Idealism and Materialism

Aguirre’s criticism of idealism evidently stems from the Marxian critique of German idealism. In this context, idealism is understood in a broad Kantian way, as an epistemology whereby thought or concepts define objects, and not one where objects define thought. As is well known, Kantian epistemology seeks to explain how we make rational sense of the empirical world. Kant by no means holds the premise that the world is not real, but he argues that in order to understand it, we have to presuppose a transcendental consciousness uniting our intuitions and perceptions. Generally speaking, Kant’s ultimate philosophical objective is to link epistemology (the understanding of reality) and reason (an ethical praxis whose goal is freedom). Marxist theory is partly based on the rebuttal of German idealism’s response to bridging these two faculties (understanding of the world and reason). What Marx and Lenin criticize—addressing Hegelian philosophies in particular—is twofold. On the one hand, they oppose the Kantian epistemological premises of idealism. On the other hand, in Marxism the unifying principle is praxis, rather than theory as in idealism. For Johann Gottlieb Fichte, for example, this unifying principle is the subject and his self-consciousness to reach freedom. For Marx, in contrast, “the nature of individuals [thus] depends on the material conditions determining their production,” and only through praxis can they attain freedom (Marx and Engels 1999, 42).

In 1980, and in commemoration of the Second Congress of the Cuban Communist Party, Aguirre edited Poesia social cubana. Although not exactly an anthology, the book is a selection of political or civil poems that begins with Jose Marti and concludes with Angel Escobar. The book opens with Marti’s poetry because, per official history, he represents the degree zero of the Cuban revolutionary process. This and the introduction set the book’s patriotic tone. A year before, Aguirre published Dice la palma: poesia. Although thematically and ideologically similar, the first book was less ambitious in scope and only included poetry from 1959 through 1977, which is the period that concerns us. These are epic war poems that celebrate the victory of the revolutionary rebels while mourning the loss of heroic lives in combat. They are conversationalist poems, the decade’s prevailing style, which as its name indicates, imitates prosaic language. As we have seen, clarity of expression is a necessary condition of social poetry, but not the only one. Elegiac in tone, these poems perform a laudatory function rather than a social one. The question, then, is how to consider these poems from a stylistic and an ideological point of view. Do they conform to the requirements of socialist realism, or are they elegies rather than social poems? This is an important question to consider given Aguirre’s ideological agenda and the crucial political role of literature. The exaltation of heroism and the celebration of war victories common in social poems had been a subject of controversy among intellectuals. Whereas some thought that the distance between the hero and the people could inspire the latter, others argued that people could not identify with figures so romanticized. Julio Garcia Espinosa, for example, expresses his doubts about the pedagogical function of these idealized versions of war: “Hace poco se hablaba en una reunion del papel del heroe positivo en las peliculas socialistas. Nosotros pensabamos en el dano que la mayoria de esas peliculas han hecho a los verdaderos heroes positivos. /Puede plantearse como una dominante en la expresion artistica la exaltacion del heroe positivo con el cual apenas puede identificarse el hombre comun, el hombre lleno de contradicciones? /Ayuda mas a la evolu- cion de este hombre de todos los dias la contemplacion pasiva del ejemplo excepcional, ejemplo incluso que puede aplaudir pero como algo que le es ajeno? [Not long ago we were talking in a meeting about the role of the positive hero in socialist films. We were thinking of the damage that most of these films have done to true positive heroes. Should we have as a dominant trend in artistic expression the exaltation of a positive hero with whom the common man, full of contradictions, can scarcely identify? Is the evolution of this day-to-day man further advanced by the passive contemplation of the exceptional example, one he might even applaud but that is foreign to him?]” (Garcia Espinosa 2006, 12).

What is of interest for our argument, however, is that, whether they are heroic or not, pedagogy was the mission of all these poems. In that regard, they conformed with the rules of socialist realism. As an example, let us reconsider “Himno a las milicias,” Baragano’s poem written in 1961, a year before his death (Baragano 1979, 14-17). It is one of the most obscure poems of the book, as the metaphors refer indistinctly to language and war.

Like many of the other poems in the collection, “Himno a las milicias” is a patriotic celebration of warfare and above all a reflection on the relationship between praxis (warfare) and pedagogy (poetry). How can art imitate warfare? Or, how can poetry, like warfare, perform a revolutionary action leading to freedom? Writing is key in this poem, which begins with its personalization: “Escribo: / Muerdo la soga gris de la palabra / . . . / Sepan los condenados y recuerden / El hombre no es un adjetivo / En el lenguaje de la guerra”30 (ibid., 14). In this poem, language is personified, and also about to die as it is strangled by the writer’s hand. War also has a vocabulary, which is precisely the theme of the poem. That is, these verses explain the meaning of war in the rest of the poem. The subject of this war is the soldier, but the function that the poem emphasizes is not so much his power to kill as his duty to die. Both language and men must endure a sacrifice: “En nuestro cuerpo a cuerpo / Con esta muerte de hombre / Con nuestra nada dilatada hacia la gloria / La herramienta verde de la vida / No es la pala que abate la hojarasca. / Del enemigo ahogado en su sangre podrida / En sus cuarenta y ocho estrellas de vomito / Nuestras palabras son como nuestras herramientas / No son del futuro son el futuro.”31

The death of the soldier is also his rebirth and the rebirth of language. But language ceases being a word, and it becomes an action of the people. Does this idea mean that idealism is being replaced by materialism? If we follow the logic of socialist realism, the idealist representation of creation becomes a materialist event in which the Christian idea of creation disappears. Christianity, one of the idealist doctrines par excellence, posits a transcendental idea of creation as the result of a divine power that predicates its own existence: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1). In opposition to this idea, the poem proposes a materialist ontology based on the immanent relationship between work as creation and the people as creators. This is why the poetic voice transforms Protagoras’s famous dictum, “Man is the measure of all things” into “El pueblo es la medida de todas las cosas” “The people are the measure of all things.” In other words, the people create the world by transforming nature. But the poetic voice advises the reader not to confuse the people with the masses: “No la masa no es un nudo de insectos.”32 Instead, they are the word, the creator, and its creation: “Un limite del hombre su palabra”33 (Baragano 1979, 16). That is, the people exist through their work and are transformed by it, because work is their means of expression, “su palabra.”

In the poem, nature takes on a new signifier. It is represented by the hero and the people, because they create it with their deaths. Every time a hero dies, he comes to life again by transforming nature. Men transform nature with their work and their lives:

No la masa no es un nudo de insectos Ni la calzada negra de los grandes Es una aurora violenta Un arbol de alas y banderas Un limite del hombre su palabra Tendido arco de esperanzas Arbol para que el que no hay tempestad Siempre verde

Mezclando la tierra con la sangre.34 (Baragano 1979, 16)

This material act of transformation takes on a metaphorical quality through the blood that drenches the soil: “mezclando la tierra con la sangre.” This act transforms nature, which becomes a fatherland. This is how men engender the fatherland that will in turn “father” them. Unlike in idealism, in materialism there is a dialectical relation of transformation between the creator and creation as they feed each other. As in idealism, however, this process culminates by reaching freedom. Revolutionary men attain freedom when they become one with the people by conquering nature. The people transform nature with their work, and the revolutionaries give their lives to conquer the land in the name of the people, and then become one with it. This is how the fatherland rises and freedom is attained: “Miliciano del alma / No hay muerte para ti . . . / Tu mano arranca la cabellera del enemigo / Hace ceder su puesto / . . . / Avanza / Como un contingente de estrellas jovenes / Traza las lineas de la mano / Del sueno de los hombres / Y articula el lenguaje profundo de los pobres en un tiempo de gloria”35 (Baragano 1979, 16). Thus, in both instances, the process of transformation has a goal to attain. In the Christian doctrine, men have to attain moral perfection to be free of sin, and in materialism men have to attain freedom by becoming one with nature.

The poetic voice thus indicates that only death and sacrifice lead to the making of the fatherland. War and work are acts of creation, whose goal is to reach freedom: the Idea. In other words, there exists a divinity of sorts, made up of the hero and the people, that is immanent instead of transcendental. In the poem, war and work are the Idea or the Christian Word that finally frees the people: “No tengo mas grado que mi pluma / Y mi arma / Canto contigo miliciano / Me disuelvo en guerrillas batallones / Renaciendo mis sangres mutiladas / En un manana verde mi manana”36 (Baragano 1979, 17). The word coincides with the people and the Revolution; there is an absolute identity between all of them, which is why the poem is written with a metaphysical vision imbricated in idealism. In other words, as Ernesto Laclau argues, the correspondence between the thing and the idea is objective thought for idealists. “Idealism, in its sense of opposition to materialism and not to realism, is the affirmation that they do not exist objects external to the mind, but rather that the innermost nature of these objects is identical to that of the mind—that is to say ultimately thought. (Not thought of individual minds, of course; not even of a transcendent God, but objective thought)” (Laclau 1990, 106). The word is prior to all creation; it is the divine and eternal creator of the world. That is, most of the poems in this collection follow a realist style grounded on idealism, which is, paradoxically, antithetical to the realism that Aguirre defends in her essay.

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