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Home arrow Language & Literature arrow Minima Cuba: Heretical Poetics and Power in Post-Soviet Cuba

Sacrifice and the Logic of Exchange and Heroism

Guerrilla warfare was one thing; institutionalized violence was another. What type of violence was culture promoting? Violence is the driving force of sacrifice, the act that dictates revolutionary rhetoric’s spiritual nature. Revolutionary sacrifice has the same mythical qualities as its religious counterpart. Throughout the revolutionary period, sacrifice has always been a condition of possibility for revolutionary change. In Cuba, the notion of sacrifice has longstanding religious connotations. In general, sacrifice is understood as an offering that does not necessarily require blood. In early revolutionary rhetoric, however, sacrifice always involved the spilling of human blood and, ideally, the loss of human life. The sacrificial demand was inherently perverse, because its symbolic value increased with each new offering. But the idea of value in revolutionary rhetoric functions paradoxically. In sacrifice one gives something of a greater value to receive something of a lesser value or no value at all. In sixties poetry, however, sacrifice was both rewarded with immortality (as the warrior’s apotheosis) and demanded by the revolution (as the collective duty of all members of society). Intellectuals must sacrifice their aesthetics, workers must do extra hours of volunteer work, and soldiers must give their lives. But the individual was not to be rewarded for these sacrifices, for they were made on the community’s behalf. The same was true from a sociological perspective. The rhetoric of sacrifice sought to create a sense of identity and equality among the people. Sacrifice also became the homogenizing element of a period, which, according to Fernando Martinez Heredia, was an era of radical patriotism (Martinez Heredia 2007, 149). As Ernesto Guevara pointed out in “El socialismo,” the goal of homogenization was to produce a society in which differences between the leader and the masses disappear7 (Guevara 2007 [1965], 5).

The following poems show how the trope of sacrifice becomes a homogenizing element of the revolutionary process. This idea is articulated in “Cruz” and “Cara o Cruz,” two poems with religious undertones written by Catholic Origenista Cintio Vitier. These poems are dedicated to the sacrifices of a Guevarian hero. In “Cruz,” the first poem, he is represented as an omnipresent and ever-agonizing figure for whom men sacrifice themselves: “Estas en el trabajo / en la atencion, / en el juego de los ninos. . . . En el esfuerzo de los hombres de buena voluntad”8 (Vitier 1976a, 81). The Christlike man is also the Guevarian New Man, which indicates that secularism and sacredness have become one: “Los que piensan en el projimo / y lo ayudan y trabajan para el / son tus discipulos”9 (ibid., 82). “Cruz,” is a reinterpretion of Christ’s crucifixion. Whereas the signifier “cruz” is a cross, “cara o cruz” is an idiomatic expression for calling “heads or tails” on a coin toss. This means that, as a signifier, “cruz” takes on a double meaning. It can refer to sacrifice, but it can also be the other side of the coin. What follows from this ambiguity is that “cruz,” or sacrifice, can represent fate (of the soldier as a man) or salvation (of the soldier as a hero). But “cruz,” like a coin, may also represent both at the same time, and thus neither of them in particular. This explains why, as a signifier, sacrifice does not point to either fate (secular) or salvation (sacred) but to both. The signified of destiny and salvation are as arbitrary and necessarily bound as those of tails and heads. Sacrifice is simultaneously fate and salvation. This means that any man can be a hero (a sacred figure), and thus that the sacred and the secular are one and the same.

Unlike a divine figure, however, the hero does not demand sacrifices, nor does he need to be recognized. He only asks for men’s work and endurance. In Vitier’s words, religious symbolism or idealism is replaced by the work of the people or materialism: “en el sudor, / en la ignorancia, / en el Olvido de Ti Mismo / que es la Materia de la Realidad”10 (Vitier 1976a, 82). The poem represents work as a material and tangible action, whereas Catholic rituals are only ideals. In “Cruz” it is clear that neither does God demand a sacrifice, nor do men ask for salvation: “In the efforts of men / of goodwill, / unaware of the treasure / that they bear to your breast” (ibid., 81). Paradoxically, the following verses show that the poet refers to the hero as a martyr: “del aire que te dan, del poco alivio / que traen sus manos rudas, ciegas, / al horror de tu agonia / que no acaba.”11 The hero does not demand recognition or sacrifice, but would men still be punished for their misdeeds? If sacrifice is no longer a ritual to venerate and recognize God’s deeds, does that mean that the concept of sacrifice has been transformed? Since heroism has replaced religiosity, let us look farther into the representation of the hero’s identity and its relationship to sacrifice.

In Vitier’s “Camilo Cienfuegos,” an excerpt of which serves as this chapter’s epigraph, the hero has become the island and vice versa (Vitier 1976b, 78-79). The hero is the representation of a homogenous notion of the nation, but he is not given a voice. Instead, the poet speaks for him and reifies his identity. The soldier should be described as a political figure who becomes one with nature. The natural subjectivity bears a strong resemblance to Jose Marti’s “natural man.” By acting like the natural man, the soldier becomes unpredictable, organic, and part of a system that regulates itself. The natural, unlike the political or the cultural, is transcendental, which is why the hero is a sacred figure.

In “Cruz” and “Camilo Cienfuegos,” nature is threatened with destruction because of the disappearance of Jesus Christ. It is no longer God who runs nature. The order of the world is orchestrated, instead, by men and their work. The world follows a certain order due to the materiality of men’s work, and the hero has taken Christ’s place. The limit between the profane and the sacred has been breached, but the idea of the divine persists. We thought that all differences between men and divine figures had disappeared, but another sacred figure has taken God’s place, and men are still under his aegis. As an ideal figure, however, he still has a presence in the world as the one who sacrificed himself for the revolution. As Vitier writes in “Cruz,” “En verdad te gustaria, / mientras mueres, / que todo fuera muy bien hecho”12 (Vitier 1976a, 81). Thus, his sacrifice is not seen as a gift. It had a purpose and was not in vain. The fact that sacrifice is still attached to the idea of purpose actually reestablishes anew the economy and logic of exchange, of a compensated heroism. Namely, if the deed has a goal, it is because this goal accomplishes something with value. In this case, an exchange as such does not take place, but because the logic of exchange still exists, this means that men’s deeds must also have a purpose. Men’s sacrifices must also have a purpose, but they cannot bear the trace of the “exchange.” That is, the ideology of exchange is what rules, but out of ignorance or false consciousness, men conceive sacrifice as a gratuitous act, as “Cara o cruz” shows: “Los que piensan en el projimo / y lo ayudan y trabajan para el / son tus discipulos: / no importa que lo ignoren”13 (Vitier 1976a, 82).

What are the implications of the sacrifice as an ideology of exchange? If we go back to the idea of nationhood, the purpose of sacrifice becomes even clearer. Men are united by the idea of a shared ethic. Social and economic heterogeneity, in the aftermath of the revolution, was a threat to nation building; it was erased by a common ethic beyond social, gender, ethnic, or economic differences. Precisely because of the ideology just described, sacrifices did not have the appearance of exchanges. As gifts they could be of different value, because they had no exchange value. They were not commodified by a society that would have to compensate citizens for their work. By establishing an apparent ethos of equality among people, sacrifice kept its ritualistic nature, and it also erased social difference. At the same time, however, the hero retained his status as both the common man and a divine figure. The meaning of sacrifice did not change since it signified salvation and fate, the biblical paradox. Sacrifice would not be compensated, but the logic of exchange remained. The discourse of sacrifice was thus articulated by two contradictory arguments. On the one hand, the redemptive Christian logic had disappeared, which meant that men did not need to atone for their sins. If sacrifice was not atonement (performance of a good deed to atone for a sin), then what was left was a type of sacrifice that was no longer religious. The notion of sacrifice thus took on the significance of the “good deed,” an action whose goal was not salvation.

On the other hand, the divine figure was transformed but not eliminated, since the hero took the place of the Christian God. The divine therefore did not lose its transcendental nature, nor did the divine figure cease to be someone who had sacrificed himself through his willingness to die for the revolution. In other words, the logic of exchange had never disappeared, but it was ideologically hidden by the philosophy of the good deed. The soldier’s representation as a hero and as a divine figure reintroduced the conceptual divide between the secular and the religious, and between the divine figure (the hero) and man (the masses). This idea also contradicted the representation of a classless society that both poems defend. These paradoxes were not only ideological; above all, they concealed a sense of dread. This fear was produced by the same idea that the poems vindicate: the threat of a classless society.

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