Thomas More vs. Gustavo Esteva

Gustavo Esteva in Berkeley, 2012.

I am moved and grieving at the passing last week of Gustavo Esteva.

Today’s New York Times has an op-ed by Margaret Renki about Thomas More.  As a high school senior she saw a film production of “A Man for All Seasons” (Robert Bolt).  She recently visited the Hans Holbein retrospective in Manhatten and its famous painting of More whose red sleeves are described in rhapsodies.  “The sleeve was ecstasy, the sleeve should be illegal, the sleeve was Utopia,” says one rhapsodist who says more than he knows.

We know the sleeve’s red came from Oaxaca where the cochineal was harvested from the prickly pear cactus.  The little bug was crushed and, voilà, red!  It became the color of power in Renaissance Europe, the color of cardinals, the color for Louis XIV, and the color of this Lord Chancellor, at least of his sleeves.  But might it not have been blood?  The blood from torturing the victims of Church and State?  He did apply the torture.  But blood is not dye, Macbeth notwithstanding.

My mother gave me the text from London’s West End production of “A Man for All Seasons” (1960).  The moral dilemma between God and Country, I mean Pope and King, was presented with sympathy, clarity and power.  More was martyred in 1535, pardoning the axe-wielding executioner with his last words.  My mother also gave me a drawing by Holbein, an early study for the Frick portrait.  I remember spending some hard-earned cash to have it modestly framed.  Thus, armed with text and drawing I sallied out into the world, public service and conscience before me, and my mother’s powerful love of the northern Renaissance humanists like Erasmus or More.  Only later did I learn a) that Thomas More’s Utopia (1517) came from sailors telling tales from indigenous life in South America, and b) the grace and learning of his humanism was in service to total divine omnipotence on earth and woe betide the proletarian or peasant sovereign pluralities of the commons (as Gustavo might say).

Henry VIII had More’s head chopped off. Thus was statecraft at the birth of capitalism and imperialism.  Centuries later More was sainted.  Meanwhile, my parents having passed, the drawing of More only incited disgust in me representing a moral dilemma whose origin was torturous and oblivious of the tremendous class struggles in Europe (the German Peasant’s revolt so honored by Frederick Engels) and in England (the Pilgrimage of Grace) for the commons of water, land, forest, and air.  So I gave the drawing away.

The decades seemed to fly by.  We visited the cactus garden in Oaxaca.  We visited the Universidad de la Tierra.  We stood with Gustavo Esteva who, as I read on Wikipedia, was brought up and nourished by his Zapotec grandmother.

Gustavo was a kind and generous-hearted man, a man at one with the life forms, cactus, cochineal, corn, and humans on the earth of those umbilical valleys in meso-America which have nourished us ever since.

Peter Linebaugh is the author of The London HangedThe Many-Headed Hydra: the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic (with Marcus Rediker) and Magna Carta Manifesto. Linebaugh’s latest book is Red Round Globe Hot Burning. He can be reached at: