We live in difficult times. Or so we are told, again and again, since Trump. But Raúl Roa, brilliant Cuban academic, politician and diplomat, made the claim in 1953. He said a crisis was unfolding that was unprecedented in world history.
He was referring to US power after the Second World War. No greater joke, he speculated, could emerge from the most diabolical mind, than the government ruling in the name of the people against the people 1 ½ centuries after French Revolution.
Roa was a leader of the “1930s revolution” that briefly replaced the government installed in Cuba by the US. Cuba’s last war for independence from Spain ended in 1898 when the US intervened: the first imperialist war. Cubans’ struggle for independence, begun in 1868, was lost.
Its ideas were lost too. The 1895 war, led by José Martí, according to US historian Ada Ferrer, was remarkable for its anti-racism: 60% of its leadership was non-white, many former slaves, at a time when, in the US and the UK, scientists measured skulls to establish the intellectual superiority of whites.[i]
Roa emerged from the intellectual, political and cultural resistance in Cuba of the 1920s. Activists and scholars turned to Martí who had the unusual idea, in the 19thcentury, that Latin Americans could be free, and developed, without following the US. It is an unusual idea still.
But it is alive. According to Fernando Martínez Heredia, Roa, in his twenties, knew revolution is a cultural struggle for superior ideas.[ii]It is not about a dictator. Roa was intolerant of those who just wanted to replace Gerardo Machado, although he worked with them.
The real problem was imperialism.
Roa published Bufa Subversiva, at age 28, in the year of utter political failure in Cuba, 1935. The book was republished in 2006, unchanged. After 1935, as a lawyer and university professor, Roa wrote, taught and organized. He was Cuba’s foreign minister, 1959-76, nicknamed “minister of dignity”.
He defended the humanism buried by the misnamed Renascence. [iii]It was not a renascence, but ground work for capitalism. Or so Roa argued. Ancient humanism was characterized by contemplation. It was defended by Erasmus, for one, and Bartholomé de las Casas, who condemned Spanish colonialism.
But what might have led to freedom was a justification for cruelty and greed: Liberalism. There were few dissenters. The “difficult times” Roa identifies in 1953, unprecedented, are when the lie of the Renascence becomes unquestionable. It becomes an expectation, unnoticed.
The great whale story, Moby-Dick, is instructive. It is said to be a US book because the whale ship contains a multiplicity of characters, representing US democracy. Queequeg, for instance, is a cannibal with strange rituals, and the nicest, smartest guy on the boat.
It is the story of Captain Ahab’s vengeful pursuit of a whale and Ishmael, the narrator, who looks for meaning. Ahab dies while Ishmael comes to terms with human beings’ “almighty forlornness” in nature. Ishmael seeks meaning in every part of the whale, its face (which it doesn’t have), its ears, its tail.
Only Ishmael survives, floating on the sea: the one who thinks. Some say the search for meaning is a human propensity. But we don’t look for meaning. We look for somemeaning, depending upon expectations. We seek meaning in what we don’t expect and what we expect depends upon social practises. This is well-known.
If Moby-Dickshows human unimportance in nature, and if we find it meaningful for doing so, it is because at some level we don’t expect it. Critics find Ahab’s quest humanly understandable.[iv]But Bertoldt Brecht found in Chinese theatre a differentexpectation.
In Europe, Brecht noticed, the heroic individual “stands tall” against the storm. In Chinese theatre, in contrast, the hero sees the storm, crouches down and waits for it to pass. The hero becomes small.
Brecht saw the Chinese imagery as more realistic. If Brecht is right about such imagery, and if one were to immerse oneself in such literature, one might find Moby-Dickinteresting, not because Ishmael accepts his unimportance in nature, but rather because he finds it interesting in the first place: unexpected.
“The one who thinks” discovers that we are not in fact superior to nature. But why would anyone expect that to begin with?
And this is Roa’s point. Ishmael cannot know the whale. Describing the whale’s “exquisitely defined” tail, he writes: “Dissect him how I may, then, I but go skin deep. I know him not, and never will. But if I know not even the tail of this whale, how understand his head“.
But he expectsto know the whale. Otherwise, he wouldn’t find interesting the fact that he cannot. It is how understanding works.
Moby-Dickis a US book, not because it includes a multiplicity of perspectives, representing US democracy, as some say. Instead, Moby-Dickis a US book because it expresses the expectation that such multiplicity is surprising, and needs to be understood. It is not a necessary expectation.
But it was dominant by 1953. An expectation of power, defining itself as democracy. Some say violence in the US is explained by guns and mental illness. Cuba has both, but no Cuban child is shot dead studying at school. The US, though, has 800 military bases around the world.
Why aren’t the kids protesting that?
Roa’s Viento sur (Wind from the South) opens with an echo of Karl Marx’s “A specter is haunting Europe”: “A wind blows in the south”, he writes.
It is urgent. Otherwise, the expectation of power is unnoticed because it is just that: an expectation.
[i]Insurgent Cuba (University of North Carolina, 1999)
[ii]Fernando Martínez Heredia, “Prologue: Roa, Bufa y el marxismo subversivo” in Bufa subversiva(Havana: Centro cultural Pablo de la Torriente Brau 2006)
[iii]Raul Roa, “Grandeza y servidumbre del humanismo”, Havana, 1953
[iv]Kazin, Alfred “Introduction”, Moby-Dick(Wadsworth Publishing, originally published 1955)