Monday, October 17, 2011

Review of "Translating Empire" Part 2

Click here for Part 1

At the onset of Translating Empire (yes, the very first sentence) Laura Lomas defines (or redefines) Martí as a "stateless, non-assimilating migrant, a colonized and linguistically marginalized translator." Not one word of this description is true: Martí was not stateless, although he did reject the state which claimed his allegiance and punished him for withholding it, faithful instead to another that had existed in opposition to the Spanish state and would exist again thanks to him; he was not a "non-assimilating migrant" since he adopted as his own whatever was worthy of respect and emulation in all the countries he inhabited and could not have become a cultural interlocutor between Anglo and Hispanic America if he had only been a detached observer living in a vacuum, afraid of assimilation as of contagion; he was not "colonized" except in his youth and that's not what Lomas means, but, rather, that he was a "colonial subject in the ostensible cradle of democracy" who exchanged in effect one colonial subjugation for another; and, finally, Martí was not a "linguistically marginalized translator."

What could be more contemptuous than to refer to a translator as "linguistically marginalized?" It's like saying that a composer is tone deaf or a painter colorblind. If a translator lives on the margins of a language, he has never actually come into full possession of it; he is, in fact, something less than a squatter and little more than a marauder. Yet, it is as a "linguistically marginalized translator" that Martí supposedly realized Lomas' highest expectations of him. Asks Lomas, somewhat incredulous herself: "How does translation, rather than autonomy and originality in the tradition of U.S. American renaissance writers, become the means by which a migrant Latino writer (i.e. Martí) elaborates an alternative modernity?" The short answer is that it doesn't and didn't. Lomas denies autonomy and originality to Martí, both hallmarks of his work, because she believes that these are an exclusive "tradition" of North American writers which Martí either rejected or could not measure up to. It is only through translation, the straitjacket of autonomy and originality, that Martí, the putative "migrant Latino writer," is able to "elucidate an alternative to the modernity that serves imperial expansion." Martí's translations, which Lomas laments have been largely overlooked (as translations generally are), she asserts, a paragraph later, "stake a claim to define another American modernity beside that of the United States." All this may sound like repetition but it is not. Lomas begins by reducing Martí to a "linguistically marginalized translator," lacking "autonomy and originality," but nonetheless capable of "elaborat[ing]" or "elucidat[ing]" (pick your verb) an "alternative to the modernity that serves imperial expansion," but, then, immediately (that is, within a paragraph) reconsiders her initial evaluation and credits Martí only with "stak[ing] a claim to defining another American modernity." Given Lomas' degradation of Martí's talents as a translator or anything else, it is perhaps logical to reduce his title to an "alternative modernity" to a mere stake, presumably one of many, perhaps not even the most important. But since it is the thesis of her book that Martí did indeed create such an "alternative modernity," it belies Lomas' case to grant him just an ancillary stake in that endeavor. She realizes this contradiction and just as abruptly recognizes Martí's stake as the sole legitimate one, for the moment at least (she later introduces other claimants, including one Rafael de Castro Palomino, a really marginal writer borrowed from Ripoll's José Martí, the United States, and the Marxist Interpretation of Cuban History and promoted by Lomas as a rival to Martí).

In referring to Martí's creation of (or stake in) an "alternative modernity," Lomas consistently credits Martí's "translations" in the plural, though she only analyzes his translation of Helen Hunt Jackson's Ramona. Why? Because no other translation of his has anything to do with the United States or can even remotely be said to have posed or even reported a challenge to its "imperial modernity." How did Martí's translation of English novelist Hugh Conway's ghost story Called Back create an "alternative modernity" except perhaps a spectral one? What of his translations of J.P. Mahaffy's Greek Antiquities or A.S. Wilkins' Roman Antiquities? Do these constitute the basis for positing a spurious "alternative antiquity" to complement the spurious "alternative modernity?" Or is Martí's translation of W. Stanley Jevon's Notions of Logic the missing link in the chain of unreason which leads to this "alternative modernity?" These are all the translations that Martí published while residing in the United States. I suppose that Lomas could argue that all of Martí's translations except Ramona were commissioned works, most of which were not to his liking, and this is, of course, true; but not too much emphasis should be placed on the fact that Martí himself chose to translate Jackson's novel. After Ramona, as Martí enthusiastically informed Manuel Mercado, he intended to "translate, from the English of England, a most beautiful book: John Halifax, Gentleman."

It may perhaps sound more convincing that such a monumental undertaking as creating an "alternative modernity" was accomplished systematically over a series of carefully chosen and analogous translations; but Lomas' argument does not and cannot rest on Martí's translations, but must rise or fall on only one -- Ramona. Helen Hunt Jackson intended Ramona to do for the cause of Indian rights what Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin had accomplished for the cause of abolition. The social content of Ramona, however, was conceived by Helen Hunt Jackson, not Martí, and can by no stretch of the imagination (and Lomas' is quite ductile) be credited to anyone else but Jackson. Translating another author's work can be regarded as an endorsement of it, and surely Martí's translation of Ramona was such an endorsement. But that is all. It did not co-opt the original work, as Lomas pretends, nor did it further its impact to any perceptible degree.

Martí's Spanish translation of Ramona, underwritten by the Argentine Enrique de Estrázulas, was published in 1888 in a first (and only) edition of 2000 which circulated primarily in Mexico and Argentina. How exactly did Martí's translation create an "alternative modernity" from the United States and in challenge to it when that book did not even circulate here except for the copies Martí gifted to friends or sold in Cuban emigré enclaves? Is it a question of the tree falling in the forest making a sound even if no one heard it fall (except Lomas 120 years later)? Then, at least, was the creation of an alternative to U.S. modernity Martí's intention in translating Ramona? There is no indication that it was in Martí's references to it, not in his letters to Mercado or to Estrázulas, not even in his "Preface" to the translation, which he sent as a circular to all the newspapers and bookstores in Mexico. If Martí had intended to create an "alternative modernity" on the basis of the works of Helen Hunt Jackson (a curious endeavor in itself), he would have translated A Century of Dishonor (1881) alongside Ramona. In A Century of Dishonor nothing has to be intuited and nothing is romanticized about the mistreatment of American Indians. That alternative modernity, fair and humane to the disenfranchised, could have been endorsed by Martí and was in his own writings. But Jackson's alternative modernity has nothing to do with Lomas'. Jackson's is based on compassion and Lomas' on antagonism. Martí did not need to propound an alternative to Jackson's compassion (always the vanguard of modernity). That modernity, regardless of whether it was forged in the United States, he would and did embrace, and its adoption in Latin America he championed, not repudiated.

When Ramona was published, in 1889, Martí had already resided nearly a decade in the United States and had written 90% of his crónicas for La Nación and El Partido Liberal. It is there, not elsewhere and certainly not in novels, that Lomas should document, if she can, the emergence of this "alternative modernity." However, since these newspapers circulated outside the United States, they do not fall within Lomas' purview: the "alternative modernity" must have been forged in the "terrifying center of imperial modernity" and circulated here by this "translator inside the empire's belly." But, as we have seen, Ramona did not circulate nor was it intended to circulate in the United States. If Thomas Paine's Common Sense had been published and distributed only in Australia it is doubtful that it would have created an "alternative modernity" (the original "alternative modernity") in the United States. Of course, following Lomas' curious reasoning, it is Tobias Smollett's translation of Voltaire's Candide that really deserves the credit for forging the "alternative modernity" of 1776.

It is and will always be a mystery to me how anyone can read Martí's essays on Emerson and Whitman and come away with even a single doubt about his admiration, indeed, reverence for them not only as artists but as men. Lomas has managed to do it, however, and her doubts rebound chiefly to Martí's discredit. She contends that beneath the top layer of praise for America's greatest thinker and America's greatest poet in these essays is a substrata of censure which she proposes to uncover (or "untranslate," as she puts it) for the first time since their publication more than 125 years ago. Lomas' pretentiousness would be entertaining if she were not herself so unmercifully dull (pesada). There is rich irony in her attempt to "untranslate" Martí when she can hardly parse her own sentences. Here is an example that is only slightly more turgid than her usual: "In its literary form, Martí's prose observed and commented on the nonuniversality of the bourgeois individual's self-mastery as it criticized the protection of the interests of a class of such individuals at the head of a national government of the Americas." Here's another that surpasses it: "This rereading of Martí's relationship to a North American tradition raises the question of the contestatory potential of defining another American modernity rather than preserving a now heterogeneous European modernity in opposition to a non-European nonmodernity." One feels the urge to tell the author: "Untranslator untranslate thyself!" I will not say that Lomas is always this inscrutable but she is prone to frequent bouts of chronic academese that read like parodies of the genre, though her much-praised style -- go to for examples of her friends' panegyrics -- is undoubtedly a worthy vehicle for her ideas and complements them, or at least does them no harm.

Lomas method of "untranslation" consists of mutilating (Lomas calls it "modifying") Esther Allen's translations in the Penguin Edition of Martí's Selected Works, for which outrage she compensates Allen by calling her translations "eloquent," a backhanded compliment since she apparently does not consider them accurate. With Lomas, however, both eloquence and accuracy are sacrificed to tendentiousness. If she can somehow twist or recast Martí's praise of Whitman or Emerson into something less than praise, or deconstruct it so that what is plain becomes obscure (or, as she prefers, "occult") by dubious readings and pointless comparisons -- passing Martí's words through Edward Said's sieve usually does the trick -- then Lomas is satisfied that she has extracted the nut from the shell, and nutty enough are her conclusions. Here's a typical example of her "untranslation:" Martí compares Whitman's poetry to a wild steed that must be driven "con puño de domador" (with a tamer's wrist). Lomas incorrectly translates domador as "dominator," which allows her to assert that "the celebrated poet of democracy shores up a semblance of freedom but only partially veils its threat to crush potential resistance with a dominating fist." According to Lomas channeling Martí, "[Whitman's] rhetoric proclaims beautiful ideas that distract the horses (i.e people) with the carrot of future equality, sovereignty, and freedom." But Martí is not distracted. Lomas assures her readers that Martí "translates and analyzes [Whitman's words] so as to expose the occult artistry that redefines imperial modernity in the guise of liberty." In short, there is no freedom in the United States; Whitman knows it and tries to hide it; Martí sees through him; exposes and distances himself from him. And all this on the basis of Lomas' mistranslation of one word. There are numerous such "untranslations" in her book, which is not surprising since Lomas' knowledge of Spanish is tenuous, as she herself often admits and as this sample confirms: "... sólo les digo que la próxima estrofa del poema será construido [sic] y completado [sic]." What that next "stanza in the [her] poem" could be gives us all reason to pause and cringe.

According to Lomas, Martí was almost as good a dissimulator of meaning as she is, except that he did intentionally what she does naturally: "In chapter 4 ... I describe [how] the Cuban's eating and regurgitation of the 'angelic' poet of democracy responds to Whitman's naturalizing of imperial expansion with artfully duplicitous rhetoric." Martí, in turn, answers Whitman's "artfully duplicitous rhetoric" with "tactics of camouflage [that] convey [his] semi-clandestine reaction." Well, one can see what an awful task Lomas has set for herself in "untranslating" this once uncomplicated meeting of minds. Uncomplicated, that is, before she interposed her 2 cans and string. The theory posited by Lomas that Martí imposed on himself a superfluous self-censorship when writing about Whitman and Emerson, implying cryptically in a code that she alone understands -- as Delia Bacon alone understood her Shakespearean cipher -- precisely the opposite of what Martí actually wrote, is the critical equivalent of medical quackery, worthless or worse when applied to its subject, but useful in defining the limits of human credulity and the farther limits of academic self-delusion. Such a "reinterpretation" of Martí, whether with Lomas' philosopher's stone or a ouija board, or by the light of "heterodox Marxist criticism," could produce an infinite number of "new Martís" which would all have one thing in common -- the negation of the real Martí, the Martí who thought and wrote for himself and meant what he said and nothing else.

Lomas is not unaware of the consensus opinion that Martí's identification with Emerson was as absolute as ever existed between two writers, and, I might add, closer than existed between Emerson and Carlyle. I remember that once in the middle of reading Newton Dillaways' Gospel of Emerson, which is, indeed, a sort of Emersonian "Bible," I reflexively turned to the title page as if to ascertain whether Martí had any part in this précis of his [Martí's] ideas. This mental synthesis, of course, is unacceptable to Lomas: "The conclusion that Martí totally identified with Emerson occludes the subtle and shifting reactions of a less powerful, Spanish-speaking migrant translator [Martí] towards one of the United States' most prominent writers." How could Martí accept much less disseminate what Lomas characterizes as "Emerson's Anglo-Saxonist poison?" Lomas denies that he did, or, more exactly, she claims that Martí mixed an antidote with the poison (his "alternative modernity"). Emerson's "offense," according to Lomas, is his supposed "investment in the racial system that afforded a youthful Anglo culture a privileged status in the United States and in the New World, notwithstanding his courageous support for John Brown and his outspoken abolitionism." Of course, all white men of Emerson's generation were necessarily so invested, but not all -- indeed, very few -- were supporters of John Brown or outspoken abolitionists; and fewer still opposed the invasion of Mexico, as Emerson did. Nevertheless, Lomas rejects "studies of Martí and Emerson [that] draw on celebratory cold war-era interpretations of Emerson to establish some of the qualities to which Martí may in fact have been initially attracted." It is the Cold War, then, that is responsible for manufacturing a democratic Emerson that a democratic Martí could embrace without reservations. Lomas' task, therefore, is to manufacture an anti-democratic Emerson that the democratic Martí could and did reject (as she maintains). Whatever affinities may remain between Emerson and Martí are psychoanalyzed away using "Tunisian theorist Albert Memmi's" contention that "the colonized subject is indelibly marked by colonization and desires to change his or her status [to] the first and most readily available [which is] that of colonizer." Of course, this explanation is more than a little disrespectful to Martí, but still Lomas persists: "Although it is difficult [though obviously not impossible, at least for Lomas] to imagine the father of Cuban independence and of Latin American anti-imperialism in the grip of coloniality," she proceeds to do precisely that by considering "possible psychic parallels to the scars on [Martí's] back." Lomas' Martí, crippled physically and psychologically by colonialism, "'eats" Emerson while grunting about his [Martí's] belatedness, secondariness, and nonoriginality," and in so doing assimilates and becomes Emerson, and as "Emerson" Martí praises Emerson. Hence, Martí's praise of Emerson is really Emerson praising Emerson. By this logic, Martí's Emerson essay should be attributed to Emerson as a really "posthumous" work. However, if Martí could write an essay on Emerson that was indistinguishable from Emerson, does that not argue the synthesis which Lomas denies? In fact, it is Martí who first acknowledged this "melding of minds" and gave it a name -- the "Evening of Emerson."

For Lomas, the "Evening of Emerson" -- listed by Martí as one of the "supreme moments" of his life -- does not represent, as it does for every other critic, the moment when Martí glimpsed the future with Emerson's eyes, but, rather, the moment when he ceased to see the future with Emerson's eyes. "In reading through Emerson's eyes, Martí's own group appears vain, lazy, and dependent [to Martí]." It was when Martí realized, on that "Evening of Emerson," that "he was becoming accustomed to looking at his own people through the eyes of a procurer" that he "turned David's slingshot to Emerson's Goliath," which, according to Lomas, marked "the end of the day in which New England could imagine itself as the transcendent center of American modernity." (Somebody should have bothered to tell New England that. It would find out, by the bye, anyway. It stopped "flowering," you know; not that Martí had anything to do with that).
If Martí intended to cause such a seismic shift, how, then, to account for the elegiacal tone of Martí's essay on Emerson? Why does Martí shower flowers on him (or palm fronds, anyway) instead of rocks? Lomas' explanation is that Martí's praise was not entirely sincere but only "camouflaged" his real "clandestine" or "semi-clandestine" reaction, which he was not free to give because his Venezuelan editor objected to his criticisms of the United States. It is true, as Lomas relates, that Fausto Teodoro de Aldrey, editor of La Opinión Nacional, advised Martí, in a letter dated 3 May 1882, that he wanted (or, as he put it, that his "readers wanted") "less news about literary matters and more about politics" and recommended that Martí avoid discussion of "U.S. vices and customs because it pleases no one here and could cause problems for me." As a consequence of this letter, Martí resigned as U.S. correspondent for the Venezuelan newspaper immediately. Unfortunately, we do not have Martí's response to Aldrey; but we do have Aldrey's final note to Martí, dated 31 July 1882, where he omits his customary salutation of "Mi amigo," and curtly informs Martí that he is forwarding to him by carrier the monies due him for the articles published in May, "which closes your accounts as correspondent for La Opinión Nacional." And, indeed, no article by Martí appeared in the newspaper after May 1882.

Lomas conceals Martí's resignation from Aldrey's newspaper, and, worse, she suggests that Martí capitulated or made an accommodation with censorship by adopting "subterfuge and clandestinity" (i.e. hypocrisy) in order to "respond critically to the United States' preeminent poet and philosopher." Here the dates refute Lomas: Martí's Emerson essay was published in La Opinión Nacional on 3 May 1882, that is, on the same day that Aldrey wrote his letter of admonition to Martí. The airtight timeline does not prevent Lomas from conjecturing, however, that "[a]s Martí grappled with the monstrosity of North American expansionism and made final revisions to his essay on 'Emerson,' he received explicit editorial pressure not to criticize the United States." How could Martí have caved in to this pressure and filled his "Emerson" essay with the doublespeak that Lomas pretends to have discovered in it when it was written and published before he received Aldrey's letter?

An all-important question still unanswered: What would induce Martí to adopt "tactics of camouflage" to convey his semi-clandestine reaction" to Whitman and Emerson? Lomas offers no explanation in the text of her book, but does address the question in a footnote: "Because of his dependence on freelance journalism as a principle [sic] source of income, [Martí] would have no choice but to mask his criticism or divergence from U.S. authors accordingly." First of all, Martí was not a "freelance journalist;" he was the U.S. correspondent and agent for La Nación of Argentina and Mexico's El Partido Liberal, where most of his crónicas norteamericanas appeared. But let us suppose that he were only a freelance journalist, would his principles, accordingly, be more flexible, as Lomas implies? The clash with Aldrey shows that they were in fact quite inflexible whatever his situation. Did Martí's other Latin American editors who allowed him routinely to blast in print the policies, the motives and even the honesty of such all-powerful politicians as James G. Blaine and Roscoe Conkling demand that he be deferential and non-critical towards "U.S. authors?" It is acknowledged by everybody since Rubén Darío that Martí introduced Walt Whitman to Latin Americans. Lomas is suggesting that Whitman needed no introduction, that he was, in fact, already a sacred cow in Hispanic America while he was still the butt of ridicule in the English-speaking world. As for Emerson, who was well-known in Latin America and praised there as everywhere else, he was dead when Martí wrote about him. Why, then, did Martí need to "mask his criticism and divergence from" [him]?" Were dead North American authors also held to be sacrosanct in Latin America and above criticism? Finally, did Martí really "have no choice" but to buckle to censorship for the sake of "his income" (i.e. money)? Did he ever buckle to censorship before or after? When publisher Da Costa Gomes demanded that Martí include religious content in La Edad de Oro, what did Martí do? He walked away. When Blaine tried to buy Martí's good opinion with $5000, what did Martí do? He sent Blaine's representative away with this message for his boss: "Martí does not belong to a race of men that can be bought." Yet Lomas, while positing that Martí abhorred the materialism of "U.S. imperial modernity," portrays him as willing to acquiesce to any humiliation, betray any conviction, and accept any and all restraints on his conscience in order not to have his income as a "hack writer" diminished!

Why does Lomas feel that she must drive a wedge between Martí, Emerson and Whitman even at the cost of making Martí appear dishonest, and why does she go to such tortuous lengths to do it? Why is she compelled to argue in Whitman's case that "Martí's critique of this giant's searing rhetoric outweighs his admiration" when Martí's essay is filled with nothing but unalloyed admiration? Because it is inconceivable to her that Martí could have reacted favorably to Whitman or Emerson because both condoned Manifest Destiny (Emerson with reservations and Whitman wholeheartedly). And yet he did. Lomas cannot accept that fact because her thesis will not allow it. How could Martí -- Lomas' Martí, that is -- have failed to see that "Whitman's occult artistry cloaked an expansionist agenda of a white America in meretricious images of freedom and democracy" or that Emerson's "moral narrative shores up the imperial dominant's innocence and blames the peripheral postcolonial culture for its oppressed condition?" In short, how could Martí have created an "alternative modernity" if he did not first reject "imperial modernity" as articulated by Whitman and Emerson? Lomas' solution is to reinvent Martí as the first deconstructionist and practitioner of political correctness. There really is a simpler explanation.

Whitman's espousal of "Manifest Destiny" and his undeniable disdain for the peoples who inhabited the lands he coveted for the American Union were unknown to Martí when he wrote his famous homage to him in 1887. Whitman's poetry does not reflect these views, and his adoption of certain Spanish words such as "camarada" and "Libertad" convey the opposite impression. His jingoistic fulminations were published in the brief period when he was the editor of the Brooklyn Eagle (1846-48), which coincided with the Mexican-American War. These editorials would not be collected until 1920 in The Gathering of Forces; editorials, essays, literary and dramatic reviews and other material written by Walt Whitman as editor of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle in 1846 and 1847 [Cleveland Rogers, editor]. Martí had no knowledge of these anonymous editorials written several years before he was born, indeed, no commentator on Whitman quotes or mentions them in Martí's lifetime (nor, curiously, does Lomas cite this book either in her text or bibliography). If Martí had been acquainted with "The Young Bad Gazetteer" rather "The Good Gray Poet," it would most assuredly have influenced his opinion of Whitman the man if not Whitman the poet. His knowledge of George Bancroft's conduct during the Mexican-American War certainly colored his opinion of the Bancroft; but Bancroft was Polk's Secretary of the Navy during that conflict, and, of course, Martí would have been acquainted with his actions. If Martí had been aware of the then unknown Brooklyn editor's feeding of the expansionist hysteria that gripped the country in 1847, Martí would have alluded to it. That he did not allude to it is sufficient proof that he did not know. But Lomas cannot and will not accept this. She needs Martí to attack Whitman as she needed him to disavow Emerson; otherwise, she cannot sustain her pet theory that, having rejected Emerson and Whitman's supposed espousal of "imperial modernity," Martí created an "alternative modernity" to challenge it. It is not enough for her that Martí always rejected imperialism regardless of the imperialist, and tyranny regardless of the tyrant (more than Lomas herself is capable of doing). She is determined to prove that Martí rejected imperialism in the persons of Emerson and Whitman, his North American "spiritual fathers." It is Lomas' version of the Oedipus Complex with "Nuestra América" as the object of mutual desire. If a writer's position on imperialism were Martí's litmus test in judging him, Mark Twain would have ranked much higher with him than either Emerson and Whitman; and Wendell Phillips, whom Lomas represents as one of only two North Americans (the other is Peter Cooper) that Martí admired without qualification, would have to be demoted and "untranslated" because he, like Emerson, supported the Chinese Exclusion Act. [Martí himself was no friend of unregulated immigration, either].

One last observation on Lomas' take on Martí, Emerson and Whitman: the critic who complained that Lomas' book didn't have sufficient "homosocial" content doesn't know how to read between the lines (or "in between spaces," as Lomas puts it). Ideologically, Lomas tears the trio apart; but spatially, she brings them closer than ever before. Lomas contends that "in one of Martí's fragments, [he] undergoes a branding at the hands of two imposing [but unnamed] human figures," who, of course, Lomas identifies as "Emerson" and "Whitman." This branding, Lomas asserts, is a "recurring image" [she cites two examples, which does qualify, barely, as "recurring"] in Martí's poetry, essays, notebooks and correspondence [and] refers to the experience of teaching or learning as an act of bodily penetration." Lomas assures the reader that "this penetration can be pleasurable -- a penetrating iron that damages not." Elsewhere Lomas alludes to Martí's "eating of Emerson" and "cannibalistic ingestion of Whitman." She claims that "Martí positioned himself inside a widening fissure between American modernities" in order to "reveal Whitman's artfully concealed, sometimes antiegalitarian, dilating [of] the rhetoric of camaraderie and libertad." After paragraphs filled with such vulgarity, Lomas finally asserts that"[m]ost twentieth-century interpretations of the Martí-Whitman encounter emphasize the North American's real [!] or supposed seduction of the Cuban." Now this, at long last, is news; or at least news to me. We will suppose, for the sake of peace, that here she also means a metaphorical seduction since their "encounter" was on paper. In any case, Martí was not "seduced," after all, for, according to Lomas, he "wrote about [Whitman] with a certain self-repressive homophobic blush." Lomas does not specify whether this blush was caused by Martí's "self-repression" or his "homophobia," or, perhaps, as she suggests in a footnote, by his "homoeroticism." To her credit, at least, Lomas does not attempt to deconstruct Mark Twain's famous quip on the blush. But if she isn't blushing with shame about writing this book, she should be.

At the beginning of this review, I called Translating Empire a worthless but important book. A book can be important both for the light it sheds on its subject as for the darkness in which it envelops it. Lomas' book has cast a pall on Martí that reminds us of Rufus W. Griswold's benighting of Poe, though its effects will not be as difficult to dispel. For the present, Lomas' character assassination of Emerson and Whitman has had an unfortunate but not unpredictable result: it has evoked the ire of their admirers, who have focused it, not only on Lomas, but on Martí. John Patrick Leary, writing in Criticism, can see no point to her evisceration of Emerson and Whitman "other than to further lionize an author already practically encased in marble." He is perturbed by Lomas' obsessive demarcation of what she considers "the 'metropolitan debt' in American cultural studies to Martí's ideas," which "leads her to find consistently in Martí's works 'anticipations' of later thinkers also based in the United States." And he is right: in Lomas' book all writers that followed Martí are indebted to him, but Martí is indebted to no contemporary or predecessor. By staking claims for Martí right and left -- well, left, anyway -- she diminishes the real value of his contributions and "aggrandizes" him to the point of insignificance by signalling him as the inspiration of every progressive fad, and, as Caroline Levander observes in Hispanic Review, "the sole 'smart' arbiter of U.S. empire, with Whitman, Jackson, Herbert Bolton, and Emerson, among others, reduced to mindlessly mouthing imperial sound bites." Nevertheless, both Leary and Lavander agree that Lomas has written an "important book," as I do (though not for the same reasons). As a political tract there is nothing in the least original in Lomas' book, which reprises superannuated Marxist apologetics to uphold the regime's claims to legitimacy a la Sartre and other Sixties' dilettanti. It is as literary criticism, however, that Translating Empire manages to be original without being instructive or right. Lomas has found a new way to be misleading, dishonest and divisive about Martí, which is no mean achievement at this late date. It is this which makes Translating Empire an important book. Her impenetrable prose, however, guarantees that the nonsense it contains will never enter popular culture, but rot on the shelves of the academy.

In the third and last part of this review we will list Lomas' errors of fact, especially those that highlight her unfamiliarity with Martí's biography.

Click here for Part 3

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Carlos Ripoll (1922-2011)

One day it will seem the most absurd thing in the world that anyone should claim that José Martí had any affiliation with Karl Marx, and those who bothered to refute such folly will appear just as absurd. But it was not so in our time, when Fidel Castro and his cohorts kidnapped Martí and held him hostage in a web of lies and falsifications; then it was a battle for the soul of our country and its future, and the conqueror in that contest, almost in single combat, was Carlos Ripoll.

It was Carlos Ripoll, with his zeal and his modest means, who vanquished the Centro de Estudios Martianos, with its cadres of pseudo-intellectuals and its foreign camp followers; it was Ripoll, with his IBM Selectric typewriter and later his computer, who outproduced all the stolen presses in Cuba at the service of the state; and it was Ripoll, whose genius and honesty would have shone in a republic of honest men, who was a beacon of truth in our own Dark Ages.

The imminent resurrection of Cuba will owe much to him, for he preserved, against wind and storm, the historic foundations of our nation, upon which will rise a new republic true to Martí's ideals and worthy of them.

I knew him for 25 years; for 15 saw him on a weekly basis; and exchanged hundreds of letters with him. I translated many articles for him and was honored to co-author a book on Martí with him. It was to him that I first showed my translation of the Versos sencillos and to him that I turned when I had any questions about Martí. I can write about what he meant to our country, but I cannot write yet about what he meant to me as a friend and teacher.

Before Ripoll retired to Miami, he gave me his black IBM Selectric 2. I don't use it much anymore, but I still keep it on my desk.

La obra póstuma y el legado de Carlos Ripoll (1922-2011)

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.

Click here for Part 2
For Part 3