Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Another Unknown José Martí Poem (and Why)

It is not every day that I can offer my readers a new poem by José Martí. There are, of course, hundreds of "new poems" by Martí -- every poem that one has not read by him, which, in the case of most people, means all his poems except four or five from Versos sencillos -- is, in effect, a "new poem" and discovery. But I don't mean "new" in that sense. By "new" I mean a poem which no one has laid eyes upon since Martí first wrote or published it, a fruit left unpicked in the well-travelled selva (forest) from which Martí admonished Gonzalo de Quesada not to bear away any branch that was not pendulous with fruit.

I was fortunate to discover and I am more fortunate still to own just such a treasure, an hitherto unknown poem dedicated by Martí to his mother on her birthday or Saint's Day, which I presented to my readers as a Mother's Day gift in 2007. Little did I imagine then that I would subsequently locate another new poem by José Martí:


Triste y árido, el invierno
embozado en nubes vuelve
y la luz entre las sombras
va moriéndose, moriéndose.

Como yertos esqueletos
troncos y ramas se yerguen,
y sin rumores y helada
detiene el curso la fuente.

¡Adiós, juguetones trinos!
¡Adiós, cantares alegres!
Caen los nidos desiertos
del techo que les guarece.

Como un enjambre de blancos
insectos, puros, solemnes,
caen á inundar la tierra,
caen los copos de nieve.

Y entre el profundo silencio
y el misterio que entristece,
se agita por todas partes
el aliento de la muerte.

¿Dónde van esos ancianos
con paso trémulo y breve,
fija en tierra la mirada
tristemente, tristemente?

Se apoya el uno en el otro
y así apenas se sostienen,
que la vejez les abate
con el peso de su nieve.

¡Nieve¡ ¡Nieve en todas partes!
El frío les entumece
y hasta a correr por sus miembros
la sangre apenas se atreve;

Como entre los rudos témpanos
con lentitud deteniéndose,
apenas el agua corre
por el cauce de la fuente.

¿Pero adónde van? ¿Adónde
con paso trémulo y breve?
Van al eterno silencio,
al misterio de la muerte.

¡Oh, madre naturaleza,
cómo tu invierno se aviene
con el tristísimo invierno
que la vida nos ofrece!

En ambos, ¡adiós, cantares!
¡adiós, risas y placeres!
¡adiós, rica exuberancia
de la juventud ardiente!

Pero, ¡qué fin tan distinto
el tuyo y el nuestro tienen!
¡Dos inviernos tan iguales
y después tan diferentes!

¡Oh, madre naturaleza,
tú, tras el frío y la nieve,
a lá pompa y a la gala
de la primavera vuelves!

Pero nosotros, ¡oh, tristes!
tras la vejez que nos hiere,
tras el invierno encontramos
el silencio de la muerte.

We must admit that Shakespeare did his comparison of the seasons in Nature to the seasons of man's life rather more memorably; but this is by no means a discreditable performance. The tone is lofty and suitable to its subject. Great care has been taken in the choice of language, and if the thought is not quite on a par with the mechanics of the poem, the armature sustains and exhibits it to the best advantage. This poem is undoubtedly by José Martí and its attribution cannot be challenged. However, the José Martí who wrote it was not our José Martí. The author is another 19th century poet named José Martí. In Our Martí's lifetime, this other Martí was the more famous poet. In the 20th century, however, Our Martí quite overshadowed the other Martí, and today when one says "José Martí" there is no confusion: there is only one José Martí and he belongs not only to us but to humanity.

The proof that José Martí Folguera (1850-1929), the Catalan poet, dramatist and translator, was more famous at the time than his Cuban counterpart is borne out by the fact that it is Our Martí who alludes to him and was acquainted with his work, not the other way around.

When the 22-year old Martí lived in Mexico, enjoying his first and only success as a playwright, a rumor circulated around the city that he was going to take to the stage himself. Martí ended such speculation in a humorous article in the Revista Universal (October 30, 1875). Humor, of course, was not Martí's forte: we can count on one hand how many times he even attempted it in his writings. Gravitas is a prerequisite for great men and only Lincoln dared to be his own jester. But this note shows that the young Martí could laugh at himself and did when the occasion presented itself. Later in life, there would be few such occasions. Savor, then, the rarest vintage in Martí's well-appointed rhetorical cellar:


De ninguna manera: aunque no es necesario advertirlo, el José Martí que va a trabajar en el teatro de la zarzuela no es nuestro compañero de redacción.

Ya había un José Martí poeta, catalán, más medidor de versos que inspirado, y muy amigo de Ramón [de] Campoamor. Hay otro pintor [José Martí y Monsó], valleisoletano a quien en la Exposición de 1871 le premiaron un hermoso cuadro sobre el derecho de pernada. Otro hay alpargatero, orador de club en Valencia que perdió un brazo en una asonada republicana, y que es, según cuentan, la mismísima piel del demonio. Y todavía hay otro, loco en el Manicomio de Zaragoza, con quien el de aquí se está encontrando alguna que otra afinidad. Pero aún no había un José Martí actor.

Ventajas de tener nombres ilustres, derivados en línea recta de muy plebeyos escuderos.


Although it is hardly necessary to point this out, under no circumstances is the José Martí who is going to be working at the zarzuela theatre our fellow editorial writer of the same name.

There is already a José Martí who is a poet, a Catalan, more a scanner of verse than one inspired, who is a follower of Ramón de Campoamor. There is another, from Valladolid, an artist [José Martí Mansó] whose beautiful painting "Droit du Seigneur" was awarded a prize at the 1871 Exposition. And still another, a sandal-maker and orator at a club in Valencia, who lost an arm in a republican uprising, whom they say is the Devil's own. And finally there is a lunatic at the Zaragoza Madhouse, also named José Martí, with whom the José Martí here is beginning to find one or two affinities. (Was this the same "madman of Zaragoza," elsewhere mentioned by Martí, who thought that his own nose was a sausage with attendant complications?)

Such are the advantages of having an illustrious name derived in a strict line of descent from very plebeian custrels (pages who carry a knight's armor and shield when not in battle)].

Whether he deserves his fate or not, Martí Folguera is not completely forgotten. We were able to locate him even if the editors of the Critical Edition of Martí's Obras Completas could not. There is a street named for him in his native Reus, Catalonia, and his portrait hangs in the Town Hall, alongside other illustrious sons of that municipality, including the general and politician Juan Prim y Prats, the painter Mariano Fortuny and the architect Antonio Gaudí. José Martí Folguera's fame, unlike that of the others, however, is pretty much confined to the petite patrie because he does not own his name.

Recently, Martí Folguera's reputation got an unexpected boost from, of all places, India; and, unbeknownst to me, I had a small part in the revival (so to speak). My English translation of the Versos sencillos, issued in 1997, was pirated by an Indian publisher and used to create a Hindi version. Apparently the Simple Verses was popular there and the publisher decided to reprint other books by Martí. One of the books selected was Versos Castellanos (1893), which had been out of print for 100 years. I don't have to say who is the real author. By now, I suppose the Indian publisher knows too.

In one of five quotes on the internet, Martí Folguera advises: "No te fijes de lo que pasa, fíjate de lo que permanece, lo eterno. La vida pasa, la muerte permanece. Lo uno es lo accidental lo otro es lo esencial." [Don't pay attention to what passes, heed what remains -- the eternal. Life passes, death remains. One is accidental and the other essential.] Well, not always. Sometimes life persists after death and sometimes a mere accident can bring new life.

Friday, July 24, 2009

From Red to Pink: The "Outing" of José Martí (Who Was Not Gay)

I will not pretend that I did not expect it to happen because I did. It had to happen eventually (even inevitably) because José Martí could not be the exception, or, rather, could not be exempted from the fate that has befallen every other historical figure in recent times from Jesus Christ to Abraham Lincoln. Martí, too, has now been conscripted and enrolled in the legions of the great gay dead. Posthumously outing historical figures, on the flimsiest of evidence or no evidence at all, is somewhat akin to the Mormon practice of baptizing dead heathens by proxy on the presumption that they would have wanted to be saved. In both cases the numbers of the "faithful" are increased at the expense of free will and free association. A religion or a sexual orientation is not something that should be bestowed on those who never embraced it and do not have the choice of rejecting it.

We knew also that if Martí fell prey to this new historiographical mania it would not be the Communists who targeted him. Cuba's official historians, vetted and licensed by the regime, do not engage in this kind of revisionism. Except for their fetish about Martí as a proto-Marxist and the "Intellectual Author of Moncada," communist martianos (a tautology if there ever was one) have never endorsed unorthodox interpretations of his life, especially his private life. The paternity of María Mantilla, ascribed to Martí by others in contravention of his own testimony, has always been rejected by them. Other salacious rumors, such as Carlos Márquez Sterling's unsourced allegation in his 1941 biography that Martí regularly patronized prostitutes while living in New York, have not even elicited the attention that a refutation would bring to them. The iconic Martí is still the obligatory image promoted in Cuba; but although the regime has left Martí on his pedestal it has undermined its foundations by crediting him with all its actions, which, in effect, amounts to nothing less than ascribing to him all its crimes and blunders. It would have been better if rather than co-opting Martí the Castro regime had denounced him. Instead, Martí has been become the "National Scapegoat" for the regime, the first cause, as many see it, of our continuing national nightmare. I long refused to believe that this was so and I still refuse to believe that it is generally true; but, sad to say, I have met enough indoctrinated Cubans to convince me that many do now regard Martí exactly as they have been taught for 50 years to regard him (i.e. as Fidel Castro's John the Baptist), which, of course, is a greater offense to his memory than even deconstructing him as an homosexual.

This is, of course, first and foremost, faddishness. It wouldn't be happening to Martí if it had not already happened to everybody else of any historical importance. But beyond this propensity on the part of many Cuban intellectuals to keep apace with whatever is fashionable in their milieu, howsoever absurd, there may be another reason for raising doubts about Martí's sexual preference: the misguided belief that to wrest Martí from the Communists it is necessary to shatter the icon and invent a new Martí for the post-"Nuevo Hombre," when, in fact, all that is required is to clear away the cobwebs of deceit and calumny that have enveloped him for the last half-century and allow him to speak for himself without interpreters. Instead, they add their own cobwebs no less misleading for being novel and contribute also to the general work of desolation.

In an interview given to Radio Martí and broadcast to Cuba on June 23rd, the well-known Paris-based Cuban exile author Zoé Valdés, who was introduced on the show as an "impassioned, heretical, erotic, critical and frontal personality who is not afraid of polemics or of championing politically incorrect positions," declared (as if to prove just that): "De Martí siempre me gustó esa manera tan ardua, apasionada, y urgente que tenía de escribir. Y su poesía amorosa, erótica, y aquel poema homosexual de Martí, titulado Alfredo, que han querido tanto esconder" (I've always liked Martí's manner of writing, so arduous, impassioned and urgent. And his erotic love poetry, and that homosexual poem of Martí's, entitled "Alfredo," which they have wanted so much to suppress).

She had already cited this canard on her blog "Zoe Valdés" on January 28, 2009 and May 19th 2009 as an homage to Martí on the anniversaries of his birth and death. On his birthday she confined herself to the observation, which she said no one could deny, that the poem "tiene su detalle" [a specialness about it] and her readers were not slow to pick up on her hint. She was more explicit on May 19, calling "Alfredo" a poem "con claras connotaciones homosexuales" [a poem with clear homosexual connotations]. In fact, Zoé Valdés has made it a point to cite this poem every time she has written about Martí since 2006. On her previous blog "Zoé Valdés en Skyrock" she mentioned it three more times, averring that in her opinion "este poema posee una carga homosexual muy fuerte" [this poem has a very strong homosexual current] and that she has been studying it for years because "me ha dado una dimensión de Martí muy especial. La de un ser sumamente libre y valiente" [it has given me a new dimension of Martí as a supremely free and brave human being]. This is a "new [emphasis mine] dimension" for her and it was revealed to her through what she considers a "homosexual poem?" The first time she cited "Alfredo" on her blog [Sept. 30, 2006], flushed with the excitement of her "discovery," she went so far as to imagine Martí prostrate before his male lover: "Cae extenuado de amor, de rodillas cede ante el cuerpo amigo, la cabellera rubia roza y dibuja siluetas en los músculos suaves" [Exhausted by love he falls on his knees before his friend's body, brushes against his blonde hair and draws silhouettes on his soft muscles].

If Martí had written such a poem rather than Zoé, it might indeed have been suppressed by either the author or by "pious hands" (as so much else was in fact suppressed). But there has never been any attempt to conceal the poem Alfredo. Martí himself did not conceal it: the poem survives because he caused it to be inserted in the Revisa Universal (April 1, 1875). He did not disown "Alfredo" in his Literary Testament and Gonzalo de Quesada did not exclude it from the first edition of his Obras Completas. It has appeared in every subsequent edition as well as in collections of his Complete Poetry. If it is true that "they have wanted so much to suppress" this poem, they (whoever "they" are) have not done a very credible job. The poem, it is true, is not widely known and has not been widely commented, a fate it shares with Martí's other early poems published in Mexico, which are more conventional than exceptional and do not exhibit the brazen originality of the Versos libres or Versos sencillos. As poetry "Alfredo" must be judged, and if judged as poetry, it deserves the inconspicuous place in the canon which it has always occupied. To rescue it from obscurity on its poetic merits would require a critical re-evaluation of Martí's poetry which, hopefully, will never come to past. The only way for this poem to become relevant, and transcend, as it were, its limitations as poetry, is to read it as something other than just a poem. Zoé Valdés chooses to read it as a "homosexual poem." To be sure, if it were such a thing it would indeed be relevant for more than poetical reasons. But would it have escaped everybody's attention except hers? This is not to deny her powers of perception, elsewhere amply demonstrated; but merely to assert, with all due respect, that she does not alone possess them; and that were this poem indeed what she imagines it to be, she would not have been the first to notice it or comment upon it, Cubans being Cubans.

The 7-page poem (too long to reproduce here) is about a youth named "Alfredo" who rejects carnal for spiritual love -- a commonplace of Romantic poetry. "Era raro, en verdad, aquel Alfredo," as Martí puts it; but not so "queer" as Valdés would have him: "Todo, oh mujer, porque en la herida frente/Amor me digas y me des un beso." [Everything, oh woman, I would give/If you spoke of love and kissed my wounded forehead]. Alfredo wants the impure woman to become virtuous and worthy (of him). Alas, he is not very lucky in love: "Buscó mujeres, y lo hallado aterra" [He looked for women and what he found is horrifying]. Still, Alfredo keeps looking for the ideal woman and he excludes none: "No ha derecho al amor la mujer fea!" [Ugly women, too, have the right to be loved]. Because, of course, Alfredo's love is spiritual and can see beyond ugly, beyond any exterior factor except gender. His search, fruitless as it is, is confined to women and only women. What then was it that caused Zoé Valdés to interpret this poem as "gay?" I am myself horrified to think that it might be this line describing the tortured state of Alfredo's soul : "Loca en la playa, pájaro en el tronco." Of course, Martí never used "loca" or "pájaro" in any other sense than "madwoman" or "bird." Even if these slang words for homosexual (equivalent to the English "fruit" or "fairy") had existed then, it is inconceivable that Martí would have sunk to such a level of vulgarity as to employ them in a poem, no less.

I know what Zoé Valdés means to do. By asserting that Martí wrote a "homosexual poem," she seeks to alienate Martí from the regime by suggesting that he was the one thing above others that the regime finds most alien. Of course, it is not necessary thus to distance Martí from the regime, as the regime and Martí are polar opposites; nor is misrepresenting Martí an acceptable means of countering the regime's own misrepresentations. I cannot begin to imagine the reaction of Radio Martí's listeners in Cuba to her assertion that Martí wrote a "homosexual poem." Perhaps some did mutter, "Well, this is certainly a different Martí than we have been taught." I suspect that a great many more remarked : "So he's that, too."

For me, at least, Zoé Valdés' observation proved useful because it caused me to search for others that might have intuited what she did. Little did I suppose that I would find a 53-minute movie dedicated to the subject (Martí and I). Written, directed and starring Juan Carlos Zaldívar, it goes far beyond attributing a "gay poem" to Martí. On the basis of his monumental ignorance of Martí's life, he has fashioned some curious conjectures of his own (here refuted en passant):

"Marti and I" is a feature film that reclaims Marti from a mythical, patriarchal grave [what does this mean?] by hinting at the less publicized associations and facts about Marti's life [that is, his putative homosexuality]: his "brotherly" love for his best friend, with whom he lived for five years in exile [why quotation marks around 'brotherly?' Does that prove that the relationship between Fermín Valdés Domínguez and Martí was not brotherly (or was more than brotherly)? And they did not live for 5 years together, although they did live for nearly 5 years in Spain as exiles, in different cities, attending different universities ]; the letters to his mother confessing that women were 'like stone' to him [Martí's lifelong pursuit of women belie his metaphorical assurances to his mother while a youth in prison]; his friendship with Walt Whitman, which led to the first translation to the Spanish of 'Leaves of Grass' in 1887, a text now considered by homosexual historians the earliest 'gay' manifesto [Martí never met Walt Whitman; he did not translate Leaves of Grass (alas!); and in his famous essay on Walt Whitman he does his best to acquit him of any gay associations]; his little known essay defending Oscar Wilde [written before Wildes's troubles, it does not defend his lifestyle but his poetry, which Martí again acquits of the charge of being 'effete']; his own bouts with alcoholism [there were no such "bouts," and is the author implying that alcoholism leads to homosexuality (or vise versa)?] and the interpretation of his death as a suicide in order to protect his life's work in martyrdom [in other words, Martí committed "suicide" so that his life's work would not be ruined by his life].

It is interesting to note that neither Zoé Valdés (whom I admire) nor the ignoramus who produced the 53-minute documentary (whom I do not) make any mention whatever of Martí's opinion of homosexuality, for he had one. They parse his life and poems for hints but ignore what he actually wrote about it. We shall devote "Part 2" to this subject. Then it will be obvious why citing those opinions would have demolished their theories. While Martí never discriminated against anyone based on his sexual orientation, and chose his friends without reference to it, his opinion of homosexuality was far from progressive: for him it was a "culpable vice" and the greatest weakness that could beset a man's character. But more about that next time.

Part 2

A term like progressive is time sensitive. What is regarded as progress today would have been inconceivable 100 years ago, and what progress was then would be insufficient today, as today's progress will seem insignificant tomorrow. It is best, therefore, to judge every era by its own means and standards, and the conduct of men by that of their peers not their descendants. To view the 19th century by the norms of the 21st is like peering through the wrong end of a looking glass. We may not be able to discover the prism which allows us to see our ancestors exactly as they saw themselves and the world around them, but, however imperfectly, it is still better to study them in their time and place than it is to transport them to ours for vivisection.

When I observed that Martí's view of homosexuality would not be considered "progressive" today, I do not mean to suggest that that it was not progressive for his time. What is considered progressive today -- homosexual marriage, adoption, or the creation in laboratories of "made to order" babies a la Michael Jackson's -- is something that no one in the 19th century advocated or imagined. On the other hand, Victorians did not hang homosexuals as their grandfathers had done in the 18th century. So if a respect for life is the ultimate test of tolerance, homosexuals were better off in the 19th century than babies are today. With the exception of Oscar Wilde -- who sued in court to prove that he wasn't a "sodomite" and ended up in jail for perjury -- most homosexuals lived their lives then without fear of persecution and with all the tolerance that the the Victorian habit of cloaking the physical in the sentimental afforded them. Martí himself never detected homosexual themes in other authors when these could be attributed to romantic (i.e. platonic) friendship.

Like most writers of his time (including those who were gay) when Martí alluded to homosexuality it was always in classical terms. In his famous essay on Walt Whitman, Martí defended him from the charge that his poetry echoed the homoeroticism of the Ancients: "Ese lenguaje ha parecido lascivo a los que son incapaces de entender su grandeza; imbéciles ha habido que cuando celebra en "Calamus", con las imágenes más ardientes de la lengua humana, al amor de los amigos, creyeron ver, con remilgos de colegial impúdico, el retorno a aquella viles ansias de Virgilio por Cebetes, y de Horacio por Giges y Licisco." [To those incapable of understanding its greatness Whitman's language seems lewd; fools, with the affected innocence of impudent schoolboys, have imagined they saw in his celebration of the love between friends in "Calamus," with images the most ardent of the human tongue, a return to the vile desires of Virgil for Cebes and of Horace for Gyges and Lysiscus.] Well, let's hear it for the impudent schoolboys: they obviously knew more about Whitman's "vile desires" than did Martí and were in this case more incisive readers than the greatest critic of the age.

Martí's most recent translator, Esther Allen, who renders viles ansias as "low desires," suggests in her "Notes" that Martí may not actually be condemning homosexuality here but pedophilia since all the examples he gives from Classical times involve a mesalliance between an older man and a youth. Of course, that was the only kind of same-sex relationship which was condoned by the Greeks and Romans, and even if Martí were specifically defending Whitman against the charge of pedophilia (he would be wrong there, too), it would not mean that he found homosexuality unobjectionable, as Allen seems to imply. In fact, she implies much worse: that it is only the exploitative side (are there any others?) of pedophilia that Martí condemns, specifically the fact Virgil's younger lover was also his slave. In order that Martí should not appear politically incorrect, Allen ends up by making him an apologist for the "vile desires" he condemns. This Martí never was. If he condemns homosexuality in its classical form, it is not because he was unfamiliar with or condoned its modern variant; but because it would have been impossible for Martí to refer to it in any other way in the general circulation periodicals for which he wrote [in The New York Times, for example, "homosexual" did not appear until 1914, when George Bernard Shaw used it]. Martí knew that a classical reference was the most acceptable and comprehensible way to convey his meaning to his readers in Latin America because the term "homosexual" was unknown to laymen at the time. It was not, however, unknown to Martí. One of the most voracious and eclectic of readers (great writers are always great readers), Martí was well-versed in the scientific or pseudo-scientific theories on the origins of homosexuality. He had certainly read Richard von Krafft-Ebing's Psychopathia Sexualis (1886) which first introduced the clinical terms "homosexual" and "heterosexual." We know this for a fact because Martí was the first Hispanic writer to use the word "homosexual" (in referring to a female slave, Elisea Diago, in an unpublished synopsis of a projected book to be entitled "Mis Negros"). Martí knew what he was condemning even if commentators today would have preferred him not to know.

If Zaldívar (of Martí and I) had bothered to read Martí's essay on Walt Whitman rather than presume that its existence meant an endorsement of Whitman's homosexuality and tacit admission of his own, he would have discovered that Martí was a champion of the "Good Grey Poet" against those who contended (rightly) that his poems of masculine friendship were actually love poems to other men. If Zoe Valdés understood his inability to detect and quickness to reject all suggestions of homosexuality in Whitman's poetry, she would perhaps have been more reluctant herself to attribute a "gay poem" to Martí.

For gay poets and artists Whitman's Leaves of Grass was a great awakening, revealing or confirming to them their own sexuality, or at least assuring them that they were not alone. They did not fail to grasp immediately the real significance of Whitman's poem. For Martí, what mattered was to defend Whitman, whom he admired as a poet and a man, from the charge that he was neither. Whitman would have been ever so grateful. He didn't like to be thought of as the "Good Gay Poet" and recoiled in horror when anyone suggested that his poems had a homosexual content, even inventing a tribe of illegitimate children to refute aspersions on his manhood. The "Father of Gay Liberation," as Whitman is now known, never succeeded in liberating himself. Now those who know nothing about Martí and not much more about Whitman than that he was gay are trying to "liberate Martí" by turning him into one of Whitman's gay proselytes when Martí in fact belonged to another fan club, composed of heterosexual knights-errant (very errant) who sincerely denied what Whitman himself always denied but not so sincerely.

Martí again touches upon homosexuality, with the same classical allusions, in his "Introduction" to Juan Antonio Pérez Bonalde's El Poema de Niágara (1882): "Hembras, hembras débiles parecerían los hombres, si se dieran a apurar, coronados de guirnaldas de rosas, en brazos de Alejandro y de Cebetes, el falerno meloso que sazonó los festines de Horacio." [Men would be as women, weak women, if crowned with garlands of roses, they fell into the arms of Alexander or Cebes while pressing to their lips the honeyed falerno wine that graced Horace's feasts.] Martí's attitude towards homosexuality has nothing to do with morality or religion. He sees it as a character flaw that makes men weak as the weakest women. The most famous example of Martí's polemical writing, "A Vindication of Cuba," was occasioned by an editorial which asserted that Cuban men were "effeminate" and would not fight for their freedom. The charge of effeminacy was not something that Martí took lightly or would have levelled lightly. Yet the weakness that he imputed to gay men was not a pretext to exclude them from anything. It was merely his observation: Martí does not prescribe a cure for this "weakness" whether punitive or therapeutic. He implicitly accepts the right of homosexuals to be themselves, though he can never approve of what they choose to be. Tolerance does not require one to approve of something he finds objectionable, but merely to let it be. In today's society, this is not enough: the true liberal must not only be tolerant but celebratory of "diversity." At least that must be his public face. If anyone asserts to you, however, that there is no difference between criticism (constructive or otherwise) and persecution (always destructive) point out that very few people if any were ever wagged to death with a finger.

Martí never treated humans except as human: there were no gradations of humanity for him, and he never excluded anyone from his friendship because he disapproved of his conduct in a personal sphere.

Part 3 will focus on Martí's gay friends.

Part 3

"No amaba la crueldad en los decires; ni la hablaba ni la escribía; ante la que brotaba de los labios de los otros, sonreía tristemente, cual si extendiese su sonrisa, como un escudo, sobre aquellos que eran heridos por los dardos." [He had no love for cruelty and neither spoke nor wrote it. When it flowed from the lips of others, he smiled sadly, as if to extend his smile, like a shield, over those wounded by the darts.]

So wrote the Colombian José M. Vargas Vila about his friend José Martí in a memorial tract where the famed freethinker compared Martí to Christ and other religious figures and symbols at least 100 times, describing him as the "Nazarene of Our Democracies," the "Eucharist of Ideas," the "Good Samaritan of Liberty" and the "God of a New Genesis." Many, of course, have made the same or similar comparisons over the years. Vargas Vila, however, was merely repeating what he had written while Martí still lived, eliciting from him an heartfelt letter of gratitude as well as the tears that started in his eyes when a little girl read Vargas Vila's tribute at a reception in his honor shortly before his death.

Vargas Vila was both the most popular Hispanic novelist of his day and the first Latin American to support himself exclusively by his pen (something that neither Martí nor Rubén Darío were able to do). He still holds the distinction of having more of his books translated into French than any other Spanish writer. Despite his success or more likely because of it, Vargas Vila was a pariah for all of his adult life, accused (falsely) by his detractors of being a satyr and a satanist, not only because he was an enemy of organized religion and quasi-theocratic states such as flourished in Latin America at the time, but because he was gay. (Vargas Vila lived for 43 years with his companion and adopted son, Ramón Palacio Piso, who also knew Martí and praises his kindness and generosity in the preface to Vargas Vila's posthumously published, Martí, Apóstol y Libertador.)

Martí the "Christlike figure," who never spoke a word of derision and shielded him when others did, befriended Vargas Vila during the time that both were exiles in New York. Besides their mutual interest in literature and admiration for each other's work, they shared the same contempt for imperialism and both foresaw (when practically nobody else did) the crucible that the "American Century" would represent for Nuestra América. So greatly did he respect and trust Vargas Vila that Martí, the most secretive of men when it came to his revolutionary activity, confided to the Colombian his plans for the invasion of Cuba. From Martí's death in 1895 until his own in 1933, Vargas Vila was the leading critic of U.S. intervention in Latin America, honoring Martí's injunction, in his Political Testament, to combat it. This is more than Martí's closest Cuban allies, who acquiesced to the imposition of the Platt Amendment, did.

Martí's friendship with Vargas Vila may seem a contradiction of his published references to homosexuality and perhaps it is. The Mexican critic Alfonso Reyes described Vargas Vila as "a little man, none too masculine" and Carlos Ripoll in his "Martí y el Sexo" mentions that Vargas Vila was a transvestite. His effeminacy, more even that his homosexuality, should have been objectionable to Martí, but it wasn't. Nor did he consider Vargas Vila "weak" because of it. His explicit trust in him proves it. Martí was dogmatic in theory but accommodating in practice, which is certainly preferable to being open-minded on paper but close-minded in person. Ripoll may have found the key to understanding this seeming dichotomy in a quotation by Martí: "Duro con el pecado y blando con el pecador." [Be hard on the sin but soft on the sinner.]

Martí, of course, did not have many friends like Vargas Vila, who was very much sui generis for his place if not his time. Others there must have been less well-known and more circumspect who were treated with no less respect by Martí than was Vargas Vila. It is possible to make a long list of historic and contemporary figures whose genius Martí acknowledged without ignoring their flaunting of societal conventions. Rimbaud, for example, of whom Martí said in his Notebooks: "Ange en exil", qui eut sur l'esprit, le coeur et les sens du malheureux un si funeste empire, si complétement diabolique. [An "angel in exile," over whom held sway the spirit, heart and sense of an unfortunate, if not completely diabolic, being.] Or Julián del Casal, second only to Martí as Cuba's greatest poet: "Aquel fino espíritu ... ya no [es] hoy más que un puñado de versos, impresos en papel infeliz, como dicen que fue la vida del poeta. Murió el pobre poeta, y no lo llegamos a conocer. ¡Así vamos todos, en esa pobre tierra nuestra, partidos en dos, con nuestras energías regadas por el mundo, viviendo sin persona en los pueblos ajenos, y con la persona extraña sentada en los sillones de nuestro pueblo propio!" [This pure spirit ... is now nothing but a handful of poems printed upon wretched paper, as wretched as the poet's life is said to have been. The poor poet died before we were able to know him. It is the way all of us go in this poor land of ours, divided in two, with our energies strewn all over the world, living without individuality in foreign countries while strangers occupy the seats that belong to us in our own.]


Martí was not a homosexual nor were his writings infused with homoeroticism. He did not approve of homosexuality, which, of course, does not make him a homophobe; and he did not discriminate against homosexuals, which, of course, does not make him a homophile. His attitude towards homosexuality, in brief, was that of most people.

I am aware that this study, which seeks to correct distortions of Martí's life and of his views on homosexuality, has the unintended consequence of magnifying the importance of this subject to him. In fact, there are a scant 4 or 5 references to it, totalling less than 100 words, among the more than 4 million which Martí wrote. The expert on this subject, Professor Emilio Bejel, author of Gay Cuban Nation, managed to miss in his readings of Martí's works all of his references to homosexuality, which shows how easy this is to do. Now, however, those words cannot be ignored in justice to Martí and the truth.



Saturday, June 27, 2009

Martí Answers the "Cuestión Toral:" Would You Let Your Daughter Marry a Black Man?

José Martí called it the "cuestión toral," which any Spanish-English dictionary defines as the "main or principal question," but, actually, I think that as used by Martí it means much more than that. The root of the word "toral" is "toro" (bull) which connotes in Spanish not just the centrality of the question but also its force. In English answering such a question would require one to "take the bull by the horns," which is never an easy or safe thing to do. Whether it was ever posed to him or not, Martí felt compelled to answer this question for everybody else that might be confronted with it. If not a pattern he wished to offer an example that might prove useful to others, and his authority, which always would. Martí believed that "man was naturally good" but required the "salutary influence of example" to widen the scope of his interests and direct his actions. It was necessary, therefore, to build a consensus for decency as for anything else in the world. This is Martí's attempt to do precisely that in the realm of social relations at their most intimate and revolutionary.

The question which Martí thought so formidable now sounds more sheepish than "toral," though it was certainly not regarded lightly in Martí's day when it was used to test the limits of an individual's racial tolerance: a negative answer marking the reformer as a hypocrite and a positive one as a degenerate. The question, still occasionally heard today but no longer an acceptable litmus test of one's racial attitudes, is: "Would you allow your daughter to marry a black man?" This question was usually posed to those who professed a belief in the equality of the races by those who did not. Today it is the question, not the answer, which is politically incorrect; yet, though clichèd and tendentious, it is not without value. It helped Martí, for instance, to plumb the depths of racism and its causes more deeply than in any other analysis with the exception of his classic rejection of racial divisions ["There is no basis for racial hatred because there are no races"]. It is in that light that we must view his assertion that intermarriage is a "question devoid of meaning" for him. Of course, if there are no races (as Martí contends) then one cannot speak of their mingling as either desirable or objectionable. As Martí puts it, "What already is, is."

It is still possible, however, to consider this question from an economics perspective, since those who belong to the emancipated class would necessary be in a disadvantageous position in respect to those who have always been compensated for their labor and benefitted from their own and their ancestors' exertions. To view the racial divide as an economic divide is to envision a solution to the "race problem." Economic differences are subject to amelioration, at least in a capitalist society, and Martí recognizes that it is desirable and even possible to transcend them. He considers this transformation more cultural than political, requiring a revolution in human relations rather than in human affairs. It will begin from the bottom up because it is there that all classes of men associate regularly on the closest terms. In fact, Martí believes that this transformation is already underway despite legal prohibitions and social barriers. More farsighted still is Martí's interpretation of strictures against intermarriage as societal controls intended to bolster the patriarchal order by limiting the autonomy of women as well as that of the youth of both races who rejected these prejudices. This analysis, more than just a novel conception, is a certain antecedent, if not the model, for modern thought on this and analogous subjects. If Martí's private ruminations on intermarriage had been publicized in his time, rather than wilfully suppressed till our own, Martí would indeed have become an obligatory reference on this subject.

Instead, these pages were interred in Martí's archives for 20 years by Gonzalo de Quesada, his "chosen disciple" and literary executor; and for an additional 60 years, the last 30 years of the Republic and the first 30 years of the Castroite tyranny, by Quesada's son and Martí's hereditary archivist and editor, Quesada y Miranda. It was not until the latter's death in 1975, followed, in short order, by that of his son and last keeper of the Martí archive, Quesada y Michelson, that Martí's papers came under the control of the Central Committee of the Communist Party, in whose vaults they are now stored (the remnants, that is, which were not appropriated as "souvenirs" by party leaders at the time of Quesada's passing). This particular document, uncollected for nearly 90 years, was finally published by the regime in the first volume of its Anuario del Centro de Estudios Martianos (1978), a scholarly journal with a very limited circulation whose stated goal is to synchronize José Martí's writings with Karl Marx's, studying Martí in the context of Marx (since the fall of the Soviet Union, the hierarchy has been reversed). It would indeed have been difficult to reconcile Martí's thought on this subject with Marx's. Ironically, Marx's favorite daughter did indeed marry a man of color, the Cuban Pablo Lafargue, whom Marx dubbed in his letters "the gorilla."

The "newly-discovered" document did have some obvious uses for Castro's propagandists, but these were hardly exploited by the editors. In a brief and superficial "Note" accompanying the text, the directors of the Center credited the Revolution with the abolition of racial discrimination in Cuba, as might be expected; but refrained from explaining how the rights of one group were increased while the rights of all Cubans were eliminated. The document itself was edited in a hasty manner, with many errata and supposedly undecipherable words, as well as not a few questionable conjectures and substitutions. Fortunately, CEM reproduced the original manuscript as well, which has allowed us to correct some of the misreadings; we suspect there are others, but we have incorporated only what we could decipher with confidence. Translating the text into English was also of much help in parsing what Martí had meant in the original Spanish, since whatever did not make any sense in English was likely not to stand too careful a scrutiny in Spanish either. For example, in the Center's faulty transcription, Martí sanctions the marriage of "el blanco y la negra, la negra y el blanco," when, obviously, he meant "el blanco y la negra, el negro y la blanca." (Such misreadings may interest some readers, but we shall not vex the patience of the rest by multiplying these examples).

Martí's answer to the "cuestión toral" was part of his "Escenas," a series of outlines for dramatic works which were never completed but which Martí believed of sufficient interest to recommend their publication in his Literary Testament. This is in fact the longest of his surviving"Escenas." It bears some relation to another draft, for a book called Mis Negros, which he intended to write about blacks that had most influenced his life and moved his heart, from the slave whom he had seen flogged as a boy to the enigmatic "Isabel, homosexual" (which Carlos Ripoll identifies as possibly the first use of the word in Spanish).

There is a stream of consciousness quality about Martí's writing here, which is not uncharacteristic of him but which here appears especially pronounced. His style, consequently, is highly suggestive because elliptical. Ideas are touched upon without much elaboration, or when there is an attempt to expand on them, the result is often cursory, as when he lists the three reasons for marriage, something that would certainly admit of many more than three. This is not to imply that Martí's thinking on the subject is evasive or unfocused: he declares forthrightly that races should mix and that their fusion is desirable for society. As for himself, Martí makes it clear that it would take nothing short of a Second Coming for him to find a man (of whatsoever race) worthy of marrying his ideal of a daughter, but if there should be such a man it would not matter to him what his race was so long as his daughter loved him and he was in a position to make her happy. In that case Martí was even disposed to move with his daughter to some unnamed foreign country where black men lived as brothers and welcomed all men to the common table. Such a relocation would, perhaps, be necessary to protect his hypothetical daughter from social ostracism and his prospective son-in-law from lynching. At the same time, Martí trusted in the advent of more progressive times because he genuinely believed in man's capacity to grow and society's ultimate incapacity to stop him.


Y ahora viene la cuestión toral -- la cuestión del matrimonio. La eterna pregunta. Y ¿tú casarías tu hija con un negro? Para mí no tiene esta pregunta ninguna significación. Es difícil que yo encontrase marido digno de mi hija, si yo tuviera por ejemplo la hija que yo quisiera tener, fina e ideal, con mucha mente y mucho corazón, y tan sensible, que no me la pudiesen rozar sin lastimarla el [casco], de su cabello. Si yo encontrase en un negro las altas condiciones apetecibles para darle esta gloria y consuelo de mi vida, frágil como la espuma y limpia como un rayo de sol, yo sé que tendría la sensatez y el valor de afrontar el aislamiento social, y de consentir por mi parte en acceder a la voluntad de mi hija. O la llevaría a tierra, donde se sientan en haz los negros y dan el brazo a todos los señores los negros cultos y honrados.

Pero para eso sería previo que mi hija se enamorara del negro, y que el negro demostrase, no sólo condiciones de generosidad en bruto, ni su simplicidad, que es hoy con justicia y seguirá siendo para los hombres honrados, su mayor poder, porque es la prueba patente de su mayor derecho, sino las condiciones excepcionales de carácter y de cultura necesarias para enamorar a mi hija, a despecho de la oposición y repulsa general, y los prejuicios sociales, odios a la juventud y a la mujer, que el problema negro implica.

El matrimonio no es un derecho de cada hombre sobre cada mujer, sino la unión voluntaria de dos seres de diverso sexo. Para los fines de la vida (que [van] más allá, quién es el atrevido que se arroga el derecho de declarar inseparables a dos seres, cuando los separa [p.i.] ante nuestros ojos la muerte:) La unión voluntaria. De modo que cuando exista la mutua adhesión, la voluntad libre a la vez, del blanco y de la negra, de la negra y del blanco, existirá la condición esencial del matrimonio, y se hará en la ley, porque ya está hecho en el [orden] del espiritú y en el [tribunal] de la naturaleza. Eso en cuanto a la ética de la ley. Ahora en cuanto a la práctica. Cómo se resuelve el problema? Iremos a negro? El negro vendrá a blanco? Deben mezclarse las razas. Y la otra pregunta: Puede impedirse que se mezclen? Lo que es, es.

¿Por qué tiemblan ante la unión legal de las dos razas los que han venido haciendo sin miedo hasta ahora la fusión legal? ¿Por qué no desean un marido blanco, estos, un marido favorecido por las tradiciones sociales, para la pobre hija mulata que se tuvo con la esclava o con la concubina? ¿Por qué no corregir con la energía del carácter el defecto social creado por el frenesí de la pasión o el hábito del vicio? La fusión de las dos razas se ha hecho, y se continuará haciendo. Veamos cómo se hará de modo que no degrade al que está arriba, sino levante al que está abajo.--

Veamos si hay un peligro tan grande en los matrimonios. -- Los matrimonios tienen tres maneras de hacerse, la atracción físico-espiritual, la ocasión y la semejanza de cultura. -- La atracción corpórea es la [línea] más baja, y menos deseable, y por fortuna nuestros hombres negros están ya tan cultivados por lo menos como nosotros en este punto, y no son bestias feroces, sino que ven en la mujer a más de la hermosura las condiciones ideales. La ocasión, conspira. Y cuando sean muchas, [garantizarán] precisamente que se han acabado los horrores, y no habrá anatema. Y la cultura. Ahí está. Hay que levantarle al negro la altivez, para su propio bien, para que no [olvide] cuando vivía entre montes; y adquirirá pronto el influjo y la riqueza, que son condiciones del matrimonio. Y es necesario que tenga orgullo, sin lo cual el matrimonio no es posible.

¿Por dónde empezará la fusion? Por donde empieza todo lo justo y lo difícil, por la gente humilde. Los matrimonios comenzarán entre las dos razas entre aquellos a quienes el trabajo mantiene juntos. Los que se sientan todos los días a la misma mesa, están más cerca de elegir en la mesa su compañera, que [los] que no se sientan nunca en ella. De abajo irán viniendo de esa manera.


And now comes the principal question -- the question of marriage. The eternal question. "Would you marry your daughter to a negro?" For me that question is devoid of meaning. It would be difficult for me to find a husband worthy of my daughter, supposing I had the fine and ideal daughter which I should wish to have, with much mind and much heart, and so sensible that no one could brush against her or touch a hair on her head without wounding her to the quick. If I found in a black man the desirable attributes that would convince me to give him this glory and consolation of my life, delicate as sea foam and pure as the sun's rays, I know that she would have the sense and the courage to confront the social ostracism, and I, for my part, to accede to my daughter's wishes, even if I had to take her to a land where cultured and honest black men, living in unity, extend the hand of friendship to all men.

For that to happen my daughter would first have to be in love with the black man, and the black man would have to demonstrate, not just his capacity for generosity, nor his simplicity, which is justly regarded by honest men now, as it will be in the future by all men, as his greatest power and the palpable proof of his greater right; but, also, he must show those exceptional attributes of character and culture which will be necessary to win the love of my daughter, despite the general opposition and condemnation, the social prejudices, and the hatred for youth and women, which are also a part of the black problem.

Marriage is not a right which every man has over every woman but the voluntary union of two beings of the opposite sex. It exists to promote the ends of life [which go much farther than life itself, although who would be so insolent as to claim the right to declare two beings inseparable when death separates them before our very eyes?]: A voluntary union. So when there exists a mutual attachment and the free will to formalize it, between white men and black women, and black men and white women, the essential conditions for marriage will also exist, and such unions will be recognized by the law as they are already sanctioned by the laws of the spirit and by natural law. So much as pertains to the ethics of the law. And now as regards the practice. How will this problem be solved? Will we be treated as blacks? Or will blacks achieve the status of whites? The races should mix. And another question: Could they be prevented from mixing? That which already is, is.

Why do they tremble at the legal union of two races who have without fear consented to their illegal fusion for so long? Why wouldn't a white husband, favored by social conventions, be preferred for the poor mulatto daughter born of a slave or concubine? Why not correct with energetic character the social defect created by the frenzy of passion or the habit of vice? The fusion of the two races is already a fact, and it will continue a fact. Let us consider, then, how it should be accomplished in a way that will not degrade those at the top but elevate those at the bottom. --

Let's examine if there really is such a great danger in [inter]marriage? -- There are three ways of forming a marriage -- physical-spiritual attraction; opportunity; and cultural affinity. -- Physical attraction is the lowest and least desirable reason to marry; fortunately, our men of color are not ferocious beasts but at least as cultivated as we are and value in women ideal qualities above physical beauty. The occasion also conspires for change. And precisely when these opportunities to associate freely increase the horror occasioned by such marriages will end as will the anathema. And culture. It too will play its part. We must encourage pride in black men for their own good, that they may always remember when they were their own masters in the mountains; and they will soon acquire the influence and prosperity that makes marriage possible.

And where shall this fusion begin? Where all that is just and difficult always begins -- with the humble people. Marriages between the races will commence among those brought into close contact by their work. Those who sit at the same table every day are that much closer to choosing their mate from that table than those who have never sat there. They shall climb from below by that means.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Martí and the Need for a "Catholic Reformation," or "Padre Gasolina" and Father Cutié

One of the most controversial of José Martí's writings is his "Carta al hombre del campo," in which he advised the common man not to pay the local priest to baptize his son but to do it himself for no one loved him more or was better qualified to open the door to eternal life than he who had giving life to him. Martí felt the duty to protect the poor from exploitation by dishonest priests no less than by venal rulers, not because he was anti-clerical but because he valued humanity above dogma and could not conceive of "men of God" who were not also devoted to mankind. Socially-conscious priests, who put man's needs before the temporal interests (real or imagined) of the Church, commanded his respect and were defended strenuously by him. The anti-clericalism of the Enlightenment, which was still then and long would remain a dominant theme of continental politics, was always rejected by Martí, who was never an enemy of established religion, but, on the contrary, believed in the essential truth and value of all religions. His censure was reserved for those who violated that truth for their own gain, the real enemies of religion.

Clerical misconduct in Martí's day consisted chiefly in violations of the confessional seal. Many priests then believed in the divine right of kings as many still do in the divine right of dictators, and they regarded it as both their religious and patriotic duty to denounce confessions or even suspicions of disloyalty to the Crown. It didn't hurt, either, that this was also the most efficacious means of obtaining preferment in the Church. In effect every neighborhood church was a CDR, except that the "D" then represented "Destrucción." Other priests, less "high-minded" and more venal, would blackmail penitents for money or sexual favors. The rural clergy were the worst because they were largely unregulated and their victims the most vulnerable.

Priestly celibacy, as such, was the least concern of the communicants and not much of a concern for the clergy. Priests made no effort to live double lives because concubinage was the norm and concealment was neither expected nor necessary. The more scrupulous among them were not impeded from becoming husbands and fathers, nor did they have to exercise those roles by stealth. It should be noted that from time to time there were ecclesiastical efforts at "reform." One bishop, Antonio María de Claret, was actually canonized for his success at convincing priests to abandon their wives and children. The people, however, erected a statue to a priest from Jesús del Monte nicknamed "Padre Gasolina"who fathered 12 children and did not abandon them.

Today hypocrisy is more institutionalized within the Church than it ever was in Martí's day. Then what was normal was regarded as "aberrant." In the 20th century what was aberrant came to be regarded as normal. Ironically, abnormality sometimes makes it safer to practice normality. Witness the case of Father Alberto Cutié. Most Catholics (and especially his own predominantly-Cuban parishioners) were actually relieved to know that his indiscretions, however public and notorious, were not predatory or directed at children, and, accordingly, they were disposed not only to forgive but even to justify his conduct. Not that his conduct, of course, needs any justification. If he had fathered a child and abandoned him, as Paraguay's bishop-turned-president did, twice, then his failure as a man would be far more execrable than his failure as a priest. But what Father Cutié did is not censurable in a man or in a priest. Even the Church seems reluctant to condemn with severity Fr. Cutié's departure from the abnormal and inhuman practice of celibacy, almost as if it regarded the story of a sexually active heterosexual priest as good publicity.

The idea of priests as "eunuchs for Christ" (as John Paul II called them) or nuns as "brides of Christ" seems now rather antiquated, not to say ridiculous. Who is this "Christ" who needs "brides" and "eunuchs?" Certainly not the Christ of the New Testament. It sounds more like some Eastern potentate, perhaps Herod himself. Even the Apostle Paul, the most misanthropic of Christ's disciples, though expressing his personal preference for the single life, yet enjoined those who could not sublimate their sexuality to marry and be spared hell thereby.

Celibacy in the Catholic Church is not a dogma but an administrative rule adopted 700 years ago to ensure its temporal power. That is, its wealth. Married priests tended to be as fond of their children as other men are and as desirous of providing for their earthly needs. Had they been content to deny them their protection, letting them wander the streets as so many "waifs of Christ," priests might never have been forced to embrace the rule of celibacy; but when they started to endow dowries for their daughters and bequeath the "Church's property" to their sons, the pope dictated that henceforth no priest would be allowed to marry, which meant that all priests would have to be celibate because extramarital sex was also forbidden. Whereas Paul had prescribed marriage as a "cure" for fornication, the medieval popes substituted celibacy, except that a hair from the dog that bit you is not a good cure for rabies.

While celibacy turns many priests into hypocrites, it does not turn them into pedophiles. But it is undoubtedly true that it discourages vocations among normal men, creating a void that pedophiles are only too happy to fill. What better cover can there be for the most sexually aberrant of men than to appear as sexless before the world? In fact, these priests were not above sex as much as beneath it. The scandals of pedophile priests and the bishops who abetted and even facilitated their predations did more harm to the Church than all the fictions of the Da Vinci Code.

When isolated cases of abuse, concealed and unaddressed by the Church, suddenly exploded with all the accumulated force of decades, the exceptions came to define the conduct of the entire priesthood, when, actually, the incidence of pedophilia among priests is no higher than among the general population. Here, however, is one instance when the media are not be faulted. If the Church had not so zealously collected its skeletons for all these years, the closet would not have been so full when it finally burst open. The house-cleaning that had so long been deferred, which the Church hoped might not even be necessary, required now the levelling of walls and uprooting of foundations, literally, to compensate the victims of abuse with billions of dollars in settlements. And there is the final irony: the Church does not allow priests to marry because then it might have to pay them a living wage to support their families. Instead, it has been obliged to spend billions to make a tardy amends for the natural consequences of its unnatural policies. The closure and sale of churches and schools, and the general erosion of the Church's temporal and spiritual authority, is the price which it has had to pay to maintain the rule of celibacy which was initially instituted to preserve intact its patrimony and power.

Father Alberto Cutié is in a privileged position in respect to other priests because he is an attraction and rainmaker, and this may have caused him to assume (correctly) that the Church would accommodate his particular lifestyle, as it has always done for a small clique of powerful hierarchs. When compromising photographs of Cutié with a woman were published in a Spanish-language gossip magazine, the Church had no choice but to publicly lament what it had privately sanctioned for years, and still its response could not have been more equivocal, leaving all decisions concerning his future in his own hands.

Father Cutié, who does not seem quite grateful for this special dispensation, has raised the possibility that he may have been set up by the Castro regime (the Cuban equivalent of "the devil made me do it."). It reminded me of Reynaldo Arenas' assertion in his political testament that Fidel Castro was responsible for his AIDS. That may well be the only thing for which Castro was not responsible in that writer's tormented life. A man controls little in this world and less in the nether world that is Castro's Cuba. Of one thing, at least, he is still master, here or in Cuba; and Castro, unless corporeally present, has nothing to do with that. Fidel Castro has robbed all Cubans of much of their autonomy. I see no reason to surrender to him control of aspects of our lives which are not in his control. Personal responsibility for one's acts and the adverse consequences which sometimes attend those acts demands a level of maturity which the Church is unwilling to grant its servants. Celibacy, ultimately, is enforced infantilization, which sacrifices real morality to superficial morality. What is merely superficial is always most vulnerable. It is time for the Church to abandon its revival of the Cult of Hymen and demand of its priests at least the same level of responsibility for their sexuality as it reposes in laymen. Responsibility, however, is impossible without choice. The Greek Orthodox tradition, which runs parallel to the Roman, has always allowed priests to choose between marriage and celibacy. Unless the Roman Catholic Church follows suit, Byzantium may yet again conquer Rome.

When Martí said that "Christianity died at the hands of Catholicism," I think this is what he meant: the extraneous elements which the Church adopted from paganism for less than Christian reasons are subverting the message of Christ and should be discarded before Christianity itself is the casualty.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

José Martí and His Judges

It would be difficult to list all of Martí's professions and occupations, areas of expertise or interest, not only because they were so numerous and varied, but because there is an unfortunate tendency to do too much justice to Martí when he, of all men, does not need to have his résumé padded. Such a phenomenon is by no means peculiar to him; all great men are, to some extent, susceptible to it; and those that were the most fecund and extended themselves over more realms of human knowledge, sometimes as masters but also as apprentices, men such as Jefferson and Martí himself, pose too great a temptation for historians to view their lives under a microscope, isolating and enlarging aspects that appeal to them while ignoring the integral man. To exalt great men for talents which they share in common with all or most men, unlike sycophancy, is an honorable impulse since no one profits from superfluous lapidary inscriptions but the stone-cutter. But flattering the great dead, however sincerely, doesn't constitute a service to them. Expanding the insignificant will always dilute the essential. Sometimes it may do even worse: Jefferson was the father of the domestic nail industry in America and was quite proud of it. For someone who was not Jefferson, such an achievement might be worth remembering. In his case, however, it is best forgotten, since it would add no more to his glory that he employed his slaves (including his own sons) in making nails to defy British tariffs than it would if he had pioneered the cultivation of tax-free domestic tea.

Of course, in Martí we will never encounter such dissonance between the private and public man. Still, the tendency to praise out of measure is just as evident and perhaps even more pervasive because Martí is less liable to criticism. Because Martí liked to doodle (as he did), does that make him a great caricaturist worthy of having his foolscap sold with the best of Goya? Does the fact that Martí had a doctorate in civil and canonical law, and was even, briefly, a law professor in Central America, make him a "great lawyer," as Maceo once referred to him, though Martí never pled a case, or, indeed, worked as an attorney? In fact, Spanish authorities denied him a license to practice law; but though it is a fair conjecture, given his forensic and analytical skills, that he might have been a great lawyer, it is quite another thing to declare him one based on his potential or the few months that he spent as a law clerk. Does the fact that all of Martí's writings are infused with seeds of his philosophy make him a philosopher even though he left no systematic work or schema, requiring that his disciples do for him what Plato did for Socrates, or the authors of the Gospels for Jesus: gather his sayings, expound and extrapolate from them? Martí, like Socrates and Jesus, was a philosopher by example, who lives because of his death not inspite of it. But doesn't that kind of philosopher differ from the theoretical philosopher, the Kants and Spinozas; and is not martyr to truth a better description for them? Martyrdom, of course, does not always attest to the rightness of a man's beliefs, just their depth; but when heroic virtue is conjoined with a righteous cause and sealed by death, it is not necessary to seek for miracles. Yet there are those who do.

Placing Martí on a pedestal so high that we can barely recognize him is not the best way to study him, but still not as ineffective as smashing his statue to pieces and then picking among the fragments for clues as to his real self. Again, Martí is not the first historical figure to be subjected to this treatment; in fact, he is among the last. We are not referring to the wilful falsification of his teachings for political purposes, which has been the case in Cuba ever since his death (1895) and never more so than in the last 50 years; but, rather, to the no less tendentious misrepresentation of his private life as well as public acts. In recent years, writers more apt to credit rumor than fact, who specialize in speculation rather than investigation, and seek to create an effect rather than make a noteworthy contribution to our knowledge of him, have endeavored to "humanize" Martí by turning him into some kind of inhuman monster. One, a psychologist, wrote about the "14 Sins of Martí" (we may all hope to sin so little); another expounded on the "Myths of Martí" (these, of course, have nothing to do with Martí but with the myth-makers) and yet a third revived the rumor that Martí's goddaughter was actually his daughter (since he raised and loved her as a daughter, does this even matter?). What all these works have in common is the suspension of historical rigor in favor of a pet theory, which would, if accepted, supposedly render his serious biographies obsolete. It is, in short, an attempt to replace the permanent with the ephemeral. The antidote to hagiography is not demonology; nor an artificial balance between the good and the bad, as if there were a formula for striking such a balance after death that never existed in life. The best approach is to let the life speak for itself rather than to speak for or against the life. Men like Martí don't need advocates or detractors. Their own words and acts, faithfully represented, are the only brief that they require.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

El Grito de Baire

What better day can there be to relaunch the José Martí Blog than February 24th, the anniversary of the "Grito de Baire," when Martí renewed the epic struggle begun in 1868 to win our country's independence?

114 years removed from that day, which was as redolent with hope for our country as the present is bereft of it, Cuba finds herself in a more deplorable state than she did in 1895: then Cuba was a colony of Spain, now she is the fiefdom of one transplanted Spanish family whose patriarch fought with Weyler's forces against our independence. His sons, who head the criminal enterprise which has despoiled our country and enslaved her people for half a century, have attempted to co-opt Martí's legacy, proclaiming him the "Architect" of their anti-Cuban Revolution though it is the negation of everything Martí lived and died for.

It would, perhaps, have been better if Castro's revolution had proclaimed its enmity for him from the first; but, of course, if it had done that it would never have triumphed in the end. More vital to its success than concealing its Communist origins was to feign a devotion to the Apostle which was inconsistent and, indeed, irreconcilable with its Marxist orientation. For decades the party ideologues asserted that Martí would have been a Marxist if only he had been able to understand Marx. In fact, Martí understood him all too well, which was the reason that he was not a Communist.

After the fall of Communism (everywhere in the Western world but Cuba), the island's political commissars, fearful that Marx was no longer emblematic of anything but catastrophic failure, instructed the official historians to diminish Marx's role in the construction of their tropical Stalinism and credit Martí instead for their so-called "achievements."

The hatred which the Cuban people feel for Castro and his henchmen has in some measure been "grandfathered" to include Martí. I had heard reports of this development but always refused to believe it, as it would mean that the Castroites had succeeded in dislodging the very cornerstone of our nationality. But the testimony of defectors, the regime's own point men, as it were, in this massive effort to repoint every brick in that edifice, has convinced me that it is now necessary not only to expose the horrors of the present but to uncover the historical truths that have been buried in order to falsify our history. The ruins of our country are no less valuable than those of any other land. The only difference is that in Cuba the ruins are buried to conceal the past whereas elsewhere they are excavated to reveal it.

JMB will do whatever lies in its power to rescue and preserve our history. Its focus will be on José Martí because by saving him much else that matters will be saved too. But we shall also attempt to clarify other elements of our history which are imperilled and vital to our future.

From 2008:

Today marks the 113th anniversary of the "Grito de Baire" (Battle Cry of Baire), the start of Martí's Revolution which culminated, after nearly a half-century of armed struggle, in Cuba's independence. Those 50 years (1850-1898) were the most heroic in our country's history, with 300,000 of our countrymen perishing on the battlefield and another 300,000 (mostly women and children) in Spanish concentration camps. This out of a population which struggled to rise above 3 million in the 19th century. The population of the Thirteen Colonies at the time of the American Revolution was also approximately 3 million. Washington's soldiers sustained a total of 4000 casualties in the whole course of the American Revolution. Something to remember when the "pressure-cooker" theorists cast aspersions on Cuban heroism or contrast what we have sacrificed to obtain our freedom to the price which Americans have paid to maintain theirs.

The difference between that glorious epoch and today is that Cuba was not then an impermeable island fortress; for Spanish oppression, although terrible, was not systematic and even Cuban slaves enjoyed more rights then than do Cuban citizens today. U.S. Neutrality laws, which exist to preserve tyrannic but stable regimes in power, were an impediment then as now to Cuban freedom, but the U.S. had not entered yet into an international agreement to become the guarantor of tyranny on the island as it would in 1962. Even if U.S. presidents betrayed the rebels' plans to the Spanish, seized their expeditions, confiscated their weapons and imprisoned their leaders while they waited for the ripe apple to fall into America's lap, the people of the United States, whose sympathies were always with the Cubans, refused to assist their government in prosecuting those earlier freedom fighters. Thousands of indictments were obtained against the Cuban patriots but not one single conviction was ever secured from an American jury.

With the unremitting enmity of successive U.S. administrations, but with the good-will of the American people and the so-called "yellow press," Cubans had already won the war on the ground and were in effective control of 90 percent of the island's territory when the U.S., using the fortuitous explosion of the U.S.S. Maine as a pretext, invaded Cuba to seize the ripe apple at the last moment from Spain and to deny the rebels their just victory. For 50 years the U.S. refused to throw a lifeline to the Cuban rebels as France and even Spain had done for them in 1776, and when Cubans finally obtained alone what they might have won 50 or 30 years earlier with U.S. assistance, the Americans swooped down to secure "peace and order" on the island. This insignificant if calamitous episode within Cuba's War of Independence is known as the "Spanish-American War" (American arrogance going so far as to ignore the participation of the main actors). Americans also once called it the "Splendid Little War" because it cost them less than 400 casualties (most of these from chronic diarrhea). Then came the Treaty of Paris, the U.S. occupation of the island, the Platt Amendment and the seizure of Guantánamo Bay. (Do the French still have their naval base at Chesapeake Bay?).

Even after Cuba became a republic under American tutelage in 1902, Cubans never ceased their struggle to realize completely the dream of José Marti, Antonio Maceo and all Cuban patriots who preceded and followed them: a free, independent, sovereign and democratic republic. In 1933, Cubans finally secured through another revolution the abrogation of the Platt Amendment and the nightmare of 1898 (except for Guantánamo) seemed finally to have been overcome.

Or so it seemed. But some nightmares have a tendency to reassert themselves, with different demons and horrors. We can never really put history behind us.

February 24, 2008