The features of the hero

In 1878, a 25 years old José Martí, living in Guatemala and recently married to Carmen Zayas Bazán, set out to write a book about the outbreak of the Ten Years’ War. In letters written during those years he said that the book would be about “the first years of our Revolution.” From a letter he intended to send to Máximo Gómez —or to some other general of the ‘68 war, since the addressee was no named— it is possible to imagine what kind of book he had in mind.

More than a history, Martí was thinking of a biography of the ’68 war. In his conversations with José María Izaguirre, also a general of that war and one of his benefactors in Guatemala, and in his correspondence with Manuel Mercado, in those same years, he talked about the imaginary book. Something in which he was really interested were the figures of Carlos Manuel de Céspedes and Ignacio Agramonte, as pillars of the Cuban heroic pantheon.

In the letter to the unnamed general, the young Martí asked about Céspedes, “what reasons can be given in his defense,” since “glories should not be buried but brought to light.” Martí remarked that the dismissal of Céspedes as president of the Republic in Arms and his lonely death in San Lorenzo had generated an uncomfortable silence, if not a hostile perception, around the “father of the homeland.” It was necessary to establish the cult of Céspedes as a premise of the republican construction in Cuba.

In the chapter “‘The Impossible Books’ of José Martí: The Invention of Cuba” (2001), we said that Martí did not write this nor many of the other books he conceived. However, some snippets can be read in the note “Carlos Manuel de Céspedes”, in the article “Céspedes y Agramonte”, published in El avisador cubano in 1888, and in “El 10 de abril”, a text of 1892, on the occasion of the anniversary of the first session of the Constituent Assembly of Guáimaro, published in Patria.

What is, is what has been, Reynier Leyva Novo, 2020, El Apartamento

In all those writings, Martí seemed to attempt something similar to what Plutarch did in Parallel Lives, contrasting Céspedes and Agramonte. His idea of biographical literature, as in other of his contemporaries in Cuba and Latin America (Manuel de la Cruz, Domingo Faustino Sarmiento or Justo Sierra) was strongly influenced by the work of Thomas Carlyle and Ralph Waldo Emerson. But Martí also practiced the literary portrait, such as the one that made Sainte-Beuve famous in France and that was later renewed at the beginning of the 20th century by Lytton Strachey in Great Britain.

Those portraits basically followed the structure of the moral bust. Character studies, in which each hero was the personification of a virtue. Céspedes was the “vigor”, the “rapture”, the “volcano”; Agramonte, the “virtue”, the “purification”, “the blue space that crowns”. Martí was not condescending in his profiles: although he announced that he would defend Céspedes, his writings did not hide his authoritarianism. Céspedes, according to Martí, commanded like a “king”, proclaimed himself “Captain General”, “regarded himself as sacred” and “did not doubt that his judgment should prevail.”

Martí did not side with the old parliamentarian perspective of those who saw Céspedes as a dictator. “History” and “tomorrow” would take care of putting things in their place, but whether he was a Caesar or not, Céspedes deserved to be a “man made of marble”. Statues were not erected to honor perfect men but useful heroes. That is the difference between the heroic pantheon of the republican tradition and the statuary and monumentalism of totalitarianism. The difference between the civic cult of the hero and the cult of personality of the dictators.

In those writings Martí speaks of the necessary mixture of knowledge and passion under a republican order. A republican heroic pantheon could not be built on the ignorance of the errors of the heroes. Like the sculptor or the draftsman—and so was Martí, as it becomes evident in his various self-portraits—the builder of the Republic must advance, from the shadows, to the most enlightened areas of knowledge and find the features of the hero.

That progress is literally transcribed in a well-known poem of Versos sencillos (1891): “I dream of marble cloisters / where in divine silence, / the heroes, standing, rest”. Martí’s walk among the marble heroes takes place at night, “in the light of the soul,” and as he approaches one figure or the other, he notices the features of each stone face: the eyes, the lips, the beards.

The same sensation is experienced by the viewer of Reynier Leyva Novo’s What is, is what has been exhibition at El Apartamento. The busts of Agramonte, Gómez, Maceo and García appear like those marmoreal specters addressed by Martí in the poem. More than a century after the founding of the Republic, the busts teeter, as if they were speaking in a mediumistic trance. They are busts that question the balance of the republicanism in Cuba.

What is, is what has been, Reynier Leyva Novo, 2020, El Apartamento

At the end of the room there is a shapeless, larval Martí, in front of which a series of photos are projected, capturing the 382 layers of paint applied to the head of Juan José Sicre’s monument at the Plaza de la Revolución. The amorphous face of Martí recovers his features as one looks at the screen and loses them again as the white paint is superimposed. It is a Martí who travels from being to nothingness, and from nothingness to being, like the very republic that honors him.

In the midst of the rise of 21st century iconoclasm, which settles scores with heroic pantheons erected over the ravages of slavery and racism, this intervention by Reynier Leyva Novo invites us to think critically about the republican tradition. The artist’s question is, to a large extent, how many layers of paint the myths must endure before the heroes’ faces disappear forever.

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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