Cintio Vitier: A Cuban fight against skepticism

It is the 100th anniversary of the birth of Cintio Vitier (1921-2009), a fundamental essayist and poet of the 20th century in Cuba. Much of Vitier’s work is find its place at the intersection of poetry and history, poetics, and politics. In that intersection, his lyrical or essayistic texts and his research on the history of thought and literature of the island propitiated a dialogue with the experience of the Republic and the Revolution and with the political regimes of both moments, which has not been fully elucidated.

I share some notes on the centrality of the concepts of truth and skepticism in his poetic and essayistic work. Son of philosopher and pedagogue Medardo Vitier (1886-1960), the author of Lo cubano en la poesía [Cubanness in Poetry] (1958) developed a work marked by great passions and complicities (José Martí and José Lezama Lima), but also by evident disagreements or rivalries (Enrique José Varona or Virgilio Piñera).

Both flanks have to do with the powerful articulation between faith and truth, which Vitier, through his Catholicism, projected on the idea of Cuba as a nation. Despite of how uncomfortable it usually is, it is inevitable to locate part of the origin or background of those tensions in Vitier’s complex relationship with a thinker like his father, who devoted large areas of his work to study the thoughts of Enrique José Varona and to promote the influence of American pragmatism and utilitarianism, especially John Dewey, in the island’s education and culture.

In the best tradition of Cuban philosophy of the Republic (Vitier, Mañach, Ortiz, Piñera Llera…) there was a contained acceptance of North American thought (Peirce, James, Dewey, Mead…), which by the middle of the 20th century, was already mixed, in compensation, with the reception of other European philosophical currents such as Heidegger, Ortega y Grasset, French existentialism or Soviet Marxism. In Cintio Vitier’s texts of the fifties, a reaction against that plural philosophical repertoire will be observed, especially against its agnostic or skeptical angle, from referents of the Catholic conservatism of the interwar period.

In the essays of La luz del imposible [The light of the impossible] (1957), dedicated to José Lezama Lima, that reaction is clearly expressed. In the “minimal essay” on “the Cuban” (separatism) and the “Creole” (autonomism), it was said that both traditions or “lineages”, like two tablecloths, one of “rubber” and the other of “embroidered thread”, could be “put in the same house, graciously summarizing the polemic of our personality”. But in several of the aphorisms of “Daily Root”, in the same book, the “skepticism” of Cuban intellectual history was excommunicated.

Vitier spoke there of a “skeptical beast”, the “most recalcitrant and repulsive”. Skepticism, according to Vitier, was inextricably linked to secularism, empiricism, Protestantism, and modernity. All elements that he associated with the Anglo-American philosophical tradition: “to wash and salt the loins of skepticism, of secularism, is very difficult: not even God himself can, sometimes. The discreet, empirical, urban, bestial loins. They never bow, never kneel. When even the cow and the donkey bend the knee to lie down”.

The inability to kneel summarized the disbelief of modern secularism: “they are the beasts standing, or sitting, or lying down, full of very honest ideas. They cannot bend the secular bone of the knee, bend the skeptical, unsavory back. Everything, anything, except kneeling”. Skepticism and rational doubt fed modern politics, in its bureaucratic and democratic sense, but they also fostered sensuality and consumption in modern society. These risks surpassed, in their dangerousness, unbelief and Judaism.

“Standing, sitting, in bed: leader, bureaucrat, fornicator. Modern world. Unbelief is not skepticism. Unbelief is in the faith, and vice versa. Skepticism is something else: an idol, perhaps the worst of all. The most outrageous thing about skepticism is its melancholy seriousness. Harder than the Jewish cervix, is the secular cervix”  —wrote Vitier, in December 1956. More or less the same time of the poems of Canto llano (1955), full of allusions to the Text and the Word, of exergues of Saint Thomas and the Genesis and invocations to the Virgin Mary and God.

The Cuban fight against skepticism, which Vitier staged in his work, has a famous antecedent in the first volume of Cartas a Elpidio [Letters to Elpidio] (1836) by Father Félix Varela. There Varela pointed to “impiety” as one of the “idols”  —the same Baconian term that a century later Vitier would use— that together with “superstition” and “fanaticism” distorted the true Catholic religion and the virtues of the Christian republic. In an evident refutation of David Hume and the whole tradition of English empiricism, which also did not hide its rejection of Kant and his early disciples, Varela spoke of a “most fatal error” that presented skepticism, the radical or “Pyrrhonian” and the “prudent” or Kantian, as a gnoseological position reconcilable with religion.

Vitier would adopt a similar perspective, not only against the various liberal or Marxist philosophies of the 20th century, but also against currents of Cuban literature that, in his opinion, distorted the truth of the nation. In a poem dedicated to his father, entitled “La Verdad” [The Truth], included in the notebook Epitalamios (1966), he alluded to the Alethia or uncovering of the veil that covers the essences, a notion of long trajectory between Parmenides and Heidegger. Vitier quoted Plato, but concluded that, although the “living fabric was being ardently torn”, the “unspeakable” remained as “signs of a failure” in the dialogue with his father.

So critical of literary patricides, from an idea of tradition as lineage, Vitier did not fail to experience his own, in relation to the intellectual secularism of his father, always very interested in sitting, at the same table, Martí and Varona. Two “guides”, two “vivifiers”, he will say in his Valoraciones I [Valuations I] (1960), who “were the last great representatives of our 19th century”, each one with “his place among the heroes of Spanish America”. To those Plutarquean parallels of Vitier Sr., Vitier Jr. responded with the apothegm that “Cuba had already chosen its delegate”.

Vitier’s great essayistic work, between Lo cubano en la poesía (1958) and Ese sol del Mundo moral [That Sun of the moral world] (1975), could be read as an attempt of restitution of the literary truth of the nation, after the final fading of the veils of skepticism. An endeavor as attentive to the consecration of that truth as to the demands of its faith. It was inevitable for that intellectual project, in spite of, or precisely because it was rooted in the experience of a youthful anti-liberal Catholic conversion, would connect with the official ideology of Cuban socialism.

Translation from Spanish by Sergio Vitier.

Rafael Rojas (Santa Clara, Cuba, 1965). He is a historian and essayist. He has a degree in Philosophy from the University of Havana and a PhD in History from El Colegio de México. He is a regular contributor to the magazine Letras Libres and the newspaper El País, and is a member of the editorial board of the magazine Istor of the Center for Economic Research and Teaching (CIDE). He has published the books: Un banquete canónico (2000), Revolución, disidencias y exilio intelectual cubano (2006), La vanguardia peregrina. El escritor cubano, la tradición y el exilio (2013), among others. Since July 2019, he occupies chair 11 of the Mexican Academy of History.


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