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.