Thursday, August 21, 2014

How José Martí Tested His Sexual Willpower

It is not surprising that the Quesadas, father and son, the hereditary caretakers of Martí's personal papers who also appointed themselves the guardians of his reputation, suppressed this notebook for as long as they were in control of Martí's archives, nor is it unexpected that the regime's own cultural commissars, once they had wrested it from its owners, concealed its contents for another forty years. Recently, however, the regime has launched a propaganda campaign aimed at convincing the world (or at least its progressive allies) that it has abandoned its sexual puritanism of old and no longer persecutes sexual minorities as minorities. The same conditional sufferance which it has extended to homosexuals and transvestites the regime has now seen fit to grant to its avowed "intellectual author."

So it came to past that the Centro de Estudios Martianos, the official and only recognized interpreter of Martí's legacy in Cuba, published in the 35th edition of its "Anuario" a series of ten notations by Martí dealing with  pedophilia in classical literature, aphrodisiacs, prostitution, polyandry, the cult of Priapus, the Holy Phallus (of which there are seven in as many churches), sexual mutilation (of which the former would be an example), Elizabeth I (sadist), and the Marquis de Sade (a lesser sadist). Nothing that he says on these subjects departs from the conventional view of them. That is, he does not approve. Their suppression, therefore, is a question of being purer than Caesar's wife; there are certain subjects which, in the opinion of his censors, Martí should never have broached at all since they detract from his gravitas.

With one notable exception (Fragment 8), Martí does not relate any of these topics to his personal life. That one exception, however, may be the reason that it and the others were withheld for 117 years. Quesada de Miranda was known for granting some of his favorites tantalizing peeps at some of "his" treasures. He may indeed have accorded that privilege to Carlos Márquez Sterling, who in his largely-derivative biography of Martí alludes to his supposed dalliances with prostitutes in New York, based, no doubt, on a misinterpretation of this particular "fragment" (fragment of what?). This unsourced allegation made no impression at the time of its publication (1940) because most Cuban men of that era had at least experienced their sexual initiation in that way. What is common is never considered shocking or censurable, though it can qualify as distasteful, which is the reason that Márquez Sterling's allegation was never repeated by any other subsequent biographer. In any case, Fragment 8 does not support but rather disproves this assumption. Its subject is obviously prostitution and Martí's relation to it, but his relation to it is exactly the opposite of what Márquez Sterling innocently (yes, innocently) assumes.

San Agustín mismo ¿no es de singular importancia, y todo el favor de su atención, a minuciosidades corpóreas?— Y Sto Tomás sobre colocaciones!—

Pues yo he hecho como San Adelmo y el beato Robert d’ Arbrissel. They need to sleep wih [sic] the prettiest girls,—to pure their own,— enerfiger [sic] [palabra ilegible] and chaalotly [sic]

The reader will note that the original jotting appears half in Spanish and half in English. The personal revelation is written in English and has been poorly deciphered by its transcriber whether through incompetence or design (I suspect the former). I have done what I could to make sense of it and believe it is now perfectly intelligible:

For St. Augustine, isn't carnal minutiae of singular importance and doesn't it occupy his entire attention? — And St. Thomas [Aquinas] and his views on intercourse! —

Well, I've done the same as St. Aldhelm and Blessed Robert d'Arbrissel. They need[ed] to sleep with the prettiest girls  — to pure [purify] their own energies and purge [the girls'] harlotry."

Augustine and Aquinas condemned prostitution as a sin, but neither advocated its legal proscription. Although they did not regard it as a "victimless crime" (its modern extenuation) they did believe that there would be more victims if it were criminalized than if it were tolerated. In justifying why prostitution should be allowed to exist for the sake of the common good, Aquinas quotes from Augustine's De Ordine: "If you do away with harlots, the world would be convulsed with lust." In other words, honest women would lose the prerogative of saying "no" if meretricious women were prevented from saying "yes." Prostitution assured the virtue of the many by sacrificing the souls (and bodies) of a few. Martí obviously finds such a calibration ridiculous, as attested by the question mark which he affixes to his comment on Augustine's obsession with "sexual minutiae" and the exclamation mark which Aquinas' views on sexual intercourse merits.

In the next paragraph, Martí confesses, unapologetically, that he has also used "beautiful girls" to placate his sexual urges while purging their harlotry, as did St. Aldhelm and Blessed Robert d'Arbrissel. But are these not two contradictory propositions? What was it that these saints did that satisfied their sexual urges while restoring harlots to purity? Surely Martí would have had to know what they did in order to emulate them. The answer, unfortunately, is not to be found in Martí's works. But there is an answer. It is contained in the book which Marti was reading and commenting upon while writing these notes, Dictionnaire critique des reliques et des images miraculeuses [1822] by Jacques-Albin-Simon Collin de Plancy. Of Robert D'Arbrissell, the author writes: "[His superiors] accused him of sleeping with the most charming girls in the order in a perilous effort to give more merit to continence ... It is argued, however, that St. Robert and St. Adelme each slept between two women to mortify themselves, and never succumbed. ... St. Robert is also credited with having converted with just one sermon all the prostitutes in the town of Rouen in the year 1100, and wherever he wandered he was always followed by a troop of women." Voltaire satirized him in the once-banned Chant de la Pucelle:

A ce grand saint qui se plut à coucher
Entre les bras de deux nonnes fessues,
A caresser quatre cuisses dodues ,
Quatre tétons, et le tout sans pécher.

And this great saint who took pleasure in bed
Between the arms of two fat-assed nuns, 

Fondling four plump thighs,
Four nipples, and all without sin.

Or if you prefer a contemporary translation:

Dunois resembles Robert d'Arbrisselle,
Whose penance strange, (as holy Legends tell,)
Was with two Nuns to pass the live-long night,
Nor from their blooming beauties taste delight,
But obstinately cold, the charms despise,
Of four firm Bubbles, and four fleshy Thighs?

In The Oriental Herald, published by J.S. Buckingham in 1825, there is an article entitled "On the Spirit of Monachism (i.e. monasticism)," which expands on  Collin de Plancy's account.

In these [adjacent convent-monasteries] the nuns and friars lived in a neighbourly, charitable way; the former sinning, and the latter (who of course never sinned) giving them absolution. Being desirous of acquiring a more than ordinary degree of sanctity, and, for that purpose, of approaching and overcoming the greatest temptations, many monks were in the habit of sharing the beds of the most beautiful nuns, that they might convince the devil, by their abstinence in such situations, it was to no purpose he would torment them with any further snares. Among those who put their virtue to this awful trial, was le bienheureux Robert d'Arbrissel, Abbot of Fontevraud; and it is said that after this the devil gave him up in despair. William of Malmsbury relates a similar story of Aldhelm, one of our English saints; and he adds, that the practice never once brought the holy man into suspicion with the honest people of those days. [...] The same St. Aldhelm used sometimes a less dangerous method of cooling his passions: he plunged himself in winter up to the neck in snow, and in summer passed whole days in the well of the monastery. This must have been a much more pleasant and effectual remedy. We perceive, however, by all this, that nature is not to be quenched by putting on a piece of hair-cloth, and calling oneself a monk. In fact, whoever reads attentively the lives of the primitive saints and hermits, will often have his pity very strongly excited by the recital of their temptations, real and visionary. The poor men, it is said, were very frequently haunted by devils, generally in a female shape; what their imaginations chiefly dwelt upon may, therefore, be clearly seen.

The last method alluded to, a cold shower, is still somewhat in vogue today for concupiscence, but the practice of sleeping chastely with beautiful girls (whether whores or nuns) to test your self-control seems to have died out with other hermitic mortifications, such as wearing hair-shirts or living atop a pillar for decades. The last well-known figure to have embraced this exercise and recommended it as a kind of universal panacea was Mahatma Gandhi. If I had said at the beginning that Martí had not done with beautiful girls what Gandhi also had not done with them, I believe that many would have understood me. Still, I would have had to forego telling about Aldhelm and Robert d'Arbrisssel, and that I was not disposed to do. Not because I did not want to lose a good story, but because without reference to them what Martí appears to be saying is that he liked sleeping with beautiful girls to re-energize himself and take advantage of their harlotry. Surely that would be worse. Right?

I may annotate the other fragments, since I suppose it is unfair to allude tantalizingly to them and then drop them.


Vana said...


My, my I learn just by reading your words, so these chaste chaps slept with pretty girls and nuns- to show themselves they could abstain, sounds ridiculous in this day and age.

Marti slept with prostitutes? So what! Men of that time lost their virginity to them, usually taken to them by their own fathers. I believe it should be legalized.

Glad to have you back my friend, I sorely miss you when you stay away too long.

Manuel A.Tellechea said...


It would appear from Martí's own confession that he copied the saints' practice of self-mortification. And, yes, you are right: today we would regard such an exercise as more ridiculous than sublime, and recognize that though no overt sexual act was committed, the practice itself was inherently sexual and nothing else. Sex, after all, is not only a function of the procreative organs, it is also eminently -- perhaps we could even say preeminently -- a mental process.

The saints' (and Martí's) practice of sleeping chastely with beautiful girls was not one of denial or sublimation; but, rather, a consummation of its own kind.

Real chastity does not need to test itself and if it resorts to such expedients it is because it has already failed.

Vana said...

Ooooops! Guess I should have read the header.