José Lezama Lima (lay-ZAH-mah LEE-mah) is generally considered one of the most influential Cuban poets, novelists, and essayists of the twentieth century. He was born to a well-to-do military family, where old patrician and immigrant traditions blended into a true creole spirit. His father was a colonel in the Cuban army, and the family moved frequently with him. During the time they lived in the old damp fortress of Havana, Lezama Lima developed asthma, a condition from which he suffered for the rest of his life and which marked the rhythm of his poetry and prose. During World War I Lezama Lima’s father volunteered for war service on the Allied side, but he died in training in the United States during the influenza epidemic when Lezama Lima was only eight years old. Until her death in 1964, Lezama Lima’s mother was the biggest influence on his life. It was she who urged her son, when he was already a successful young poet, to take up the family history in a novel. The suggestion eventually led to the novel Paradiso, on which Lezama Lima worked for almost twenty years. His mother’s death threw him into a deep depression, which he overcame by completing the novel.
As a student of law, Lezama Lima participated in the protest against the dictatorship of General Machado that led to the university’s being shut down for years. Lezama Lima spent that time reading, accumulating the often quite arcane erudition that underlies his poetry. In his personal response to the crises of literary modernism, his poetic work followed the transformation of Symbolism into “pure poetry.” The encounter with the Spanish poet Juan Ramón Jiménez after his arrival in Cuba in 1936 from war-torn Spain was of lasting influence on Lezama Lima. He became interested in the mystical line of “pure poetry” and pushed it in the direction both of hermetic, heterodox philosophy and of orthodox Catholic theology. When his exuberant baroque images overflowed the marked intellectualism and exquisiteness of postsymbolist poetry, he developed in his Muerte de Narciso (death of Narcissus) the drama of the Fall of man that can only be overcome by artistic creation.
Lezama Lima became the intellectual leader of the emerging Cuban post-avant-garde generation, whom he represented in the journals he edited. Among these were Verbum in 1937, Espuela de plata in 1939-1941, and, most particularly, Orígenes from 1944 to 1956, which came to be considered one of the leading Latin American literary journals of its time. Lezama Lima declared that he wrote poetry when he felt obscure, and essay when he felt clear, but it is revealing that he also said, “only what is difficult is stimulating.”
Lezama Lima’s reputation gradually transcended the small group of initiated acolytes that had gathered around him in Cuba. Much of his fame was connected with what was known of his persona. His aesthetic and philosophical struggle with his homoerotic tendencies, which became part of the novel Paradiso, caused a controversy in his Cuba, as did the moral stance he adopted during the Stalinization of the Cuban culture in the 1970’s, which led to his ostracism from the revolutionary regime.
It is surprising that such a cultivated man as Lezama Lima practically never left his native Havana. Only in 1949 and 1950 did he make two brief trips to Mexico and Jamaica. He used this experience to create his aesthetics of the “American expression” as something essentially baroque, which he expressed in the lectures and essays La expresión americana. Later, after Paradiso had brought him international fame and recognition, he was prevented from leaving Cuba by the government, which blocked his requests for a passport.
Lezama Lima had welcomed the triumph of the Cuban revolution in 1959 and even worked it into his visionary scheme of “imaginary eras,” by which means he characterized certain periods of world cultures. His enthusiasm was short-lived, however. Although he held an important nominal position in the writers’ union, he worked all his life in obscure jobs in Cuban literary research institutions; for that reason he sought an early retirement.
Paradiso is an amalgam of Caribbean and Latin American culture. The autobiographical line of the novel provides a framework for baroque imagistic descriptions and arcane philosophical discussions that offer a dense, poetic, and mythical portrayal of a young man in search of his family and an individual, sexual, and cultural identity on which to set the foundation for his manifest artistic vocation. Family cohesion, death and epiphany, the Fall of humankind and its resurrection through artistic creation, are some of Paradiso’s underlying themes. The title relates the narrative to Dante’s story of a man’s journey through Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise, and Lezama Lima’s Paradiso builds heavily on allegory, Christian symbolism, Baroque imagery, and arcane cultural allusions, creating an immensely complex whole. The novel is a family saga, an autobiography, a Bildungsroman of a young artist, a long poem in prose, and a philosophical summation of Lezama Lima’s mythopoiesis.
Lezama Lima spent the last years of his life in internal exile; his bitter isolation is reflected in many of his personal letters, some of which are collected in Cartas (1939-1976). He left unfinished a sequel to Paradiso, the novel Oppiano Licario, and a book of poetry, Fragmentos a su imán.