti of celebration, that commonplace lyric sung with open arms in the graveyard, its strongest song. […] But in this case, the Carpentier Case, … this writer’s knowledge, interests, and imagination were apparently liberated by masterful creation itself, juices brought through characters always contrapuntal in their relationships to one another. This foamed into the great getting-up morning of the New World.2
Crouch argues elsewhere that “one [e.g., writers] should not be spooked by the range and complications of humanity that appear across the classes, the races, the religions, the professions, and the causes that usually drive great public events in our nation.”3 This is perhaps what he suggests when he claims that Carpentier was “alienated from nothing” and utilized “all things that could be connected to one another.” Perhaps no character is more evocative of that “great getting-up morning” than the American Consul who protects the Head of State during the chaotic early moments of a revolution. The Consul reveals that he is African American (“in sentimental matters … I only get on well with darkies”), passing for white, and even adds that he is a relative of the creole composer Louis Moreau Gottschalk. He plays W.C. Handy on the piano and teases the inebriated dictator, saying that, due to Prohibition, he will probably not be allowed to drink on the American ship that will probably rescue him. But the Head of State is only upset by the Consul quoting Baudelaire—an “incursion into my own territory.” In some way he must recognize that such cross-cultural appreciations were never all his to begin with, as Baudelaire of course so greatly admired Poe. In an intriguing twist, the Consul shows the Head of State a collection of roots from up and down the hemisphere—undoubtedly related to the Hoodoo practice of root-working. After drafting a long list of roots, some petrified, the Head of State says that “the Consul was beginning to figure as a dream element,”4 which has likely been the reader’s feeling all along.
Indeed, the novel is full of Whitmanesque-Borgesian lists—lists that annoyed John Leonard when he reviewed the book for the New York Times in 1976. Such mad list making and inventory taking, also reveled in by Melville (whom Crouch mentions as well), may be an aesthetic strategy for comprehending the vastness of the New World, and yet comic list-making (as opposed to Homeric list-making) is also a trademark of Francois Rabelais, suggesting perhaps that it is a feature more of this approximate modernity—a new order of the world in which the European discovery of the Americas was but one key aspect. The novel suggests as much. A French intellectual in Paris scolds the Head of State about “our lack of Cartesian spirit (that’s true: no carnivorous plants grow, no toucans fly, nor do you find cyclones in the Discourse on Method).”5 Yet the novel is, in fact, peppered with epigraphs from this very text (I count nineteen from Discourse on Method). Descartes is later held up by one of the Head of State’s flunkies as a symbol of “Latinity” in the World War I struggle against the Central Powers, and perhaps suggests a dualism between the Old World and the New as much as between the mind and body, for which each hemisphere may be metaphors. The Cartesian spirit may, the epigraphs suggest, describe aspects of the New World after all; power ultimately, like handfuls of earth (as the last chapter suggests), is the same the world over.
Reasons of State is something like a picaresque novel about a grown-up rogue. The Head of State is like a picaresque hero in the original sense: effortless in his roguery and natural understanding of the ways of the world, as well as in his personal and political manipulations. There is no character development. A true picaro, the Head of State is fully formed, dealing with one crisis after another, and with gusto, as he tries to maintain his position while luxuriating, speculating, and ruminating. He improvises. And he does recognize that times are changing, eventually realizing that the youth of his nation no longer respond to his “luxuriant, sonorous, baroque, Ciceronian” oratory, “sweeping in its crescendos.” A fine example of his improvisatory powers occurs when, hunkered down in a cave during a cold night on a military campaign, he and his top advisors discover (and are initially frightened by) a group of pre-Columbian mummies:
The Head of State told his secretary to draw up a report to the National College of Science describing the discovery of the mummies, with indications of the position of the cave and the orientation of its entrance in relation to the rising sun, exact location of the funeral jars, etc., as archaeologist do nowadays. Besides which, the chief mummy in the centre was to be presented to the Museum of the Trocadero Palace in Paris, where it would make a splendid show in a glass case, on a wooden plinth, with a brass plate … In any case, the more centuries ago the brass plate was dated, the greater the prestige of his country.7
This moment, told by his co-narrating interlocutor, encapsulates so much about the Head of State’s fast-working mind, his instantaneous pseudo-scholarship always calculating in relation to propaganda value, coupled with the “etc.” device—reflective of his profound laziness and also clearly a nod to Stendhal, the spirit of whose narrative brio infuses the novel. Later on, in Paris, leaving “a well-known bistro, rather Flemish in style,” the Head of State wryly yet stupidly opines, “We’re better off here than in the Mummies’ Cave.” Gee whiz, Generalissimo Griswold, you don’t say.
A monster, to be sure, the Head of State is not entirely dislikeable. He is a vile villain but a human and comic one all the same, and not unlike, say, Tony Soprano. At a party in New York, en route from Paris to crush the uprising:
The women were amazed that in spite of his obvious age the Head of State could swallow so many drinks—always with a regal and deliberate gesture—without getting tangled up in stories that never ended, or losing his aristocratic air. It was unusual for his son Ariel [his ambassador in Washington] to see him like this—‘It’s a special occasion,’ said Peralta—because when the Dictator was moving in palace circles he was—with his famous healths of mineral water—a model of sobriety. At fiestas and celebrations he never exceeded one or two glasses of champagne, and his tone became emphatic and his brow furrowed when he broached the serious theme of the constant proliferation of bars and taverns, one of the great social problems of the nation, a defect we owed to the vicious nature of the Indians and the Spanish colony’s ancient monopoly of aguardiente. But people didn’t know that inside a case invariably carried by Doctor Peralta—which looked as if it contained papers of transcendental importance—there were in fact ten flasks, very flat and curved to slip easily into a pocket, such as are made in England, which, being covered in pigskin—and bought at the smart Parisian shop Hermès—never clinked when they were thrown together.8
I feel like W. C. Fields would have enjoyed this paragraph. In thinking about the Head of State’s antics, I am reminded of Arthur Schlesinger Jr.’s opinion of Pat Buchanan: “I like old Pat, reprehensible as views generally are.”9 When the novel opens the Head of State is in Paris, where he prefers to spend most of his time, soaking up all the culture and luxury, and he is rather annoyed when he must return (via New York and Havana) to quell a coup by one of his generals. It’s easy to get the sense that the only reason he bothered becoming the Head of State at all was so that he could inhabit the Paris that he certainly dreamed about as a writer near the fin de siècle. Yet he never ceases to resist and rebuke the Old World when it fails to understand the New, and he resists elements of American cultural imperialism, even when he is all too eager to trade land to the United Fruit Company in order to buy US-made weapons to defeat the rebellious general. Through the Head of State’s ups and downs, Carpentier is able to reflect on a theme that preoccupied him and that he considered every which way in his profound and varied oeuvre: the New World, “these Lands of the Future,”10in relation to the Old.
One morning in Paris, while sitting around “waiting for ideas that didn’t come,”11 the Head of State reads anti-German propaganda in Le Figaro just after the first Battle of the Marne. Without having (apparently) thought much about it before and despite being a raging Francophile, he suddenly decides to support the Allies in World War I, having decided that the war will be a “Holy Crusade for Latinity” against “Prussian barbarism.” He is an insightful theorist of cultural hybridity, a contemporary of say, W.E.B. Du Bois, but whenever the Head of State develops a theory, it is not for the sake of knowledge but as a tool for maintaining power.
To say Latinity was to say mixed blood, and in Latin America we are all mestizos; all of us have some negro or Indian, Phoenician, Moorish, Celtiberian blood or the blood of Cadiz—and there’s always Walker Lotion, or something of the sort, to smooth our hair, hidden away in the family medicine chest. We are all mestizos, and should be honored that it is so!12
He needs a philosophical anchor in order to support his beloved France against the race-purity rhetoric of Germany (and there is a domestic element to promoting his newfangled Latinity, too much to explain here) but while he cooks it up to justify a political position—and here is the kicker—he seems to honestly believe it in as well. Such a-posteriori reasoning of state is his hallmark.
Carpentier (1904-1980) wrote the novel while he himself was the Cuban ambassador to France in the early 1970s. While his novels are not political propaganda and are free from obvious ideology, his position in the Castro regime and loyalty to it may account for his being still so terribly under-appreciated in the United States today. Communist or Capitalist or anything in between, the majestic conundrum of the New World demands to be addressed, and Carpentier is among several intrepid novelists—such as Ralph Ellison, Albert Murray, and Édouard Glissant—who attempted to do so. Who could be more different from one another than say, the Head of State, Carpentier, Du Bois, Crouch, and Wallace Stevens, and yet this quote from Stevens, a poetic descendant of Whitman after all, taken from his “Extracts From Addresses to the Academy of Fine Ideas,” says a lot about what they were up to:
The lean cats in the arches of the churches,
That’s the old world. In the new, all men are priests.
They preach and they are preaching in a land
To be described. They are preaching in a time
To be described.13
In the Head of State’s power of description lies his political power. He claims to dislike myths—that is to say, ones not created by him—but has used his preternatural knack for language and flowing oratory to craft a mytho-state around himself. The farce behind his muscular aesthetic politics (not quite a proto-fascist, though he becomes an admirer of the early Mussolini) is revealed throughout the book as his nation’s status as a client state of the United States; from the outset, this is never in question. The United States will intervene as necessary to protect the interests of DuPont, the United Fruit Company, and other businesses, and does not ultimately care who the head of state may be at any given time as long as he helps ensure a smooth path for profits to flow north. Eventually, after the Head of State can no longer maintain basic order due to a guerilla destabilization campaign, the US quickly trades him for a professor offering a vague and peculiar blend of Asian mysticism, pre-Columbian legend, and Mumfordian techno-progressivism, which will, of course, be marked by a closer relationship with the United States.
The Head of State’s downfall partially results from his inability to silence his enemies of different ideological stripes. He kills disloyal generals and henchmen in cold blood without blinking, but he has a soft spot for other types of revolutionaries who perhaps remind him of his youthful self. It is hard to imagine why he does not execute a prominent young Communist agitator when he has the chance, but in order to understand why, it might be instructive to think about the possible influence of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man on Carpentier. In important ways, the Head of State strongly resembles Ellison’s A. Hebert (sic) Bledsoe, president of the “State College for Negroes” and also an autocrat beholden to the exact same industrial interests as the Head of State. Carpentier even suggests an influence when the Head of State and young Communist agitator square off in the palace: “So they both looked at each other, the Master, the Invested, Immovable Ruler, and the Weak, Invisible Utopian.”14 The student is explicitly called “Invisible Man” at the outset of chapter eighteen. The Head of State is a cold-blooded killer of political opponents, but does not want to kill this student, perhaps because the student suggests it:
Kill me and have done with it said the student. Not here in the palace. It would dirty the carpet.
Bledsoe’s admonition to the Invisible Man, that “Power is confident, self-assuring, self-starting and self-stopping, self-warming and self-justifying,”15 could easily be the motto of the Head of State. Much like the way Bledsoe attempts to get rid of his troublemaker—by shipping him off to the cultural center of New York with bogus recommendation letters and promises of a job—so the Head of State tries to dispose with the student, telling him:
All right. As you don’t want to come to an understanding with me, I give you three days to leave the country. Ask Peralta for anything you want. You can go where you like. Paris, for instance. […] Your friends won’t be surprised to see you go because they’ll know that you’re finished as a revolutionary here … No! Wait a moment! Don’t be melodramatic! I’m not trying to buy you off: I’m offering you the Paris of women and Maxim’s restaurant, as I would one of our social climbers. I’m offering you the Paris of the Sorbonne, of Bergson, of Paul Rivet, who seems to know a lot about us, and certainly published the other day a magnificent piece of research into a mummy I presented to the Trocadero Palace. The rest is your affair. Salute Racine from me when you visit Saint-Etienne-du-Mont; and Voltaire and Rousseau in the Pantheon.16
Carpentier and Ellison shared numerous fascinations, but one of the most important parallels between them, which stands for their attempt to embrace the vastness of the New World, is the way they both celebrated Louis Armstrong, whose voice on the Invisible Man’s phonograph sets the tone for Invisible Man and who, as a total surprise and with great fanfare, appears at the end of what had (mostly) been a novella about bringing an opera based on Montezuma to eighteenth century Venice. This is in Carpentier’s masterful Baroque Concerto—a different sort of meditation on cultural cross-pollination and ambiguity.
The glory of Reasons of State lies in its creation of a model of the New World, the language-crazed orator-journalist-tyrant at its center; in its swirling and crashing of languages, of cultural forms, of political motivations; its dissections of power and universal history of US imperialism. As anthropologist Michael Taussig wrote in his preface to The Magic of the State:
Through something like Brecht’s estrangement-effect, naming as renaming can provide insight into what we call history, its making no less than its retelling, especially the history of the spirits of the dead as the mark of nation and state … the evocation of a fictive nation-state in place of real ones so as to better grasp the elusive nature of stately being. After all it is not only the writer of fiction who fuses reality with dreamlike states. This privilege also belongs, as Kafka taught, to the being-in-the-world of the modern state itself.17
Along these same lines, though perhaps more clearly articulated, Carlos Fuentes’s introduction to Baroque Concerto may serve as the finest introduction to Reasons of State and Invisible Man, and any great works of fiction for that matter:
For literature addresses not only a mysterious future, but a mysterious past as well. The past is a perpetual enigma, it has to be re-read constantly. Why else should we see Richard II or read The Divine Comedy, works from that past, with constantly renewed pleasure? To find out facts about the War of the Roses or the struggles between Guelphs and Gibelines? These are in the classified past of history books. But history does not end there. Shakespeare, Dante, and Carpentier with them, permit us to give the past its present. The future of the past depends on it.18
1 Alejo Carpentier, Reasons of State, (Brooklyn: Melville House, 2013), 69.
2 Ibid., xv-xvi.
3 Stanley Crouch. “The Electric Company,” Harper’s, June 2009.
4 Carpentier, 309–311.
5 Ibid., 17.
6 Ibid., 17.
7 Ibid., 64–65.
8 Ibid., 39.
9 Andrew and Stephen Schlesinger (Eds.), Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.: Journals 1952-2000, (New York: Penguin, 2007), 742.
10 Carpentier, 134.
11 Ibid., 130.
12 Ibid., 133.
13 Wallace Stevens, Collected Poetry and Prose, (New York: Library of America, 1997), 254.
14 Carpentier, 248.
15 Ibid., 142.
16 Ibid., 257.
17 Michael Taussig, Magic of the State, (New York: Routledge, 1997), ix.
18 Alejo Carpentier, Baroque Concerto, (London: André Deutsch, 1991), 18.
Paul Devlin’s work has appeared in Slate, The Root, The Daily Beast, and the San Francisco Chronicle, among other publications. His previous work for BOMB includes a study of how hip-hop responded to 9/11. He is the editor of Rifftide: The Life and Opinions of Papa Jo Jones (University of Minnesota Press, 2011). Follow him on twitter @pauldevlin.
I find the idea that we write alone laughable, even egotistical. Poetry is a palimpsest that has been endlessly rewritten—it’s a social space we share with others.