Sunday, January 28, 2007

Jose Martí and Cuban Ethnic Nostalgia for the Noble Savage

Like many people of his time, José Martí, the father of the Cuban independence movement of the 19th century, was fond of using a form of the literary trope of the “noble savage” in the service of Cuban political independence from Spain and socio/cultural independence from the United States. The “noble savage” themes were both popularized and turned to use in political theory in the 18th century by Rousseau (Jean-Jacques Rousseau, A Dissertation on the Origin and Foundation of the Inequality of Mankind (1755) (”Savage man, when he has dined, is at peace with all nature, and the friend of all his fellow-creatures. . . . . The case is quite different with man in the state of society, for whom first necessities have to be provided and then superfluities; delicacies follow next then immense wealth, then subjects, and then slaves.” Rousseau, id., Appendix). But the notion of the purity of the savage over the corruption of the civilized has a long history in the West, a culture always as fond of its sentimentalism as it has been of the civilization it enhances despite this nostalgic stance for an unencumbered past. (e.g., Ter Ellingson, The Myth of the Noble Savage. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001).

In “El Hombre Antiguo de América y Sus Artes Primitivas”, written for the periodical, La América, April 1884 (in Conciencia Intelectual de América: Antología del Ensayo Hispanoamericano 261-264 (Carlos Ripoll, ed., New York: Eliseo Torrs & Sons, 1966)), Martí used the noble savage binary for a different political effect. Describing ancient humanity and primitive arts, Martí starts by suggesting that primitive art involved more than a love of beauty, it suggested the basic need of human communities to create and overcome (“la expresión del deseo humano de crear y de vencer” id., at 261). In this form, like its European form, art represented a passion for truth (“La pasión por la verdad fue siempre ardiente en el hombre.” Id.)). That passion for truth in arte is capable simultaneously of multiple levels of expression within any civilization (“En el espíritu del hombre están, en el espíritu de cada hombre, todas las edades de la Naturaleza” Id., at 262).

For Indian nations in America, Martí suggests, that blend of naturalism and genius expressed itself in the choice of the places for the expression of their art, choosing those priestly places of Nature (“los lugares sacerdotales de la Naturaleza” id., at 263) without disturbing the natural order. And thus a window onto the soul of the native American character—noble and impatient, with a love of adornment—which express the nomadic character, political immaturity and literature of the countries of the Americas (“y por ella lucen, y por ella pecan, el carácter movible, la política prematura y la literatura hojosa de los países americanos” id., at 263). What, Martí asks, is the nature of the intelligence of Americans if not something like a chalice open to the sun by the special privilege of Nature (“¿Qué es, sino cáliz abierto al sol por especial privilegio de la Naturaleza, la inteligencia de los americanos?” Id., at 263). Every nation (understood as ethnos rather than as demos as was common in the 19th century and increasingly common in the 21st century), Martí suggests has its own genius, but only the people of the Americas were able to clothe the natural with easy, brilliant and marvelous pomp (“sólo al hombre de América es dable en tanto grado vestir como de ropa natural la idea segura de fácil, brillate y maravillosa pompa” id).

And thus to the point: No más que pueblos en ciernes,--que ni todos los pueblos se cuajan de un mismo modo, ni bastan unos cuantos siglos para cuajar un pueblo,--no más que pueblos en bulbo eran aquéllos en que maña sutil de viejos vividores se entró el conquistador valiente, y descargó su ponderosa herrajería, lo cual fue una desdicha histórica y un crimen natural.” Id., at 264 (“Not more than nations in the making,--that neither all nations [understood here as ethnos] come into being in the same way, nor are a number of centuries enough for a people to come into being,--not more than nations still in their bulbs were those in which the valiant conquerors were brought in through by the subtle skill of ancient fortune hunters, carrying out their ponderous mechanics work, which amounted to a historical misfortune and a crime against nature.”). Thus the old European binaries—savage-civilized, advanced-barbarous, noble-savage, U.S.-Latin America—are inverted. The rape of nature and the destruction of indigenous culture are conflated. And that rape, that crime against the natural order is foundational—“los pueblos eran que no imaginaron como los hebreos a la mujer hecho de un hueso y al hombre hecho de lodo; sino a ambos nacidos a un tiempo de la semilla de la palma.” Id. at 264 (“these nations could not imagine, like the Hebrews that woman was made of a bone and that man was made out of clay, but that both were born together from the seed of a palm tree.”).

Crimes against the natural order are cultural as well as political. They implicate the foundations of the autonomy and self construction of every ethnos. Those who would violate this natural order engage in foundational criminal activity—they rob the world of its richness and diversity (“¡Robaron los conquistadores una página al Universo! Id.”). The implications for Martí naturally follow—cultural and political liberation, an necessary affirmation of the indigenous in Latin American culture, and a call for the development of that unique culture. And yet the supreme irony: from out of a European disquietude with the state of society and its aggressive advance by a man fully the creature of that culture comes a European literary/political trope in the service of the independence, broadly understood of Latin America in general and Cuba specifically. It is an easy step from the lyrical cultural naturalism of Martí’s eclogue to the nationalist post colonial rhetoric of Fidel Castro.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Like expected from Professor Backer: unique, clever, and well written.