Monday, September 11, 2006

Jose Marti Attends a Lecture by Oscar Wilde.

An effort has been made to destroy this essay by altering paragraph spacing, by obstructing access to the writing of it and by blocking efforts to post it. I still cannot post images. I will do my best to complete and publish the essay. However, some damage may be seen in the final product.

Jose Marti, On Art and Literature: Critical Writings (New York & London: Monthly Review Press, 1982), Philip S. Foner, ed. & trans., with chronology of Marti's life.

"What is art? [Only] the shortest way of achieving the triumph of truth, [through fictions,] and placing it at the same time, so that it will endure and shine in hearts and minds? Art is not a venal adornment of kings and pontiffs, where the face of genius is barely seen, but a divine accumulation of souls, where men [and women] of all the ages meet and congregate."

Jose Marti
Jose Marti (1835-1895) is a wonderful poet and literary artist, both Romantic and modernist, the great unifying figure in the early history of Cuba's struggle for (and partial achievement of) an elusive independence. He was fluent in French, Italian and English, writing in each of those languages for periodicals, struggling to make a living while residing in what is now the "Chelsea" section of Manhattan. Marti was a nineteenth century version of a West Village intellectual-hipster. If Marti had chosen to live in Paris, he might have been a character -- "Rudolfo," the poet -- in Puccini's La Boheme.
Marti was both man of action and poet, also an international symbol of the Latin American struggle for recognition of independence, cultural accomplishment and equality. His doctoral work was in literature and philosophy, though he also studied law -- together with everything else -- in Havana as well as the University of Madrid. He completed studies for a doctorate in philosophy and humanities in 1874. In addition to his modern languages, he was a classicist and knew much Roman literature from memory, especially the great Roman poets Horace and Terence, also the historians Tacitus and Livy. Incidentally, Marti was as great an admirer of Milton -- and even more of Shakespeare -- as I am.
Marti was even a respected critic of the visual arts, commenting on Russian and other European painters and artists for a Latin American audience. (See his moving essay on "The Munkascy Christ" which appeared in December, 1886.) He played a role in the Cuban independence movement comparable to Garibaldi's or Verdi's in Italy's Risorgimento.
In reading his literary criticisms, one is astonished at the sheer volume of his cultural activity in a busy and politically active life. Marti attended concerts and theater performances, relishing lectures by visiting writers and artists or travellers. He loved New York, feeling its energy and enthusiasm, surprising Latin Americans by recognizing the explosion of U.S. literature, judging it to be a "new great literature" for a new great nation.

At the same time, he was fearful and critical of the commercial spirit and burgeoning imperialism that threatened to overwhelm the nascent high culture of the United States. Like Oscar Wilde in Britain, Marti warned of the perils of "hyperindustrialism" and commercialism.

Marti was deeply impressed by both Emerson and Whitman, being inspired to read a great deal of American literature. One scholarly student of Marti's work notes that the Cuban writer's literary journalism included: "... seven articles or essays that deal at length with a single United States author Ralph Waldo Emerson, [but also] Walt Whitman, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, John Greenleaf Whittier, Amos Bronson Alcott" -- and unusually for ANY critic at the time -- Marti recognized the greatness of "Louisa May Alcott and Mark Twain." (p. 18.)
Marti was an early advocate of the right to equal education for women. According to Philip S. Foner, "Marti observed that in superior men extreme virility and feminine tenderness are found united." (p. 22.) This was before Carl Jung and twentieth century scholarship on the complexity of our conceptions of gender. For Marti, "the true artist had to be inspired by all that elevated mankind." (p. 16.) (See "Do we still celebrate humanity?")
Marti read a great deal of philosophy, was sympathetic to British culture and politics, admiring French, German and British philosophers, especially the idealists. Marti's praise for Gladstone and the struggle for Irish home rule was passionate. He was a humanist, with idealist and highly romantic, modernist and even pragmatist sympathies in his more "pure" philosophical comments. Politically, he was an advocate of independence from colonial powers and social compassion. He was "anticlerical," even as he was deeply religious. Marti was an advocate of an "ethics of feeling" or compassion, sympathetic to much in the Christian tradition. Describing the Hungarian painter's controversial depiction of Christ, Marti writes:
"[Munkacsy] sees Jesus as the most perfect incarnation of the invisible power of the idea. The idea consecrates, inflames, attentuates, exalts, purifies; it gives a stature that is invisible but can be felt; it cleanses the spirit of dross the way fire consumes the underbrush; it spreads a clear and secure beauty which reaches the soul and is felt in it. Munkacy's Jesus is the power of the pure idea." (p. 129.)
Marti's own view of Christ (while appreciative of this Platonic notion, derived from Walter Pater perhaps) was closer to Wilde's in De Profundis:
"I see this continual assertion of the imagination as the basis of all spiritual and material life, I see also that to Christ imagination was simply a form of Love, and to him Love was Lord in the fullest meaning of the phrase." (All quotations are from the full text of De Profundis by Vyvyan Holland, published by Avon, in 1962.)

Attempts by Miami's Cubanoids to appropriate Marti's poetry to their racist and greedy politics is an insult to the memory of a great man whose politics was really an expression of respect as well as solidarity for the poor and suffering masses of the world. Time for more vandalism and defacements of my writings from Cubanazos and Cubanazas promising "free speech" to Cubans. (A little financial contribution to Bob Menendez makes everything O.K.?)
Long before Wilde's trial and prison sentence, the young Irish poet toured the United States on behalf of the pre-Raphaelite painters and "aesthetes" of the British isles, becoming a notorious and controversial figure, appearing in silk britches holding a lilly, in that macho and very sexist era. Marti attended the young controversial poet's New York lecture and defended his work and concerns, long before Wilde was famous as the literary star of London.
Marti begins his account of the evening with a defense of reading the "Slavic, German or English literature whose poetry contains white swans, castle ruins, lusty young girls upon flower strewn balconies, and the calm mystical light of the aurora borealis, all at once." (p. 294.) Who could ask for more? Not me. (See "Summer Books.")
"Knowing various literatures is the best way to free us from being oppressed by some, just as there is no way to avoid blindly following a single philosophical system unless we feed upon them all." (p. 294.)
Marti notes the hostility of some members of the public to the young poet who calls for them to be mindful of those unbreakable and yet fragile things "poetry" and "feeling," together with those men and women who are driven to create both. He suggests the need for men like Wilde and the importance of their contributions to society as well as the danger of noncomprehension and destruction to which they are always exposed. In words that are still highly apt for Cubans and Cuban-Americans -- maybe for all of us -- Marti warns:
"... the poet ... strengthens his living faith in the neglected and disregarded things of the spirit. To hate tyranny one has only to live under it, and nothing so kindles the poetic fire than to live among those in whom it is missing. But poets suffocate unless they have kindred souls into whom they can pour out their overflowing spirit." (p. 295.)
Marti was a kindred spirit to Wilde, anticipating the Irish poet's mature insights in De Profundis. Each man might have written the other's stories for children. Marti's prose conjures thoughts of both Wilde and Friedrich Nietzsche ("self-becoming"), but there are also passages in Marti's essays that might have been written by Coleridge or Pater, Ruskin or Santayana.
Oscar Wilde appears at "Chickering Hall where the New York public goes to hear lectures." (p. 295.) Marti comments with a smile of the young man's attire, that it is meant to shock and delight (think of the Beatles a century later). It detracts or distracts audience members from his beautiful words. There is a danger that Wilde's aestheticism will become a trendy fashion or "attitude" and nothing more.
"The carriages crowd about the wide doors of the imposing lecture hall. A lady is carrying a lilly, emblem of the reformers. Everybody has taken great pains to dress with elaborate elegance. Like the aesthetes who are renovating art in England, they strive for perfect harmony in the combination of colors in both dress and accessories." (p. 296.)
Marti rejects the trivialization of Wilde's message, which is to defend the need for beauty in our lives and the yearning for spiritual fulfillment in a materialistic age:
"[Wilde] says that beauty needs no definition after Goethe's, that the great English renaissance of this century combines a love for Grecian beauty with a passion for the Italian renaissance and with the desire to avail itself of all the beauty put into its works of art by the modern spirit. He says that the new school has sprung up like a harmony of love in Faust and in Helen of Troy, from the close bond between the spirit of Greece, where all was beautiful, and the burning, inquiring and rebellious individualism of the modern romantics." (p. 297.)
Agreeing with Wilde, Marti echoes Shakespeare's proud boast in the sonnets:
"Beauty is the only thing that time cannot kill. Philosophies die, religious creeds vanish, but the beautiful lives forever. It is the gift of all the ages, the sustenance of all peoples everywhere, and an eternal treasure. Wars will be of little account when all men love the same things with equal intensity, when a common intellectual climate unites them." (p. 301.)
Marti could not have anticipated a world united by McDonald's and a fascination (shared by me) with "Star Trek" episodes. Here is a warning for us today:
"England is still a powerful sovereign by virtue of her military might; and our renaissance would give her a sovereignty to endure long after her yellow leopards tire of the roar of battle, and the rose upon her shield is no longer tinged with the blood of combat. And you also, Americans, by planting the heart of this great nation [emphasis added] with the aesthetic spirit that makes life better and alleviates its hardships, will amass such riches for yourselves that they will make you forget for being so trivial, those you now enjoy from having made your land a network of railroads and your harbors a haven for all the ships that sail the seas known to man." (p. 301.)
More than a hundred years after Marti wrote those words, in the wealthiest and most powerful nation on the planet, public art in New York is a bunch of plastic cows placed at different locations and painted in bizarre colors. I think we can do better than that.
"Love of art purifies the soul and inspires it." (p. 302.) Marti asks in response to the scoffers: "Is this bold young man to be respected or ridiculed?" He answers his own question: "He is to be respected!" (p. 302.) Yet Marti does more, expressing admiration for the courage and achievement of Oscar Wilde, who (like Keats) "... fights as if against an invisible army to awaken a love for impalpable beauty and pleasing spiritual intangibles. Where can a poet turn in that land except to his inner self? What is he to do but fold up within his soul like a violet trampled by a horse's hoof?" (p. 304.)
Marti closes with a hope and prayer for Wilde and England, for Emerson and the United States of America, maybe for himself and Cuba:
"May [Oscar Wilde] whose defiance of the critics gives proof of great integrity, and whose noble poetry bids his soul abandon the marketplace of virtues and cultivate itself in tragic silence -- quicken his scornful and busy nation's love for art, the source of all true happiness and the consolation that heals the spirit crushed by life's sorows!" (p. 304.)

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