Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Review of Laura Lomas' "Translating Empire"

Translating Empire: José Martí, Migrant Latino Subjects, and American Modernities. By Laura Lomas. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008. 379 pages. $89.95 (cloth). $24.95 (paper).

Dedicated to the memory of my friend Carlos Ripoll (1922-2011).

A worthless book can also be an important book (or, more precisely, book event) and Laura Lomas' Translating Empire: José Martí, Migrant Latino Subjects, and American Modernities is a case in point. Its importance has not been earned through scholarship but bestowed on it by academics whom we suspect have done themselves the favor of not reading it. It sufficed for them that its subject was José Martí, that it was over 300 pages and that it had been published by Duke University as part of its "New Americanists" Series. The title and the blurb at the back of the book were assurance enough that it was eminently "modernitarian" and a robust attack on "Unitedstatian phallogocentrism." No more had to be said. In due course Lomas received the "Modern Languages Association's Prize for United States Latina and Latino and Chicana and Chicano Cultural Studies," regarded as the most prestigious award of its kind for U.S. Hispanicists despite its prolix and redundant title. The one absent note, hardly missed in the chorus of praise, is that no prominent expert on José Martí, not even those whom Lomas herself courted in the book, has had one word to say about Translating Empire on record. I am not an academic, however, and I can actually afford not to be silent. I have read Lomas' book from cover to cover, and I say that with some pride because it was an ordeal, and not of the kind that leaves one refreshed and renewed. My conclusion (literally from the first sentence) was that Translating Empire is the most ludicrous (disparatado) and offensive book that has ever been written about José Martí; that it is worthy only of opprobrium, and that those who have praised and honored it deserve to share in the opprobrium as they already partake of the ignorance that engendered it.

I confess that I had great difficulty understanding the book's title and was loathe to read it for that reason. When a title makes no sense, I hold very little hope for the book. The "Translating Empire" part I initially construed as "Presaging Empire," which Martí certainly did in respect to the United States. But this is not what the author meant, though I do not blame myself for failing to guess at her meaning. The rest of the title vexed me even more: What does "Translating Empire" have to do with "Migrant Latino Subjects" or "American Modernities?" It is usually the title that defines a book's subject; here, however, it is the text that defines the book's title. To write a whole book in order to justify a title is certainly a novel approach to literary criticism. If I had not read the book I would not know and could never have guessed that Martí himself is one of Lomas' "Migrant Latino Subjects." Lomas refers to Martí and all other "nineteenth century Cubans as migrants, not as immigrants, exiles or even émigrés" because she wants to underscore thereby that the "United States did not offer an unbiased refuge or a society with only benevolent concern in the struggle over Cuba's future." As to which other country did to a greater degree than has the United States, Lomas is silent. Her absurd conceit that one can only be an exile in Shangri-La -- that is, among a people perfectly unbiased and benevolent -- means that there are no exiles in the world, only (wronged) migrants. Of course, Martí never referred to himself as a "migrant" (nor as a "Latino," for that matter). He was always a Cuban and an exile, which is not enough for Lomas because neither as a Cuban nor as an exile does Martí conform to her conception of him as an advocate -- even an organizer -- for Latino social, economic and political enpowerment in the United States, a kind of 19th-century César Chávez incognito whose cover Lomas, at long last, has blown. This new and now paramount role that she assigns Martí is chiefly based on his translations of U.S. literary works and on her own iconoclastic readings of his unqualified paeans to Emerson and Whitman. As for the "American Modernities" subtitle, I still haven't figured out what this has to do with Martí except as something he praised and wanted Hispanic America to emulate. This could not, however, be Lomas' intended meaning since she is vent on diluting Martí's admiration for the United States and its institutions, for Whitman and Emerson, but, above all, for its economic prosperity derived from, and an expression of, its modernity, which Lomas' claims that Martí challenged and proposed an alternative to. I have since learned that the title of Lomas' book has a purpose to its inscrutable variety. It is intended to be an interdisciplinary flycatcher, attracting textbook orders from several college departments, including and not limited to comparative, trans- and inter-American studies; translation studies; anti-imperialist studies; migrant studies; Latino studies and modernities studies; not to mention the more prosaic literature and history. One otherwise approving reviewer, E. Horan, writing in American Quarterly, faulted Lomas for "giv[ing] relatively little consideration to questions regarding Martí's sexuality or to the homosocial aspects of his relations with other emigrants." That was surely a missed opportunity; however, a future edition can add that to the olla podrida.
The underlying assumption of Lomas' book -- that "aesthetic and social processes are interrelated and mutually illuminating" -- Lomas admits that she adopted from "a heterodox Marxist, poststructuralist, and postcolonialist tradition." If I had adopted that assumption I would have cited classical and neo-classical sources for it. But being part of the "heterodox Marxist, poststucturalist, and postcolonial tradition" holds an especial fascination for Lomas and many (if not most) in academia. Marx (elsewhere) may have been cast into the ashcan of history as a political or economic thinker, but he has been recycled as a sociologist and literary theorist by those who still see some value in the label of "Marxist," which Lomas herself obviously does. Lomas is free to be guided or misguided by whomever she pleases (even if it's only a pretense). But when she credits Martí with "breaking a path for postcolonial deconstructive and Marxist tradition" -- a path which, presumably, she followed -- then she departs from reality in seven league boots and falls into the well-trodden rut of Martí as trailblazer of Marx, which is the scholastic grave of the Castro regime's most slavish propagandists. It is not, however, as a Marxist theoretician that Lomas comes off in this book, but as a Marxist sympathizer. Since we know nothing of her, we must rely on what she tells us about herself. Nothing could be more damning. That she herself is, apparently, oblivious to the import of her own revelations shows that she inhabits a milieu where truth is debased without regret or discredit in the service of ideology.

In her "Preface," the author presents her "credentials" for writing about Martí, which, despite a respectable academic background, are largely autobiographical and hence irrelevant in her case and all cases except as an indicator of a belief in predestination and parallel lives. The most striking parallelism between her life and Martí's, however, is that Lomas is not a reliable expositor or interpreter of either. The emphasis that she gives to the facts of her own life does serve to explain in part her failure to understand her subject's. Lomas describes herself as an involuntary migrant in the United States and as a "Yuma" in Cuba whose "forebears have willfully forgotten in the course of several generations the dilemmas and traumas of immigration and assimilation -- that [sic] exile and migration have not cut my life nor my parents' lives in two, as has happened for so many Cubans since the 19th century." (Well, to 7000 Cubans in the 19th century and to 2 million Cubans since 1959). By "forebears" she presumably means her parents and grandparents; and by "several generations," she means three (her own generation included). That is as many "forebears" and as many generations as have been accrued by the great majority of Cuban-Americans from whom Lomas strives to distance herself and her family. Still, if exile has "not cut [her] own and her parents' lives in two," then we must wonder why it was necessary for them to "willfully forget" (that is, suppress) "the dilemmas and traumas of immigration and assimilation" brought about by exile. Her claim that she herself and her "forebears" were unaffected by exile, and do not carry, or have "willfully forgotten" its scars, is intended both to set her apart from other Cuban exiles who are apparently compromised by their unforgotten and continuing suffering, but also to explain why she feels no personal animus towards those responsible for inflicting that suffering on the people of Cuba. "For this reason" (i.e. her avowed indifference which she supposes is the same thing as objectivity), Lomas declares that "this book does not pretend to marshal Martí's texts to address concerns about Cuba's struggling government." Note that it's "Cuba's struggling government" that concerns her, not its struggling people. In that sense, at least, Lomas does differ from other Cuban exiles (or "migrants," as she would have it), and the distinction, which she makes herself, does her no credit.

Lest the reader should somehow overlook or not sufficiently appreciate her unstinting commitment to not criticizing any aspect of the Castro regime, Lomas admonishes him/her: "I will have failed if the reader takes this book as a new weapon in the now dusty and yet still overstocked arsenal aimed at Cuba's current government." Interestingly, it is not what Lomas accomplishes with her book that she regards as the measure of its success or failure, but, rather, how others interpret and use her book, something over which she has no control, though apparently she wishes she did (in Communist Cuba she would, or, rather, the State acting as her proxy would). But let us put Lomas at ease: her fear of failure, at least in this respect, is entirely unjustified. The reader (and I speak for myself) understands perfectly what she means: Lomas doesn't want her book to be used as a new rhetorical weapon in the arsenal of free speech aimed at the Castro dictatorship ("Cuba's current government"). That arsenal she condemns as "dusty and yet still overstocked" as if truth were less valid because it is old or injustice more acceptable because its critics have a surplus of arguments against it. "Cuba's current government" (as current as 1959) also understands her perfectly, as she intends it should, and knows that it need never fear that this accidental Cuban, who in the late 1980s and early 1990s was a protege of Salvadoran Marxist terrorists (officially their "translator-interpreter," though she admits she spoke no Spanish then) and served her stint as an "internationalist" on the island (ostensibly picking yams), would ever betray the cherished comrades of her youth or forget the lessons that she was taught in Communist Cuba when she wasn't picking yams.

Although Translating Empire relies considerably on Carlos Ripoll's research for its facts -- Chapter 2, in particular, is an inverted re-write of Ripoll's José Martí and the Marxist Interpretation of Cuban History [1984] -- Lomas, far from being grateful to her source, endeavors to falsify Ripoll's positions in order to create an intransigent straw man that she can lance and eviscerate at will; but, instead, with every thrust, she betrays her own motives by the sheer absurdity of her willful misrepresentations. Lomas writes that "[i]n Ripoll's view ... it is a 'misconception' that Martí struggled against racial and economic inequality." Moreover, she claims that Ripoll's refusal to equate Martí's Revolution to Marx's revolution "invites the reader to infer that Martí went so far as to promote racial inequality and that he envisioned an anti-Marxist revolution avant la lettre." Ripoll, of course, never said anything of the kind. Lomas has the habit, amounting almost to a mania, of claiming that a source "implies" what in fact she alone infers. No Martí historian or critic, whether on the right or left, in Cuba or abroad, has ever suggested that Martí promoted "racial or economic inequality" -- until now. Lomas may "invite the reader to infer" that Ripoll did, but the suggestion comes from her, not Ripoll, as does the premise that "Martí envisioned an anti-Marxist revolution avant la lettre," which, in any case, is more defensible than the premise that he envisioned a Marxist revolution (avant la lettre" or no). Since Lomas does not quote Ripoll directly but only paraphrases him after her own self-serving fashion, this is what he actually said on the subject: "Martí showed a great aversion to talk of 'class,' and nothing was so alien to him as the exploitation of the class struggle to achieve social justice." As Ripoll notes, Martí's opinion of social classes was identical to his opinion of races: "It is annoying to hear talk of classes. To recognize their existence is to contribute to them. To deny them that recognition is to help destroy them" [5:53]. Martí, in his social relations as well as in his writings, made no distinction between classes or between races. If there was ever an anti-Marxist position, absolutely irreconcilable with Marxism, it is that. For Martí, social justice was a personal responsibility, first and foremost, and he exercised that responsibility in obedience to his conscience and as an example to others. He did not share Marx's or Lomas' aversion to charity on the grounds that it ameliorated the effects of poverty and thus postponed revolution or made it unnecessary. Martí would have regarded that as a positive outcome. Lomas, unlike Martí, cannot conceive of charity as a good in itself and supposes that only "the arrog[ant] engaged in mere charity for the poor." Those who have actually practiced charity, like Martí, know that it teaches humility, not arrogance, and fosters human sympathy and solidarity across all economic and racial lines in contraposition to class warfare or race wars.

Were I to pick the most offensive reference to Martí in Translating Empire, it would be a toss up between Lomas' intuition that Martí felt "a scarcely dissimulated envy and frustration" towards more financially successful North American writers, and this: "Had Martí lived anywhere besides the racially terrifying center of imperial modernity, Martí may not have assumed the explicitly anti-racist stance that Afro-Antilleans such as Rafael Serra, Sotero Figueroa, Antonio Maceo, and Juan Gualberto Gómez included at the heart of their pro-independence organizing." Lomas is speculating that Serra, Figueroa, Maceo and Juan Gualberto Gómez, Martí's colleagues but also his subordinates in the organization of the Cuban Revolutionary Party, were more advanced than was Martí on racial matters (presumably because of their race) and had to win Martí over to the "explicitly anti-racist stance" that "was at the heart of their [not Martí's] pro-independence organizing;" and that, even then, if Martí had "lived anywhere besides the racially terrifying center of imperial modernity" [the United States] he might not have "assumed the explicitly anti-racist stance [of the] Afro-Antilleans." What position, then, would he have assumed? Would he have been implicitly anti-racist, covertly anti-racist, mildly anti-racist, or not anti-racist at all? To admit the possibility that under certain circumstances Martí might not have assumed an explicitly anti-racist position or to suggest that he adopted that position situationally or opportunistically is as great a defamation as to assert that he was in fact a closeted racist. Martí is not Lincoln. The "Great Emancipator" may have needed Frederick Douglass to move his heart and conscience, but Martí had no need of anyone to inculcate in him the evident fact of the brotherhood of man. This is so much a part of the essential Martí that it would be impossible to conceive of him in any other sense; impossible, that is, for anyone but Lomas, whose attitudes towards race and color are decidedly her own and very strange.

Lomas writes with pride that her "mother ... taught [her] at a young age that we are all mongrels." Yes, that is a precious legacy though from the photograph on the back cover we deduce that the "mongrel" strains in her ancestry are Basque, Celtic and Goth. For Lomas, there is no such thing as a white Cuban, and she certainly will not be the exception. (The exception -- there is one -- is Tomás Estrada Palma, but he's referred to as "white" not so much anthropologically as to show Lomas' great disdain for him). Cubans to her are either black or "light-skinned Creoles" (who are almost always also "light-skinned elites"). She even refers to José Martí and Gonzalo de Quesada as "light-skinned Cubans" and compares Martí's physiognomy to that of a "a light-skinned man of color." Color is light and virtue to her and the absence of pigmentation a curse. If this sounds a bit familiar, it should: it is the photo-negative of the Legend of Ham. Irene A. Wright, who cannot be compared to Lomas in any other regard, also believed that there were no white Cubans ["Natives -- that is, Cubans,-- are Negroid. Some 'pass for white,' as the illuminative colloquial expression has it. Some, possibly, are white; few, however, would care to produce their lineage to scrutiny close enough to prove it. Only Americans think any the less of the Cuban because he is, if not colored, at least tinted"]. Wright's excuse is that she wrote in 1911, and Lomas' excuse, I suppose, is that she writes in 2011.

It is not that Lomas is unaware of Martí's ideals, but that she is incapable of applying those ideals or applies them incorrectly that is at the heart of her failure. It is ultimately an ideological disconnect that separates Lomas from Martí and her fellow exiles. This is also the origin of her one-sided verbal tag game with Ripoll, where she frames the questions and answers for both yet manages somehow always to lose the argument. She writes, for example, that "Martí admonished the celebrated general [Máximo Gómez] for his antidemocratic suppression of the dynamic, participatory political process that Martí fervently advocated." Yet she faults Ripoll for "implying, anachronistically, that Martí stood against the kind of revolution propounded by Fidel Castro." She does not, however, fault Castro or his apologists for asserting (not implying), also anachronistically, that Martí stood for the kind of revolution propounded by Fidel Castro. It would be a calumny to suppose that Martí would ever sanction a 52-year dictatorship which deprived the Cuban people of all civic and human rights and returned the island to the dynastic rule of one family. If the Bourbons were unacceptable to Martí, then the Castros, who do not practice their despotism at a distance and do not merely reign but rule, would have been even more objectionable if only because they were Cubans. Every wrong imputed to the Spanish Crown in the 19th century finds its parallel in the Castro regime, and, in every instance, its culmination as well. Why would it be wrong, then, for Ripoll or anyone else to use Martí's authority to attack tyranny, in whatever guise or in whatever age it appears, is a question that Lomas leaves unanswered because it does not admit of an answer: it is easier to accuse Ripoll of "implying anachronistically" what she herself has not the intellectual honesty to admit even when the failure to recognize that Martí stood against tyranny makes her unfit to comment on Martí's life or to expound on the meaning of his writings, exercises which she does not seem to realize are just as necessarily anachronistic. (My apologies to Prof. Lomas if, unbeknown to me, she has developed a time machine or communicated with Martí through a Ouija board).

It is interesting to contrast the disrespectful manner in which Lomas treats Ripoll with the hagiographical praise that she heaps on Ivan Schulman. This is especially ironic since, as we've already noted, whatever is credible in her book is derived from Ripoll's research and almost nothing from Schulman's. Lomas says that she greatly "benefited from meeting the greatest living Martianos," but she names only one, Ivan Schulman, "whose vigor, energy, and generosity evoke that of Martí himself." One would think that comparing Schulman to Martí would be enough, but she continues in a footnote: "Ivan Schulman's life's work sets the United States on the course of acknowledging its debts [to Latino/a migrant creativity]." I do not mean to suggest, of course, that Ivan Schulman is unworthy of Lomas' admiration. His Color and Symbolism was certainly at least 20 years ahead of its time; not until the invention of the personal computer did it become possible to do in minutes what it took Schulman years to accomplish without one, namely, hunting selected nouns and adjectives through the entire Martí corpus without the aid of a concordance. However, I do wonder if Lomas knows that, in the very same year she was born, "míster Schulman," as Angel Augier repeatedly called him in a devastating critique of his scholarship, was denounced publicly as a CIA agent by none other than Raúl Castro, which made the American persona non grata in Cuba for 20 years. If Schulman had not succeeded later in rehabilitating himself by becoming the unpaid English spokesman for "Martianos Against the Blockade," it is doubtful that Lomas, the self-appointed guardian of "Cuba's struggling government," would have vouched for his "greatness" much less compared him to Martí, since for her the enemy of her friend is her enemy (see her denunciation of the CIA on page ix of her book).

Lomas objects to the activity of U.S.-based independent (and free) researchers like Ripoll whom she claims "make Martí a spokesman of [she means for] today's liberal, capitalist democracy, a free-trade area of the Americas, and against the current government [of Cuba] and scholarship on Martí in Cuba"; but she has no objection to the work done by the Castro regime's official researchers who are neither independent nor free. On the contrary, she defends the scholarship of her "colleagues" (that's what she calls them) at the Centro de Estudios Martianos (CEM), and singles out Roberto González Echevarría in a footnote (yes, singling out in a footnote is intended to be ironic) for "unfairly accusing scholarship emerging from Cuba's research institutions of 'distort[ing] facts and texts to turn Martí into the unlikely herald of their doctrines.'"

There are no autonomous or even quasi-autonomous research institutions in Cuba: all are state-controlled, and, indeed, agencies of the government [sic]. The "cultural workers" at these institutions are all salaried-employees of the State who serve at its durance and without other alternatives. All the books that are published in Cuba are printed on state-owned presses (the only presses in the country); are reviewed in state-owned periodicals (the only periodicals in the country); and are sold in state-owned bookstores (the only bookstores in the country). Still, Lomas believes that Cuba's research institutions are less susceptible to ideological bias than are their U.S. "counterparts" (in fact they have no counterparts except in North Korea). No U.S. researcher associated with any think tank in this country was ever required to depict Martí as "a spokesman for today's liberal capitalist democracy." But the decree that authorized the Centro de Estudios Martianos (CEM), signed by Fidel Castro in 1977 and printed in its first Anuario (1978), clearly outlined the limits of Martí research on the island: "The Executive Committee of the Council of Ministers degrees the creation of a Center for Martí Studies as an adjunct of the Ministry of Culture, which will promote the study of the life, work, and thought of José Martí, from the perspective of historical and dialectical materialism." At the inaugural ceremony of the Center, the Minister of Education specified its mission as "showing the ties that unite the democratic revolutionary movement of our Mentor ["Maestro"] with the socialist ideology of Marx, Engels and Lenin." Before 1989 -- that is, before the fall of Euro-Communism -- the CEM Anuario was just another Marxist journal. It was not until Castro's 1975 Constitution was altered in 1994 to read that Cuba was a "Martist and Marxist State" rather than just a "Marxist State" that the Anuario was allowed to publish articles that were "not guided by historical and dialectical materialism," though, of course, never has it published an article that challenged it. Lomas, who is a contributor to the Anuario, should know that, but either does not or pretends that she does not. In her case, as well as that of other foreign contributors, self-censorship precludes censorship.

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