Treasure of the earth: on Elizabeth Sewell’s The Orphic voice: Poetry and Natural History (2022). by Gerardo Muñoz

Written at a time when the sciences of biological life were becoming fully integrated to technological and procedural social experimentation, Elizabeth Sewell’s 1960 The Orphic voice (nyrb, 2022) dared to pose the question of poetic myth as the mirror of scientific transformation of the modern world. Given that myth reopens the question of poetry and the natural world, for Sewell the modern exposure entails a profound misunderstanding: it is not that myth has eclipsed from the developments of scientific regime, but rather that science is incapable of absorbing it through its formal explorations in a system of subdivisions, classifications, and applicabilities. But for Sewell, it is myth itself that conditions scientific activity, providing ground for the discovery of situations and play in the world of forms. In other words, it is the persistence of myth in biological imagination the real forgotten path in the crisis of the transmission of tradition in a world aligned by the movement of scientific objectivity. For Sewell’s understanding of myth, there is no positive dialectical movement between myth and calculative rationality; rather, myth is what stands for the irreducibility of life in the cosmos. It is the very mystery of the anthropogenesis of creation as pure metamorphosis of forms. Why Orpheus, then? For Sewell, the orphic figure becomes “myth as a living thought and the very type of thought in action, and for all those other self-reflecting forms; for the human organism as an indivisible whole trying to understand itself….for biology reflection on the whole span of life in which thinking man appears as the last enigmatic development” (41). Orphism is the natural prehistory of becoming. This implies nothing less than reminding modern science of its “mistaken mythology”; as it is poetry – not mathematics or a scientific theory of language – the proper site for the adventure of life.

The strange career of orphism in the modern age is one of struggle, according to Sewell. A “struggle” that accounts for change, process, organism, and life” in an epoch that thinks of itself as definite and irreversible; completing the demythologization of the old gods and the ultimate achievement of secularization. Unlike for Oskar Goldberg for whom the civilizational regime of fixation of humanity is a matter of thousands of years (at least since Cain); for Sewell it has only bern a couple of centuries that has led to an esoteric experimentation with natural history in the wake of his postmythical substitution. At bottom, her task is to bring together, once and for all, the voice of Orpheus and “natural history and poetry, had not parted company and it only remains to try to bring them, after their long and wintry estrangement, back to one another” (48). This is the central task of the modern poet, Sewell seems to tell us: to wrestle the potentiality of myth to craft the a “model of thought” that transfigures the logical framework of rational thought into a “flexible and plastic” (beweglich und bildsam) play between form and formlessness that becomes inalienable from the metamorphosis of nature. This does not mean that all modern poets are orphic; and, I am not sure that Sewell will go as far as to accept that all orphism comes in the form of poetry (this will be of scarce persuasion). What the Orphic voices are saying “is that the poet and his world is part of natural history…it is postlogic” (153). The postlogic stands a tenuous and loose term to avoid the supreme autonomy of reason of scientific modernity. Rather than a tool to understand the causation of natural processes, or a set of artificial strategies for representation, the postlogical poetics is the music of a world as being transformed through experience and immersion. It is no doubt strange that Sewell calls postlogical method to account for the permanent overflowing of the orphic voice; although it becomes clear that she wants to think of it as a utensil inseparable from the form that it makes. In other words, the “method” stands for the possibilities of use through the attunement with worldly phenomena. Postlogical method wants to give substance to how well we construct and tailor the potent infinity of form. As Sewell writes: “The method, the lute strung with the poet sings, consists in the use of the self, and mind, heart ,as well as intelligence, as an instrument of wider interpretation, with language assisting in the process” (168).

The free use of one’s own is surely the hardest task for the poet, as we already know from Hölderlin who grasped the crisis at the outset of Romantic modernity. The capacities of the orphic poet wants to wrestle the force of expression from the stage of history into the methodology of forms. This is what Sewell reads positively in Goethe’s Urworte and Urpflanze as the “methodology of transformations…the key to all the signs in nature” (274). It is noteworthy that Sewell does feel the need to revise Hölderlin’s poetological attempt at the insufficiency of the tragic poet embedded in the play of Empedocles mediation between the material craft of art and the aorgic excess of nature. And it is too bad that she does not (alas, Hölderlin remains the missing key for many of these problems). But it might be that for Sewell the orphic voice is not a transfigurative element, but rather the acoustic composition of the play between creation and decreation. In this sense, the bios orphikos is, not merely of this world, but also the immemorial journey to the infraworld sidestepping tragic overflowing. It is very late in her book that Sewell defines this pathways that transcends all form and contours of scientific vitality:

“The origins of all our bodily and mental powers are in an exact sense with the dead, in heredity and tradition; thus the dead are not wholly dead here within the living body. The heart and the center of the kingdom of the dead to which Orpheus goes in search of Eurydice is also the penetralia of the individual human life which pulsates and thinks…Anthropology suggest that the labyrinth of primitive man, the maze emblem and the real mazes of the caves, were capable also of being the body, and the site of a journey between the two worlds of living and dead. The orphic search here goes past Orpheus back into immemorial antiquity.” (326-327). 

Immemorial antiquity – these are the wonderful markers of everything that Sewell’s book does not accomplish or flesh out in its voluminous 400 plus plages. But, it is only at this point that we are capable of understanding that what Sewell calls “biological thinking” has nothing to do with the basic mental capacities that dispenses the anthropological density of the modern reserve to self-assertion (in Blumenberg’s unsurpassed definition), and everything with a tradition of the immemorial that is creation’s most intense point of bifurcation between the living and the dead. The passage to this region becomes testament to the validity of one’s experience. This is also why the orphic voice cuts through the the subdivision of the polis and the modern autonomy of art; as it takes life through the fleeting instance of the freedom of forms in its non dependency with historical necessity and domestication, as Gianni Carchia lucidly reminded us [1].

The orphic immemorial will not appeal to a morality of nature based on its fictive aura of normative order, but rather, it will supply the potentiality of the taking place of language. Hence, it is no surprise that the taking place of the voice (its postlogical status) lifts the human outside of itself, at the same time that it retains its most absolute nearness to the symbolic strata of myth. Commenting on Wordsworth, Sewell writes: “…the first provisional conclusion on method in the poem: that each language is a treasure of the earth but that poetry is the more valuable (as if our word, postlogic, might here receive additional justification)” (358-359). The voice has never been an organ or a specific faculty that belongs properly to the human; it is the passage between humanity and its constitutive exteriority in the world. Like the harmony of the spheres, the voice registers tone in the wake of the impossibility of communicating in the murky waters of physis.

If at the turn of the century Aby Warburg had shown how modern technical civilization had ended up soaking the mythical force of the serpent from the stormy sky of the Pueblo Indians (and thus the luminous space of contemplation of man in the cosmos); Sewell’s extremely idiosyncratic essay shows, between lines and amidst rhetorical inflation, that the echoes of the mythic imagination are still an integral part of the sliding amore fati, whose “aim is the discovery of the world” (405) [2]. The lesson in our epoch becomes easily adapted: the ethical standard does not prove itself by appealing to norms and substitute fictive authorities, but rather in terms of how well one is able to attend to the incoming vibrations of forms. One can even go as far as contradict Sewell post factum and say that this is no longer a request to be made on science, which has fully ascended to the place of prima philosophia as prima politica. So, it is perhaps love (that figures so poorly in Sewell’s book in relation to the centrality of cerebral intelligence, barely making an appearance in the very last page) the symbol of the highest riches transfiguring myth into a voice that outlives the specter of humanity and the futility of the machine. If orphism means anything, it is that the voice implies withdrawing from the cacophony of a world that has imprisoned the living in the blistering entertainment of their own wrongdoing. “Flebile lingua murmurat exanimis”, signs Ovid — right, but who is still able to listen?




1. Gianni Carchia. Orfismo e tragedia: Il mito trasfigurato (Quodlibet, 2019), 

2. Aby Warburg. “A lecture on Serpent Ritual”, Journal of the Warburg Institute, April 1939, 292. 

Lezama Lima and the Etruscan way. by Gerardo Muñoz

Towards the end of his life, poet José Lezama Lima will mysteriously begin to sign the letters to his friends and family as “the Trocadero Etruscan”, a “member of the Etruscan religiosity”, and even the “man who lives in the Etruscan village” [1]. Why call himself an “Etruscan” in this particular moment of his life, and what could it possibly mean? The question about the meaning of the Etruscan authorial mask has been so thoroughly ignored by the literary critics that commentators at their best have noted that “being Etruscan” merely stands for his “cosmopolitanism” and “well-learned Europeanism”. Of course, this explains little to nothing. A sophisticated poet such as Lezama Lima, who ruminate over every single word he would write, could not have ignored that the Etruscans, unlike the civilized Romans and the Latin authorities, was a remnant to the very civilizational enterprise; a prehistoric people poor in written culture, achieved expressivity by the whole outlook of their form of life. And as in the case of Hölderlin’s adoption of different nom de plume (Scardanelli, Killalusimeno, Scaliger Rosa, etc), Lezama’s becoming Etruscan points to something so fundamental that if underscored we would fail to grasp the endgame of his vital poetic experience. The transfiguration of the name does not merely stand as a metaphor; rather it points to a distant figure that will finally dissolve him so that his immortal voice could continue to live on.

Indeed, the self-identification as an Etruscan for Lezama became a subterfuge to flee a political reality – his political reality, entirely structured by the revolutionary gigantic productivism and subjectivism – through a poetic refraction that would free an ethos from the overpowering of alienated autonomous space of the linguistic reproduction of social life. If at first glance it seems like a paradox that Lezama will adopt the Etruscan figure for his antisocial ethos – a civilization lacking written records or high literary achievements, a religious community known for its necropolis – this strangeness will ultimately prove that behind the Etruscan name there was no poetic exclusivity of the poet’s genius, but rather, as he claims in “A partir de la poesía”, the possibility for a divinization of reality to retreat from the historical epoch. In fact, Etruscan culture for Lezama was not a mere archeological ornament, but one of the “imaginary eras” of the West; that is, a stage of condensed and unnumbered imaginative possibilities resistant to griping subsumption and totalization of values. The Etruscan was the mythic remnant through the pantheistic divinization between language and the world. As Lezama writes glossing, in passing, Vico:

“Vico cree que las palabras sagradas, las sacerdotales, eran las que se transmitían entre los etruscos. Pero para nosotros el pueblo etrusco era esencialmente teocrático. Fue el más evidente caso de un pueblo surge en el misterio de las primeras inauguraciones del dios, el monarca, el sacerdote, y el pueblo unidos en forma indiferenciada … .les prestaba a cada una de sus experiencias o de sus gestos, la participación en un mundo sagrado. […] Pues en aquel pueblo, el nombre y la reminiscencia, animista de cada palabra, cobran un relieve de un solo perfil” [2]. 

The divinization of the Etruscans stubbornly insisted on the wonder of things. The human participation in divinity is no longer about founding a new theocracy or a “theocratic politics” in the hands of a ‘mystic accountant’ that would finally put the nation back in track (into the res publica), as Lezama would solicit out of desperation in the 1950s diaries [3]. On the contrary, for Etruscan people the fundamental tonality was the divine music of experience. Of course, we know that D.H. Lawrence captured this when claiming in his Etruscan Places (1932) that “the Etruscans are not a theory or a thesis. If they are anything, they are an experience. An experience that is always spoilt” [4]. And this experience (like every true experience) needs to be necessarily spoiled, which ultimately means that it cannot be mimetically rendered, arbitrarily modified, or subsumed into the order of idealization. But all of this is merely redundant, since the Etruscan inscription is what accounts for the limit to civilization, becoming the impossibility of the destruction of myth in the arrival of modern aesthetic autonomy. Thus, for Lezama the Etruscan way had something of a persistent cure against the ongoing civilizational disenchantment, even if it does not cease to appear in the modern attitude. In fact, Lezama writes that: “Rimbaud is the best reader of the Etruscan liver” (“hígrado etrusco”) to describe the dislocated position of the poet in the modern world of technology [5]. In the Etruscan cosmology, the liver was a symbolon of the vision of the cosmos registering the divisions of the spheres in the sky through the divine naming of the gods; it is the figure by which the poet guards the desecularizing remnant of the prehistoric inception of myth [6]. But this does not mean that Lezama will look at himself in the mirror of Rimbaud’s symbolist alchemy.

Rimbaud as an Etruscan is the poet who descends into hell because his lyricism can bear the pain in the disruption of language after the archaic peitho. Does the possibility mean a travel back in historical time? Not the least, as Lezama knew how to let go of storytelling and historical necessity. This is why Etruscans stand for an image or a sort of handwoven picture (the hand will make a comeback, as we will see) to gain vision. And this is one case on point: the Etruscan stands paradigmatically to the “sufficient enchantment” (“la cantidad hechizada”) , which discloses a higher knowledge of the soul (psychê) in the taking place of poetic errancy: “Sabemos que muchas veces el alma, al escaparse de su morada, tripulaba un caballo inquieto, afanoso de penetrar en las regiones solares” [7]. To wrestle against the historical reduction of autonomy of the modern age means to find this enchanted sufficiency necessarily for myth remnant to elevate itself against the aesthetic mediation that, in the words of Gianni Carchia, had become a consoling surrogate of the emptied historical time [8]. An entirely other conception of freedom is firmly implicated the Etruscan way: the gathering of the enchanted poetic dwelling to dissolve a reality that had become too thick in the business of brute force purporting to call ‘what’s out there’. The Etruscan reintroduces a divine nominalism of pure exteriority.

However, the Etruscan way does not commute with things of the world; rather, his soul unbinds the empirical limit of death to overcome death, and learn to live as if it were already dead. The trespassing of death through the poetic enchantment – which Lezama will also call an ‘potens etrusca’, or the Etruscan potentiality- will multiply the invisible possibilities against the rhetorical closure of reality legitimation. By accepting the thick of the dead as an illuminated presence, the Etruscans draw out the most important consequence: learning to live among the dead as the ultimate form of a dignified life. This is why D.H. Lawrence reminds us that the underworld of the Etruscans – their refusal of reality, the embrace of their dead, the augurium – was after all “a gay place…For the life on earth was so good, the life below could but be a continuation of it. This profound belief in life, acceptance of life, seems characteristic of the Etruscans. It is still vivid in the painted tombs. They are by no means downtrodden menials, let later Romans say what they will” [9].

If civilization is a construction that takes place at the crust of the Earth as some have claimed; the way of the Etruscan is a downward declination away from the architectural reduction of world sensing [10]. For Lezama the Etruscan dreams of a civilization submerged in the depths that only an acoustic totality that bear witness to its sensorial gradation: “Esas civilizaciones errantes por debajo del mar, sumergidas por el manteo de las arenas o por las extensivas exigencias…reaparecen, a veces, en los sueños de los campesinos” [11]. Hence, the fundamental dignity of poetry resides in the mythical homecoming that guards the possibility for what remains inexistent: “this is why the poet lives in the Etruscan world of the birth of fire” [12]. And although the Etruscan stands as one of the worlds in possession of an imaginary epoch (the other two for Lezama being the Catholic world and the feudal feudal Carolingian Empire), it is only in the Etruscan where the resurrection had taken the transubstantiation in the name itself; even if the price was its own liquidation as a historical people that refused to be incorporated into the doxa of postmythical order [13].  

The fiery force of the mythic peitho outlives and predates the political epoch of the nomos of fixation organized as “One People, One State, One Language” [14]. As Lezama explains in “La dignidad de la poesía”: “…el odio en la polis contra el daimon socrático, hizo que la nueva doxa no logra sustituir a cabalidad el período mítico….Si por lo mitos, los dioses se irritable con la felicidad de los de los mortales, pero al menos, se interesaban por sus destinos; en la nueva doxa, la poesis se extinguía – el daimon individual reemplazando al destino individual liberado de la polis” [15]. The primacy of myth as orientation to happiness should make clear that for Lezama the poetics of naming follows the overflow of its permanent modalization [16]. The Etruscan way marks the path for the irrevocable retreat from the space of the polis where civilization will be erected on the grounds of deliating ethos and daimon, polis and poesis, and ultimately life and death as a rubric of a new science of separation. The fact that the civilization of social reproduction has been erected on the basis of the destruction of the chthonic underworld speaks to the systematic erasure from the dead as a vital extension of life [17]. The poetic natality of the Etruscans will only be cultivated, as Aby Warburg suggests, from the assumption of deep superstition in the face of the placement of political autonomy, which allows for the persistence of the image as inseparable from the needs and uses of the living [18]. And only persistence could prepare the final triumph over death.


Towards the later phase of his work, the poet seems to never want to abandon the Etruscan inframundo. Lezama returns to the Etruscan scene towards the end and unfinished novel, Oppiano Licario (1977), in which the central character Fronesis describes at length the mutation of reality following the footsteps at a distance of Ynaca Licario slowly merging into the Tarquinia necropolis painted wall, which is accompanied by a visual reproduction of the Etruscan tomb:

“El sacerdote, en el lateral izquierdo, hace gestos de ensalmo en torno a una espiga de triga. Un pájaro que se acerca queda detenido sin poder posarse en el ámbito hechizado de la hoja. En el lateral derecho, el sacerdote repite idéntico rito, pero ahora de la raíz colorida hace saltar la liebre que cavaba en las profundidades. El aire cubría como unas redes de secreta protección en torno de la mutabilidad de las hojas y de la inmovil jactancia de los troncos. Una indetenible pero resguardada evaporación alcanza aquella llanura con los muertos …La conversación subterránea era el símbolo del vencimiento de la muerte. [20]

The ongoing conversation (the shared word koina ta philōn) in a mysterious divine language had triumphed over death because it had overcome death and the sight of death. It is no longer the transposition of a historical sublime that must protect experience from the fixity of the human corpse, since the soul can escape the limit of form. In passing through and embracing death, the Etruscan validated their passions for mirrors and the palm, which according to Lezama is the true keep of the appearance of the uttermost revealing of the face in its own irreducible ethos. The possibility (potens etrusca) of defeating death while in life finds in the Etruscan appearance Lezama’s most intimate poetic arcana: the persistence of the anima renounces symbolic legibility as too innocuous and ornamental; where the flags of victories now resembled an accumulation of well settled defeats nurtured in the name of the muteness over “life”.

The Etruscan distance mysterium validated myth as the affirmation of the cosmos as based on the potentiality of contemplative imagination [21]. Lezama will call this distance the “eros de la lejanía” (Eros of distance) in the experience of the inframundo that will break through by affirming the possibilities of divine naming as a correlative causation in the world [22]. As Lezama tells his sister in a letter from 1966, he had already assumed to have crossed the bridge between the dead and the living: “Para mi ya ha sucedido todo lo que podía tocarme….Pues creo ya haber alcanzado en mi vida esa unidad entre los vivientes y los que esperan la voz de la resurrección que es la supresa contemplación” [23]. Or yet again: “El que está muerto en la muerte, vive, pero el que está muerto en la vida, es la única forma para mi conocida de la vida en su turbión, en su escala musical, en su fuego cortado” [24]. To scale up life to the higher music is the final trope of happiness as already dead. The Etruscan dirita vía of descension – “a weight going down” of stepping into the Earth, as Ruskin would have it – achieves the arrest of the divine contact between the voice and the dead [25]. It is for us to raise this mirror before our impoverished and fictive unswerving reality.




1. José Lezama Lima. Cartas a Eloísa y otra correspondencia (1939-1976) (Verbum, 1998), 230.

2.  José Lezama Lima. “A partir de la poesía”, in Obras Completas, Tomo II (Aguilar, 1977), 831.

3.  José Lezama Lima. Diario (Verbum, 2014), 87.

4. D. H. Lawrence. Etruscan Places (The Viking Press, 1957),  90.

5. José Lezama Lima. “La pintura y la poesía en Cuba”, in Obras Completas, Tomo II (Aguilar, 1977), 968 

6. Gustav Herbig. “Etruscan Religion”, in Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, Volume V (Dravidians-Fichte, 1912), 533.

7. José Lezama Lima. “Introducción a los vasos órficos”, Obras Completas, Tomo II (Aguilar, 1977), 861. 

8. Gianni Carchia. Orfismo e tragedia (Quodlibet, 2019), 81.

9. D.H. Lawrence. Etruscan Places (The Viking Press, 1957), 31.

10. Amadeo Bordiga. “Specie umana e crosta terrestre”, in Drammi gialli e sinistre della moderna decadenza sociale (Iskra, 1978). 

11. José Lezama Lima. “Estatuas y sueños”, in Obras Completas, Tomo II (Aguilar, 1977), 449.

12.  José Lezama Lima. “La dignidad de la poesía”, in Obras Completas, Tomo II (Aguilar, 1977), 774. 

13. Ibid., 776.

14. Erich Unger. Die staatslose Bildung eines jüdischen Volkes (Verlag David, 1922).

15.  José Lezama Lima. “La dignidad de la poesía”, in Obras Completas, Tomo II (Aguilar, 1977), 777.

16. Monica Ferrando. “Presentazione”, in Hermann Usener, Triade: saggio di numerologia mitologica (Guida Editori, 1993).

1176.  Giorgio Agamben. “Gaia e Ctonia”, Quodlibet, 2020 

18. Aby Warburg. The Renewal of Pagan Antiquity (Getty, 1999), 189.

19. Image included in Chapter VII of Oppiano Licario (Cátedra, 1989), 375. 

20. José Lezama Lima. Oppiano Licario (Cátadra, 1989), 374.

21. Aby Warburg’s treatment of the symbolic mediation between myth and distance appears at the center of his essay on Pueblo Indians. See, Aby Warburg, El ritual de la serpiente (Sexto Piso, 2022), 66.  And also, Franz Boll, Vita Contemplativa (Heidelberg, 1920), who connects contemplari to the augur’s spatiality of the templum.

22. José Lezama Lima. Cartas a Eloísa y otra correspondencia (1939-1976) (Verbum, 1998), 411.

23. Ibid., 109.

24. Ibid., 266. 

25. John Ruskin. The Letters of John Ruskin (George Allen, 1909), 133.

The future of Saint Cassian. by Gerardo Muñoz

There is a painting from the early sixteenth century at the galleries of the University of Bologna that depicts the gruesome death of Saint Cassian of Imola at the hands of his own students. The story goes that Cassian was a fleeing Christian in the Roman Empire who found a teaching position in the town of Imola, until he was discovered and exposed. In the saints’ hagiographies, it is emphasized his passion concerning reading and writing for his students. This would confirm the high price of Cassian’s punishment: torture and death at the hands of young students (some allegedly even brought their sharpened styli). The Bologna painting is, in fact, a miniature of about five by seven inches, and it depicts eight young students striking at a naked and tied up Cassian. The anonymous painter has chosen carefully to have all of the figures turn away from the spectator, except for a student in the far right corner of the painting who seems to be holding a sort of bowl in the air. He seems disengaged from the frenzied mob. And yet, there are no wounds or bruises in Cassian’s body, which could be an allegorical statement by the painter about the martyrdom condition, or, more literally, the plain fact that the cruel feast has just begun. Cassian’s face is monotone, and one of disbelief, but not yet of someone consumed by the ecstasy of bodily suffering. He is definitely humiliated amidst such violent and naked act. This is highlighted by the stage-like setting of the assault, which does not seem to be taking place somewhere outside, but rather in a strange room whose only way out is a dark and ominous black counter to the left side of the painting.

This black square immediately recalls martyrdom. And yes, in modernity this means David’s Death of Marat (1793) floating figure who stands as the secularized martyr at the year zero of modern representation. In the early modern bolognese painting we are far from there, but the resources at the painter’s disposal (myth, depth, and figure) speak to a postreligiousity at the threshold of a new historical time. Strangely, the figure of Saint Cassian as represented here by the anonymous bolognese painter throws a shadow to our present, given that the teacher or professor has been sacrificed, not so much the literal violence of his students, but by the an even greater disposition towards a shameless nakedness driven by value and a complicit abandonment of its mission. In the United States at least, the long dispensation of the “closing of the American mind” – driven by competition, ranking, placement, mentorship, cultural wars, and identity politics – entails the uttermost collapse of the teacher into the administrator and facilitator of a rather unknown enterprise.

Even in 1983 Carl Schmitt could identify the martyrdom of Saint Cassian as an emblem of the professor betrayed by his former students: “I have also been stabbed by my students”, he will confess to Lanchester [1]. So, just four decades ago the teacher could still stand as an object of fidelity and betrayal. It would be hard to make the case for this hypothesis today, since the pain of the teacher is no longer of betrayal, but of indifference insofar as he can be disposed of. In this sense, only something that possesses a certain aura can be said to be betrayed; while something that can be discarded altogether is something that has seen better days and no longer has value. And if universities and schools today have become larger centers of monotony and alienation of the most basic activities (such as discussion, reading and writing), this is because both students and professors have been, for the most part, replaced by “mentors” and consumers” under the holy contract of hypocrisy, the true and last ethics of the enlightened metropolitan class.

Anyone that has ever had the good fortune to encounter a good teacher or professor will know that his example springs not from what he knows or professes to know, but rather from what he can transpire unto others: to search of a form of one’s own path. The ethos of a teacher has little do with specialization or success, and everything to the incarnation of a gestalt that is not accidental or transient, but perpetually springing from its myth, as Carchia suggested for the work of art [2]. And myth is the sensorial mediation that resista to be instrumentalized into the endless amassing of value by the powerful administrative subjects. This amounts to saying that the teacher finds self-legitimization in its capacity to inspire the shared sense of wonder of the inaccessible.

Or, at least, this has been the teacher at its most groundbreaking moments. The eradication of teaching – which like mostly every other area foreclosed by the crisis of the human experience was unveiled during the years of the pandemic – and its complete abdication to models of “leadership” and “training” (under the fictitious rubric of the syllabus as an economic contract) is the bleakest of the futures that Cassiano could have taken. A nihilist future that, it goes without saying, will be void of martyrs and myths.




1. Carl Schmitt. “Un jurista frente a sí mismo: entrevista de Fulco Lanchester a Carl Schmitt”, CSS, 1, 2017, 220.  

2. Gianni Carchia. Il mito in pittura: la tradizione come critica (Celuc Libri, 1987), 155. 

Sundays outside history: some observations on Eliseo Diego’s La Calzada de Jesús del Monte (1949). by Gerardo Muñoz

The origin of Eliseo Diego’s mythical poetic collection En la Calzada de Jesús del Monte (1949) is so well known and recorded that it has been completely forgotten even by its most copious commentators. In his short memoralist essay “Un día ceremonial”, written decades after the publication of the poem, José Lezama Lima wrote the following: “En uno de sus ceremoniales litúrgicos, en un día de nuestro santo, nos reunimos en la iglesia de Bauta. En esa ocasión Eliseo Diego leyó su “Primer discurso” de En la Calzada de Jesús del Monte. Era un precioso y sorprendente regalo, suficientemente para llenar la tarde con aquella palabra que nace para uno de los más opulentamente sobrios destinos poéticos que hemos tenido…Cuando se publicó En la calzada de Jesús del Monte, el júbilo que me produjo fue esencialmente poético. En unos versos de circunstancia amistosa he intentado decir la alegría que me produce ese libro que traía esclarecimientos para nuestro paisaje y su acercamiento” [1]. At the center in this confession is not only the centrality of a poetic liturgical practice that vested the friendship of the origenistas poets, but more fundamentally the efficacy of the poetic word that Lezama describes as a “júbilo poético” or poetic happiness. It is a strange remark (like almost everything written by Lezama), since En la calzada de Jesús del Monte has been largely read as the litany of a domestic space (a “gran casa de todos”) consumed by dread experienced at the turn of the mid-century failed and stagnated republic.

The intuition raised by Lezama, although not elaborated, still haunts us: in what sense is En la calzada de Jesus del Monte about poetic happiness and what could stand for? We can go astray if we claim that happiness is a particular substantive and representational content of the poetic word. Indeed, there is really no event of happiness in En la calzada de Jesus del Monte except for the taking place of the poetic word fully estranged and foreign from its own place of annunciation. This seems to confirm Diego’s poetic vortex who writes in the dedicación of the book: “A poem is nothing more than a few words told one afternoon to a group of friends” [2]. However, this only deepens the mystery, since whoever tries to find concrete friends in En la calzada de Jesús del Monte (1949) will find none. Solitude abounds and expands throughout spaces. Lezama attempted to elevate the secret of friendship from thought to the liturgical enactment in search for transcendent meaning. Indeed, the emphasis on the mystery of liturgy is emphatic and compressed in Lezama’s programmatic memory about the almost ecclesiastical origins of the poem. I would like to suggest another path for the mysterious and inapparent force of the poem, which is no longer situated at the liturgical aesthetic experience, but rather in the mystery of a felicitous life at the threshold of history. If anything is disclosed throughout the pages of En la calzada de Jesús del Monte this is, precisely, that things appear to dwell in their place, even if no one is around and no community could stand for its reverence. Indeed, the poetic event dwells in an existential solitude before a changing world now fallen into pure disenchantment.

The happiness that falls from the poem, then, is not merely about the execution of the word or the unity of form, but it consists of something previous, altogether different: a mysterious shadow of the enchanted myth. In En la calzada de Jesús del Monte (1949) we are exposed to a poetic language that gathers in a desecularized dimension that suspends what Gianni Carchia identified as the postmythical form of mystery that seems to anticipate the semblance of historical order [3]. But Diego’s En la calzada de Jesús del Monte transfigures mystery to the point of disclosing the limit where life and redemption from the material world take place; namely, in the Sunday of life. But, unlike for Carchia, this poetic transfiguration takes place within the grammar of Christian theology and not the Greek classical past. Here Diego’s poetic mysterium differs fundamentally from the liturgical mystery, which presupposes a “fundamental sacrifice” that allows the temporal sequence of the end of time as the motor for universal religious redemption [4]. By contrast, Diego’s idea of a poetic mystery (which is also the mystery of the poem, which he never ceased to reflect upon through his life) is spatially dispersed, redeeming eternal life from the visibility of worldly phenomena. As Diego writes in an essay defining his conception of the theological mystery: “Primero les haré una confesión…no veo por la sala ningún hábito de Santo Domingo. Uno no debe jugar con los Misterios Mayores, y ninguno es mayor que el Misterio de los Tres que son Uno. Pero, ¿acaso no hizo Él a las ballenas y a los colibríes? ¿Acaso él no sonríe con la infinitud de sus peces y sus insectos? No creo que me tome a mal esta broma que hago como un niño pequeño que pretende jugar con su padre” [5].

By separating the “mayor mystery” of the Trinity from the minor mysteries of imaginative creations of the world (fables, poetry, child’s play), Diego was able to displace the grandiose stage of the liturgical mystery emphasizing the role that humor plays in the affective realization of the kingdom. In other words, it is most definitely the case that the mystery and the poetic musicality compose the parabolic nature of a transfigured kingdom that accompanies the inner existence of each and every human being [6]. Furthermore, this is why the Calzada is a defined in “Primer Discurso” as a pantheistic kingdom: “mi reino, en esta isla pequeña rodeada de Dios por todas partes / en ti ciego mis descanso” [7]. The happiness of the poetic effect in En la calzada de Jesús del Monte is the consummation of an eternal life that, by withdrawing itself from the representation of historical time, can outlive both dread and death. However, in its call for “eternity”, it is language itself that becomes a mode within a series of uncountable events: “sigo pensando, aquí, mi amigo, sucediéndome. / Luego de la primera muerte, señores, las imágenes … .Porque soy reciente, de ayer mismo” [8]. The “sigo sucediéndome”, a modal attempt at transforming life through event diffuses life and death like “Abel y Cain reunidos en Adán, como la muerte” [9]. The transfiguration of liturgical mystery does not evoke a christological arcana, but the overcoming of the civilizational myth of fratricide only to find “unity” in the eternal paradise evoked through Adam. As Diego will also write in an essay about the work of British novelist Jean Rhys: “…el sentido de orar para convertirse en símbolo del misterio de vivir: nuestro jardín era grande y hermoso como aquel jardín de la Biblia – el árbol de la vida crecía allí, nos dice, en medio del terror de una violencia que no entiende” [10]. The reemergence of the myth of an enchanted Edenic garden through the poem?

The fact that Diego chose to write En la calzada de Jesús del Monte as a series of poems and not a novel speaks to his resistance to metaphorize the Garden of Eden outside of the world, overly compensated through a figural postmythical semblance that could have only been taken as a form of parody. On the contrary, En la calzada de Jesús del Monte evokes the original paradise as a recurring and parabolic Sunday of life. A life of nothingness: “si la nada / es también el dormir, pesadamente / la caída sin voz entre la sombra… el Paraíso / realizado en la tierra, como un nombre!” [11]. What cuts through between the forms of the world is the poetic parabola that put us in nearness to the limit of the mystery and the unspeakable. This is what poet Fina García Marruz beautifully captured in one of the most outstanding essays on En la calzada de Jesus del Monte where the weight of the question is meshed with the eros of the poem’s parabola: “Todo arte es, o debería ser, arte de amor, qué es arte de re respeto, la estrategia de una amorosa retirada. Donde el yo se manifiesta en exceso, invade los otros límites, incendia el mundo, pero el verdadero sol del centro, como en Heráclito, no rebasa sus medidas” [12].

García Marruz will even allude to a “magical distance” to elucidate Diego’s poetic measureless opening to proximity: “para el dulce tamaño de la vida que miden estas distancias” [13]. The distances modulate situated existence against the reduction of ordered historical time: “El sitio donde gustamos las costumbres / aquí no pasa nada, no es más que la vida” [14]. As an authentic habitante Diego’s parabola solves the problem of the eclipse of historical time (the ruins of the first morning of historical development) through a descension to spatial detachment where the rest of Sunday is achieved amidst the dust of the world (“como el polvo del mundo”). And from the vantage point of every concrete experience and every limit, life emerges from the dead before a ruinous world marked by the failed Republic. This was a Republic that could not be named (“Yo no sé decirlo: la República”) in a paradoxical display of expository nominalism. As Diego writes in “El sitio en el que tan bien se está”: “en la penumbra como deshabitado sueño” [15]. At the height of 1949, En la calzada de Jesús del Monte was the most rigorous attempt to retreat from this penumbra of historical political life and its daydreaming.

This is the open secret of the actual city street, La Calzada de Jesús del Monte (Havana), during the first decades of the twentieth century, which according to historian Emilio Roig de Lauschering was the only route of communication between the hinterland and the new urban community: “La Calzada de Jesús del Monte que después se llamó después Calzada de Jesús del Monte por haber construido una ermita en la pequeña eminencia donde se encuentra la iglesia parroquial de Jesús del Monte…[…] Pero la Calzada de Jesús del Monte fue desde remotos tiempos hasta no hace mucho la vía principal de entrada y salida entre la población y el campo” [16]. In the late 1940s, la Calzada de Jesús del Monte was already a ‘deshabitado sueño’ as symbolized by dust, debris, oblivion, and death announced by the abstract time of modernization. En la calzada de Jesús del Monte, however, does not cross the path nor seeks a communication between the limits, but rather it opts to dwells on it.

This might be, indeed, Diego’s most important and subtle difference with Lezama’s defense of a liturgical surplus (even ex ecclesia cult of friendship, Freundschaftsdichtung, as a surrogate for national salvation) as if he had found a refuge in the mysterious parish of the Calzada Jesus del Monte or Bauta [17]. Diego’s transfiguration of history placed him at Sabbath in possession of “poderosas versiones de su vida” (“strong modes of his own life”) [18]. But the Sabbath is not a mere memory of a defeated religious community, but as Hermann Cohen argued, a spatial and institutional habit of a people coinciding with the cycles of a bright moonlight [19]. This is why imagination in En la calzada de Jesus del Monte is not enough, and the poet laments: “de tanto imaginarla mi corazón iba callando”. The eternal life of Sundays finds a retreat in the sabbatical experience against the historical time of normality and its revolutionary cycles that demystifies the thingly destruction in which civilization had declined at the end of times. Diego’s La Calzada de Jesús del Monte enshrined the only access to the transfiguration of the mystery: a sabbatical rest disambiguated from the monotone idleness posed by postmythical romanticism [20]. It was in the threshold of parabolic dwelling where En la Calzada de Jesús del Monte remained faithful neither to religious idolatry nor to a free-standing mysterium, but only to the feast of a sabbatical life “como un asno, en perpetuo domingo” (like a donkey, in a perpetual sunday) [21]. The donkey is the transfiguration that must carry this weight. And withdrawing from Juan Vives’ known fable about the peasant who sacrificed a donkey when realizing that he was drinking the moon reflected on a bucket of water, En la calzada de Jesus del Monte stubbornly trumpets not the entry to a “poetic enlightenment”, but the dwelling into the eternal Sunday where poetry is not a resource of radiant sacrifice of beauty, but the prophecy for both silence and sound [22].




1. José Lezama Lima. “Un día ceremonial”, in Imagen y Posibilidad (Editorial Letras Cubanas, 1992), 48-50.

2. Eliseo Diego.  En la Calzada de Jesús del Monte (Editorial Pre-Textos, 2020), 103.

3. Gianni Carchia. Dall’Apparenza al Mistero, in Immagine e verità: Studi sulla tradizione classica, Edizioni di Storia e Letteratura, Roma, 2003.

4. Odo Casel. Misterio del culto en el cristianismo (Cuadernos Phase, 2006), 82.

5. Eliseo Diego. “Viaje al centro de la tierra”, in Flechas en vuelo: ensayos selectos (Editorial Verbum, 2014), 162.

6. Giorgio Agamben. “Parabola e Regno”, in Il fuoco e il racconto (nottetempo, 2014), 25-37.

7. Eliseo Diego, En la Calzada de Jesús del Monte (Editorial Pre-Textos, 2020). 

8. Ibid., 115.

9.  Ibid., 117.

10. Eliseo Diego. “Una Iglesia no muy británica: Jean Rhys y su ancho mar”, in Flechas en vuelo: ensayos selectos (Editorial Verbum, 2014), 124.

11.  E. Diego, 119.

12. Fina García Marruz. “Ese breve domingo de la forma”, in Hablar de la poesía (Editorial Letras Cubanas, 1986), 398.

13. E. Diego, 131.

14. Ibid., 177.

15. Ibid., 184. 

16. Emilio Roig de Leuchsenring. La Habana: Apuntes Históricos (Editora del Consejo Nacional de Cultura, 1963), 111.

17. Wolfdietrich Rasch. Freundschaftskult und Freundschaftsdichtung im Deutschen Schrifttum des 18. Jahrhunderts (Halle-Saale, 1936).

18. Ibid., 157.

19. Hermann Cohen. “The Sabbath in its Cultural-Historical Significance”, The Reform Advocate, February 10, 1917, 5-6.

20. José Lezama Lima claims in “Pascal y la poesía”: “En la tradición de Pitágoras, que creía que sólo el símbolo daba el signo y que la escritura, tesis incomprehensible para el contemporáneo romanticismo antisignario, nace de un misterio, no de la horticultura de la pereza”, in Algunos tratados en La Habana (Anagrama, 1971), 166.

21. E. Diego, 147.

22. The fable is told by Hans Blumenberg: “The Spanish humanist Juan Luis Vives recorded the fable of a peasant who killed a donkey because it swallowed the moon while drinking from a bucket, and because the world could sooner do without a donkey than without heaven’s lamp”, in “Glosses on Three Fables” (1984), History, Metaphors, Fables: A Hans Blumenberg Reader (Cornell University Press, 2020), 604.

The Gnostic residue. On Mårten Björk’s The Politics of Immortality in Rosenzweig, Barth, and Goldberg (2022). by Gerardo Muñoz.

Mårten Björk’s The Politics of Immortality in Rosenzweig, Barth, and Goldberg: Theology and Resistance Between 1914-1945 (Bloomsbury, 2022) is a major contribution to the ongoing discussion on theology, politics, and life in our present. Indeed, this book of unmatched originality will radically change the coordinates that have structured these debates in and beyond the academic disciplines involved. First conceived as a longer dissertation entitled Life outside life and defended at Gothenburg University in 2018 (which included an voluminous and illuminating chapter on the work of German theologian Erik Peterson, not included in the published monograph and scheduled for publication in the near future) studies three figures of the German interwar period that confronted the civilizational catastrophe of the twentieth century and the rise of the regime of mass production. Through different conceptual elaborations in Franz Rosenzweig, Karl Barth, and the Oskar Goldberg Group (it also includes thinkers such as Adolf Caspary and Erich Unger) a unified thesis emerges: these thinkers crafted a fundamental response to the collapse of the legitimacy of the modern epoch through a radical imagination of immortality and eternal life (Björk 2022, 3). From an angular perspective, Björk’s book measures to Hans Blumenberg’s groundbreaking defense of the legitimacy of modernity through “self-affirmation” of the human; a philosophical anthropology predicament that today has become fully integrated into the arts of planetary destruction, although its genesis is to be captured in the first decades of twentieth century through the dawn of a new catastrophic politics (the term is coined by Erich Unger in his Politics and Metaphysics). In Björk’s account, these thinkers took the stance against the stimmung of the epoch, its historical closure as well as the immanence of nature in order to take up a historical collapse that was civilizational in nature.

It would be a common place to remind the readers of this book that the figures of the research (with the exception of Rosenzweig who in some corners has been taken as the greatest Jewish philosopher since Maimonides) have been unwarranted buried in the monumental and political historiographies of the period and in the edifice of normative Continental philosophies of the twentieth century. However, Björk’s monograph is no simple restitution of dead old men, as this would be too accommodating to the field of the history of philosophy. Behind these figures there are multiple strategic displacements that connect the destruction of biopolitics to the reformulation of ethics of the dead, as well as the revision of Judaic theological sources to execute an effective retreat from the collapse of civilization of the last 5000 years of the human species. In this quadrant there is also a timely gesture on the complicated relationship between Judaism and Christianity; a relation that the book never really solves, although it runs throughout the book flagged for possible future explorations. Methodologically, it is the field of “theology” (not of science of religions a la Weber) that returns to the center as a way to explored an unthought dimension of immortality – that Björk properly renders as life outside life, against all biopolitical saturation and ecological catastrophe of the natural world. It goes without saying that there is an untimely tone that directly speaks to our present. Indeed, it is the radical theological and cosmological presuppositions (outside the formalism of religion and the apocalyptic historical saeculum of the Church) where something like a radical new existence of what it means to live can be rethought. This is Björk’s fundamental invitation.

In “Yearning for a system: Franz Rosenzweig and the great paganism of life’, Björk offers an all-encompassing outlook to the work of the Jewish scholar whose famous Star of Redemption was also accompanied by an interest in European geopolitics of the first decades of the century. In the midst of the First World War, Rosenzweig witnessed the rise of a new paganism of the state as the acceleration of the struggle for life in the West reproducing forever war (Björk 2022, 29). For Rosenzweig modernity was not an authentic or unfinished secularization, but rather the institutionalization of a pagan order of depredatory confrontation that foreclosed the world without outside: absolute immanence now meant the subjectivation of new false gods of modern civilization ordered towards survival and struggle (Björk 2022, 25). Against this backdrop, Björk reads Rosenzweig’s Star as an original theosophy of redemption of the world that exceeds the national political counters, while offering a new planetary and universal dimension of salvation beyond the state as articulated in Globus. Furthermore, Björk notes that Rosenzweig saw himself as a sort of Jewish fighter in the defense for a new planetary community with “religion as an instrument for change” (Björk 2022, 53). Even though the language had residues of imperial imagination proper to the time, it is the theological vector that distorts the political register of the ground battle for survival. Here Judaism appears as a subtraction from conventional historicity by retreating to a prehistoric past where the ‘unity of the world’ had no nomoi, states, or borders (Björk 2022, 54). It should be noted that something similar was advocated in his 1922 booklet Die Staatslose Bildung eines Judischen Volkes about the stateless wandering of the Hebrew people, by Erich Unger who thought could show a way out of the decadence of Western civilization through the revitalization of ancient Judaism. The Jew had never been a member of the polis or a slave of the state, since the Judaic Kingdoms were ruled, as Björk explains, “by an antipolitical priesthood” or a “metapolitical priesthood and not political kingdoms” (Björk 2022, 61). The sharp contrast to the modern Judaic subtext is of importance: whereas Eric Nelson shows in The Hebrew Republic (2010), how the ancient Jewish sources influenced the constitution of the modern state theories of Thomas Hobbes and John Milton; the work of Unger and Rosenzweig centuries later, in the wake of the Weimar era, seeked to radically alienate the command of Judaic prophecy from the regulatory political and geopolitical techniques of anthropological modernity. The gap between the two, for Rosenzweig, would be the hope for eternal life against the management of survival to which modern political grammar succumbed without return (Björk 2022, 66).

But theology offers the route to imagination and vocabulary of restitution, and infinite recapitulation. To grossly synthesize Björk’s thesis: life is best understood as an endless dialogue with the dead. The second chapter “Abundance and scarcity” glosses aspects of Reformed theologian Karl Barth’s thought against the materialism of scarcity of the world and the principle of abundance proper to eternal life. By tracing Barth’s critical dialogue with Feaubach’s sociology of religion of the species-being (which radically impacted the way Marx and Marxism came to understand theology), Björk’s theology puts paradisal life at the center of the mission of salvation; a heretical notion that exceeds the predestination theology of grace deployed in the organization of the modern kakedomonic public powers of modernity (Björk 2022, 88). In this sense it is insufficient to define the capitalist religion as merely a cult without dogma or atonement; it is also, perhaps more fundamentally, an axiomatic system that accentuates the two-dimensional positionality of death and life without residue. For Barth, Björk reminds us, theology is a way out from the cultish axiomatics of the countable and measurable of the visible world: “Theology….seeks to open the believer to the belief in the invisible side of the reality of the world. Theology must become an investigation of this invisible world to which further posits that the visible world is related” (Björk 2022, 103). And Barth’s lifelong interest in the theology of resurrection was precisely a way to insist on the invisible register that conflates nature, morality, and survival of the living within the objective normativity of the world.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Barth’s theology discussed by Björk comes by way of the opposition of ethics and morality – this is elaborated as a rejection of the predicament of natural law’s imago naturae and its dependency on rationality – where the second is discarded as merely finite life unto directive command of the natural good. On the contrary, an ethics suspended by the postlapsarian stage is guided by the principle of suum cuique (Björk 2022, 114). The suum cuique (‘to each its own’), although prima facie echoes the Thomist epikeia, it is also free standing for something more: it is a limit to the irreducibility of life in relation to God, which cannot be inscribed in a system of balancing of moral principles in the hands of a sacerdotal authority. Whereas the moral principle of equity (epikeia) organizes the government of this world through principles and moral reasons for action; the suum cuique is the limit set upon our finite life and the eternal in the scope of the saeculum. Björk connects the notion of the suum cuique to the Barthian figure of the “strange saint” who “with tears and laughter provides God and in this provocation is obedient to the election that forms death into life” (Björk 2022, 116). The suum cuique, accepting the postlapsarian condition rejects the instrumentalization of original sin in order to become a “vast eon of the cosmos itself…temporal and finite but also eternalized as that which once was” (Björk 2022, 117). In this way, the suum cuique prepares the paradisal affirmation of every unlived life, an anathema to the thomist substantiation of merely personal dignity and the exceptional mechanism of individual mediation with the economy of election and grace.

The theological exploration of modality of being – this is one of Björk’s implicit lessons in the book – never truly disappears in modernity, but rather reemerges in unexpected spheres. The politics of immortality does not pretend to exhaust this problem. But it is in the last chapter on the enigmatic figure of Oskar Goldberg where this theme is best explored as the true meaning of a life outside life at the center of the book’s conceptual development. Oskar Goldberg is one of the most enigmatic figures of the Weimar era; a magnetic personality that gathered diverse personalities from all corners of the intellectual milieu. He was looked with high suspicion by Thomas Mann, who portrayed him as a mystical undemocratic thinker in Doctor Faustus, but also dismissed by Walter Benjamin and Gershom Scholem (it only suffices to look at the correspondence collected in Scholem’s Walter Benjamin: The Story of a Friendship). A scholar with strong and sedimented knowledge in the Talmud and Ancient Judaism, Goldberg developed a highly sophisticated and speculative theology of the transcendental organism, to put it in Bruce Rosenstock’s terms, which provided an original formulation of a transcendent being based on the Torah in the wake of the new biological theories of the species (the work of Driesch, Uexküll, Spemann, among others) [1]. The biological and mystical vocabulary of Goldberg aroused immediate skepticism from the German intellectual class, but Björk convincingly shows that Golberg’s project was not an arabesque of a madman, but rather a very peculiar modal speculative system that seekd to confront the 5000 years of the civilization of fixation of the Western transition from the society of myth to the civilization of production and psychic energy imbalance (Björk 2022, 127). For Goldberg the passage from the prehistoric stage of myth to the inauguration of the religion of the state meant the sedimentation of a civilizational regimen oriented towards production, devastation, and positionality (Theophanidis recently expressed the proximity between Goldberg’s fixation and Heidegger’s Gestell, unexplored in Björk’s book). Björk is attentive to the fact that Goldberg was not just a proper name but also the constitution of a sort of ‘metapolitical university’ that gathered diverse figures, such as the economic historian and political thinker Adolf Caspary or the philosopher Erich Unger, both who developed their own critique of technological domination under the shadow of Goldberg. Thus, the critique of civilization is not to be taken as an abstract mysticism; for Björk, the concrete effects can be read in Caspary’s forgotten The Machine Utopia (1927), which criticized the utopia of machine civilization proper to both Soviet Bolshevism and Western capitalism – two social orders that shared the same the same historical horizon: reproduction and accumulation of surplus value (Björk 2022, 142).

In this framework, and against the historicist analytics of Marxism, for the Goldberg circle class antagonism and division of labor was not oriented towards emancipation, but rather towards the realization of a global total state. For the Goldberg circle to escape the civilization of the Behemoth of the industrial state required nothing short than a politics of errancy (defended by Unger in his Politics and Metaphysics of 1921) and the reversal to a modal relation with YHWH as an effective and potential dimension against the imbalance of an impoverished reality. Björk claims that for the Goldberg circle there were three possibilities of existence of coming to terms of the modern decline towards: civilizational fixation, myth, or Torah (Björk 2022, 154). And in different ways, they opted for the Torah, which implied not an identitarian reversal to a territorialized Volk but rather an infinite task of becoming immortal, given that our modes correspond to the nature of God and the world (Björk 2022, 166). The task was to depose the production of evil and suffering here and now as mobilized by the incarnation of historical progress. This infinite retreat from the materiality of the finite of the species was a way to open a new polytheism to the Ancient Hebrew metaphysics elaborated in Goldberg’s book, The Reality of the Hebrews (Die Wirklichkeit der Hebräer, 1925). In other words, to exit from the fixation of the 5000 years civilization required a passage to immortality as a way to “make us unadapted to the normal laws of evolution” and to the objective world (Björk 2022, 178).

Truth be told, immortality never disappears from modern political imagination and governmentality. Some of us still remember that one of the famous mottos of the Cuban Communist Party was: “Los hombres mueren, el Partido es Inmortal” (“Men die, but the Party is immortal”), which ultimately served to guarantee the idolatry of the state’s sacrificial principle through a continuous “lucha” (struggle) of everyday life under real-existing administrative communism. Likewise, in recent years Boris Groys has argued at length that immortality lives off in the topology of contemporary art, where archivization, spatial flexibility, and museification of the historical Vanguard stand in for the desire to become immortal [3]. This is, indeed, what Björk calls, following Blumenberg, the moralization of immortality whose political translation resulted in truly barbaric consequences that we are still suffering (Björk 2022, 186). Against all moralization and political instrumentalization of immortality, The Politics of Immortality in Rosenzweig, Barth, and Goldberg (2022) rises the theological mirror so that yet another anthropogenesis event through the “the Gnostic residue by insisting that the problem of evil could only be solved by God” (Björk 2022, 190). In other words, the problem of immortality restores the gnostic residue to its proper place beyond exceptionalism and anthropological humanism, since finitude (death) externalizes what is living, while “life” now becomes the meaning as its own otherness to the modes of God. Departing from the fourfold structure of the history of the modern error in Nietzsche’s typology, we could add a fifth: the error of conceiving the gnosis as worldly aspiration to domesticate exteriority as a forever postponed apocatastasis.

It is in the sense that Björk’s important book complements the unfinished elaboration on the gnosis undertaken by Giannia Carchia towards the end of his life: the exodus from the fiction of the subject and the person implies nothing short than the “resurrection of the human community capable of renewing the arc of history that appears so dramatically broken” [3]. Perhaps Carchia was a bit of an optimist here: the historical arch emanating from the potstlapsarian moment is now in ruins, but the gnostic residue remains once the darwinism of human-assertion has fallen flat into pieces across our planet (Björk 2022, 197). But Mårten Björk majestically teaches us that to keep insisting on life (on absolute life, on dignified life, or the monstrous “good enough life” recently proposed in a frank instance of academic nihilism) cannot but reproduce the civilization of calamities that has put the world in the road to extinction. In the current epochal implosion all these pieces are more apparent than in any other time in history. Yet, life is elsewhere, always escaping objectivity and immanence: “it is the invisibility of the wished, the desired and the dreamt. This is what human life entails. It is related to the wide world of what could have been or what should have been” (Björk 2022, 199). The modality of eternal life is also what value cannot apprehend, and for this reason what remains undialecticized, stubbornly disjointed from every unbearable fiction of the world. The Politics of Immortality (2022) is not only an exceptional book; it moves us to look to what always remains on the side of the invisible, to the unsaved in the exterior elan of every life, our lives.




1. Bruce Rosenstock. Transfinite Life: Oskar Goldberg and the Vitalist Imagination (Indiana University Press, 2017).

2. See, Boris Groys, Política de la inmortalidad (Katz editores, 2008), and “The Immortal Bodies”, Res, Vol.53-54, 2008.

3. Gianni Carchia. “Elaborazione della fine: mito, gnosi, modernità”, in L’amore del pensiero (Quodlibet, 2000), 150.

The ostrich as symbol. by Gerardo Muñoz

A couple of years ago I wrote the prologue to accompany the new edition of the almost forgotten novel Vendaval en los cañaverales (La Habana, 1937), by the reactionary writer Alberto Lamar Schweyer. I entitled the text “Avestruces en Niza”, since half of the novel, or almost all of it, takes place in the French riviera, where a bunch of decadent upper middle-class bourgeois couples live off the revenue of a transnational sugar-cane production and exports company based in the eastern part of Cuba. Written at the height of the convoluted years of the 1930s – as political turmoil intensified and the economy plummeted, putting an end to the recurrent developmentalist dream – it was not too difficult to read the ethos of this important work in light of the famous lecture “Cubano, avestruz del Trópico” (“The Cuban, an ostrich of the Tropics”, 1938) by eminent intellectual Enrique Gay Calbó, who deployed the figure of the bird to diagnose the obliviousness to economic reality and the short-term disposition (“cortoplacista”) of the national anthropological subject. The essay has been read, at times, under the framework of a pessimistic outlook towards the aspiration of amending a truly republic after independence, but at the same time, and all things considered, it should be also read as a metaphorical attempt to denote the ethos towards abstraction of the ruling criollo elite that would accelerate its compensations through direct coercion and acerbic pro patria mori rhetoric. Lamar, who belonged to this intellectual class, was able to provide a narrative form to these elements of the national interregnum, without introducing allegorically, the figure of the ostrich. And it is impossible for him to have known of Enrique Gay Calbó’s metaphoric resource, given that the lecture was delivered in April of 1938.

However, the ostrich was not accidental, and some of these details were unknown to me while writing the prologue to the edition (hence this sui generis addendum). Indeed, the ostrich was no exotic animal in the new minted Republic of Cuba, since as early as 1906 there were active ostrich farms in Marianao, Havana, financed by an American company from Arizona [1]. To my surprise, the mini report from The Cuban Review and Bulletin stated that half of the ostriches came from Nice, France. It would make sense, then, why Jean Vigo’s silent beach documentary À propos de Nice (1930) in truly natural fashion, featured a montaje of a fur-dressed lady with that of a strolling ostrich across the Promenade des Anglais, the same boardwalk used by the characters of Lamar’s novel. But what could Vigo’s momentaneous, and almost dream-like ostrich tries to tell us? Unlike Gay Calbó’s bird, the Promenade ostrich is no longer burying her head on the ground, but rather looking perplexed at modern bourgeois world, quite disoriented and visibly alienated among the frenzied crowd of strange and oblivious tourists. This is no world for an ostrich, and the moment she appears on the screen she is gone. Or at least this was Vigo’s playful cinematic gesture: the “new world” of the 1930s was soon going to be transformed into something radically different underneath the gaming, the sporting, and the consumerism.

Furthermore, the ostrich as a symbolic creature occupies a sort of threshold between transitional epochs. In a beautiful book dedicated to the arcanum of this animal in Raphael’s fresco at Sala di Costantino at the Vatican, Una Roman D’Elia reminds us that the idea of the ostrich as the cartoonist semblance of a bird sticking the head in the sand marked the new Renaissance mental structure that separated art and science in a new world now dependent on the self-assertion of anthropocentric conception [2]. However, what was enigmatic and attractive (and it continues to be) in Raphael’s ostrich is precisely an intermingling of the ostrich as arcana that converged mesopotamian, Egyptian, Hebrew and Roman bestiaries, and Christian religious history in a thick living creature that was both a myth and an animal of this world. A true symbol of imagination that brings to an end the modern conception of figurative expression and animal taxonomy. This is why even Saint Augustine could allude to the ostrich along with sirens – “Sirens daughters of ostriches, why should they bless me?” – who were called filae passerum by Plautus because they were imported from Africa, that is, from overseas [3]. The ostrich was the animal of passage between land and sea. In a clear parodic unfolding of symbolic meaning, what at some point cultivated imagination, myth, and the distance with the world was transformed into a large bird for farming, and converted into a metaphor of the deleterious effects if the constitution of reality is ignored.

In this forking of paths, it is true that Raphael’s ostrich is no longer a clear symbol to transmit a myth; on the contrary, it becomes a metaphor open to meaning (a meaning which will soon become extraction: feathers, egg production, zoology, and finally anthropological metaphor). For Roman D’Elia, the ostrich claimed a “higher mystery” in its own evasive force that resulted in the tensions between naturalism and meaning, symbol and representation, justice (iustitia) and the creations of the world. Was the ostrich a pagan incarnation of “Justice”, or perhaps the mannerist morphology of the all-encompassing judge’s majestum, that is both tender and imposing? Or is perhaps is the ostrich iustitia the last form of justice, at the eclipse of this world, that is, an messianic figuration towards the end of days and the banquet of the mythic primeval monsters (Leviathan, Behemoth, and Ziz)?

As Lois Drewer draws in her interpretation of the three mythic creations from the Talmud: “Once the egg of a Bar Yokani [an alternate name for Ziz] fell and its contents swamped sixteen cities and destroyed three hundred cedar trees. But does it actually throw the egg? Is it not written: ‘The wing of the ostrich beateth joyously’ [Job 39. 13]. The egg [which it smashed] was rotten” [4]. Could the ostrich be understood as the mythical Ziz, who unlike the monsters of the nomos of the Earth (Leviathan and Behemoth), refuses to engage in the depredatory game in order to save itself for the celestial messianic banquet of eternal life? And if this is so, then the ostrich, instead of a creature of this world, is the last animal of the world who takes under its wing the absolute accomplishment of Justice that coincides neither with the principle of the aequitas of nature nor with the constitution of reality, but rather with what is vanquished in the modern spirit: mainly, the erotic mystery of the separation of life and the world. The ostrich was not in itself mysterious, but perhaps more fundamentally a keeper of the eschatological mysterium.




1. “Ostrich Farm in Marianao”, The Cuba Review and Bulletin, Vol.5, 1906, 23.

2. Una Roman D’Elia. Raphael’s Ostrich (Penn State University Press, 2015). 

3. St. Augustine. The Works of Saint Augustine: Sermons on the Old Testament (New City Press, 2011), 410.

4. Lois Drewer. “Leviathan, Behemoth and Ziz: A Christian Adaptation”, Journal of the Warburg Institutes, 1981, V.44, 1981, 152.