José Martí on how to be Absolutely Modern

The revolutionary and great master of literature despised the writer tag while modernizing Latin America through his in-depth journalism.

On this upcoming January 28, admirers from all over the world will rejoice the 160th birthday of José Martí (1853-1895), Cuba’s national hero and top literary figure whose poetry and quest for Latin America’s “second independence” bestows him a hailed citizenship there too.

As hands of all shades raise their cups and jingle, one of the greatest paradoxes in the history of literature should not peter from our ken. Martí was above all a prolific journalist whose writing, wondrous as it was, shunned by its very nature those who “in times of no decorum entertain themselves with the finesses of the imagination and with elegances of the mind.” Justice comes first, he insisted, and in its absence, everything else should feed the bonfire, including art. “When one does not enjoy freedom, art’s only excuse and right to exist is to side with freedom.”

Decoding Pure Beauty

Although such an advocacy in his case hatched a radical modality in Spanish—modernismo—, the negation entrenched in the rigmarole of postmodern readings might straitjacket the impetus of his aesthetics. Given that Martí had to gloss his innovations in the ephemeral pages of the press, at times resorting to stylistic stunts of a parkour to avoid censure, the full range of his positivity may moreover risk slipping into the wastepaper bin of the old forgotten masters.

One vital feature of Martí’s modernizing and hence liberating force derives from his objection to passive intakes alien to Latin America’s idiosyncrasy. Few writers there at the time were nearly as versed and open as he was to the literary riches of other distant homelands. Since the sixteenth century in the West and beyond, the written word had effectually commanded freedom. By sieving out only those irrelevant elements of expression from abroad, Martí did not negate, but rather attempted to sustain that freedom’s span with cornerstones carved from his own native quarry.

In the final run, he decoded the extent to which some of the latest imports masked new forms of enslavement through a concept of purity denied to the “lower” rungs of literature. Many writers then colluded with the consecrated genres as they were co-opted in exchange for a gilded standard of living. This is why Martí, while engaging in the characteristically motley fashion of his articles for the daily news, disliked any association with such “litterateurs” and shied away from the internecine soiling that stemmed from their vanities and falsehoods.

Journalism as a Mission

Among many of his frequently scattered spates of figurative discourse, here is how Martí once limned his selective process of assimilation: “One should not judge the quality of wood by its shavings, damaged by the plane and discolored, as anything cut by iron, or anything man’s hands oppress. Instead, one should wait, in order to make a fair judgment, to see it as a prop sustaining buildings, or as a spear hurled against enemies, or as a hull helping the cargo of the threatened vessel to rest afloat.”

He thus opted to empower journalism, a medium with less glitter and glory than those of the canonical kind, though far more useful for a performative impugnation. “I love journalism as a mission,” he said, “and I repel it as a disturbance.” Contrary to a “self-perpetuating space of death in language” (Daniel Fischlin), he would rather busy himself with the “great universal politics” for which Latin America needed to foster “new doctrines” fleshed from the hard marrow of science.

Science in a Literary Language

Among these new doctrines, Martí proposed treating the most scientific subjects in a literary language, and by doing so he offers a sample of what true modernization in the trade entails. Far from merely introducing a scientific language into literature, he wrote in such a manner as to endow permanency to every word by adhering to “constant and real facts.” Latin America’s nature was his main guide. He could not afford to dole out “the waterfall from its streams, the color of its foliage, the majesty of its palms, or the lava of its volcanos.”

Meanwhile, Latin America’s colonial baggage still dictated an outmoded teaching of the classics, which served only to graduate slackers, when not hollowed rhetoricians. Enough of those Dantes and Virgils! Latin America called to deploy practical teachers in its valleys, mountains and nooks. Working according to the “factors of the country in which one lives” should purge the fruitless byproducts of an inculcated artificiality.

The Unity Birthday Party

Martí’s foretold contingencies resonate with the now famed spin by Marshall Berman: “To be modern is to find ourselves in an environment that promises adventure, power, joy, growth, transformation of ourselves and the world—and, at the same time, that threatens to destroy everything we have, everything we know, everything we are.” A rash schism into the equation of what Rimbaud called absolute modernity can be fatal.

How did Martí face up to this problem? In all his voluminous work gathered to date, he often wrestles to solve how differing states of being can yet turn simultaneously into one. Without losing each other’s proper ground, he ascribed to that oneness a sense of authenticity underwritten by the latest humanizing endeavors of science.

In that spirit, peace lovers would do well in celebrating his birthday on January 28, an occasion to rise and chime glasses, and at least for a few seconds of our cosmic existence, have hands from all over the world jumble together, and become one.

[January 2, 2013]

Image: Red Balloon by Paul Klee, 1922