Cogut Institute for the Humanities

Adrián Emmanuel Hernández-Acosta: Mortuary Poetics of the Caribbean

Adrian Emmanuel Hernandez-Acosta

Adrián Emmanuel Hernández-Acosta’s research and teaching explore the literary, religious, and theoretical aspects of 20th- and 21st-century Dominican, Puerto Rican, and Cuban texts. In this Q&A, he discusses mortuary poetics, which concerns the portrayal of African diaspora religions in scenes of death and mourning within Dominican, Puerto Rican, and Cuban literature, film, and visual art. He is a Postdoctoral Fellow in International Humanities in the Department of Hispanic Studies and the Cogut Institute for the Humanities and an affiliate of the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies, the Department of American Studies, and the Ethnic Studies concentration.

You coined the term “mortuary poetics” to describe the portrayal of African diaspora religions in “scenes of death and mourning within Dominican, Puerto Rican, and Cuban literature, film, and visual art.” What drew you to focus your research on mortuary poetics?

I hear two questions here. One is about why I sustain an interest in the broad topics of death and mourning. The other is about how I came to the specific analytic of mortuary poetics in forging some pathway through those broad topics in Caribbean literature and art.

In response to the first question, I can’t say I’ve experienced an exorbitant amount of death in my life. And yet, given the world in which we live, I would question the assumption that there is such a thing as a normal amount of death, let alone that it can be quantifiable — as if the loss of a loved one, for example, yielded so easily to the logic of calculation. Nonetheless, my experience of losing loved ones has been fundamental to my formation as a person, as a teacher, and as a life-long student.

I am not the first one with this insight, of course. For example, the late Leo Bersani, a prolific scholar of French literature and modern cultures of sexuality who drew extensively on psychoanalytic theory, once summarized Sigmund Freud’s own reconceptualization of melancholia as follows: “The system called ego comes into being as an affective dump” (The Freudian Body: Psychoanalysis and Art, 1986, 93). In other words, melancholy is not a pathological mode of mourning, but the very way in which our psychic selves are constituted. Of course, one need not be steeped in psychoanalytic theory to appreciate the fact that the loss of a loved one is formative as a disruptive experience.

And so, I guess we could flip the first question to ask not why I am interested in the topics of death and mourning, but why many seem so resistant to those topics. This is not to say that there is no talk of death and mourning. In fact, there has been a great deal of it as of late. Some might even say people are exhausted by it. I understand that. But/and, it seems to me that talk about death and mourning by people with a range of political orientations in this country has often been a talking away from death and mourning — a talking out of it, as it were, rather than through it. What my current research insists on is the need to work through it.

As someone whose research and teaching are on the Caribbean, I would add that the region is often depicted in the United States as a fountain of pleasure and site of leisure for consumption, or as a disaster zone in need of humanitarian if not military intervention, or as a set of revolts that are narrated in terms of terror and pity or heroism and tragedy. What rarely comes up, if ever, is the Caribbean as a space of mourning. In fact, I began a course I taught this spring semester on mourning in Hispanophone Caribbean literature and art precisely by pointing out that gap in the associations students usually make with the Caribbean. Given the region’s ongoing histories of dispossession and displacement, the fact that the Caribbean as a space of mourning goes unremarked is remarkable. What my current research aims to do, then, is not so much to fill in that gap — a task that is perhaps too big for any one scholar — but rather to begin developing language for talking about mourning in the Caribbean.

“ Given the region’s ongoing histories of dispossession and displacement, the fact that the Caribbean as a space of mourning goes unremarked is remarkable. ”

Finally, in response to the second question on the specific analytic of mortuary poetics, I must confess that at first I was hesitant to use the word “poetics” as an organizing term for my current research project. It already saturates 20th-century Caribbean literary studies. Aimé Césaire’s “Poésie et connaissance” (1945), a conference paper turned article in which the Martinican poet turned politician presents several propositions about what poetry is, or rather what it does; José Lezama Lima’s La cantidad hechizada (1970), a collection of lectures turned essays by the queer Cuban poet in which he develops his “sistema poético del mundo”; and Sylvia Wynter’s “The Ceremony Must Be Found: After Humanism” (1984), an article in which the Jamaican novelist and scholar first uses “autopoiesis” to describe the generative work of art — these are some of the many examples that come to mind. And, ever since the 1997 English translation of Édouard Glissant’s Poétique de la relation (1990), the reception of Caribbean literary and cultural studies in the United States has seemed to me to be reduced to the term.

However, my initial hesitation prompted me to ask what we actually mean when we say “poetics” and led me to begin a historical sweep of poetics through ancient Greek texts as well as medieval Arabic and Latin texts. These include Aristotle’s Poetics, Ibn Rushd’s Middle Commentary on the Poetics, and Geoffrey of Vinsauf’s Poetria nova. This sweep has proved fruitful for my analysis of how death and mourning are worked through in Caribbean literature and art through the rhetorical trope of metalepsis or transumption — that is, the shift of a figure of speech into a new context or the shift of a figure from one textual level to another. And so, my coinage of the phrase “mortuary poetics” emerges out of an ongoing study of poetics that I suspect will continue beyond the current project.

Your research dwells in a space suspended between origin (Africa) and dissemination (the Caribbean). How do origin and dissemination intertwine in your research?

This is a perceptive and beautifully posed question. My own position on or, to borrow from and modify your own language, dwelling within the suspended space between (imagined) origin and dissemination is precisely that — a makeshift dwelling within the suspended space that is structured by melancholy, which, again, I do not understand as a pathological mode of mourning but as the way in which mourning constitutes us.

I think it is important here to situate my position in relation to the field of African diaspora studies and its own history of thinking through questions of (imagined) origin and dissemination — questions that have animated theories and methods of studying diaspora. The field of African diaspora studies has been dominated by the social sciences, especially anthropology. Some key anthropological texts that come to mind are Zora Neale Hurston’s 1938 Tell My Horse: Voodoo and Life in Haiti and Jamaica, Melville Herskovits’ 1940 The Myth of the Negro Past, Sidney Mintz and Richard Price’s 1976 The Birth of African-American Culture, and J. Lorand Matory’s 2005 Black Atlantic Religion: Tradition, Transnationalism, and Matriarchy in the Afro-Brazilian Candomblé. This is by no means an exhaustive list, and it is beyond the scope of this interview to provide a comprehensive history of the field of African diaspora studies.

However, I want to note three things. First, I understand the question of (imagined) origin and dissemination as but one iteration of a fundamental tension between historical continuity and discontinuity. Second, across several important developments in the field of African diaspora studies, this fundamental tension has persisted. For example, although Herskovits’ proposition of “cultural survival,” “retention,” or “Africanism” has lost analytic purchase among anthropologists of the African diaspora, the study of how people of African descent in the Americas claim and enact connections to (an imagined) Africa remains fruitful in understanding broader and contentious cultural politics within and among various African diasporas in the Americas.

This leads to the third thing worth noting. As you might glean from the titles of the anthropological texts I mentioned, religious practices and kinship structures have continued to enjoy special attention in debates about historical continuity and discontinuity. The general direction across these texts has been toward a more granular view of cultural practices in their historical and geographic specificity across transnational circuits. In this sense, their contributions to African diaspora studies have been inestimable.

And yet, I take my cue in response to the broader tension between historical continuity and discontinuity that subtends the question of (imagined) origin and dissemination in African diaspora studies from a pair of seemingly stray paragraphs in Saidiya Hartman’s 1997 Scenes of Subjection: Slavery, Terror, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America. Here are some relevant lines from that text:

“I want to explore the way in which these practices witness and record the violent discontinuities of history introduced by the Middle Passage, the contradiction of captivity and enslavement, and the experience of loss and affiliation [... T]his past cannot be recovered, yet the history of the captive emerges precisely at this site of loss and rupture [... T]he past is untranslatable in the current frame of meaning [... T]hus the reiterative invocation of the past articulated in practice returns to this point of rupture” (1997, 73-74).

A record of violent discontinuities, of contradiction, of that which cannot be recovered and yet emerges in the rupture, of an untranslatable that in translation returns to the point of rupture — all this language has a melancholic structure to it, albeit a melancholic structure that doubles over on itself. It’s not just an incorporation of both historical continuity and discontinuity into cultural practices, including the practice of literary portrayal, but also the (im)possibility of reducing the Middle Passage to an object of mourning because it is an ongoing structural force.

Guided by Hartman’s words, what stands out to me about portrayals of African diaspora religions in relation to death and loss within Hispanophone Caribbean literature and art is how these portrayals hold out the promise of completed mourning, say, through narratives of restitution or revenge, but without ever being able to close the circle, as it were. The work of mourning is always also the work of interpretation. Therefore, (imagined) origin and dissemination or, more broadly, historical continuity and discontinuity are intertwined in my research in the very work of mourning.

“ [W]hat stands out to me about portrayals of African diaspora religions in relation to death and loss within Hispanophone Caribbean literature and art is how these portrayals hold out the promise of completed mourning, say, through narratives of restitution or revenge, but without ever being able to close the circle, as it were. The work of mourning is always also the work of interpretation. ”

The concepts of translation and untranslatability are central to your work. What are the linguistic dimensions of death and the afterlife that you have explored?

In addition to writing and teaching in various forms of American English and Caribbean Spanish, which are different from peninsular Spanish and continental Latin American Spanish, I also have to navigate various ritual languages spoken in African diaspora religions, such as Lucumí in Santería and Carabalí Brícamo in a Cuban religious brotherhood known as the Abakuá. Moreover, what is available not only as a word but also as an entire cultural shorthand in one language, like the term “Middle Passage,” may not be available in another. There is no word for Middle Passage in Spanish, for example. And yet, that absence in the available critical lexicon does not mean that the historical moment and force “Middle Passage” names is not felt or understood by Black Latin Americans. Far from it. So, yes, translation is an indispensable practice in my work.

But I also tarry with the concept of translation at the level of theoretical framework. What does it mean, for example, to think with psychoanalytic theory in a Caribbean context and more broadly African diaspora context? How do I use psychoanalytic theory without assuming commensurability in the psychic life of white bourgeois subjects in relation to which psychoanalytic theory first developed and the psychic life of Black and other racialized subjects in the Caribbean? This limit of commensurability presents a challenge to the translation of any theoretical framework developed in the absence of care for the Caribbean.

I am not of the opinion, however, that by virtue of that challenge no foreign framework, so to speak, should be used. Rather, the use should be guided by critical questions posed to the framework itself. Besides, what is the difference between an internal and external approach when so much critical thinking is indebted to the crucial role historically played by the Caribbean in the emergence of the modern Atlantic world? What comes to mind here is Susan Buck-Morss’ provocative thesis that Hegel developed his notion of the master-slave dialectic while reading coverage of the Haitian Revolution in the magazine Minerva to which the German philosopher subscribed (Hegel, Haiti, and Universal History, 2009). I guess I have more questions than answers regarding these issues of translation in my work ... The good news is that I am not alone in facing this challenge. Frantz Fanon, Sheldon George, Patricia Gherovici, Ranjana Khanna, and David Marriott among others have also tarried with psychoanalytic theory outside of Europe and with specific attention to the psychic lives of Black and other racialized subjects.

It seems that melancholy is not just the object of your research, but in a way also a mode of reading that complements other approaches that you reference, such as “paranoid” and “reparative” readings. How do you understand the relationship between melancholy and critique?

Your question pulls on a key thread in my answers thus far. Yes, I want to think of melancholic reading, with its signature sensibility to the structuring force of mourning, alongside what in queer theory are called paranoid and reparative readings. For those unfamiliar with that academic conversation, a good place to start would be Eve Sedgwick’s essay “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading; or, You’re So Paranoid You Think This Essay Is About You,” which was originally published in 1997 and reprinted in 2002. For purposes of our conversation, what is worth highlighting among the characteristics that, for Sedgwick, distinguish paranoid and reparative readings is that the former has “faith in exposure” — that is, “extraordinary stress on the efficacy of knowledge per se” (2002, 138) — whereas the latter is motivated by pleasure and amelioration (140). What is often missing from the way in which the debate between paranoid and reparative reading has unfolded is the fact that, as Sedgwick herself remarked, “In a world full of loss, pain, and oppression, both [paranoid and reparative readings] are likely to be based on deep pessimism” (138). Both paranoid reading’s insistence on revealing how shitty this death-dealing world is and reparative reading’s embrace of life-giving moments in an otherwise shitty world — both are responses in mourning. Melancholic reading illuminates that shared space of mourning out of which a range of divergent and even opposed positions emerge.

“ Melancholic reading illuminates that shared space of mourning out of which a range of divergent and even opposed positions emerge. ”

Regarding melancholy and critique more specifically, I would say that while melancholic reading uses the tropes of exposure and revelation to illuminate the shared space of mourning, it does not hold paranoid reading’s faith in critique as enough to change the world, let alone end it altogether. Critique can actually entrench the disavowal that things are in fact shitty, especially when the psychic distress aggravated if not caused by critique is not given space to breathe. To that end, I think that rethinking what Amanda Anderson calls “the psychology that we imagine in relation to the system” (“Therapeutic Criticism,” 2017, 327) is of utmost importance. Melancholic reading might be able to contribute to this necessary endeavor.

One last question: Mortuary poetics is explicitly concerned with loss and death. What does it teach us about life?

The dead are never dead. This is true in psychic life. It is also true in a material sense. For example, in conversations with marine geologist Anne Gardulski, Christina Sharpe came to the scientific term of “residence time” as a way to register how “Africans thrown, jumped, dumped overboard in Middle Passage” are “with us still [... i]n hydrogen, in oxygen; in carbon, in phosphorus, and iron; in sodium and chlorine” (In the Wake: On Blackness and Being, 2016, 19). And so, if we agree that the dead are never dead, then the lesson my project of mortuary poetics offers is really a question: how do we live alongside the dead?

“ [I]f we agree that the dead are never dead, then the lesson my project of mortuary poetics offers is really a question: how do we live alongside the dead? ”

As I said earlier, the Caribbean is seldom thought of in the United States as a site of mourning. And yet, its artistic catalogue is replete with it. Whether it’s María Teresa Vera’s 1937 Cuban trova “Boda negra,” Sylvia Rexach’s 1958 Puerto Rican bolero “Alma adentro,” Antonio Morel’s 1961 rather manic Dominican merengue “Mataron al chivo,” or Bad Bunny’s 2018 Latin trap “Como antes” — the Hispanophone Caribbean repertoire is awash with mourning. And so, I want to end our conversation by listening to an example of how Hispanophone Caribbean music lives alongside the dead.

It’s a 1982 salsa song titled “Diez lágrimas” by the Brooklyn-raised Puerto Rican family band, Lebrón Brothers. The choral refrain over which the baritone Pablo Lebrón croons improvisations is “Por cada risa, hay diez lágrimas,” which reads “For every smile, there are ten tears.” Given the homophony between the Spanish words “hay,” meaning “there is,” and “ay,” meaning the exclamatory “oh,” when we listen to the song, we can also interpret the refrain as “For every smile — oh, ten tears.”

This intensifies the relationship between smiles and tears presented in the first interpretation (behind every gesture of joy there are signs of suffering) into a confounding moment of tearful disruption. “For every smile — oh, ten tears.” At one point, Pablo Lebrón sings, “So, I’ll continue searching for the reason why I must cry,” thereby exhibiting what I mentioned earlier about the work of mourning entailing the work of interpretation.

But even before we get to the lyrics, the harmonic phrase with which the song begins alludes to a well-known melodic fragment in Western music theory known as the chromatic fourth. Also known as the lament bass, the chromatic fourth is perhaps most recognizable in the aria “Dido’s Lament” from Henry Purcell’s seventeenth-century opera Dido and Aeneas. Of course, in the case of the Lebrón Brothers’ “Diez lágrimas,” the chromatic fourth descent begun by the piano and completed by the horn section three measures later is set over a son clave rhythm and is not strictly followed by the bass. So, musicologists might take issue with my reading of the salsa song’s opening harmonic phrase.

However, the fact that the song’s composer — third-generation musician and orchestral director Angel Lebrón — gestures to the well-known melodic fragment suggests that all the rhythmic movement in the song and the choreographic dances that respond to it in synchronized time take place in the very space opened up by the lament bass. Perhaps this, this way of living alongside the dead, is the lesson about life, the lesson for life, that mortuary poetics in the Caribbean offers.