Ómar Vargas, Cantidades hechizadas y silogísticas del sobresalto: La secreta ciencia de José Lezama Lima . West Lafayette IN: Purdue University Press, 2021. ix + 226 pp. (Paper US$ 44.99)
Many studies of the Cuban writer José Lezama Lima regard the so-called sistema poético as the most singular aspect of his writing and thought. According to this view, Lezama was not just a poet, novelist, and public intellectual, but also the creator of an encyclopedic “system” that puts forward a way of understanding the world through the power of metaphor. On the surface, the sistema poético presents certain formal traits resembling those one finds in a scientific, philosophical or even religious body of knowledge: Lezama introduces an idiosyncratic terminology—“era imaginaria,” “sobreabundancia,” “cantidad hechizada,” “vivencia oblicua,” et cetera—and from the moment these terms are presented as components of a “system,” the reader is invited to ponder whether they are effectively functioning as concepts invested with epistemic value. The difficulty, of course, lies in the fact that such a system is not scientific or philosophical in the usual sense, but “poetic.” What do we make of this? Is Lezama proposing that poetry is a form of knowledge?
The scholarship on Lezama has approached these questions from very different perspectives, including, for example, hermeneutics, intellectual history, and deconstruction. One influential line of inquiry has taken him up on his word, and attempted to delve deeper into the possible connections between poetry and knowledge. Ómar Vargas’s book exemplifies this approach, and this is announced from the title, in which two of Lezama’s coinages are presented as expressions of his “secret science.” Lezama’s extravagant writing looks very remote from scientific discourse. However, given the encyclopedic scope of his work, it should come as no surprise that he had incorporated scientific themes and vocabulary. The purpose of Vargas’s study is to inquire into this connection along two distinct methodological lines. The first one is clear: tracing, identifying, and analyzing Lezama’s use of concepts, images, and tropes borrowed from mathematics and physics (the life sciences are omitted). The second is less obvious: Vargas chooses to borrow concepts from mathematics and physics in order to interpret Lezama’s work. This is an audacious move, and it’s what makes this book a very original contribution.
The first chapter is partly based on archival work. After providing an overview of the history of science in Cuba, Vargas recounts the impact of Einstein’s brief stop in Havana (December 19, 1930) and traces the possible bibliographical sources on scientific topics that Lezama could have read. Chapters 2 and 3 are about time. Vargas analyzes some short texts in prose and selected passages from Lezama’s novel Paradiso in order to show how they reflect upon the concepts of time that emerge from the theory of relativity and thermodynamics. Geometry is the focus of Chapters 4 and 5. Vargas is interested in the contrast between Euclidean and non-Euclidean geometries, and the way the latter relate to the general theory of relativity and cosmology. He shows how certain concepts from these theories illustrate some themes in Lezama’s work—for example, the Big Bang, sexuality, and the hurricane in Oppiano Licario; the breakdown of Euclid’s parallel postulate and the concept of “counterpoint” in Lezama’s poetics; and chaos theory, Lezama, and Joyce. Pythagoras and numerology provide the framework of Chapter 6, in which Vargas analyzes some of the key characters of the novel Paradiso through a numerological lens. In the epilogue he goes, as it were, backward in time, and analyzes “El secreto de Garcilaso” (1937)—one of Lezama’s earliest texts—showing how it anticipates many of the ideas that Lezama would go on to develop throughout his career and, no less importantly, certain key motifs that, according to Vargas, can be described through scientific metaphors.
When introducing concepts from mathematics and physics, Vargas avoids providing explanations that are too technical or elaborated. This is a sensible choice, but sometimes the explanations may be inaccurate or lack clarity. A couple of examples: it is not true that time is “reversible” (p. 59) according to the theory of relativity; and in thermodynamics, irreversibility is a statistical property of macroscopic processes, not a property of time. This is not the place to explain in detail how Vargas appropriates scientific concepts to elucidate Lezama’s work. There is no coherent theory that can explain that there exists a determinate relationship between, say, non-Euclidean geometry and the “poetic image” (p. 125) or the character of Fronesis in Lezama’s novels and prime numbers. These are metaphorical connections, which Vargas intuits and justifies on a case by case basis. The significance of this monograph lies in the attempt to revisit Lezama through the unusual lens of the scientific metaphor. Any scholar interested in Lezama will make new discoveries reading this book.