Impossible harmonies: music, race and nation in the neobaroque novel
“Impossible Harmonies: Music, Race and Nation in the Neobaroque Novel” addresses questions of national identity and the literary uses of music as they apply to the writings of James Weldon Johnson, Alejo Carpentier and Ralph Ellison. I argue that each of these authors uses literary techniques that can be called neobaroque to interrogate the notion of harmony as a metaphor for national identity formation. While the idea of the Neobaroque is generally associated with Latin America, I take advantage of critical spaces opened up by recent work on the global Neobaroque to see Baroque traces in other postcolonial areas. And while the Neobaroque is described by Severo Sarduy and Linda Hutcheon as an art of disharmony, I argue instead that as these authors consider nationality from multi-racial perspectives, they work to reproduce the impossible harmonies (the phrase comes from a line in Carpentier’s 1974 novel, Concierto barroco) that dominate African-based music forms in the Americas.
This dissertation addresses continuing controversies in the interpretation of each author’s work. Critics, for example, have read Carpentier’s preoccupation with form, which is closely connected to his love of music, as a reflection of un-subversive, even elitist tendencies. The charges makes sense: it is hard to reconcile the Beethoven-loving Carpentier who argued that novelists, like musicians, should work within predetermined forms in order to conform to “pressing spiritual needs” with the Carpentier who celebrated the formlessness of Havana’s cityscape in “La ciudad de las columnas” (“The City of Columns,” 1964). Similarly, Salim Washington argues that Johnson’s narrator’s quest for a music form that would combine black American music with Western classical music reflects Johnson’s assimilationist, “mulatto-based American nationalism.” This charge resonates with the central complaint of Robin Moore’s Nationalizing Blackness (1997): that white Cubans intellectuals and artists, including Carpentier, appropriated black music forms in their construction of a mixed-race national identity. Where Johnson is accused of cultural betrayal, Moore argues that Carpentier participates in a sort of cultural hijacking. Without putting aside those objections, “Impossible Harmonies” recuperates the revolutionary potential of these authors’ texts.