Wednesday, February 24, 2010

José Martí Was Not "All Things to All Men"

There is a prevailing misconception, no less wrong for being popular, that José Martí can be "all things to all men," which is simply another way of saying that he stands for nothing because he stands for everything. This conclusion is formed through the tendentious means of supposing that because men of all political persuasions avail themselves of his words to lay claim to his legacy, it must then follow that Martí's opinions are too malleable to form the foundation of any philosophy or creed, and exist only as a kind of silly putty with which to fill the cracks and crannies of questionable political schemes or justify their failure by laying them at his feet of clay.

This supposed inconsistency (or inconstancy) in Martí's thought is sometimes attributed to a wariness on his part to alienate any potential ally in the struggle to secure Cuba's independence from Spain; and his ability to champion simultaneously -- and charter a middle course between -- the interests of rich and poor, white and black, liberal and conservative, often hailed as his greatest achievement, is regarded by his critics as a mere coup de thèâtre admirable only inasmuch as it has eluded everybody before and since because, supposedly, no one else has been able to temporize his opinions to the extent that he did and with his success. By sacrificing consistency, it is argued, that his thought became transcendent like an exploding star that shoots its rays in all directions. Whether this was a purposeful compromise or simply a function of a highly-impressionable mind is also a subject of contention among those who believe that Martí's "universality" trumps his individuality and that the aggregate of his thought (as interpreted by them) belies its constituent parts.

None of this is true, of course. If Martí was a shooting star, he was one of the most fixed in its trajectory. There are not two Martís, three Martí, or Martís ad infinitum: there is only one Martí, identifiable, and, indeed, unmistakable, in word and action, at 15 as at 42. It is the opportunism of his enemies, not Martí's, which isolates his words from his thought, which distorts his words to deny the essence of his life and which misquotes or misapplies his words to justify conduct which was unacceptable to him but which forms the basis of their own wretched existence. They co-opt Martí as a symbol of the ideals that they have betrayed but must still pretend to uphold. They discredit him by crediting him with their actions, taking shelter behind his pedestal while assailing those who remain true to his teachings and example.

Those who fail to see or do not care to see this imposture accept as valid all claims to Martí, even those proffered by tyrants or their agents, and then wonder bemused that Martí could be so paradoxical as to easily accommodate such contrary opinions. To hold such a position honestly (if that were even possible) one must necessarily be in the same relation to Martí as the biblical Adam to Adam Smith. No one who is acquainted with Martí's works or familiar with his life would entertain the notion that he would abet a criminal enterprise or accept his inclusion in a pantheon of serial killers. Even someone who knew only of his reputation would find it difficult to believe that it was purchased so cheaply and discounted by his heirs at such a rate.

Consistency and transparency are the hallmarks of Martí's life and thought. A man who was false to no man could not have been false to himself. Since Rafael Argilagos compiled the first collection of Martí's aphorisms in 1918, there have been a dozen published, each larger and more comprehensive than the previous. The latest ones, Jerez Mariño's Biblia Martiana, published in exile, and Valdés Galarraga's Diccionario del Pensamiento Martiano, published in Cuba, contain more than 10,000 quotations culled from thousands of sources. Because Martí's writings are so diffused does not mean that his thought is not systematic. If it were true that his opinions were variable, cut to order, as it were, and subject to constant revision, for whatever motives, then nothing would prove it more convincingly than these extracts of his thought arranged by subject and year.

Yet what strikes one immediately in reading these is the consistency of his thought at all stages of his life. There is not one single contradiction to be found in the whole ensemble. He was always the lover of liberty, the defender of the downtrodden and the enemy of all schemes to redeem some men in theory by dehumanizing all men in fact. He was that and a thousand other things, without contradiction or equivocation, his thought evolving along logical and well-defined lines, never stagnant but always avoiding the whirlpools of irresolution that shook and even defined other great men. Unlike Thomas Jefferson, who was both a defender of freedom and an apologist for slavery, or Abraham Lincoln, who became an abolitionist to win a war but didn't fight a war for the sake of abolition, José Martí had no principles of expediency nor did his thought ever evolve in opposite and irreconcilable directions.

It is well to note that this spurious notion that "Martí is all things to all men" did not originate in our country, but was first advanced by foreigners who could not otherwise explain the phenomenon of his appeal to all sectors of the Cuban people. Richard Butler Gray, the first to study the reception of Martí in our country, was perplexed that his name was a byword for every party and cause, and used to justify or condemn just about anything; but rather than recognize Martí's role as an authorizing figure whose approval was claimed by all pro forma and without appeal to anything more concrete than a nebulous patriotism, Gray chose to characterize Martí's ideas as "disorganized and contradictory," mistaking cause for effect: it was his adherents who were disorganized and contradictory, not Martí. Martí's ideas did not need to be reconciled to his followers' variegated notions of him, rather, their notions should have been tested to see if they were consistent with Martí's. It was not that Martí was "all things to all men," but, rather, that all men saw what they cared to see in him, and formed their conception of him from a mirror that they held up to themselves rather than to him, which accounts for so many multiple and spurious "Martís" without any relation one to the other.

As Shakespeare notes, the Devil can cite Scripture for his purpose, but only a fool would think that he does so in earnest or to further the divine plan.

El Grito de Baire