beautiful pedagogy: the isthmus of desire

In Cendrars’ last long poem, “Panama, or the Adventures of My Seven Uncles” (1918) he addresses his uncles who have all gone on adventures abroad, locating his poetic birth (and the birth of modern poetry) in the letters from his uncles / stories about them / and in both the real and symbolic sites of Panama itself:

It was the Panama crash that made me a poet!
It’s great
My whole generation is like that
Young people
Who experienced weird ricochets
You don’t play with the furniture anyore
You don’t play with old stuff anymore
you break every dish you get your hands on
You sail away
You hunt whates
You kill walruses
You’re always afraid of the tse-tse fly
Because we don’t like to sleep

The “weird ricochets” become the colonial enterprise influencing modern poetry. the desire to travel, for exoticism, for decivilization:

How am I supposed to study for my tests?
You sent me to all the boarding schools in Europe
High schools
Prep schools
How am I supposed to study for my tests
When a letter slides under the door
I saw
This beautiful pedagogy!

This “beautiful pedagogy” names the education that many modernist artists were receiving at the time through either direct colonial experience, or through second hand anthropological / ethnographic depiction. Rimbaud, Gauguin, Picasso, Michaux, the Dadaists, Surrealists, etc. It provided them with a counterpoint to academic learning and a way to combat and subvert western narratives. The appropriation and transculturation that occurs in modernism is echoed pointedly throughout Cendrars:

In the Congo in Bessarabia in Samoa
I know all the timetables
All the trains and the connections
Time of arrival time of departure
All the steamers all the fares all the taxes
It’s all the same to me
I have some addresses
Sponging my way
I come back from America on board the Volturno for 35 francs from New York to Rotterdam

This sense of the modern man as omniscient and omnipresent is both valorized in Cendrars, and warned against. Amidst the great adventures that he hears about from his uncles, and that he has himself (this mingling of experience blurs the line between teacher and student in these poems – is it the desire of Cendrars to travel that compels his uncles? or is it his uncles’ travels that compel Cendrars’ desire?) there is a sense that there is something else: “Sadness / and Homesickness.” This occurs as a refrain throughout the poem. That since “Speed is useless” that modern man will never fully become the image of modern man becuase the world’s distances are too great, the individual cannot ever escape the feeling of sadness and homesickness. A kind of nausea where one is never completely at home in the pedagogical project.

This same ambivalence is handled nicely throughout the poem. Some of his uncles suffer terrible fates, while others discover some sense of prosperity. Beyond the simplistic portrayal / celebration / revery about his uncles, there is an interesting moment when Cendrars includes an advertisement titled “Denver, the Residence City and Commercial Center.” It was published by the Denver Chamber of Commerce and lists all the economic / cultural opportunities there. It is a strange interruption in the narrative flow of the poem, establishing that the younger generation is not only inspired / educated by the older generation of colonial adventurers – their stories / legends – but that there is a whole infrastructure of colonial discourse that has developed this pedagogy – the textual representation of “Denver” is meant to stir the desire of young adventurers – and the fact that it is embedded into the poem itself is a testament to the power of advertisement / mythmaking in the poet’s consciousness.

The poem is dedicated to his seventh uncle:

No one ever knew what happened to him
They say I look like you
I dedicate this poem to you […]
Bartender at the Matachine
Thousands of Chinese dies where the blazing Bar now stands
Your own distillery
You got rich burying the victims of cholera
Send me the photograph of the forest of cork oaks that grow on the 400 locmotives abandoned by the French undertaking […]
Every year you replace the doors in your bar, encrusted with the signatures
Of everyone who comes through
Those 32 doors what a testimony
The living tongues of that damned canal you cherish so


The building of the Panama Canal represents an important moment in modernism. its symbolic value as important as its industrial and colonial value. Posted below is a short history of the canal:

The earliest mention of a canal across the isthmus of Central America dates back to 1534, when Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor and king of Spain, suggested that a canal in Panama would ease the voyage for ships travelling to and from Ecuador and Peru.

Given the strategic situation of Central America as a narrow land dividing two great oceans, other forms of trade links were attempted over the years. The ill-fated Darien scheme was an attempt launched by the Kingdom of Scotland in 1698 to set up an overland trade route, but was defeated by the generally inhospitable conditions, and abandoned in 1700. Finally, the Panama Railway was built across the isthmus, opening in 1855. This overland link greatly facilitated trade, and this vital piece of infrastructure was a key factor in the selection of the later canal route.

An all-water route between the oceans was still seen as the ideal solution, and the idea of a canal was revived at various times, and for various routes; a route through Nicaragua was investigated several times. Finally, enthused by the success of the Suez Canal, the French, under Ferdinand de Lesseps, began construction on a sea-level canal (i.e., without locks) through Panama on January 1, 1880. In 1893, after a great deal of work, the French scheme was defeated by disease and the sheer difficulty of building a sea-level canal. The high death toll was one of the major factors in the failure: although no detailed records were kept, as many as 22,000 workers are estimated to have died during the main period of French construction (1881–1889).

The United States, under Theodore Roosevelt, bought out the French equipment and excavations, and began work in 1904, after helping Panama to declare independence from Colombia in exchange for control of the Panama Canal Zone. A significant investment was made in eliminating disease from the area, particularly yellow fever and malaria, the causes of which had recently been discovered (see Health measures during the construction of the Panama Canal). With the diseases under control, and after significant work on preparing the infrastructure, construction of an elevated canal with locks began in earnest. The canal was formally opened on August 15, 1914, with the transit of the cargo ship Ancon.

The advances in hygiene resulted in a relatively low death toll during the American construction; still, 5,609 workers died during this period (1904–1914). This brings the total death toll for the construction of the canal to around 27,500.

Cendrars’ poem ends on a note of renewal and rebirth – all the wandering of his uncles (of French colonial enterprises in general) have culminated in both their failure – and in the emergence of industrial / colonial power of the Unites States. Since this poem was published in 1918, we can assume that the canal had been fully functioning:

This morning is the first day on earth
Where you see simultaneously all the heavenly bodies in the sky and all the forms of vegetation
Unparalleled equatorial mountains
Unique zone
The Amidon Paterson steamer is still there
The colored initials of the Atlantic and Pacific Tea Co.
The Los Angeles Limited that leaves at 10:02 to arrive on the third day and is the only train in the world with a beauty parlor
The Trunk and signals and the toy cars
To teach you how to spell the ABC of life beneath the ruler of departing whistles
Toyo Kisen Kaisha
I have some bread and cheese
A clean collar
Poetry dates from today

This stanza, perhaps the whole poem, turns on the word “Isthmus” – it canals the poem into the modernist sensibility of simultaneism – that unique “zone”. The poetry that dates from today must deal with modernity, must situate within the consequences of “Isthmus.” :

The Milky Way around my neck
The two hemispheres on my eyes
At top speed

Earth Earth Seas Oceans Skies
I’m homesick
I follow every face and I’m scared of mailboxes
The cities are wombs
I don’t follow roads anymore
Nor suspension bridges!

Suns moons stars
Apocalyptic worlds
You all still have a good role to play

I’d like to be a fifth wheel
Noon at 2 p.m.
Nothing and Everywhere

Cendrars does not just exoticize the colonial enterprise translated as literary exploration – but he senses both the impossibility of such an enterprise, and the negative consequences for those it is sold to. The apocalyptic necessity within this capitalist system plays a vital role in creating the dialectic between enterprise / homesickness – it almost humanizes the image of the modern man – that he was sold this vision of himself as “Isthmus” and yet becomes only a mere signature on a bar door. The poem ends within the desire of the “Isthmus” itself, to be “Nothing and Everywhere” – nausea and desire.


3 thoughts on “beautiful pedagogy: the isthmus of desire

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