Caliban Other Essays Retamar

RED continues below its reproduction of the Cuban poet, essayist and critic Roberto Fernández Retamar’s Caliban. In this post we will be publishing the fourth part of the essay: ‘Again Martí’. The first three parts of the essay – ‘A Question’, ‘Toward the History of Caliban’ and ‘Our Symbol’ – can be found here.

Notes Toward a Discussion of
Culture in Our America

Again Martí

This conception of our culture had already been articulately expressed and defende in the last century by the first among us to understand clearly the concrete situation of what he called – using a term I have referred to several times – “our mestizo America”: José Martí to whom Rodó planned to dedicate the first Cuban edition of Ariel and about whom he intended to write a study similar to those he devoted to Bolívar and Artigas (see 1359, 1375), a study that in the end he unfortunately never realised.

Although he devoted numerous pages to the topic, the occasion on which Martí offered his ides on this point in a most organic and concise manner was in his 1891 article “Our America.” I will limit myself to certain essential quotations. But I should first like to offer some observations on the destiny of Martí’s work.

During Martí’s lifetime, the bulk of his work, scattered throughout a score of continental newspapers , enjoyed widespread fame. We know that Rubén Darío called Martí “Maestro” (as, for other reasons, his political followers would also call him during his lifetime) and considered him the Latin American whom he most admired. We shall soon see, on the other hand, how the harsh judgements on the United States that Martí commonly made in his articles, equally well known in his time, were the cause of acerbic criticism by the proYankee Sarmiento. But the particular manner in which Martí’s writings circulated – he made use of journalism, oratory, and letter but never published a single book – bears no little responsibility for the relative oblivion into which the work of the Cuban hero fell after his death in 1895. This alone explains the fact that nine years after his death – and twelve from the time Martí stopped writing for the continental press, devoted as he was after 1892 to his political tasks – an author as absolutely ours and as far above suspicion as the twenty-year-old Pedro Henríquez Ureña could write in 1904, in an article on Rodó’s Ariel, that the latter’s opinions on the United States are “much more severe than those formulated by two of the greatest thinkers and most brilliant psych-sociologists of the Antilles: Hostos and Martí.” Insofar as this refers to Martí, the observation is completely erroneous; and given the exemplary honesty of Henríquez Ureña, it led me, first, to suspect and later, to verify that it was due simply to the fact that during this period the great Dominican had not read, had been unable to read, Martí adequately. Martí was hardly published at the time. A text such as the fundamental “Our America” is a good example of this fate. Readers of the Mexican newspaper El Partido Liberal could have read it on 30 January 1891. It is possible that some other local newspaper republished it, although the most recent edition of Martí’s Complete Works does not indicate anything in this regard. But it is most likely that those who did not have the good fortune to obtain that newspaper knew nothing about the article – the most important document published in America from the end of the past century until the appearance in 1962 of the Second Declaration of Havana – for almost twenty years, at the end of which time it appeared in book form (Havana, 1910) in the irregular collection in which the publication of the complete works of Martí was begun. For this reason Mauel Pedro González is correct when he asserts that during the first quarter of this century the new generations did not know Martí. “A minimal portion of his work” was again put into circulation, starting with the eight volumes published by Alberto Ghiraldo in Madrid in 1925. Thanks to the most recent appearance of several editions of his complete works – actually still incomplete – “he has been rediscovered and reevaluated.” González is thinking above all of the dazzling literary qualities of this work (“the literary glory” as he says). Could we not add something, then, rearding the works’ fundamental ideological aspects? Without forgetting very important prior contributions, there are still some essential points that explain why today, after the triumph of the Cuban Revolution and because of it, Martí is being “rediscovered and reevaluated.” It was no mere coincidence that in 1953 Fidel named Martí as the intellectual author of the attack on the Moncada Barracks nor that Che should use a quotation from Martí – “it is the hour of the furnance, and only light should be seen” – to open his extremely important “Message to the Tricontinental Congress” in 1967. If Benedetti could say that Rodó’s time “was different from of own… his true place, his true temporal homeland was the nineteenth century,” we must say, on the other hand, that Martí’s true place was the future and, for the moment, this era of ours, which simply cannot be understood without a thorough knowledge of this work.

Now, if that knowledge, because of the curious circumstances alluded to, was denied or available only in a limited way to early generations of this century, who frequently had to base their defense of subsequent radical arguments on a “first launching pad” as well-intentioned but at the same time as weak as the nineteenth-century work Ariel, what can we say of more recent authors to whom editions of Martí are now available but who nevertheless persist in ignoring him? I am thinking, of course, not of scholars more or less ignorant of our problems but, on the contrary, of those who maintain a consistently anticolonialist attitude. The only explanation of this situation is a painful one: we have been so thoroughly steeped in colonialism that we read with real respect only those anticolonialist authors disseminated from the metropolis. In this way we cast asidd the great lesson of Martí; thus, we are barely familiar with Artigas, Recabarren, Mella, and even Mariátegui and Ponce. And I have the sad suspicion that if the extraordinary texts of Che Guevara have enjoyed the greatest dissemination ever accorded a Latin American, the fact that he is read with such avidity by our people is to a certain extent due to the prestige his name has even in the metropolitan capitals – where, to be sure, he is frequently the object of the most shameless manipulation. For consistency in our anticolonialist attitude we must in effect turn to those of our people have incarnated and illustrated that attitude in their behaviour and thinking. And for this, there is no case more useful than that of Martí.

I know of no other Latin-American author who has given so immediate and so coherent an answer to another question put to me by my interlocutor, the European journalist whom I mentioned at the beginning of these lines (and whom, if he did not exist, I would have to invent, although this would havedeprived me of his friendship, which I trust will survive this monologue): “What relationship,” this guiless wit asked me, “does Borges have to the Incas?” Borges is almost a reductio ad absurdum and, in any event, I shall discuss him later. But it is only right and fair to ask what relationship we, the present inhabitants of this America in whose zoological and cultural heritage Europe has played an unquestionable part, have to the primitive inhabitants of this same America – those people who contructed or who were in the process of constructing admirable cultures and who were exterminated or martyred by Europeans of various nations, about whom neither a white nor black legend can be built, only an infernal turth of blood, that, together with such deeds as the enslavement of Afircans, constitutes their eternal dishonour. Martí, whose father was from Valencia and whose mother was from the Canaries, who wrote the most prodigious Spanishof his – and our – age, and who came to the greatest knowledge of the Euro-North American culture ever possessed by a man of our America, also asked this question. He answered it as follows: “We are descended from Valencian fathers and Canary Island mothers and feel the inflamed blood of Tamanaco and Paramaconi coursing through our veins; we see the blood that fell amid the brambles of Mount Calvary as our own, along with that shed by the naked and heroic Caracas as they struggled breast to breast with the gonzalos in their iron-plated armor.”

I presume the reader, if he or she is not a Venezuelan, will be unfamiliar with the names evoked by Martí. So was I. This lack of familiarity is but another proof of our subjection to the colonialist perspective of history that has been imposed on us, causing names, dates, circumstances, and truths to vanish from our consciousness. Under other circumstances – but closely related to these – did not the bourgeois version of history try to erase the heroes of the Commune of 1871, the martyrs of 1 May 1886 (significantly reclaimed by Martí)? At any rate, Tamanaco, Paramaconi, “the naked and heroic Caracas” were natives of what is today called Venezuela, of Carib blood, the blood of Caliban, coursing through his veins. This will not be the only time he expresses such an idea, which is central to his thinking. Again making use of such heroes, he was to repeat some time late: “We must stand with Guaicaipuro, Paramaconi [heroes of Venezuela, probably of Carib origin], and not with the flames that burned them, nor with the ropes that bound them, nor with the steel that beheaded them, nor with the dogs that devoured them.” Martí’s rejection of the ethnocide that Europe practiced is total. No less total is his identification with the American peoples that offered heroic resistance to the invader, and in whom Martí saw the natural forerunners of the Latin-American independenistas. This explains why in the notebook in which this last quotation appears, he continues writing, almost without transition, on Aztec mythology (“no less beautiful than the Greek”), on the ashes of Quetzacoatl, on “Ayachucho on the solitary plateau,” on “Bolívar, like the rivers.”

Martí, however, dreams not of a restoration now impossible but of the future intergration of our America – an America rising organically from a firm grasp of its true roots to the heights of authentic modernity. For this reason, the first quotation in which he speaks of feeling valiant Carib blood coursing through his veins continues as follows:

It is good to open canals, to promote schools, to create stemship lines, to keep abreast of one’s own time, to be on the side of the vanguard in the beautiful march of humanity. But in order not to falter because of a lack of spirit or the vanity of a false spirit, it is good also to nourish oneself through memory and admiration, through righteous study and loving compassion, on that fervent spirit of the natural surroundings in which one is born – a spirit matured and quickened by those of every race that issues from such surroundings and finds its final repose in them. Politics and literature flourish only when they are direct. The America intelligence is an indigenous plumage. It is not evident that America itself was paralyzed by the same blow that paralyzed the Indian? And until India is caused to walk, America itself will not begin to walk well.

Martí’s identification with our aboriginal culture was thus accompanied by a complete sense of the concrete tasks imposed upon him by his circumstances. Far from hampering him, that identification nutured in him the most radical and modern criteria of his time in the colonial countries.

Naturally, Martí’s approach to the Indian was also applied to the black. Unfortunately, while in his day serious enquiries into American aboriginal cultures (which Martí studied passionately) had already been undertaken, only in the twentieth century would then appear similar studies of African cultures and their considerable contribution to our mestizo America (see Frobenius, Delafosse, Suret-Canale; Ortiz, Ramos, Herskovits, Roumain, Metraux, Bastide, Franco). And Martí died five years before the dawning of our century. In any event, in his treatment of Indian culture and in his concrete behaviour toward the black, he left a very clear outline of a “battle plan” in this area.

This is the way in which Martí forms his Calibanesque vision of the culture of what he called “our America.” Martí is, as Fidel was later to be, aware of how difficult it is even to find a name that in designating us defines us conceptually. For this reason, after several attempts, he favored that modest descriptive formula that above and beyond race, language and secondary circumstances embraces the communities that live, with their common problems, “from the [Rio] Bravo to Patagonia,” and that are distinct from “European America.” I have already said that although it is found scattered throughout his very numerous writings, this conception of our culture is aptly summarized in the article-manifesto “Our America,” and I direct the reader to it: to his insistence upon the idea that one cannot “rule new peoples with a singular and violent composition, with laws inherited from four centuries of free practice in the United States, or nineteen centuries of monarchy in France. One does not stop the blow in the chest of the plainsman’s horse with one of Hamilton’s decress. One does not clear the congealed blood of the Indian race with a sentence of Sieyès”; to his deeply rooted concept that “the imported book has been conquered in America by the natural man. Natural men have conquered the artificial men of learning. The authentic mestizo has conquered the exotic Creole (my emphasis); and finally to his fundamental advice:

The European university must yeild to the American university. The history of America, from the Incas to the present, must be taught letter perfect, even if that of the Argonauts of Greece is not taught. Our own Greece is preferable to that Greece that is not ours. We have greater need of it. National politicians must replace foreign and exotic politicians. Graft the world onto our republics, but the trunk must be that of our republics. And let the conquered pedant be silent: there is no homeland of which the individual can be more proud than our unhappy American republics.

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This entry was posted in Criticism and tagged -anti-imperialism, Analysis, caliban, colonialism, cuba, culture, jose marti, notes toward a discussion of culture in our america, our america, part II, Revolutionary culture, Roberto Fernández Retamar, socialism. Bookmark the permalink.

Roberto Fernández Retamar-poet, essayist, and professor of philology at the University of Havana-has long served as the Cuban Revolution’s primary cultural and literary voice. An erudite and widely respected hispanist, Retamar is known for his meticulous efforts to dismantle Eurocentric colonial and neocolonial thought. Since its publication in Cuba in 1971, “Caliban”-the first and longest of the five essays in this book-has become a kind of manifesto for Latin American and Caribbean writers; its central figure, the rude savage of Shakespeare’s Tempest, becomes in Retamar’s hands a powerful metaphor of their cultural situation-both its marginality and its revolutionary potential.

Retamr finds the literary and historic origins of Caliban in Columbus’s Navigation Log Books, wher the Carib Indian becomes a cannibal, a bestial human being situated on the margins of civilization. The concept traveled from Montaigne to Shakespeare, on down to Ernest Renan and, in the twentieth century, to Aimé Césaire and other writers who consciously worked with or against the vivid symbolic figures of Prospero, Calivan, and Ariel. Retamar draws especially upon the life and work of José Marti, who died in 1895 in Cuba’s revolutionary struggle against Spain; Marti’s Calibanesque vision of “our America” and its distinctive mestizo culture-Indian, African, and European-is an animating force in this essay and throughout the book.

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