Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Castro on Che

It was with some interest that I read the extremely muted reverie posted by Fidel Castro Ruz on his old comrade in arms, the Argentine-Cuban Che Guevara. Fidel Castro Ruz, Reflections by the Commander in Chief, Che (October 7, 2007) English version. Spanish version. 

Some thoughts follow.

The tribute reads in full as follows (in Spanish):

Hago un alto en el combate diario para inclinar mi frente, con respeto y gratitud, ante el combatiente excepcional que cayó un 8 de octubre hace 40 años. Por el ejemplo que nos legó con su Columna Invasora, que atravesó los terrenos pantanosos al sur de las antiguas provincias de Oriente y Camagüey perseguido por fuerzas enemigas, libertador de la ciudad de Santa Clara, creador del trabajo voluntario, cumplidor de honrosas misiones políticas en el exterior, mensajero del internacionalismo militante en el este del Congo y en Bolivia, sembrador de conciencias en nuestra América y en el mundo. Le doy las gracias por lo que trató de hacer y no pudo en su país de nacimiento, porque fue como una flor arrancada prematuramente de su tallo. Nos dejó su estilo inconfundible de escribir, con elegancia, brevedad y veracidad, cada detalle de lo que pasaba por su mente. Era un predestinado, pero él no lo sabía. Combate con nosotros y por nosotros.
The somewhat inartful official English rendition reads thus:
I make a halt in my daily struggle to bow my head in respect and gratitude to the exceptional combatant who fell in combat on October 8th, forty years ago; for the example he passed on to us as leader of his Rebel Army Column, crossing the swampy grounds of the former provinces of Oriente and Camagüey, while being chased by enemy troops. He was the liberator of the city of Santa Clara and the mastermind of voluntary work; he accomplished honorable political missions abroad and served as messenger of militant internationalism in East Congo and Bolivia. He built a new awareness in our America and the world. I thank him for what he tried and failed to do in his home country, because he was like a flower prematurely severed from its stem.
He left to us his unmistakable literary style. He was elegant, swift and true to every detail of whatever happened to cross his mind. He was a predestinate, but he didn’t know it. He still fights with us and for us.

The passage is interesting not only for its brevity, but for its focus. Here are some thoughts:

1. Che is a ritual object. Castro draws on ancient forms of worship reserved in Mediterranean pagan cultures for the deified hero, reserved in slightly altered form in Catholicism for saints and martyrs, and in African cultures for warrior spirits drawn to or in imitation of Shangó. The pause, the inclination of the head all speak to a ritual objectification. The ritualization speaks to and acknowledges the transformation of physical object (the man) to symbol (the idea), Thus transformed, Che becomes immortal. One short phrase, one tilt of the head, is packed with cultural meaning that transcends history and bridges culture for the purpose of invoking power.

2. Che can be invoked. On one level, this is no great revelation, as a matter of political theory. Every system has its pantheon of "heroes." The Americans have their "Founders." But the interesting point here is the conflation of physical ritual and evocative power. Che is no mere passive immortal object, a fleshless symbolic representation, for example, of the state (like Hamilton, Madison and Jefferson, etc.). Nor is Che mere intangible representation of something lost and past. For Cuba, at least, Castro has meant to transform Che into a cult object. And cult objects are active, not merely symbolic, being--like a saint, espíritu or nkisi. Castro is not merely commemorating a fallen comrade. He is praying in traditional form: "Combate con nosotros y por nosotros."

3. Che's power is grounded in ideas backed by a gun. For Castro, the construction of state ideology has always played a central role. And the possibilities of globalizing those ideals--of reaching universal "truth" even as distinctly applied in context, has been a constant theme in his speeches and writings. Che remains the personification par excellance of this form of hero, as Castro reminds us, "for the example he passed on to us" and, as importantly--for the symbolic beauty of his death. For there is less power in words without a glorious death in the ritual objectification of the hero within the cultures that Castro invokes. Thus Che's military prowess would have been of little use to a glorious martyrdom without the testimony of his writing. It is in the writings of a military man that Castro can fuse the trans generational power of action/symbol (of the sort invoked in the West by, for example, the death of the 300 Spartans) with the transcendent power of the Logos as manifested through the hero. For only someone truly special channel such thoughts. Thus, Castro reminds us, "Nos dejó su estilo inconfundible de escribir, con elegancia, brevedad y veracidad, cada detalle de lo que pasaba por su mente. " My transliteration: "He left us his singular literary style of writing every detail of what emerged from his mind with elegance, brevity and truthfulness." For a sampling click here.

4. Che's life tragedy intensifies the power of his existence. There are few things more compelling than tragedy--the hero impelled by his supra-human character and his "destiny" to embrace a articular fate in a particular way, and in that embrace to gift some precious thing to the world. Che's power as ritual object is grounded in this unconscious "predestinado." The idea of sacrifice and transformation is very strong in both the West and in Africa. Castro, like many others before him (and surely many that will follow), draws on that strong cultural source of sacrifice, martyrdom, of blood payment as the price of immortality. Without the ritual death--the self sacrifice, predetermined--would have lost its intensity and trans-historicity. Drawing (unconsciously perhaps) from insights of Catholic theory of the relationship of the Divine to humankind, Castro suggests (in a way that is understood rather than over elaborately described) Che's place in history (that is as a historical being) and outside of history (as the word he left in the form of his writings and of the example of his life).

5. Cult Heros become more powerful when they leave work undone. All cult heroes are signposts. None achieves the sort of finality or completion that leaves nothing left to those who remain after his passing. It is no different with Che. Castro reminds us that "Le doy las gracias por lo que trató de hacer y no pudo en su país de nacimiento, porque fue como una flor arrancada prematuramente de su tallo." ("I thank him for what he tried and failed to do in his home country, because he was like a flower prematurely severed from its stem.") Again, the form is that of a prayer--a ritual invocation and a reminder to the congregation of the "great task" left by the cult object. The parallels to great religious movements in the West and in Africa (to a lesser extent though it is there as well) remains unmistakable and subliminal. And thus its power.

6. A ritual object needs a priesthood. What is a fallen hero, a spirit, without a band to worship him, to preserve his memory and live as he would have wished by following his example? Nietzsche 's great insight a century ago in "The Antichrist" was on the institutional imperatives that follow the "death" and "transformation" of a great being (however characterized--that ois as mortal or divine). Those imperatives point to a rise of a priesthood to administer the legacy of the commemorated being and the necessary passing of control of the meaning of the life and works of the being to those now charged with its administration. As a consequence, the being itself becomes a second order object--a necessary connection between the living priesthood and the authority represented by the departed hero. The great religions are generally based on this dynamic, and so is the Communist Party of Cuba. Che's passing increased the legitimacy of Castro within the priesthood of the Cuban Communist Party in the way the authority and legitimacy of a cultic high priest is enhanced by a deemed connection with the central veneration object of the cult. And that tie to legitimacy (and authority) requires a ritual of worship. Thus the circle is closed.

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