The Need for Poetry: Jose Marti´s Philosophy. Imagination is on watch so that nations are not corrupted. By Carmen Súarez León. Fuente: CUBARTE. 30 de Mayo 2013.
It is of no use to turn to Marti´s texts in search of systematic and theoretical approaches to dealing with an issue. He did not have time for such methodical exercises of thought, although he spent his life writing books, some of which did assume this type of thought. The truth is he did not have vocation either. He was a total poet, someone who could synthesize and integrate, and he acted in life in the same way.
The surprising and solid dialectic of his thought leads us, when we research the meaning of a concept included in one of his texts, to find that the ideas move beyond one single meaning and level and they adapt according to the level at which they are being examined. That is what happens with the concept of culture. The proposal for the central role of culture in his programme of transformation for the republics of Latin America is summarised, as we know, in his essay entitled “Our America”: “…in America the imported book has been conquered by the natural man. Natural men have conquered learned and artificial men. The native half-breed has conquered the exotic Creole. The struggle is not between civilization and barbarity, but between false erudition and Nature.”
That “natural man”, as José Martí called authentic man, in harmony with the circumstances and conditions of life, was then the true subject of culture in Latin America, the only one capable of building a harmonious relationship with nature, which is the same as saying that he could make truly human history and culture with his actions.
From this general concept of “civilisation”, a word frequently used last century, one can glean a coherent idea of his thoughts on art, or what we call today, artistic culture, as a result of his reflections on culture as a way of man´s interrelating with nature, in which one can identify different sociocultural expressions.
Among Martí´s ideas on the subject of art, there are four that I would highlight as central and active:
l. The inseparable and interactive nature between artistic culture and life;
2. The need for artistic culture as a balancing force and affirmation of the subjectivity of the individual;
3. The need for artistic culture as a force for integration and conservation of the nation;
4. A call to disseminate knowledge and culture.
In 1882, on publishing Ismaelillo, a poetry anthology, José Martí repeatedly stated his fear that he would classed as a “poet of verse” instead of a “poet of actions”, in that way classifying his own life´s journey as an artistic construct. From that we can deduce that for Martí man was required to produce or create his actions with the beauty and coherence with which one writes a poem or paints. And this was the height of the condition of creator, in which ethics and aesthetics were inseparably intertwined.
Furthermore, Martí confers the status of art to the creation of organic life itself, seeing in inherited culture, creative actions which could be attributed to nature itself. On describing the book “The Law of Heredity”, by W.K. Brooks, in 1884, Martí says: “Life is a slow grouping together and a wonderful unfolding. Life is an extraordinary work of art.”
Presupposing a deep connection between life and art, Martí confirms the far-reaching need for poetry —understood as art or art culture in general—, when, with reference to a talk by Thomas Huxley, he wrote in 1882:
Beauty is a relief: a beautiful song is a good action: he who welcomes art and others into his heart has company throughout this bitter life: a good song is a welcome friend. And verses do not fade! They last longer than the empires in which they were sung, and than the fortresses that defended the empires. Troy is in ruins, not the Iliad.
And from this standpoint that affirms the importance of art for the individual, we can move to Martí´s categorical statement that says: “Oh, divine art! Art like the seasoning of food, preserves nations!” in an analysis in 1880 on “Art in the United States”, no less, in which he also writes that “imagination is on watch so that nations are not corrupted”, reflecting a clear idea of the social function of art as something able to shape national culture and to strengthen the preservation of traditions on which people´s sense of identity is founded.
From this philosophy on artistic culture inevitably derived the call to disseminate culture in general, as a body of knowledge and human achievement interacting with nature, so that man is in step with his times.
Martí expressed the conviction that one of the ways to achieve this level of general knowledge and even knowledge of science —knowledge that he considered essential and at the forefront in the modern world—, would be through learning about art culture: “Art brings the eye to life, makes it bigger and stimulates it, and it ennobles, makes things easier to perceive, and is called for by all cultures,” is one fragment of his writings.
So that when Martí states that “Being educated is the only way of being free,” he is basing his assertion on a solid conception of culture as a liberating force and generator of humanism. Martí did not aspire to simply achieving a general state of illustration, and much less to ensuring an impossible standardisation of education and culture. He wanted much more, nothing less than a transformation of the spirit that emanates from the real social emancipation of man.
Artistic culture was one of the most powerful allies of the transformation programme of this man of Our America.
Translation: Jackie Margaret Camon (Cubarte)