Out-of-synchness, taste, the Slavic span, friends

Jacqueline Loss. Photograph by Barbara R. Loss, 2015.
Jacqueline Loss. Photograph by Barbara R. Loss, 2015.

It’s a pleasure to include a conversation with Jacqueline Loss in this commentary series.  Over the years she has regularly attended readings in Havana and New York, and I'm never surprised to find that the poets with whom I connect have spent significant time talking with her in one or both cities. Perhaps this is why her projects in scholarship and translation so often turn out to be revealing, if sometimes in unexpected ways, for readers with an interest in poetry. 

KD:  We recently started to talk about a 1928 essay by Jorge Mañach that forms part of the island’s national canon – but which you noticed had never been translated in full into English.  Indagación del choteo is cited in conversations about Cuban language use, social class tensions, and Cuban social psychology.  In short, touchstones for talking about poetics. 

Here I'll give some preliminary context for readers who may not be familiar with the complex term choteo, before I move to the question for you.    Roberto González Echevarría highlights a “penchant to take nothing seriously, to make a joke out of everything” (213).[1] He notes that choteo involves rhetorical patterns such as double-entendres and parody, among others, and that it can have a strong anti-authoritarian bent.  There's also a verb for presenting choteo in action, chotear.

You’ve mentioned that you sense Mañach’s historical commentary on this word to be folding into today’s new questions about related cultural tensions, given the twist and turns of social change in the twenty-first century.  Again, that discussion will be relevant to how poetry and poetics are valued or devalued in Cuba.  You recently oversaw a seminar in which the translation of his essay became a focal point.  Could you share a bit about the project here, and comment on your sense of its potential to frame conversations about poetry?

JL:  I love this question, because it gets me to think of the “minute,” which is, in fact, one of the words that Jorge Mañach uses to put us in his choteo mood, hardly characteristic of this idiosyncratic Cuban humor. I am not a Mañach specialist, and I don’t particularly feel on stable footing when talking about the Cuban Republic. That’s why when Ariana Hernández Reguant, editor-in-chief of the new webzine Cuba Counterpoints, encouraged me to undertake the project immediately, I hesitated at first. I will be writing more about the project shortly in that webzine in a section on translation I’m editing. Anyway, I only got to know how strange Mañach’s essay was through translating it, to a large extent, with my wonderful undergraduate students-- Christina Bauman, Morgan Handy, Kevin Johnston, Sonja Nishku, and Jacqueline Slemp, using a model of collaborative translation in the classroom that I learned about from the esteemed translator and writer Esther Allen. I’m still working on it.

The minutiae that occupies Mañach in his quest to define the social psychology of the Cuban people is not in line with the contemporary tendency, at least in the U.S., to cast all kinds of essentialisms aside. Yes, I realize that minutiae and essentialisms may seem at odds, but once you read the essay, I think you’ll agree.

Despite all of Mañach’s ponderings on choteo, I confess I came out feeling like “what the hell is it really”? As if I knew even less about it after having spent nearly 4 months with it than before. And more than once, as Mañach was mostly somberly critiquing what he sees as a Cuban tendency to not take anything seriously, we’d all wish for some comic relief. It’s as if with each word, choteo kept getting reshaped, and choteo turned out to be as indecipherable after translation as before.

At the same time, our contemporary distance from Mañach’s haughty register was perversely pleasurable to mimic in English.  I think that these feelings -- the combination of dislike and like that Mañach had toward his object of study (not so Facebook-friendly) and ours toward Mañach, our feeling of out-of-synchness with his observations, and our desire to transport that ambiguous register into the target language -- are of value, of poetic value.  So much of our discussions on Cuba and the United States has been constituted through extremes.

Here’s a little glimpse, a moment where Mañach loosens up a little bit from his characteristic “rigidity”:

One time, a very criollo friend of mine, devoid of all intellectual malice, although quite seasoned in all other regards, told me, in all earnest, his impressions of being aboard a steamboat during a storm. What seemed to impress him most was the displacement that the cargo, poorly secured in the cesspit, suffered, with the boat’s lurches: “The barrels,” he said, “the packages, boxes, everything was going from one side to another: that there was a choteo.”  

A choteo, so to say, is confusion, subversion, disorder; in sum, “letting it all down.” So, what does this word mean but the relaxation of all links and joints that give things an articulated appearance, a valuable wholeness? The fact that my friend used the word choteo to describe circumstances that were as unpleasant as a storm’s, makes it even more significant. Just because his use of the word choteo was metaphoric does not lessen the possibility of there existing a situation of choteo without a real motive of mockery or rejoicing. Mere disorder is not a thing that is funny in itself. Choteo doesn’t find funniness in it either, but faced with a similar situation, it takes pride in being able to negate all hierarchy that, for certain types of tropical idiosyncrasies, is always odious. All orders imply some authority. To order is synonymous with to be in command. In disorder, the individual can be more at ease. There is no external restraint that encourages keeping appropriate personal composure. What is ordered exerts a kind of disciplinary exemplariness on one’s spirit. To me there is nothing that makes me more uneasy than entering an office where everything is in order; instead, where things are a complete mess, I always experience a sense of familiarity. This desire for familiarity with things is something to which the Cuban is exceedingly addicted. We shall see that one of the determinant causes of choteo is the leveling tendency that characterizes us Cubans, that which we call “parejería” and that leads us to say “viejo” and “chico” to the most exalted or venerable man.

It’s interesting that much of the bit I’m sharing with you here was also excellently translated by the writer Gustavo Pérez Firmat in his 1986 book Literature and Liminality: Festive Reading in the Hispanic Tradition, in which he also articulates the “slipperiness” within the term choteo, and also Mañach’s awareness of it.  I think that movement, that resistance to translatability that speaks through words like “relajo” that we translated as “letting it all down” but that also could imply a kind of lack of morality within that relaxation, makes the poetic so appealing and especially so, when dealing with an environment as politically charged as Cuba. 

KD:  Continuing on this fascinating, larger subject of how the “cultured” person gets framed in Cuba:  The word cheo appeared in a book I was translating last year, and it seems to be everywhere now. You’ve been so caught up with one of its sometime opposites, the word fino, that you’re actually making films about it.  Can there be a poesía chea?  Can poetry elude these standoffs, signify as something not reducible to elitism v. popular expression?

JL:  That’s a very charged question, Kristin, because the concept of “culturedness” is a complicated one; what constitutes “culturedness” has been studied within the U.S.S.R. where in the 1930s there was this great campaign to evoke the cultured class, and I’m currently studying these qualities in a comparative fashion.  Also, María Antonia Cabrera Arus’s current investigation into and forthcoming exhibition on material culture begins to comb through the answers to some of these questions.

Yes, actually “cheo” and “fino” are not necessarily opposites, although it is easy to make them appear as such. One can be try so hard to be “fino” that they do it in bad taste. The visibility of the force makes the characteristic appear vulgar. Being too aware of particular modes of comportment and expression is not necessarily a good thing. So, one could actually be cheo and fino simultaneously.

And I really like your linking this to poetry, because I do think that Cuban letters tends to hold on to discussions of taste, a topic I became acutely aware of when I was attacked recently for reviewing a book I did enjoy, that some viewed as being in poor taste, along with my approach to reviewing. That is to say, while in the U.S. academy, we may approach literature from all different angles, and perhaps, some may say too easily, for how it supports our identitarian frameworks, critique by Cubans, on both sides of the straits, is sometimes allergic to that rhetoric, in part, because of their experiences with socialism having recruited literature of all sorts for its causes.  What can’t be recruited, we might say, is the poetic.

I am working on an interactive project and film with the photographer and filmmaker Juan Carlos Alom (edited by Ernesto René Rodríguez) that examines this word fino whose Cuban connotations—everything from classy to more white or even homosexual-- are quite difficult to translate. So in the trailer, I leave the word and related ones in the Spanish.

I do think that poetry tries to elude these standoffs, but if we translate poetry into other forms of discourse like critique (which I guess, is something I’m doing with the fino project), we can get reductive, but I am also trying not to, to the extent that it remains interesting and productive.  Juan Carlos Alom’s filming individuals’ own musings in my interviews of them about what is “fino” becomes a collage that defies, to some extent, classifications.

Interestingly, in these interviews with Cubans in the diaspora, many have remarked that the codes of comportment “relaxed” during the Revolution. Cubans of all different racial groups and political affiliations seem to agree that the quest to equalize carried out by the Revolution did damage to “formality”; that complaint particularly struck me in light of the work I was carrying out on choteo, and Mañach’s having blamed the Cuban “relaxation” and lack of adherence to hierarchies on the newness of the Republic, and Cubans’ reactions to the previous Spanish order.  I continue to be puzzled by this (in a good way).

KD: Despite the fact that you’re interviewing diasporic Cubans now, you haven’t focused most of your projects on the line spanning the 90-mile gap between the US and Cuba, which so many other people presume to be the maritime space that matters most.  By contrast, you pursue lines spanning Cuba and the terrains of the former USSR. 

What are some of the questions about that axis of E/W cultural relations that most interest you right now, and how much do poets seem to be taking them on?  Other writers, artists?

JL:  I have been interested in how Cubans remember their contact with the Soviets in the arts and this fino stuff is, in part, a creative outgrowth of that interest, since Soviets, for many Cubans, were often seen as lacking in the grace that is supposed to define Cubanness. Yet, it’s complicated—because lots of the high arts that were meant to be accessed and appreciated by all Cubans as part of the Fidel Castro-brand populism were brought to them by way of the Soviets.

But having worked on my last book for some ten years, I watched many transformations as to how the Soviets and Russians were being implemented within the Cuban imaginary and, to some extent, as the Russians were economically advancing their interests in Cuba once again and the topic of the Soviet was no longer something that was officially being cast aside and had become a field of inquiry unto itself, how artists navigated the Cuba-USSR axis became slightly more predictable and less interesting to me, although as I mentioned, there are these slightly more theoretical questions that haunt me.

And, yet, there is still a great deal of creative production like Carlos Machado Quintela’s La obra del siglo or even Carlos A. Aguilera’s El imperio Oblomov, a novel that begins with the expression of hatred toward the East, that remains complex and interesting. Also, I think there’s enormous research to be carried out examining the expansive translation project of the Cuban theorist and translator Desiderio Navarro, who has translated within Criterios journal a plethora of Slavic thinkers whose writing did not enter Cuba through official channels.

KD:  You mentioned to me that translation causes you to think about writing as a kind of gift.  This led into your reflection that receiving and giving gifts across Cuba/US lines is a political endeavor. 

JL:  When you work on contemporary matters, even in literature, it is undeniable that you learn not solely from books but from the conversations with people who wrote them. As someone who has been studying Cuban culture for more than twenty years, in a context that is politically charged, there is a way that, like many of my colleagues, I have, at times, not mentioned names in our research, because the utterers of ideas have not necessarily wanted to be tied publicly to their ideas or the people writing about them.

In a way, my relationship to translation over the years responds to the unevenness of power relations, navigating my sentiments about disclosure, but it also has been a way for me to embrace friendships with people for whose creations and ideas I have the utmost respect. In fact, some of my greatest satisfaction in life comes from that pleasure of translating friends.

[1] Cuban Fiestas.  New Haven and London:  Yale UP, 2010.