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.