Guest article by Sofia Papa and coordinated by Assistant Professor of Spanish and Latin American Studies in the Department of World Languages and Cultures at Georgia College Brantley Nicholson of the (see end of article).
(Edited and posted by Pulsamerica Editor-in-Chief Ailana Navarez)
Longstanding is the theory that there is an ineffable Caribbean-ness that scholars by turns have referred to as “Caribbeing” or possessing “a certain way.” The running theory posits that there is a shared, constitutive experience in the Caribbean that transcends otherwise divisive linguistic, cultural, and national borders.
This pan-Caribbean culture has a long history with a bountiful cultural canon to accompany it. It is my argument here that this transcultural geography has been on display to a wide audience recently through Nic Pizzolatto’s True Detective, which exhibits a tonal and thematic indebtedness to the style established over half a century prior in Cuba in Alejo Carpentier’s The Kingdom of This World (1949).
In the two works, the surroundings are just as important, if not more so, than any character of the story. The symbolism, descriptions, and quotes throughout the works reveal the influence of surroundings for these writers and its importance in developing a story. More specifically, the surroundings of both of these works take place in different parts of the Caribbean. What these distinct stories share in terms of Caribbean surroundings illustrates an experience that does not fit under traditional political, economic, or other socially constructed categories, but is better defined by a pan-Caribbean culture that transcends national borders.
Alejo Carpentier was a Cuban writer, best known for creating “marvelous reality” (lo real maravilloso) a Latin American form characterized by breaking pre-established norms to show that reality can appear to eclipse reason. The marvelous real was born through Carpentier’s novel, The Kingdom of This World, a story based in Haiti during the time of its revolution. Before writing the novel, Carpentier was in Paris between 1928-1939 studying theatre and writing as a critic (Unruh 1998). It can be inferred that during this period of his life, Carpentier developed an appreciation for the space of the stage where the plot of the story takes place. The manner in which the stage is manipulated has a great impact on the work and its characters. Carpentier returned to Cuba in 1939, as the Spanish Civil War ended and World War II began. Soon after, he visited Haiti in 1943, a visit that would serve as the basis for The Kingdom of This World.
The combination of this socio-historical context with Carpentier’s visit to Haiti made for the perfect storm for the marvelous real to be born. Having Haiti as the setting for The Kingdom of This World, Carpentier incorporated what he learned from the theatre by using his surroundings to better elaborate the story. The Kantian styled – reason based approach to aesthetics, which ebbed at this moment in history, encompassed a desire to impose meaning and classifications on one’s aesthetic surroundings. However, the style of the marvelous real accepts circumstances as they are, something that within the literary world had more readily been explored through the European avant-gardes, namely through Andre Breton’s Surrealism. Carpentier manipulates the marvelous real to embrace the experimental avant-garde approach and provide his audience with a new, unusual lens to evaluate the world. The characters are strategically formed to develop a metaphor for theatrical acting performances and rethink traditional ideas through malleable identities. Carpentier’s tendency to be critical of convention through the marvelous real was ahead of his time. These characteristics of the marvelous real are parallels to the transcendental culture of the Caribbean. A story based in Haiti by a Cuban writer alludes to a pan-Caribbean experience, specific to this overall region of the world.
The impact of place and location in the formation of marvelous reality is prominent throughout The Kingdom of This World. All of the natural and architectural iconography in the text is characteristic of the Creole and Voodoo culture found not only in Haiti but throughout the Caribbean. Without incorporating the surroundings of Haiti and his own Cuban culture, Carpentier would have written a much different story. Carpentier calls upon his pan-Caribbean surroundings for inspiration and offers profound depth to the story.
Much of the symbolism that appears is particular to the Caribbean: syncretic spirituality, Creole language, and Voodoo traditions. These cultural icons are all a mixture of European, African, and Indigenous traditions. Such a combination of these particular cultures can only be found in the Caribbean, making it representative of the unique experience of the region. These symbols found in the surroundings affect the characters and how the plot plays out. Through his connection between these cultural representations and their real impacts, Carpentier communicates history as destiny, determined by the way one interprets his (or her) surroundings and his (or her) resulting actions. Carpentier (1949) explains at the beginning of the work,
En el [texto] se narra una sucesión de hechos extraordinarios, ocurridos en la isla de Santo Domingo, en determinada época que no alcanza el lapso de una vida humana, dejándose que lo maravilloso fluya libremente de una realidad estrictamente seguida en todos sus detalles.
A sequence of extraordinary events is narrated there, which took place in Saint-Domingue in a specific period that does not encompass the span of a lifetime, allowing the marvelous to flow freely from a reality which has been followed in every detail.
Reality as a type of magic, representative of the transcendental pan-Caribbean experience, that contradicts the reason and order of the Enlightenment is at the heart of Carpentier’s work. This perspective of reality as marvelous cannot be explained logically but can be understood through spirituality, be it Catholicism, Voodoo, or a hybrid of the two, which are accepted sine qua non in much of the Caribbean. This pan-Caribbean sensation, of reality as marvelous, is transcendental because it lasts beyond the duration of a single lifetime, distinctive from the reason-based experience. With this in mind, the significance of Haiti’s surroundings and Carpentier’s Cuban homeland while writing his masterwork is clear. But the influence of the Caribbean continues beyond the pages of literature, as Antonio Benítez-Rojo (1985) notes, “En las últimas décadas hemos visto detallarse de manera cada vez más clara a un grupo de naciones americanas con experiencias coloniales distintas, que hablan lenguas distintas, pero que incuestionablemente presentan ciertos rasgos comunes.” Through the evidence found in literature, these “rasgos comunes” or common traits, result in a culture that cannot properly be described in words but that define the experience and unique culture of pan-Caribbeanism.
It was little anticipated that a work that showed parallels to Carpentier’s marvelous reality would be in the form of a United States based television program. Yet the specter of the Caribbean looms large in Nic Pizzolatto’s first season of True Detective. Pizzolatto was raised in the outskirts of New Orleans, Louisiana, another part of the Caribbean that shares a similar culture to Haiti and Cuba. New Orleans had such a profound impact on Pizzolatto as a child that the plot and filming of his most renowned work take place there. As Rich Cohen (2015) explains during an interview with Pizzolatto, his surroundings as a child define his character, “He descends from a tough lot. There were few books in the house. Like the rest of us, he was raised by TV. The flickering light, the cicadas outside the window, the freeway roaring like surf.” Pizzolatto incorporates these aspects into both his descriptive and visual manifestation of the outskirts of New Orleans, including interstate I-10 and the poor and deteriorating neighborhoods stuck between the past and the present. The visual landscape of the television series develops a haunting tone with devil traps hidden in every corner and abandoned churches along the river, evoking a mystery of folklore and Caribbeanism. If it were not for all of the characters speaking English, New Orleans could be easily mistaken for Santo Domingo or Havana. Similar to Carpentier, Pizzolatto reveals a pan-Caribbean experience through the illustration of his surroundings. The importance behind these visual illustrations supports the theories of Édouard Glissant, who challenges the idea of traditional history and proposes the perspective of “sapienza poética” (Webb 1992), which emphasizes the role of creative imagination for understanding history. Glissant’s theories also challenge the idea of nationhood. He claims that a nation is defined by its culture, which cannot be confined to political borders. These ideas of the great thinker reflect the transcendental pan-Caribbean experience as portrayed by Carpentier and Pizzolatto.
The presence of New Orleans also influenced the actors in True Detective. Matthew McConaughey describes his experience in saying, “Where many civilized cities and states use a vacuum cleaner to define their structure, Louisiana used a broom or merely a rake. Everything merges there” (Cohen 2015). This perspective offers additional support that stories are influenced by their surroundings and location. The character McConaughey plays, Rust Cohle, is particularly influenced by his surroundings in a way that parallels the symbolism found in The Kingdom of This World. Cohle has hallucinations similar to those who practice Voodoo (Cohen 2015) and are triggered by his immediate surroundings, making him victim to his memory and his most secret horrors. In this case, the surroundings have a literal impact on the character in the story. Cohle’s hallucinations, though explained as the aftermath of drug abuse, gesture more widely to a breach in the reason-based tradition more prominent in the wider, non-Creole, and Continental United States. That his supernatural hallucinations are taken to be matter of fact falls well within the realms of Carpentier’s description of Caribbean life as “surreal” and “marvelous” by default. While he may not have studied theatre formally, like Carpentier, there is a strikingly similar understanding of the impact of the stage in Pizzolatto’s work. In the second season of True Detective, the tone changes to film noir to better suit the Los Angeles setting, for instance. The aesthetics of these two writers can be compared in the different ways they have shown to manipulate the space of their works, with their most inspired work trying to capture the “cierta cosa” of the Caribbean.
Before becoming a writer, Pizzolatto was a visual artist, but he always felt limited by the edges of the canvas. His art incorporated a narrative, as Pizzolatto, himself, explains, “sensibility for me was always married to storytelling. Even my artwork often implied a narrative. It wasn’t Abstract Expressionism—that’s for sure. It was heightened realism” (Cohen 2015). Pizzolatto’s philosophy coincides with the aim of Carpentier’s marvelous real; both writers expressed their surroundings not by embellishing but rather emphasizing their reality to better make sense of it. Writing was an alternative way for Pizzolatto to finish the stories that began and remained unfinished in his visual art, which was itself marked an attempt to capture the over spilling and lavish contradictions of Caribbean life. In his written work, everything from Pizzolatto begins internally in the mind of his characters and extends to the exterior world in how they interpret their surroundings. The outskirts of New Orleans affect the characters of True Detective in the sense that they are unsure how to continue into the future without first resolving the past. This conflict is mental, or internal, but it still determines the actions, or the exterior, of the characters. The mystery of the surroundings influences how the characters understand themselves and imitates the inevitably dark natural order of the world. The unknown place of “Carcosa” where the Yellow King lives may be a symbol, as has been posited, for the underworld or Lucifer. The only way to overcome both is to avenge them. This challenge may be a metaphor for how people have to survive obstacles in real life. Pizzolatto reflects in the relationship between his characters and their surroundings by saying, “I tend to be influenced by places as much as anything. You look around and notice details and it starts to form a world and then you find characters to inhabit this world” (Cohen 2015). Similar to the marvelous real, real life is complicated and we are not always sure of what is fantasy and what is reality, just as the characters of True Detective and The Kingdom of This World. This uncertainty is characteristic of fiction as well, revealing how literature bares the mark of its surroundings.
The Kingdom of This World and True Detective written by Carpentier and Pizzolatto include motifs specific to the Caribbean. These aspects further develop their stories by illustrating a pan-Caribbean experience that could not be expressed without the inclusion of such surroundings. In the New World, land has always determined fate, whether it be in Haiti or Louisiana. Caribbean literature, including True Detective and The Kingdom of This World, demonstrate the influence of the landscape and surroundings while also revealing a trans-national Caribbean aesthetic. The shared space of the Caribbean develops this culture that surpasses artificial borders and results in a unique pan-Caribbean aesthetic that pushes against reality as a sort of realism.
This article came out of Dr. Brantley Nicholson’s seminar on the idea of the Americas, which was conducted in the autumn of 2015 at Georgia College.
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