The relationship between culture and politics is one of Cuba’s “grandes riquezas ideológicas”.[i] Victor Hugo agreed with Cuban independence leader, José Martí, about the radical significance of art. Hugo’s agreement conflicts with liberalism: It contradicts its idea of freedom. Liberalism threatens truth. It should be opposed by anyone who cares about global justice in the 21st century.
Liberalism is supposedly about freedom but it is a certain sort of freedom: from the “inside”.
I am free, roughly, if I follow my “inner voice”, which is the voice of my self (sometimes called “practical identity”). I act reasonably when I choose the option most likely to realize that self. Liberalism holds (1) that I live best when I live “from the inside” and (2) that I act rationally, in an individual (non-moral) sense, when I advance my own ends (within specified limits, of course).
Both Martí and Hugo said art is essential to politics.
They didn’t look to art for entertainment, tranquility or escape. They looked to art for realism. Realism is the view that beliefs are true or false, and we can discover truth to some extent: How the world seems is not necessarily how it is, including how people seem, and what it means to be human. Realism about human and moral truths is not popular in the rich North, culturally or academically.
The value of art is intrinsic, not instrumental.
Art is hard to define but one point is accepted. The value of art is independent of use. Art may have a use but its value as art is usually independent of use. This means it should be experienced without expectations.
Martí and Hugo both included people in art.
In his poem “Thirst for beauty”, Martí mentions “humanidad sangrienta” (bleeding humanity) as a candidate for beauty. Hugo refers to human behaviour as “social beauty”. [ii]
If human beings and human action are experienced as art, that is, without expectations, it can disrupt expectations which, in unjust societies, are often false.
Consider Les Misérables: Inspector Javert relentlessly pursues ex-convict Jean Valjean. Eventually, Valjean has a chance for revenge but, rather than kill Javert, Valjean frees him. Javert wants Valjean to kill him. Why? Hugo writes that Javert “felt emptied, useless, cut off from his past life, demoted, dissolved…” Javert wants Valjean to kill him because that is what every part of his being tells him to expect. And when that doesn’t happen he feels “cut off from his past life”. Javert’s expectations are broken. Hugo writes, Javert saw what was “terrible… He was moved”: by social beauty.
This sort of pain moves us toward truth about human beings and human capacities, and it may be the only way to get such truth in dehumanizing societies.
Martí compares beauty to a sword (370 times) [iii] and Hugo sees happiness and truth as opposed. Martí uses stormy, crushing images of nature as similes for what happens inside when we know beauty: brokenness, not fullness. Beauty is a sword because it breaks us. Hugo agrees: Happiness deflects the sword of beauty: “There are those who ask for nothing more, living beings who, having bright blue skies above, say: This is enough … people who … are determined to be happy until the stars stop shining and the birds stop singling. These are the darkly radiant. They have no idea they are to be pitied. … Whoever does not weep does not see”.
For Hugo, like Martí, individual freedom is not defined “from the inside”.
Hugo sees those pursuing their own happiness as “darkly radiant”. He agrees with Martí that human freedom is a “Herculean struggle against our own nature”: the self. “Happiness” is incompatible with (moral or human) truth for a simple reason: We are happy when expectations are realized, when we get what we want. But expectations are socially derived. Truth – e.g. about dehumanization – shows desires and dreams as we might not want to know them. [iv] Truth is an “implacable foe” of the sort of happiness expected in liberal societies: fulfillment of dreams. Living “from the inside”, we are the darkly radiant.
Conclusion: Liberalism undermines truths about human capacities because in dehumanizing societies, knowing such capacities as they are breaks the self that, for liberalism, defines freedom.
Martí saw it that way. He was the hemisphere’s first anti-imperialist (before Lenin). And Hugo apparently agreed. Javert is an example. He is not a bad person. But for him, as for his society, Valjean is not human. Javert experiences Valjean’s humanity when Valjean frees Javert rather than killing him. Javert is broken by Valjean’s action, and because Javert saw it for what it was: art.
Liberalism understands freedom as following the “inner voice”, your self, but truth in systemically unjust societies breaks that self, and must.
Why it matters
It is true that 20% of the world’s population uses most of the resources. It is also true that the 20% “lives well” because the 80% doesn’t. We kill and rob them (for their oil, for example) because they don’t count as people like us. Moreover, we think we live well because we don’t think about these truths. Finally, the darkly radiant don’t actually live well. We are mostly depressed and anxious, and increasingly unable to respond to human beings as human beings.
In short, we should abandon sunny liberalism and know beauty that hurts.
[i] “greatest ideological riches”: Armando Hart Dávalos
[ii] I am grateful to Dr. Robert Rennebohm for this point.
[iii] Berta Elena Romero Molina “Sobre la sed de belleza martiana” ACEM 36 (2013) 236-250
[iv] This was recognized by student activists in the 70s in the US. They proclaimed “there are no innocents” meaning that a comfortable white life is collusion in the slaughter in Viet Nam.