The Cuban Book of Wisdom

By: Dr. Roberto Méndez

José Martí, at the age of eighteen, released in 1871 his pamphlet The Political Presidium in Cuba. The denunciation of crimes committed in the Habanera prison by the Spanish administration contains strong appeals to God. Before traveling to the metropolis, the young man was able to frequent the reading of the Bible in the house of catalan Sardá, on the Island of Pinos. It is the cry of denunciation of the prophets that nourishes his style, but the deity he invokes is not the veterotestamentary Yaveh, but the source of a universal ethical principle: “God exists, however, in the idea of goodness, which watches over the birth of every being, and leaves in the soul that embodies in it a pure tear. Good is God. Tears are the source of eternal feeling.”1
Raised within a simple Spanish family in the basic principles of Catholicism, the education he receives at the school of Mendive gives him some liberal concepts in religious matters. First, he learns to reject the official cult dominated by a hierarchy subject to the Crown by the Royal Board of Trustees that makes him complicit in his political interests. At the same time, his teacher, Rafael María de Mendive, who has been a disciple of the Seminary of St. Charles and St. Ambrose at its brightest stage and has drunk the teachings of Joseph of Light and Knight, retains from Christian doctrine the acceptance of God’s experience, especially manifested in nature and in the human soul, as well as the personal and social ethics that can be derived from the Gospels. The value of personal sacrifice, the sacrality of human suffering, love as a unifying force are detached from religious dogmas and practices to forge a particular spirituality.
The above text presents a God who remembers the “grieving servant” of the prophet Isaiah (Is 53.1-5). The human experience of his pain leads to goodness, not resentment:

“Martyrdom for the homeland is God Himself, like good, as ideas of spontaneous generosity. Beat him up, hurt him, bruise him. You’re too vile to be hit back by blow and wounded. I feel in me this God, I have in me this God; this God in me has pity for you, more pity than horror and contempt.”2

Significantly, the early experience of injustice in a Spanish colony where the Church, with few exceptions, supports integrist choices, did not turn Martí into a positivist-oriented agnostic, as happened with so many liberals of her time. The intellectual makes contact in Spain and in his pilgrimage through America with the principles of liberalism. It supports in Mexico and Guatemala the lay governments that separated church of state, and rejects religious structures allied with traditional oligarchies. He defends freedom of expression, freedom of teaching and worship, but his acceptance of modernity does not direct him to a deniering scientificism of the spirit. At the Liceo Hidalgo in Mexico, in 1875, he participated in the controversy between supporters of materialism and spiritualism and took sides with the latter. That same year is his poem “Dead”, where the image of the crucified Christ stands in the axis between heaven, earth and abyss, those who, in the midst of a cosmic cataclysm, gain a new meaning with the redeeming sacrifice.

One log crossed with another log;
A corpse—Jesus—sank the clay,
And to the splendid glow of a dream,
The knee fell into the land of the world.
One century ends, another century is born,
And the man of the cross sings embraced,
And on the vile corpse of the Insult,
The Universe worships kneeling!3

In the verses there is an obvious trace of the canticle that includes St Paul in the Epistle to the Philippians (Phil 2.5-11), on which he should have pondered during those times.
Martí is not a religious man in the sense of adhering to a dogmatic body and a specific cult. He distrusts the established priesthood and its mediating role between man and divinity. Hence it welcomes an idea from modernity, that of the search for religious unity. Thus, in his foreword to the Tales of Today and Tomorrow, by Rafael de Castro Palomino, he refers to the existence of a “new Church” which he defines through an image of nature: “All the trees of the earth will concentrate at the end on one, which will give in the eternal suavísimo aroma: the tree of love:–of such robust and copious branches , who in his shadow will shelter smiling and in peace all men!” 4
In Martyrdom spirituality, many different elements converge: the Cuban ethical tradition that comes from the great educators, not only those already mentioned, but their exemplary predecessor, the priest Félix Varela, the preaching of Catholic liberal reformers such as Vigil and later Father Mc Glynn, for whom he took sides in the face of the American curia; Ernest Renan’s direct reading of the Gospels, partly illuminated by Ernest Renan’s The Origins of Christianity, especially with regard to the rescue of the historical Jesus and the reconciliation of his doctrine with the stoicism of Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus; admiration for Emerson’s philosophy, especially with regard to Nature as a manifestation of God and the search for the union of individualities in a kind of universal “super soul”, through a mystical scale. From this and from the encouragement that in the poetry of romanticism and modernism took the spirituality of Christian images and neoplatonic transunits was forged a way of living and expressing themselves that very diverse authors have conceived as similar to that of a mystic.
It was, perhaps, Rubén Darío in his essay “José Martí”, written as soon as he learned of the fall of the hero, who began to relate him to the mystique. There he associates the asscatic of this with what he calls the “scale of Pain” that links him to the Belgian spiritual master of the fourteenth century Jan van Ruysbroeck. It indicates that from mirror’s author of eternal beauty he seems to have taken up the notion of the four rivers of the soul: “the river that ascends, which leads to divine height, which leads to compassion for captive souls, the other two that envelop all the miseries and heaviness of the wounded and lost human flock.”5
As early as October 1905, the young intellectual Pedro Henríquez Ureña was the first to point out, in an article published in the newspaper La Discusión de La Habana, the closeness of the writer’s style with “the emotional intensity of Teresa de Jesús”. Just over three decades later, Gabriela Mistral insisted on this bond, especially in the simple Verses, although she claims that the poet got rid of the “inner droughts” of the bulging mystique and was able to live “in the buds of being, blind with light like the lark in the mirror, but without falling burned by the tremendous reverbero.”6
Although this spiritual disposition transcends all his work, it is in the Simple Verses that it becomes most evident. Circumstances favored such a thing. The writer, distressed by political and intimate reasons, walks away from the city to heal body and soul. In a shelter near the Catskills Mountains lives “spiritual exercises” in which, withdrawn from his daily life, he examines its interiority and, against the point with the experience of nature and the referencing breadth of its humanist culture, reads a handful of verses as a result of his purifying meditation.
In this tight notebook, misleading name, because its apparent simplicity is full of deep riddles, as with the Gospels, the author advances through his forty-six parts, which are not independent poems, although sometimes we isolate them to enjoy them better, but cycles, units of thought. Transit from “I am”, “I have seen”, to the “I know”, to the recapitulation of the treasures of memory, from the silver hair of the father, to the memory of the girl from Guatemala or the Spanish dancer. Carnal and spiritual love, enjoyment of sight and hearing complemented by the palate, the permanent memory of the Fatherland and with it the desire for justice, everything moves in a densely symbolic world that finally converges on that God “where the deceased go” and in whose judgment being and writing, life and work cannot be separated.
Throughout the notebook, elements taken from Christian spirituality appear explicitly. The first is associated with the divine origin of beauty, a platonic concept taken up by St Augustine and present in the writings of many different mystical authors:

I’ve seen in the dark night
It rains over my head
The rays of pure light
Of divine beauty.7

It is the “illuminative way”, that is, the openness of the spirit to the light, after ascatic purification. Where does the author derive from such a powerful image? Perhaps he remembered the apostolic account of Pentecost, or his illustration in one of the famous paintings of the Greco, or took it from reading some of the neoplatonic spiritual authors, perhaps Plotino or the pseudo Dionysus Areopagita. Perhaps one of the fundamental mystical authors of the Golden Centuries in Spain, St. John of the Cross, was much closer to him, who in his poems and treatises explained the way of the soul to God through dark nights. This link between the friar of Carmel and the Cuban writer continues, as we will see in other passages of the book.
Another notable aspect is the role given to Nature, as divine creation and as a privileged space to worship transcendence. In the third of the poems not only contrast the “mask and vice” of the hotel that is a reduced reflection of the city, with the simplicity and purity of the untouched landscape, but the mountain becomes a temple, a liturgical space. The influence of Emerson’s teachings on this is indisputable either, but neither can the reminiscence of one of Master Mendive’s most remarkable poems, “The Evening Prayer”: “Let us climb our temple on the mountain / Holding for roof to the same sky, / By light the star, by carpet the floor / And a tree per altar”.8
Martí seems to have these verses very close, only that the quiet and melancholy of his predecessor, in him are replaced by confrontation and controversial vivacity. It opposes the temple built by men to solitary and natural space, conducive to contemplation and meditation. The tree replaces the column, the sky serves as a vault and the altar is replaced by the rock bed, where man sleeps the dream that communicates it with the high and makes it grow. Precisely, the final stanza, with its sudden tone of irritation, opposes religion and its liturgies, subjected to human traditions and conventions, to the sacramental decision of man with primal nature:

Tell the blind bishop,
To the old bishop of Spain
Let him come, let him come later,
To my temple, to the mountain!9

However, in poem V we are disturbed by an image that refers us to another text. After defining his verse as a mount of foams, a dagger, an supplier, comes the dense stanza of symbolism:

My verse is a light green
And from a burning carmine:
My verse is a wounded deer
Looking for in Mount Amparo.10

And the wounded deer returns us to St. John of the Cross, who in one of the mysterious stanzas of his “Spiritual Song”, the thirteenth, tells us:

Turn around, pigeon,
that the deer violated
by the otero peeks
into the air of your flight, and cool take.11

But, if the dense symbolism of these verses were not enough, in the treatise dedicated by the religious to clarifying the spiritual meaning of the poem we find this passage that the Cuban poet could have subscribed to:

“Compare The Husband to the deer, for here by the deer he understands himself. And it is to be known that the property of the deer is to climb to the high places, and when he is wounded he goes in great haste to look for refreshments in the cold waters; and if she hears the consort complaining and feels she’s hurt, then she goes with her and gives her away and caresses her. And so does the Husband now, for seeing the wounded Wife of his love, he too to the groan of her comes wounded from her love; because in the lovers one’s wound is of ensems, and the same feeling is both. And this is as if to say, Turn, my wife, to me, that if you are full of love of me, like the deer, I come, in this your sore, to you, that I am like the deer. And also in peeing aloft, which is why it says:
by the otero peeks out.”12

Secret adventure, anxiety of impossible, rebellion before the crooked human order and yet fidelity full of meekness to a higher reality there are in both deer. Then comes to mind the Cuban’s letter to Manuel Mercado, written in 1886: “I am, look how I feel, like a deer cornered by the hunters in the last hollow of the cavern.”13
It should be remembered that the symbol of the deer, or the deer, runs through the pages of the Bible, from that thirst for divine waters in Psalm 41, to the one who embodies the Husband in the Song of Songs and who served as a direct source to St John of the Cross. Early Christians considered it both an image of charity that the faithful should lend to each other and a symbol of baptism that bestowed grace on human beings and the strength to suffer martyrdom, so in the catacombs and altarpieces of ancient Latin churches appear deer painted or sculpted escorting the figures of martyrs and confessors.
Alongside this, the arguments of Leonardo Acosta should not be dismissed, who in his article “Martí decolonizador: Notes on natural symbolism in Martí’s poetry” refers to the presence of the deer or deer in Mesoamerican mythologies; among the huicholes is the animal that helps the creation of the sun, which lifts it to the sky between its horns and to the opening of the world with its self-sacrifice, for its blood feeds the earth and makes maize sprout.14 It would be explainable if those myths were combined in Martí with those of classical and Judeo-Christian tradition, in another of its admirable cultural synthesises.
The transit from asceticism to enlightenment returns in the poem XXVI, only that these are now related by the central symbol of Christianity, the redemptive cross:

When to the weight of the cross
The dying man solves,
He goes out to do well, he does it, and he comes back
Like a light bath.15

This is the text of “the medicine of love”, the only one that can heal that wound or disease that both erotic and mystical poets have lamented in their verses. It is the same love, translated as goodness, charity that enriches both the one who gives it and the recipient, the only one who can bestow true spiritual health, because it carries in itself the acceptance of sacrifice with all its bitterness and forgetfulness.
In the Simple Verses maturity, the perfect mastery of one’s, cast aside bitterness, visible agony and only the notion of what is necessary and even joy remains for that transit in which one goes from daily death to new and permanent life. Personal suffering gains a social dimension and the purification of the spirit gives access to an authentic resurrection.
Cintio Vitier has written that this is “a kind of Book of Wisdom, with its resounding illuminations and enigmatic moments”.16 The formal perfection of its stanzas and that kind of apparent autonomy of each has made most readers concentrate on the isolated paladeum of some, or to isolate specific units such as IX and X , corresponding to “La niña de Guatemala” and “La bailarina Española”, read, memorized and even sung as self-sufficient texts. However, it is necessary to dwell on the architecture of the volume, in the transit from one subject to another, from one strofied unit to another, to surprise both the illuminations and the riddles.
First, the notebook is one of the most dense metapoetic zones within creation in Martyred verse. And not only for the just famous fifth part: “If you see a mountain of foams”, but for the continuous reflection between poetry and its object, its relationship with nature and human existence, as well as its ethical obligations.
All this is based on a very particular spirituality. First of all, it is an incarnate spirituality, there is no denial of the material, no isolation of the world. In part XXXVI, there is an explicit recognition of the importance of matter, that with which a heaven can be made, a child, but also the scorpion and the worm of the rose.
The experience of carnal love, sometimes associated with the dangers of betrayal, ethical crisis or tedium, has an appreciable part of the book, especially the texts between the XVI and the XXI, although they also mark other parts of the whole. However, the poet, to which there is no narrow definition of erotic, beyond the bitterness experienced in personal key, is able to transpose the experience on a more universal and high plane:

I’m a snugly, I’m a psalter
Where the Universe vibrates:
I come from the sun, and in the sun I go:
I am love: I am the verse! 17

In the book the strong contrasts, so romantic, between the beautiful and the ugly, the high and the low, remember in the XII the radiant atmosphere of the sunny morning in which the poet rowes in the lake, suddenly hindered by the stench of a dead fish in the boat; or the grotesque of some scenes like the one of the XIII in which “An angel was walking / With a bald head” that refers us to certain provocative stanzas of Heine.
The writer’s pen becomes a Goyesque brush as he explicitly approaches the social question. He spares no violence and even some tremendism in his images. Remember at XXVII the exhibition of his youth memoirs of the night of the events of the Teatro Villanueva with the brutal street repression by the Spanish volunteers, or in the XXX the vision of the slave hanged a seibo from the mountain, not forgetting those little dramas, a little sperpntic, that are inserted between them: the father who takes to the grave the enlisted son in the ranks of the enemy and the girl who sings on the king’s birthday even if his brother has been shot by him. No human matter is alien to the poet. That is why in the XLV you can forge that strange visionary poem where you walk through the gallery of statues of proceres and can dialogue with them and even bring them back to life with an invitation to remove evil and renew the human race.
But the notebook does not close with the heroic tones of those stanzas, which for a moment seem to lose the easy melody of other sections to win the high, solemn tone of the free Verses. His last part, the XLVI, regains the metapoetic sense, it is in conversation with his verse that the poet wants to say goodbye to the reader. Confidant, cathartic, purifying verse, an essential companionship for life, both converge in that final and tremendous verse, in which both present themselves before divinity:

Verse, tell us about a God
Where the deceased go:
Verse, or we are condemned together,
Or we saved both!18

The passage refers to an evangelical motif. The Christian notion of life after death, preceded by a judgment in which the soul is justified by his actions or condemned by them, as set forth in the Gospel of Matthew (Mt 25:31-46). Placed hypothetically before this test at the close of existence, Martí chooses the unit of destiny of life and work, the impossibility of de-armoring them. He assumes glory or hell for himself and for his verse because they make up a whole, that which encompasses matter and spirit and resists leaving out anything that is part of the complex human existence.
It is the conclusion of a wisely embodied and encompassing spirituality that prepares him for the final days, the Martí de los Diarios, which María Zambrano saw portrayed to the fullest in those last pages:

“He was on his way to his death, his; for he only reaches a death of his own, the one who has fulfilled to the end. Whoever has realized his feat by going through all the essential moments that make man’s life human: anguish, bitterness overcome by force of generosity; loneliness, that loneliness in which being feels himself trembling and as lost in the vastness of the universe and also the companionship of all things, the highest and farthest and the humblest and closest. Whoever has made the double journey: the descent into hells of anguish and the flight of certainty. Martí had traveled through the orbit of a man who assumes totally, entirely his life: that is why he fears his own, intimate death, which awaited him as the supreme sign of his being.”19

He was again the wounded deer and the mountain welcomed him as his, in it he was dissoluting, making landfall, Cuban land. Ω

1 José Martí: “The Political Chair in Cuba” in Complete Works, Havana, Editorial of Social Sciences, 1975, t. 1, p. 45. [Hereinafter: O.C.].
2 Ibid., p. 61.
3 José Martí: “Dead,” in O.C., t. 17, p. 62.
4 José Martí: “Prologue to Tales of Today and Tomorrow”, in O.C., t. 5, p. 103.
5 Rubén Darío: “José Martí”, in José Martí, Havana, Casa de las Américas, Valoración Multiple, 2007, t. 2, p. 38.
6 Gabriela Mistral: “The Simple Verses of José Martí”, in José Martí, ed. cit., t. 2, p. 67.
7 José Martí: “Simple Verses” (I), in O.C., t. 16, p. 63.
8 Rafael María de Mendive: “The Prayer of the Afternoon”, in Water Strikes. Anthology of Cuban poetry of religious theme, Havana, Editorial Cuban Letters, 2008, t. 1, p. 98.
9 José Martí: “Simple verses” (III), in O.C., t. 16, p. 69.
10 José Martí: “Simple verses” (V), in O.C., t. 16, p. 72.
11 Saint John of the Cross: Spiritual Canticle, Santo Domingo, Carmelitana Editor of the Caribbean, 1991, p. 17.
12 Ibid., p. 81.
13 José Martí: “Letter to Manuel Mercado [March-1886]”, in O.C., t. 20, p. 84.
14 Cf. Leonardo Acosta: “Martí decolonizador: notes on Nahuatl symbolism in Martí’s poetry”, at Casa de las Américas (Havana) 13 (73): July-August, 1972.
15 José Martí: “Simple Verses” (XXVI), in O.C., t. 16, p. 101.
16 Cf. Cintio Vitier: The Cuban in poetry. Seventh lesson: “Arrival at the Fullness of the Spirit…”, Havana, Editorial Cuban Letters, 1998, pp. 168-207.
17 José Martí: “Simple Verses” (XVII), in O.C., t. 16, p. 91.
18 José Martí: “Simple Verses” (XLVI), in O.C., t. 16, p. 126.
19 Maria Zambrano: “Martí, way of his death”, Bohemia, Havana, 1st. February 1953, consulted on August 4, 2018.

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