The Repeating Island: The Caribbean and the Postmodern Perspective

The Repeating Island: The Caribbean and the Postmodern Perspective

by Antonio Benítez Rojo

In this second edition of The Repeating Island, Antonio Benítez-Rojo, a master of the historical novel, short story, and critical essay, continues to confront the legacy and myths of colonialism. This co-winner of the 1993 MLA Katherine Singer Kovacs Prize has been expanded to include three entirely new chapters that add a Lacanian perspective and a view of the…  See more details below


In this second edition of The Repeating Island, Antonio Benítez-Rojo, a master of the historical novel, short story, and critical essay, continues to confront the legacy and myths of colonialism. This co-winner of the 1993 MLA Katherine Singer Kovacs Prize has been expanded to include three entirely new chapters that add a Lacanian perspective and a view of the carnivalesque to an already brilliant interpretive study of Caribbean culture. As he did in the first edition, Benítez-Rojo redefines the Caribbean by drawing on history, economics, sociology, cultural anthropology, psychoanalysis, literary theory, and nonlinear mathematics. His point of departure is chaos theory, which holds that order and disorder are not the antithesis of each other in nature but function as mutually generative phenomena. Benítez-Rojo argues that within the apparent disorder of the Caribbean-the area's discontinuous landmasses, its different colonial histories, ethnic groups, languages, traditions, and politics-there emerges an "island" of paradoxes that repeats itself and gives shape to an unexpected and complex sociocultural archipelago. Benítez-Rojo illustrates this unique form of identity with powerful readings of texts by Las Casas, Guillen, Carpentier, García Marquez, Walcott, Harris, Buitrago, and Rodríguez Julia.

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Chaos theory claims that within the disorder represented by nature, there are repeating regularities. Cuban writer Benitez-Rojo uses this premise to argue that, despite the Caribbean's disorder of geography, language, and politics, a repeating order exists. As a historian and literary critic, the author examines the writings of Bartolome de las Casas, Nicolas Guillen, Fernando Ortiz, Alejo Carpentier, and others. The result is a redefinition of the Caribbean culture. Benitez-Rojo (Romance languages, Amherst) is the author of numerous works of fiction and criticism. Recommended for scholars.-- Joanne Snapp, Virginia Commonwealth Univ., Richmond

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Duke University Press
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Post-Contemporary Interventions Series

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The Repeating Island

The Caribbean and the Postmodern Perspective Second Edition

By Antonio Benítez-Rojo, James Maraniss

Duke University Press

Copyright © 1996 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-1860-6


From the plantation to the Plantation

In the town of El Caney, near Santiago de Cuba, there is a formation of ruins crowning the place's most important height. It is the old fortress of El Vizo, torn apart by artillery in the final days of the Spanish-American War. There, below those grapeshot-creased walls, one sees a bronze buckler set out to honor the valor of General Vara del Rey, who, rather than accept the easy terms of an honorable surrender, defended his position stubbornly until falling dead among the handful of men to which his garrison had been reduced. The buckler and its words of commemoration, as well as the restorative work that enables access to the very tower of the redoubt, are signs of the Cubans' admiration for his conduct. Nothing more natural, if he had died fighting against Spain. But it wasn't like that. Vara del Rey was a severe and hardened military man who fought to the end in order to prolong, if only for a couple of hours, a Spanish dominion over that fortified ridge in the Sierra Maestra, harassed by Cuban and American troops.

The world does not swarm with gestures of this type, even less in the non-Caribbean Latin American countries, where there still remains, ever since the era of the wars of independence, a certain resentment toward everything Spanish. In the Caribbean, though, the citizenry has kept as its very own the stone walls that its colonial past inspired, even the most questionable ones, as happened with the El Vizo fortress. One can actually say that there is no city in the Spanish Caribbean that does not hold a kind of cult worship of its castles and fortresses, its walls and cannons, and by extension the "old" sections of the city, as with Old San Juan and Old Havana. Colonial buildings are regarded there with a rare mixture of familiarity and respect. They have an almost occult prestige, which comes from what lies behind them, something like what's aroused in children by grandmother's huge wardrobe.

One can't help noticing this, no matter how little the Spanish colonization of America could ever be seen as better than anyone else's. Indeed, if one looks into the pages of any local history, he will be struck head-on by its having been authoritarian in civic matters, monopolist in commerce, intolerant in religion, slaveholding in production, actively hostile to reforming currents, and discriminatory toward Indians, mestizos, blacks, mulattos, and even toward Creoles born of European parents.

Nonetheless, as we shall see, the Spanish colonial picture in the Caribbean differed substantially from the scheme that predominated in the continental territories, above all in the great viceroyalties of New Spain and Peru. These differences arose during colonization from within the process of adapting the power of the mother country to geographical, demographic, economic, social, and cultural conditions that acted in a specific way in the island area of the Caribbean and, to a lesser extent, along the mainland coast. I mean by this that the Spanish Caribbean is part of Latin America, but also part of a considerably more complex region, characterized by its military and commercial importance, its linguistic and ethnological pluralism, and by the proliferating character of the Plantation.

It also holds true that although the characteristics just mentioned might serve an attempt at definition, the fact that England, France, and Holland—plus Sweden and Denmark on a smaller scale—should have arrived there much later than Spain and Portugal, and above all that they (unlike the Iberian nations) should have steered their economies along the most radical capitalist paths, helped to lend a heterogeneous aspect to the colonial Caribbean. So if it's clear that there are certain regular and common features, held in place by experiences more or less shared—European conquest, the native peoples' disappearance or retreat, African slavery, plantation economies, Asian immigration, rigid and prolonged colonial domination—there are other obvious factors that would keep the area from being coherent.

Testimony written by the many travelers to the Caribbean generally provides valuable information toward any attempt at positing differences between the various blocs of colonial territory. At the end of the last century, the historian James Anthony Froude commented:

Kingston is the best of our West Indian towns and Kingston has not one fine building in it. Havana is a city of palaces, a city of streets and plazas, of colonnades and towers, and churches and monasteries. We English have built in those islands as if we were but passing visitors, wanting only tenements to be occupied for a time. The Spaniards built as they built in Castile, built with the same material, the white limestone which they found in the New World as in the Old. The palaces of the nobles in Havana, the residence of the governor, the convents, the cathedral, are a reproduction of Burgos or Valladolid ... And they carried along with them their laws, their habits, their institutions and their creed, their religious orders, their bishops and their Inquisition.

Without beginning for the moment to put forth the causes behind this visible difference—economic, social, and cultural—between the principal city of a Spanish Caribbean colony and that of any neighboring colony administered by England, I am now going to present a contrary judgment, to the effect that one may draw an impression of important features held in common by the different colonial blocs. Père Jean-Baptiste Labat writes:

I have travelled everywhere in your sea of the Caribbean ... from Haiti to Barbados, to Martinique and Guadaloupe, and I know what I am speaking about ... You are all together, in the same boat, sailing on the same uncertain sea ... citizenship and race unimportant, feeble little labels compared to the message that my spirit brings to me: that of the position and predicament which History has imposed upon you ... I saw it first with the dance ... the merengue in Haiti, the beguine in Martinique and today I hear, de mon oreille morte, the echo of calypsoes from Trinidad, Jamaica, St. Lucia, Antigua, Dominica and the legendary Guiana ... It is no accident that the sea which separates your lands makes no difference to the rhythms of your body.

Apart from the intimate nuances of this text, it is interesting to see how Labat, an astute observer, sets out, at the end of the seventeenth century, the hypothesis of a common Caribbean culture—expressed through music, song, dance, and rhythm—unbounded by the linguistic and political frontiers imposed by the various colonial powers. That is, while Froude directs himself to the differences, Labat lets himself be overtaken by the similarities.

It is precisely the unequal reading of these differences and similarities, or if you like these centrifugal and centripetal forces at work in the Caribbean, that has led investigators of the region to take positions around the axis of unity/diversity, especially in the field of culture. We have to recognize, though, that—in addition to the constricting violence that any binary focus imposes—the scarcity of comparative studies that transcend a single linguistic zone, and also of investigations that could be termed interdisciplinary or encompassing, renders any more or less objective judgment of this matter difficult to make. Further, the presence in the past of strong plantation economies in the Brazilian northeast and the southern United States does not make it any easier to delimit the area clearly. Nor should we skip lightly over the difficulty presented by the staggered exploitation of the region, an obstacle that has suggested a comparative method that relies on a nonsynchronic comparison of socioeconomic data. In this way one could compare Cuban society of the nineteenth century, by then dominated by a plantation economy, with that of Saint-Domingue in the eighteenth century, and either one of the two with that of Barbados at the end of the seventeenth century, when the expulsion of the Dutch from Brazil spread to that region the era's most advanced sugar production technology. The fact that this method has been proposed and confirmed in the heart of the community of specialists who study the region is very significant. They propose the Plantation as the parameter for analyzing the Caribbean, while at the same time speaking of the contradictory effects (or voids) that its proliferation has imposed upon the whole area. Thus, if we may venture a leap of the imagination, the Caribbean could be seen as well as a loosely bounded figure combining straight lines and curves, let's say, a spiral galaxy tending outward—to the universe—that bends and folds over its own history, its own inwardness.

In any case one has to conclude that, in spite of the array of difficulties facing any study of the region, one can always resort to one of the three general types of reading that the Caribbean now offers, that is, Labat's unified and unifying, Froude's entirely severalized, and one we call here the reading of Chaos, of the Milky Way, where we detect dynamic regularities—not results—within the (dis)order that exists beyond the world of predictable pathways. I think that each of the three points of view is valid, and that each one constitutes the most viable course for examining one or another aspect of the Caribbean discourse. Here, in this book, the underlined attitude is that of the reader typed as Chaos, but without any desire to deny or to repress the validity of other readings. If I should be reproached for taking a too-eclectic position in this matter, I will answer that this is probably the case, but I am not the only one to hold to this position, and I would refer the critic to Chapter 4, where there is a discussion of Fernando Ortiz and his typically Caribbean position in the face of modern scientific thought.

The complexity that the multiplication of the Plantation—each case a different one—brought to the Caribbean was such that the Caribbean peoples themselves, in referring to the ethnological processes that derived from the extraordinary collision of races and cultures thus produced, speak of syncretism, acculturation, transculturation, assimilation, deculturation, indigenization, creolization, cultural mestizaje, cultural cimarronaje, cultural miscegenation, cultural resistance, etc. Which illustrates not just that these processes occurred again and again, but also, and above all, that there are different positions or readings from which they may be examined.

Here, in this chapter, I do not propose a model kit for constructing the Caribbean. My only aim is to undertake a kind of voyage of revisitation, or better yet, of scrutinization, toward points which, because they lie within the Caribbean discourse, tend to be of interest to those who enjoy reading the region's cultural codes. One of those points is the argument between those who argue that centripetal forces are stronger than centrifugal ones in the Caribbean and those who think the opposite; that is, the old unity/ diversity debate. Among the latter we find the historian Frank Moya Pons, who says the following about particularity:

For the majority of the population of the area, to speak of the Caribbean has meaning only as a convenience in geography classes; for most of its people the Caribbean as a living community, with common interests and aspirations, just does not exist. Practically, it seems more sensible to think of several Caribbeans coexisting alongside one another. Although it is frequently said that the local economies follow a similar pattern, in fact the cultures and social structures of the region vary considerably, and consequently, lifestyles and political behavior vary as well.

I think that there is a good deal of truth in what Moya Pons says. A Haitian or a Martinican feels closer to France than to Jamaica, and a Puerto Rican identifies better with the United States than with Surinam. Further, it is evident to me that the cultural panorama of the Caribbean is supremely heterogeneous. How then can one be sure that a Caribbean culture even exists?

Although it may seem contradictory, I think that the quickest route toward defining a substantial form of Caribbeanness is not the cultural one. Perhaps it would be more productive to take first, for example, the way that Sidney W. Mintz proposes:

To begin with, it is inaccurate to refer to the Caribbean as a "cultural area," if by "culture" is meant a common body of historical tradition. The very diverse origins of Caribbean populations; the complicated history of European cultural impositions; and the absence in most societies of any firm continuity of the culture of the colonial power have resulted in a very heterogeneous cultural picture. And yet the societies of the Caribbean—taking the word "society" to refer here to forms of social structure and social organization—exhibit similarities that cannot possibly be attributed to mere coincidence. It probably would be more accurate (though stylistically unwieldy) to refer to the Caribbean as a "societal area," since its component societies probably share many more social-structural features than they do cultural features.

Following this, Mintz presents an essay that has come to be a classic text in the historiography of the Caribbean, not so much for its innovation as for its articulation. After considering the differences that he sees within the area, Mintz reaches the conclusion that the great majority of Caribbean nations present parallel socioeconomic structures, which were determined by the same concurrent phenomenon: the plantation. Which is to say, apart from the fact that the plantation economy existed in other zones of the American continent, it is only in the Caribbean region that its dynamics produce a kind of socioeconomic instability whose morphology is repeated, becoming more or less ascendant from colonial times until the present. Hence the Caribbean, by virtue of this judgment, may be defined as a societal area.

Without beginning here to argue the details of this way of seeing the Caribbean, I think that one must agree with Mintz that the plantation seems indispensable to studying the societies of the area. In my opinion, nonetheless, the plantation could turn out to be an even more useful parameter; it could serve as a telescope for observing the changes and the continuities of the Caribbean galaxy through the lenses of multifold disciplines, namely, economics, history, sociology, political science, anthropology, ethnology, demography, as well as through innumerable practices, which range from the commercial to the military, from the religious to the literary. I think that the arrival and proliferation of the plantations is the most important historical phenomenon to have come about in the Caribbean, to the extent that if it had not occurred the islands of the region might today perhaps be miniature replicas—at least in demographic and ethnological terms—of the European nations that colonized them.

I believe, in fact, that one of the most reasonable ways to explain the regular differences that we notice in the area is to begin with the plantation; still more, I think that its multiplied presence may be used in establishing differences not just within the Caribbean itself but also in its relation to Europe, Africa, Asia, North and South America. I believe that beyond their nature—sugar, coffee, etc.—, beyond the colonizing power that set them up, beyond the epoch in which the dominant economy in one or another colony was founded, the plantation turns out to be one of the principal instruments for studying the area, if not indeed the most important. This is so because the Caribbean, in substantial measure, was shaped by Europe for the plantation, and the generalized historical convergences shown by the different territories in the region are always related to that purpose. For these reasons, it would seem premature to venture an opinion about whether or not a Caribbean culture exists before reviewing the circumstances surrounding the development of the plantation economy and its impact on the sociocultural surfaces of the area, that is, until organizing the discourse of the Plantation.


Excerpted from The Repeating Island by Antonio Benítez-Rojo, James Maraniss. Copyright © 1996 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Antonio Benítez-Rojo is the Thomas B. Walton, Jr., Memorial Professor at Amherst College.

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