Pandemic, culture and interiority

By: Roberto Méndez Martínez

There is a memory that I will no longer be able to erase from my mind, although it may seem irrelevant: to have passed on a bus in the vicinity of the old Presidential Palace and to contemplate a few empty chairs arranged before it. It was March 13th and I was coming from the Félix Varela Center that had just closed its doors. The next day the state of the pandemic would be officially declared and the country was in forced quarantine.

The inability to frequent public spaces caused most cultural projects to be inactive. It was not possible to visit museums or art galleries and it was unthinkable to schedule a ballet performance, a concert, a theatrical performance, a poetry reading. On the small screen the exhortation was reiterated: “Stay at home”, seasoned in a thousand ways, in prose and verse, said by scientists, artists, athletes, students. It was as repetitive as those that indicated proper hand washing or the use of “nasobuco”, that ugly term of hospital jargon that ended up prevailing in our language and also in our faces. In the news I could see the Paseo del Prado completely deserted, as much as 23rd Street and under my balcony I could hardly see the worried and masked people walking fast towards a queue to get chicken or oil. The word “visits” was forbidden.

I could not remember another disaster situation in the country that would motivate such lockdown and anguish. I do not have the experience of war and situations of tension, as the events of Playa Girón or the October crisis had been ephemeral. Rememberable epidemics: dengue, hemorrhagic conjunctivitis, had raised no concerns, but in none of the cases was there a radical and prolonged quarantine. This was different. It involved staying at home indefinitely – at ease or not – and contemplating heartbreaking scenes on television that occurred in Ecuador, Brazil, the United States or Italy. These put a very bitter seasoning in Dr. Durán’s daily parts, prudent and courteous in his reports on the advances of the disease on the island, but always surrounded by the dramatic halo of many uncertainties. And if, at certain times, it was possible to be distracted from the simple truth that anyone could contract that mysterious virus and not only die, but drag their family to a catastrophic end, it was to consider the great problems of desupply, food shortage, whether it was a bean cover or one of those burgers wrapped in cellophane that when touching the pan they give off a wet dog smell.

In the midst of all this, it seemed Byzantine to regret the lack of a “cultural life”, understood as the possibility of meeting others in artistic or literary institutions.

It is fair to note that television did everything possible to satisfy the huge captive audience in their homes. I discovered or re-enjoyed old movies, half-forgotten series, art documentaries. I found in the spaces of Channel Key for concert music with impressive materials. Some programs became more familiar, less formal. It is the case of The Eternal Dance to which Ahmed Piñeiro gave a more intimate touch alternating the videos sent by Cuban or foreign artists once linked to dance in Cuba, who from their homes here or from any other point of the universe, conveyed a message of hope and constancy in the exercise of their art, these alternated with images , many of them true rarities, with interpretations of those same figures. It was no longer about making a program for ballet fans, but for citizens of any condition to which a message of hope was transmitted, with word and movement.

Difficult circumstances stoked interest in social media. Prohibited personal communication was replaced by virtual communication, to hear from friends and family it was necessary to use WhatsApp or Facebook, and Telegram was an essential tool to receive the same parts of the covid as notices about the “modules” that could be purchased in certain stores through the Your Shipping app. He went from the culture of the palpable image, from the current body, to the shadow of the virtual.

Soon, the most pragmatic uses of networks should have shared space with notable cultural initiatives. Most of the country’s literary competitions followed the initiative of their counterparts abroad and exchanged the sending of works by post for the delivery of digital files by email. This motivated, for example, that, in the Latin American Cuento Julio Cortázar Prize, where the number of works participating in previous editions did not exceed 300, were 800, to the satisfaction of its organizers, although the juries had a task worthy of Egyptians and, in my case, I am not yet cured of the cervical crisis.

In addition, several cultural events jumped from the streets and theaters to streaming, from the Fiesta del Fuego in Santiago de Cuba to the Habanero carnival, which was the first with charangas, but without alcohol reminiscent of the town of San Cristobal.

One afternoon a taxi stopped at my door and took me – hypochlorite and nasobuco through – to the Fayad Jamís bookstore, on a deserted bishop street. Its ground floor had become a recording room, although rather one of the surgeries was mask surgery and disinfectants. There I was recorded a virtual presentation of In the Causeway of Jesus of Mount Elisha Diego and some of my poems for a Poetry Festival. And they put me back in the cab, as if I’d dreamed it.

It is curious, but as the pandemic’s detention progressed, it seemed that intellectuals, rather than expected oblivion, became more visible. They have never asked so much for my opinion on current issues or to bear witness to the vitality of my creative work. One day it was Word New and another in Cuba or the UNEAC website, not forgetting the page of casa Víctor Hugo on Facebook. To which were joined requests for poems, fragments of novel, articles, of different points of the orb. One morning two representatives of Poetry Cuba appeared at home, so masked that it took me a while to recognize them, to record a reading of verses that would inaugurate a virtual space called Café de poesía, together with the matancera poet Maylán Alvarez.

It has been repeated to the fullness that “Nasobuco arrived to stay”, I would like to think that this is not a literal thing, because I have never become accustomed to such attachment, that it continues to produce drownings when speaking or walking, but a metaphor to allude to what I have learned about hygiene and epidemiology in these months. But I think other things will also continue to be, first of all, the cultural use of social media. Although cinemas, galleries and concert halls reopen, that virtual world has proven to be more economical, flexible and long-range than conventional media. Just as it is now much easier to stream a book in Kindle format on an Internet platform than to print it on paper, dance creations, concerts, plastic works, have unlimited space on networks. Creators may lack some technological equipment and a lot of preparation to handle it, but there is already an experience that has opened up a significant space for freedom of creation and dissemination.

However, the greatest teaching for me at this stage was what I would call the culture of intimacy or familiarity. Sometimes we see culture as external, with which it barely relates when it “consumes” an artistic product in a public space or when shown as a creator before a group of viewers, but that is only the most visible edge of something greater.

If I accept the Christian concept that culture is the human relationship with nature, with one’s neighbour and with God, then the question goes first and for all through the interiority of each one and immediately through his circle of closer relationship, the family. Just as we continue to unern with God because temples are closed, we do not lose culture by staying at home, far from consecrated spaces as cultural. And the interior is cultivated in many ways, not only by rereading those old books that we had almost forgotten on its shelf, or filling our space with music, either by Beethoven or Maria Teresa Vera, but by cultivating the family relationship, a regular victim of excessive commitments, transport problems or work brought home.

The physical silence that took over our cities for several months could enrich us with family dialogue. There was time again to take an interest in what mine wanted or feared, to put hope in place and to encourage common projects. Some pessimists came to announce the end of the family when the pandemic began, as husbands and wives, children and fathers could not be face-to-face for a full day when they were accustomed to spending most of it on the street and a divorce rain was predicted. I don’t know if that’s happened anywhere else, but for me it’s been an opportunity to feel more markedly husband and father, to learn more to listen to others and to claim, without shame, to be heard.

When I look back, in the months that have elapsed, it is already eight – from March to November – I see them not as a lost time, but as a gap year, a space that came out of the routines and brought me an apprenticeship. The most important thing was not to write novels, to conclude a book of poetry, to answer interviews, but to learn that culture is not something that institutions possess, however important, and that I would have to continually renew in contact with them, but something that is within me, assimilated and updated every day, thanks to the family reunion, time for meditation and creation , all of which commands us and prepares us for a vertical dimension, nexus to the transcendent, manifested in prayer as a food of virtues and a source of hope.

What’s the point of accumulating editions, awards, travel, interviews, if all that can’t satisfy us at all? With these things happens as in my childhood, when I claimed for a long walk an ice cream to quench my thirst and the elders replied: “No, if you take it it will make you thirsty more. Wait till you get to the house and you’ll drink water.” The point is not to put more and more lines in the curriculum, but experiences in our spirit. I say nothing against social life, but I am convinced that the paradigm of the cultured person is not one who has always been in the right place to contemplate “the last”, but the one who carries with him a food that nourishes him in prosperous or difficult times, in peace, without envy or resentment. I feel that this was alluded to by St. John of the Cross with that famous stanza of his “Spiritual Canticle”:

The quiet night

in a couple of the sunrise elevators,

quiet music,

healthy loneliness,

dinner, which recreates and falls in love1.

At this point I have discovered that there is very little original in everything I have written here. My insistence on interiority is an ancient thing in the tradition of the West and has as one of its great masters the Saint Augustine of confessions. In the introspection of this was not only the core of the experience of many mystics and spiritual writers, but much of that philosophy of intimacy that is in Pascal, Kierkegaard, Schopenhauer, Unamuno and Maria Zambrano. I remember this beautiful and harrowing passage from his great book, where, after praise of the faculties of memory, he seeks from her to reach God:

“Therefore, I will pass over my memory, to reach that sovereign Being who made me different from the brutes and made me wiser than the birds of heaven. Above my memory I must go up; But where will I find you, sovereign sweetness, safe and true, where will I find you? Because if I have to find you beyond my memory and out of it, I won’t remember you. And if I don’t remember you, how am I going to find you?” 2

At the end of so many months in which our patience, our sanity, our humility, was tested, I do not want to think of them with a sense of bitterness or loss, but, like the restless son of Santa Monica, as an opportunity to recap the past life and be one millimeter closer in the search for transcendence:

“Look, Lord, how much I have stopped going through the ancous extent of my memory, only to seek you, and I have not been able to discover you of it: I have not found of you anything that was not in my memory, from the moment I had knowledge of You, because I have never forgotten you since I have known you. Where I found the truth, there I found my God, who is the Truth itself, which I have never forgotten since I met her. And so, my God, since I know you, you remain in my memory, and in it I find you when I mention you, and I delight in You. These are my holy delights, which you have wished to grant me for your mercy, in the care of my poverty.” 3 Ω



[1] José Luis Aranguren: San Juan de la Cruz, Madrid, Los Poetas Collection, Júcar Editions, 1973, p. 125.

2 St Augustine: Confessions. Book X, Chapter XVII, 26. Translation of I. Quiles. Retrieved in Cervantes Virtual,–0/html/ff7b6fd2-82b1-11df-acc7-002185ce6064_19.html#I_180, 10 November 2020.

3 Ibid., Book X, Chapter XXIV, 35.

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