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The Melancholic Tropology of the Guevarian New Man
Decolonization never takes place unnoticed, for it influences individuals and modifies them fundamentally. . . . It brings a natural rhythm into existence, introduced by new men, and with it a new language, and a new humanity. . . . Decolonization is the veritable creation of new men. But this creation owes nothing of its legitimacy to any supernatural power; the “thing” which has been colonized becomes man during the same process by which it frees itself.
—Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth
Ernesto Guevara’s essay on the “New Man” has come to define models of nationalist and revolutionary subjectivity through the figure of the guerrilla hero, thus becoming one of the most influential allegories for the state-promoted discourse of revolutionary emancipation. The Guevarian historical subject must negate his past and let his subjectivity emerge anew through the synthesis of work and a new conscience. The New Man’s subjectivity is the product of a restorative economy where men are liberated from the alienation of a capitalist past and then given the possibility to arise as new revolutionary subjects by regaining a lost identity that had been soiled by capitalism. Revolutionary subjectivity is essentiality heroic and can only be articulated through sacrifice: “El individuo de nuestro pais sabe que la epoca gloriosa que le toca vivir es de sacrificio; conoce el sacrificio [People in our country know that the glorious period in which they happen to live is one of sacrifice; they are familiar with sacrifice]” (Guevara 1977c, 269). Revolutionary rhetoric is formed through the creation of a new ontology characterized by the transformation of the Cuban subject into a heroic subject. This entails the fusion of a heroic subject with the vanguard or the state through a sacrificial relationship whose object is the creation of a utopian community. The utopian nation can only arise through the sacrifice and the martyrdom of the hero. By becoming a martyr, the hero becomes an embodiment of the fatherland. This fiction of restoration is articulated through a cultural production developed and promoted by official state institutions.
The melancholic ethos of the Cuban revolutionary project materialized through Guevara’s work, which inscribed an inherent loss as the ideological basis of the Cuban Revolution. This could not have been otherwise given the profoundly melancholic features of Guevarian theory that are present in a text as paradigmatic as “Socialism and Man in Cuba.”15 This text is also important because it is the first document that defines the New
Man’s intellectual background and the development of his political ethics, and all these ideas were key for the development of the revolution’s political project. This essay played a very important role in the political unconscious of the revolutionary intellectuals, and especially for the intellectuals of the nineties who, according to Guevara, were going to be the real New Men of the Cuban Revolution: “Resumiendo, la culpabilidad de muchos de nuestros intelectuales y artistas reside en su pecado original; no son auten- ticamente revolucionarios. . . . Las nuevas generaciones vendran libres del pecado original [The guilt of many of our intellectuals and artists lies in their original sin; they are not authentically revolutionaries. . . . The new generations will emerge free of this original sin]” (Guevara 1977c, 267-68). In Guevara’s socialist construction of history, the figure of the New Man is the link to the formation of the superstructure in society. Following his Leninist distinction between the vanguard and the masses, Guevara makes a distinction in this essay between the transformation of intellectuals and that of workers. Like the Hegelian slave, workers gain self-consciousness through labor. Intellectuals, however, need to indoctrinate and educate the masses and thus be free of any idealist or bourgeois influences.
What are the new values that the vanguard must instill in the common man? Guevara draws a parallel with art in order to clarify his point. According to Guevara, his fellow intellectuals had not been liberated from their original sin because their ideology was ingrained in idealism. Intellectuals had to be formed in a revolutionary society free of any trace of the capitalist world. Only the new generations formed in the new revolutionary society would be free of temptation from capitalism. The younger generations were made of the “malleable clay” from which Cuban socialism was going to create the New Men of the twenty-first century, the intellectual vanguard that would form the masses: “La arcilla fundamental de nuestra obra es la juventud [The fundamental clay of our work is the young]” (Guevara 1977c, 272). Guevara’s accusations followed on a debate about socialist realism from the early sixties. As we will see, intellectuals from various artistic disciplines were involved in a debate about the formal structures of revolutionary aesthetics. Was socialist realism the only style that could analyze social and economic conditions, or could there be universal artistic values? Guevara’s intention was to put an end to the debate by arguing for an aesthetics that rejected both options. He called for an aesthetic free of bourgeois idealism and mechanistic depictions of reality. Instead of defending nineteenth-century realism for its scientific analysis of social structures, as advocates of socialist realism did, he proposed a historicist argument to invalidate past and present aesthetic theories in the name of their presumed bourgeois ideology. Bourgeois art was limited in that it could not represent human alienation; instead, it could only offer escapism from human exis?tential angst. The solution was to look at the future and abandon past and present aesthetics. Intellectuals must emerge as New Men in the present, in their revolutionary and socialist present, with a subjectivity restored in their new transitional present. Cuban intellectuals therefore could not recover their identity until they moved away from their past, which was marked by a capitalist mode of production.
Using the same idealist formulations that he was criticizing, Guevara accused contemporary intellectuals of sin. Offering no path to redemption, he simply condemned them to disappear: “Podemos intentar injertar el olmo para que de peras, pero simultaneamente hay que sembrar perales. Nuestra tarea consiste en impedir que la generacion actual, dislocada por sus con- flictos, se pervierta y pervierta a las nuevas [We can inject the elm tree to make it give pears, but at the same time we must plant pear trees. Our task is to prevent the current generation, dislocated by its conflicts, from perverting itself and generations to come]” (Guevara 1977c, 267-68). Unlike workers, Cuban intellectuals were not able to gain self-consciousness. Their own process of recognition could only follow the logic of destruction that Guevara proposed for war fighters. According to Guevara, intellectuals are alienated, having lost their egos through the temptations of an alienating intellectual tradition. Only the intellectuals who would be formed in a revolutionary society free of bourgeois idealism could undertake the task of creating a new art. This meant that intellectuals who were born before the revolution had to negate their ego and adopt a subjectivity that was yet to be determined. This theoretical gesture was caught in an antinomy as it strove to locate consciousness in a temporality outside of history. How can one represent a time to come out of sheer nothingness? What is a history without a past other than atemporality? The New Man’s subjectivity cannot be defined a priori, and it looms in Guevara’s discourse as an empty signi- fier that, paradoxically, needs to be attained. The logic of destruction with which he describes the relationship between intellectuals and bourgeois art was plunged in a melancholic conception of art. This melancholic ideology would structurally mark the epistemology of the New Man in times ahead.
Why define it as melancholic process? Intellectuals were no longer recognized by others and had thus lost their self-consciousness. The future (new and revolutionary) consciousness became the object of desire, because only the new can lead to the other’s recognition of oneself. In order to assume the new ego, the old one needs to be negated. Yet, when this moment of negativity occurs, there is no sublation into a positivity, because the negation must be a complete destruction. Let us think about this relationship in terms of the Hegelian master-slave narrative, the model followed by Guevara himself. According to that logic, the third world intellectual has adopted Western aesthetics and created a relationship of dependency on
Western thought. In order to regain self-consciousness, the third world intellectual must negate his own ego and strive to embrace a new consciousness. The emptiness left after the negation of the ego produces a melancholic process because the subject cannot abandon the object of desire (his own self-consciousness or recognition). The impossibility of reaching the new subject position produces hatred, but the desire has not receded. What is more, because the subject never abandons a libidinal position, he continues to desire the object until he incorporates it into his own ego. When this incorporation takes place, a cathexis occurs from the object to the subject, and the subject himself becomes a hated object. The result is the objectification of the ego and a total loss of subjectivity (Freud 1963 , 241). The subject is condemned to reside in a historical limbo: in the transitional period between capitalism and pure socialism (freedom).
The Guevarian subjectivity of the New Man is achieved through an economy of restoration that offers the possibility of a liberation from the capitalist mode of production, and, after the liberation from an alienating past, the new Cuban being emerges also as a revolutionary being. The Cuban being or, what amounts to the same thing, the revolutionary being can only be defined through heroism. In turn, heroism can only be defined through sacrifice: “Sabemos que hay sacrificios delante nuestro y que debe- mos pagar un precio por el hecho heroico de constituir una vanguardia como nacion. Todos y cada uno de nosotros paga puntualmente su cuota de sacrificio . . . conscientes de avanzar con todos hacia el hombre nuevo que se vislumbra en el horizonte [We know that sacrifices await us and that we must pay a price for the heroic deed of constituting a vanguard as a nation. . . . All and each of us promptly pay our share of sacrifice . . . conscious of advancing all together toward the new man who can be glimpsed on the horizon]” (Guevara 1977c, 271). The revolutionary rhetoric is formed through the creation of a new ontology characterized by the transformation of the Cuban subject into a heroic subject. The fusion between the heroic subject and the state through a relation of sacrifice will result in the production of the utopian community. We thus have a subject who is not only identified as a Cuban national subject but also becomes a historic subject, since the state is also hypostasized in his person. This fiction of the restoration of the lost object was developed through a genre amply promoted by the institutional and official channels of the Cuban state.
The new detective novel of the seventies was one of the genres that best exemplified the use of this fiction and its allegorical function. The detective novel by poet Luis Rogelio Nogueras, Y si muero manana, illustrates this idea paradigmatically. Nogueras’s novel—published in 1978 and awarded the prestigious Union de Escritores y Artistas Cubanos (UNEAC) prize for best novel—is one of the best examples of the new detective novel, or what some termed the revolutionary detective novel. The Cuban publishing industry privileged this genre by promoting and financing it through the Interior Ministry (MININT). The genre was also promoted through the creation of a national competition for detective novels one year after the Padilla affair.16 This novel was exemplary of the cultural politics of the “five gray years,” during which Cuba experienced the worst censorship and political dogmatism of the revolutionary period. This resulted in the ostracism, imprisonment, and exile of many authors, as well as the banning or silencing of their works.17 Genres such as the detective novel, however, were privileged because, as Leonardo Padura claims, they had a “filiacion revolu- cionaria y socialista que quedaba establecida desde las bases de la convoca- toria del concurso y, por tanto, traia como marca de nacimiento la funcion ideologica reafirmativa [revolutionary and socialist affiliation established beginning in the competition’s invitation for submissions and, therefore, bore as a birthmark the ideological function of reaffirmation]” (150). This type of style gave birth to what Jose Antonio Portuondo calls the official repetition of the “same old tune” (teque) that is “la exposicion apologetica de la ideologia revolucionaria, la propaganda elemental y primaria, el elogio desembozado de los procedimientos revolucionarios [the apologetic exposition of revolutionary ideology, basic and primary propaganda, open praise of revolutionary methods]” (qtd. in Padura 2000,152).
Like most detective novels, Y si muero manana is articulated according to a Manichean representation of the forces of good and evil. The official organ of the Cuban State Security represents the good and the U.S. Secret Services of Intelligence incarnate the evil of imperialism. Ricardo Villa, the novel’s hero, is a Cuban spy infiltrated in the Anti-Castroist groups of Miami, and his mission is to inform the Cubans of the terrorist acts that his group prepares. Ricardo Villa is the hero par excellence because he lives for the cause. The novel’s temporal structure advances in a dialectical manner toward “Life,” the final chapter where the revolutionary heroism reaches its climax. The novel ends with the paradigmatic sacrificial act, represented by Villa’s death for the revolution. Villa dies precisely at the same moment he is transmitting a telegraphed message to Havana that is going to save the revolution: “He began to send toward them, over the warm blue Caribbean, his own life” (Nogueras 2001 , 120). The revolutionary hero becomes objectified when he loses his ego and then turns into a revolutionary link. There is, however, the possibility of the restoration of the lost ego through a revolutionary fight that will make the hero “immortal” because of his fight for the revolution. In other words, the death of the hero creates what Jean-Luc Nancy calls the possibility of a superior union through a relation that transcends individual existence (Nancy 1991, 17). Human sacrifice restores lost individuality through its transcendence in a communal union.
The symbiosis between the individual and the masses is the condition of possibility for the creation of the utopian community. That is why the narrator in Nogueras’s novel says that “there is spasmodic movement in the disconcerted masses in exile and, for an instant (a month, a week, maybe a day) hope is reborn of a proud return [por la puerta grande]” (ibid., 57). This offbeat rhythm is opposed to the diapasonic rhythm that, according to Guevara, occurs between the applause of the masses and those of their leader, Fidel Castro: “En las grandes concentraciones publicas se observa algo asi como el dialogo de dos diapasones cuyas vibraciones provocan otras nue- vas en el interlocutor. Fidel y la masa comienzan a vibrar en un dialogo de intensidad creciente hasta alcanzar el climax en un final abrupto, coronado por nuestro grito de lucha y de victoria [In the great public gatherings you can observe something like the dialogue of two tuning forks, whose vibrations provoke new ones in each other. Fidel and the masses begin to vibrate in an increasingly intense dialogue, until they attain the climax in an abrupt finale, crowned by our shouts of struggle and victory]” (Guevara 1977c, 256).
This new melody is the product of the attunement of all the voices to the rhythm of the leader’s voice. Thus emerges a community formed out of the dissolution of individuality and the creation of an absolute that becomes a common being. The New Man is also the Cuban par excellence, whose individuality needs to be sacrificed and then restored through what I would call the “being-in-common.”
Conventionalism was the other style glorifying the image of the revolutionary hero, and it was also the poetic style closest to the socialist realism Guevara criticized. Perhaps one of the most illustrative poems of this movement is “Isla” by Rolando T. Escardo, in which the poet says: “Pero lo que importa es la Revolucion / lo demas son palabras / del trasfondo / de este poema que entrego al mundo / lo demas son mis argumentos”18 (Escardo 1980, 359). “Isla” is a poem that, like many other poems from the Cuban tradition, begins with the genesis of the Cuban nation. The poem symbolizes a new becoming of Cubanness whose new horizon is defined by a revolutionary utopia and not by a transculturated nature. The poetic voice is also the voice of the sun as an irreplaceable witness of the unfolding of history, whose beginning is also the genesis of the world: “planeta ardiendo en el cielo / llega la hora de mi nacimiento / y tambien la de mis muertes / pues al mundo he venido a instalarme / feliz de esta Revolucion que me da dientes”19 (Escardo 1980, 358). Utopia can only arrive through the revolutionary praxis, and the ideal community that comes with the arrival of socialism will give cohesion to the essence of Cubanness. The new ideological paradigm of the revolution is explained as the beginning of a history whose essence is an object of desire ready to be discovered. The ideological paradigm of national identity was conceptualized since Marti as an anthropological idealization characterized by a humanistic viewpoint. This type of ideology equates the ontological being through the identity of being as a political or civil subject. According to this ideology, the national subject was defined through a hegemonic trope representing Cubanness as the hypostasis of a dialectical conjunction between a cultural and a racial heterogeneity. The revolutionary paradigm of the New Man emphasizes this anthropological conceptualization with a similar argumentative twist. In the tropology of the New Man, to be Cuban is to be revolutionary. The singularity of a Cuban being is defined no longer culturally or racially but politically. This is what allowed the official ideologues of the Cuban regime to read the Cuban Revolution as a degree zero of Cuban history. And, it is also why in the conversationalist style, exoticism was replaced by heroism. From the sixties onward, the essence of national identity began to be defined in terms of heroism. If before the revolution, the object of desire was represented by the archetypical race or culture, after the revolution, the object of desire became the ideal of the perfect hero. In both cases, the paradigm spoke of the yearning for the recovery of a lost being.