A Tribute to Fernando Coronil

Laurent Dubois

 

NACLA laments the sudden passing of noted anthropologist Fernando Coronil, author of The Magical State: Nature, Money, and Modernity in Venezuela (University Of Chicago Press, 1997). One of Coronil’s last essays was published in the January/February edition of NACLA Report on the Americas. Historian Laurent Dubois, a former student of Coronil, wrote a tribute on the Duke University Press blog, posted on August 22, which we reproduce below:

 

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Fernando Coronil (credit: A. Poyo)
Last Tuesday, in New York, the great Venezuelan anthropologist Fernando Coronil died of cancer. This all happened terribly fast: he was diagnosed this Spring, and though we knew he was in great danger we hoped he might fight and win this new battle – or at least carve out a little more time.  But there was never enough time for Fernando: he was so capacious, so hungry to think and talk and live, that when you were with him what you felt was nearly endless possibility. He filled himself with the world, and he filled the world. That he is gone is unthinkable. Our duty now is to keep his energy – which sustained and inspired so many of us – alive. 

Fernando was my advisor at the University of Michigan, where I did my Ph.D. in the Interdisciplinary Program in Anthropology and History. Being part of that program in the mid-1990s, just after it was founded, felt like being part of a movement. An incredible group of faculty energized debates about the nature of the disciplines, the history of slavery and empire, the politics of knowledge. We were a motley crew of students, working on India and Iran and Mexico and the Caribbean, united by the sense of a common theoretical project. But what truly tied many of us together was Fernando, with his rare ability to make scholarly debate a form of joy, conviviality, and solidarity.

In late April of 1994, we gathered together for our Anthropology/History reading group at my apartment in Ann Arbor to read a draft circulated to us by Fernando: the introduction to a new edition of Fernando Ortiz’s Cuban Counterpoint, to be published by Duke University Press. For me, the moment was tinged with a sense of liberation: I had just passed my preliminary examinations. Fernando had asked me a series of vast questions about Latin American History and Anthropology. Curiously enough, the four hours I was given to answer them fell during a solar eclipse, and I wrote sitting at a table outside dappled with curved shadows. A few days later, a smiling Fernando announced I had passed by teasing: “Luckily there wasn’t an eclipse in your mind.”

Fernando’s mind and spirit were never eclipsed. Again and again, he transformed seminars and reading groups and conferences and chance meetings into memorable debates and lively forays into always renewed questions. He and his brilliant partner, Julie Skurski, constantly opened their house for gatherings and raucous, memorable parties. In one of them we emptied out their living room and set up an impromptu salsa band and dance floor. Filled with art and books, it was a place you could stop by anytime to talk, where you would often find old friends and make new ones.

Fernando didn’t usually put himself at the center of the discussion, and so it was exciting to get the chance to discuss one of his pieces, as we did that day in April 1994. When he arrived at the reading group that day to discuss his introduction, however, Fernando started talking to us not about Ortiz but about Richard Nixon, who had died just a few days before. He was stunned by the widespread tone of acceptance, even celebration, surrounding the public evaluation of Nixon. He told us a story most of us had never then heard, about the way he was blacklisted and forced out of the U.S. for years in the 1970s. As I later learned in travels back and forth to Cuba with Fernando, he had learned through first-hand knowledge – and never forgot –the danger of borders and the unpredictable power of the state to transform lives. His experiences of activism, legal persecution and exile shaped his trenchant and humane scholarship.

His draft introduction to Cuban Counterpoint spurred an impassioned discussion that day. By then, the idea of “transculturation” was already in increasing circulation in academic circles, but the fact that the term had been coined and effectively defined by a Cuban anthropologist who had spent much of his career engaging with popular religion and music was not that well known. Fernando wanted to tell the story of Ortiz, of the way he had sought and found a way to think through the complexities of Cuba through a combination of theorization and narrative experimentation. To do so, he knew, would also be a way of challenging prevailing European-centered views of the history of theory, of moving “Beyond Occidentalism,” as he suggested in the title of a course I had taken in the Fall of 1992 – co-taught with Walter Mignolo, then teaching at the University of Michigan – which is also the title of one of his most brilliant essays.

What was striking about this and so many other conversations was how deeply Fernando listened: in my experience he always managed to make any gathering of minds a gathering of equals, the fact that some were students and some teachers essentially forgotten. Indeed, he loved to poke fun at the all-too-comfortable hierarchies at work in academia. Wandering in San Juan, Puerto Rico in 2006 with Julie and Fernando, he at one point asked me to carry a coconut he has just bought from a vendor so that he could take a picture. It was the least I could do for my venerable advisor, he joked. Julie and Fernando dubbed me “the carrier of the coconut,” and we concluded that graduate students should all be forced to carry out this form of ritual obeisance as part of their training.

There were times in the next years when I seriously considered – like many graduate students – running away as fast as I could from academia, from the passive-aggressive hierarchies, hypocritical border-policing, and simple stress of it all. But Fernando was always there as a reminder and example of what the point of it was – or at least should be. We are, he taught me, incredibly lucky to have the time and space in which to think, and it was our duty to use that space to cultivate our imagination, to look beyond. It was up to us to make sure that a life of the mind was a life of pleasure and friendship, to uphold the principle that thinking and conviviality are natural allies. It was a principle he lived by until the end. The weeks after he learned of his cancer were filled with vibrant gatherings of friends from far and wide, a massive, swirling extended family of people who had been touched and transformed by him over the years.

In the Spring of 1997, when I was completing my dissertation research in Paris, Fernando and Julie came to visit me along with their two remarkable daughters, Mariana and Andrea. It turned out to be a busy week for hosting visitors: I was serving on a French government commission set up to propose immigration reforms. I was also doing my best to be an ethnographer, spending time with a Haitian friend named Erol Josué, a Vodou priest, who was preparing one of the most important ceremonies of the year: the celebration of the lwa Ogou. This made for an interesting mix of meeting with French Ministers and wandering about Paris looking for rum and a red rooster. Luckily, the visiting Coronil clan decided to embrace jet-lag rather than fight it, which meant that they were just waking up by the time I’d return from these activities, and ready to embark on the perfect kind of Parisian evening vagabondage.

When the day of the ceremony arrived, we all went together. It was a complicated affair: earlier that year the police had come to Erol’s housing-project apartment while he was carrying out a ceremony, terrifying those present, some of whom were undocumented immigrants. So he didn’t feel comfortable doing a large ceremony for Ogou there. A French filmmaker he knew kindly offered his place, which had a courtyard, as an alternative site. But the word had spread among his hip Parisian friends that there was going to be a Vodou ceremony at his house. The result was that a group of Haitians attempting to serve the lwa found themselves surrounded by curious French onlookers – an uncomfortable situation that made it difficult to create the energy necessary for the ritual.   

A typical ceremony would have involved several drummers, but there were no drums that night: they would, Erol had concluded, have brought unwanted attention. There was a French musician who lived in the apartment, however, who thought he could help: he brought a drum from his room, and as Erol began to sing played along with him – as if the whole thing was some kind of jam session. A young Haitian took the drum from him, politely but firmly, as if to play, but really just to silence the musician – no lwa was going to respond to an improvised beat. Undeterred, the French musician went back into his room and brought out another, smaller drum, and once again the Haitian man took it from him. The process went on literally four times, until there were no more drums to be brought out, and the French man finally got the point. Most of the onlookers, meanwhile, soon lost interest and went upstairs to talk amongst themselves. For what actually happens in much of a Vodou ceremony is quite undramatic: they begin with Catholic prayers, then a long series of evocations of different lwa. Finally freed of most of the observers, Erol propelled the ceremony forward. The rooster was sacrificed, and eventually Ogou arrived, drank rum, spoke to some of those assembled about their concerns. The often critical and sometimes a little scary lwa seemed satisfied with the proceedings, to everyone’s relief. It was the middle of the night by our assembly – including the Coronils, Erol, and several others – walked home through the empty streets of Paris.  

I never – until now – found a way to write about that evening. Now I realize that perhaps the most important thing about it was that Fernando was completely at home in this very odd situation. He enjoyed the layered ironies involved in this particularly ethnographic moment. And yet he was also engaged with the ritual itself as a sacred event, as a site of memory and struggle of the kind he knew well from his field work in Cuba and Venezuela. Later that year, Fernando and Julie and I all travelled to Cuba as part of a larger group from the University of Michigan, and once again we found ourselves – this time in Cienfuegos – visiting a cabildo and then attending a ceremony, packed into a wooden house on a back street, where again Fernando was clearly completely at home. To watch him at work in all these places, to see him listening, absorbing everything with his glinting eyes, was to understand how he produced such vital work over the years.

His favorite place to write was in a hammock, either the one suspended in his office or the one on his front porch, with his laptop and books and papers around him. If there is more justice in the next world than in this one, Fernando is now happily ensconced in just such a hammock, thinking, talking, in the midst of a gathering of family, friends, and strangers, taking everything in, already dreaming of changing it.  

I’ve said too much, and I cannot say enough. To tell such stories is partly an attempt – at once hopeful and hopeless – to fill the void. But it is also the best way to refuse that void: to insist that Fernando so filled us up, so bent and illuminated the spaces around him wherever he went, that he is – insistently, irreversibly – still among us. 

See here and here for two more posts honoring Coronil.

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