To Rufo Caballero, who vindicated critical emotion

Marcel Duchamp walks among us. Rise your sight and you’ll be able to recognize him in “the doubt itself, the doubt in everything” related to the world around us, and works created by new generations of artists. The so called “father of conceptual art” can find up-to-date readings among young creators in the Caribbean island, in “tied up to the leg of the table” exhibitions by emerging artists, in Pinar del Rio or Madrid, in which as predicted by Octavio Paz, the stamp of that last-century avant-gardism’s emblem is renewed. And that proves the current interest raised by everything related to universal art essential elements, on a title such the one we’re commenting on.

Los signos mutantes del laberinto (The Mutant Signs of the Maze), by Rafael Acosta de Arriba, is the first book published in Cuba on Octavio Paz, and I don’t remember a previous one. The volume is an exhaustive analysis of art review developed by the Mexican poet who, as the author said, dedicated privileged space in his vast essays to some cardinal debates on the art of that time, particularly between the 1940s and the late 20th century.

The passions that always accompanied and educated Rafael such as chess, mathematics and history, are the keys when it comes to reading and practicing art review and essay, just as I previously noted on his poetic style.

Octavio Paz prefers a specific area of his work. That’s why Rafael cares so much about this volume, as it merges his vocation for fine arts, essay and poetry, in terms of this outstanding intellectual’s thinking and writings; so the relation between the author and Paz is shaped in these pages, regarding to poetic and essay elements, singular and necessary, the importance for Cuban editorial scene, and it gains its position in the Latin American sphere. As for Paz, what’s commented and celebrated by the essayist on Mexican art review –differences included–, is the cornerstone for his own: “In the core of his poetic art, there’s a man facing his temporality, facing history.”

The author of El laberinto de la soledad is an endless source, as object of study, influence expressed on his career or simple benchmark for critics. As a result of this intense knowledge process, Rafael obtained his second PhD in Sciences (he had gotten the first one a decade ago as historian of Carlos Manuel de Cespedes’ life and work), with his profound approach to the art review of Nobel Prize, Los signos mutantes del laberinto, lucid text that was praised by a prestigious examining board, with Roberto Fernandez Retamar taking the lead.

Each of its sections highlights the result of a research on the Paciana work, with more than twenty years. In my opinion, its chapters on surrealism, in which we recognize the suggestive Latin American scene left by that stamp, as well as Duchamp, with his renewing keys “and the deconstructing effort” made by Paz, are the most attractive elements of the book and explain the formative process as well as the contemporary projection of these critical codes.

Rigorous essayist Luis Alvarez, announces at the beginning of his prologue, the importance of this book and its subject of study: “Facing the legacy of Octavio Paz will always entail a fascinating challenge for Latin American intellectuals. His abyssal approach and splendid expressive energy are as strong in the prose as in the poetry written by this universal Mexican artist. That’s the reason why studies on Latin American art and culture have contracted an unfathomable debt with the author of El arco y la lira. Just as Rafael notes, a fifth of the creator’s plentiful essayist and critic work deals with Mexican and universal arts, and that vast and vigorous academic and literary speech has been barely tackled by the numerous passive bibliography dedicated to his work.

Professor and essayist Maria de los Angeles Pereira fairly evaluates the importance of this book beyond our borders, upon recognizing its novel contribution to the international sphere: “When selecting Octavio Paz’s essays on art review as theme axis, Acosta sheds light with analytical rigor on the probably less explored zone in the vast work of an artist who undoubtedly is one of the most revisited Spanish authors by people studying Latin American literature and art. So this is an invaluable book, especially for philologists, art historians, writers, artists, and humanists interested in examining and assessing the monumental contribution made by a thinker who –from his Latin American condition– played a leading role for Latin American culture, taking into account the fair recognition of his relation with Western culture.”

That’s the reason why Octavio Paz’s art review developed a series of referents and ideas that take as natural context the most dynamic elements of intellectual and artistic experience from the 20th century. His provocations to potential readers, not indulgent at all, but accompanied by fluid language without false searches, was aimed at establishing communicative spaces between his reflections and indispensable referents of universal culture.

Temporal elements and History also accompany, from criticism, avant-garde and contexts, all this feedback that merges in the vision taken by the poet from its literary model, and gets related to poetic creation, beyond the discovery entailed by the risk and its challenges.

Polysemous reading, culture medium for any literary practice, is the field in which all temporal confrontations take place: or coincidences that constantly flow to recognize us in the middle of chaos. Somebody considered the poet’s condition as the “master of echo”, setting that nobody ever gets to the original sound, not even if possessing pricked-up ears to pick up multiplying echoes and alert eyes –“the privileges of sight”, Paz used to say– to preserve details of an age and world –“dust reservoir”– as clues of what must be pronounced, finding in essays a singular state of poetic practice.

As for critic poets, Baudelaire is one of the most universal examples, who crystal-clear upon defining the poet “as the master of memory”, depositary and continuator of tradition and its rewriting. Regarding to critic poets, in the Cuban chapter, let’s think of Jose Marti, and we feel the Mexican closer to conceptual Vitier than metaphorical Lezama. Reading Barthes’ texts puts on the map different variants of criticism as rational and spiritual theoretical practice, until it becomes reality. Critics create what they imagine, define, describe, by providing shape and intensity in their words. That definition, and let’s think of that already-mentioned poet-critic, finds on Acosta’s work, his translation of Paciano essay, as a reader who distinguishes his peculiar mode, the cornerstone of his studies.

Rufo Caballero, who practiced a legitimate and vast dynamic as intellectual, from video clip to the cathedra, from essay to chronicle or novel, was a declared accomplice of the genesis in this book:

Rafael’s text represents a bridge between the vastest monographs and essays, as for Paz’s strict and competent analysis, it opens meditations to the nature of art review, so essay reaches maximum up-datedness. On his erudite study, which goes beyond mere archeology –though dimensioning Paz would’ve been enough contribution–, Acosta supports the “poetic criticism of art”, and points out, among the top exponents of that great possibility, Baudelaire, Jose Marti, Lezama Lima or Luis Cardoza and Aragon. I’d add Oscar Wilde and Alejo Carpentier. The truth is that the academician, thanks to God, speaks in favor of “the beauty of language, backed up by the poetic inspiration of images.

There aren’t many writers who, through their work, make us inevitably think of the entire culture. This volume finds in the great essayist’s prose the underside of the paradigmatic poet, both trained on literature, and as Barthes would say, it’s the expression of “a writing not only aimed at communicating or expressing, but imposing elements beyond language.

The author gives priority to the dynamic of cultural or socio-cultural processes, keeping an eye on their small stories or influences.

That eternal iconoclast of Latin American social and cultural fabric, Carlos Monsivais, gives us the legacy of “impressionist” aspect, which contrasting the most “Cartesian” criticism of his illustrious compatriot, complements the vision on Mexican scene. Monsivais used to say:

When admiring paintings that capture me, I always combine the instantaneous response (corporeal and mood record of taste) with literary and visual evocations. I put together immediate reactions with the evocation of fragments of poems, writers and painters’ names, individual or cultural experiences, ideas to be developed or ideas to be thrown away, conflicting or adjacent works, intimate polemics on preferences or rejections.

We have what Rufo Caballero, the most enthusiast of his readers, wrote to Rafael, and that’s how we want to remember the friend:

[…] you create your own theory on the critic-artistic activity, out of humanistic pillars that are solved in Cintio (Vitier)’s syntagma: the power of critical emotion. It looks like a study of Octavio Paz’s criticism, but it’s an essay on Acosta’s considerations related to art review, its sense, mission, languages, functions, phases”.

El Vedado, April 2011