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Honesty, Mental Illness, and Fighting Stigma

Friendship of Don Quixote, Octavio Ocampo

everal months ago, the feed for the massively popular Shit Academics Say, usually populated with teacher belly-aching, was interrupted by an intriguing article on the problem of mental illness in academia. In the article, author Jake Jackson suggests that those of us who comprise the academy must be open about our struggles with mental illness. Jackson suggests that we, like society at large, have a problem of silence, and that the cure for our problem is dialogue. The article can be read in its entirety here.

While I share Jackson’s ambition for productive dialogue on the question of mental illness, his desire for a “radical honesty” is troubling in two key ways. Jackson supposes first that mental illness is a personal problem or quirk that when revealed to the light of articulated day will vanish. He is not the only one to do this, and indeed, mental illness has in many ways become a meme to bind people together, dangerously obscuring the serious health concerns that come with mental illness. Jackson further rhetorically situates himself in opposition to a silent academia which I argue does not exist. We talk very much about mental illness, but we do not do so in an effective way partly because of that notion of mental illness as a personal characteristic. There are two prefatory notes I want to make before beginning. First, I admire Jackson’s work and ambition, and it is for this sole reason that I feel compelled to push its limits towards securing a true solution to the problem of mental illness in academia. Second, I do not speak on this issue as a scientist looking through a microscope. I once suffered significantly with mental illness and have since received curative treatment.

That compulsion I feel to defend my right to speak on mental illness certainly speaks to the scientific and academic way we often treat mental illness as Jackson suggests. I can speak to the nature of John Milton’s poetry because I have read it, and I may only speak to the nature of mental illness if those words are written on me. Yet that compulsion is rooted also in the assumption underneath Jackson’s argument that a radical honesty between people can fundamentally influence or aid the mental ill; that mental illness, diseases like any other, can be treated with the words of co-workers or friends. Jackson is coming from a desire to fight stigma, but the entire supposition of the piece rests on a stigmatic rendering of mental illness as existing only in a certain set of social circumstances rather than a chemical disease in our very fibers, passed down from generation to generation.

I don’t mean to suggest that mental illness is merely chemical. The internalized violence of late capitalism serves as a pathogen in the disease, as do the various circumstantial catalysts in our lives at any given point. But to suppose that talking to unprofessional people, your friends, office mates, and worst of all, the denizens of the internet, are effective curatives for mental illness is a fundamentally stigmatic position. It supposes that mental illness is indeed not an illness at all but a symptom that lives only in a certain set of socio-political circumstances, an idea suicide statistics have long debunked. Talking to the people around you about your health problems is something we demand of no other sufferer.We do not demand of a Crohn’s patient that they discourse with their office mates about their symptoms. We do not demand that a person suffering through the pains of Chemotherapy discuss the way they feel with those around them. We do not demand those things because they are, of course, insensitive, and more profoundly to the question at hand, ineffective. People suffering with health problems are always of course to be supported by those around them, but to discuss the subtleties of their health problem with inexperienced and unprofessional people is not a worthwhile endeavor. Because we have all been sad or nervous does not in the slightest mean we have the authority to speak on effective coping mechanisms or treatments for mental illness. Just as we would not speak to the medical problems exampled above, we needn’t serve as makeshift councilors while supposing to ourselves that we are fighting stigma. We are doing the opposite.

It is a long-standing tenet of dialectical behavioral therapy that journaling, a cognitive practice intimately tied to the use of social media, is often ineffective if not very specifically guided and this is a further wrinkle in Jackson’s reasoning of dialogue as curative. Ineffective journaling can lead to wallowing, or a confirmation of symptoms that impedes a greater understanding of the disease. Like in a journal, when we are “radically honest” with people not trained in discoursing with the mentally ill, sufferers will often merely pat down further the mental paths that lead to the reproduction of symptoms. This self-confirmation of symptoms under the guise of fighting stigma can be found all over the internet. We’ve all seen countless listicles to the effect of “What to Say to Your Friend with _________” or “10 Things Everyone With _________ Will Understand” (example). These kinds of articles, while admirably trying to fight stigma, only reinforce it. Your friend with depression should be treated like a human being with a health problem that does not define him or her. People should seek treatment until they no longer experience the 10 things listed in an obnoxious manner on Buzzfeed. This understanding of mental illness as little more than a meme to share with your friends with a smile and a nod is enough, as William Lloyd Garrison once wrote angrily, “to make every statue leap from its pedestal” (source). Over 40,000 people died in the United States this year from suicide. This is a human crisis in urgent need of remedy, not a passive quality to observe in yourself and others in self-replicating discourse. Jackson summarizes this dynamic effectively, maddeningly asserting that his depression makes him a more “prolific writer.” Can you imagine someone stating in earnest that their chronic asthma gave them more time to write?

Thus Jackson’s assertion that a radical honesty is needed to fight mental illness in academia is rooted in several extremely negative and anti-scientific assumptions on the nature of mental illness. Indeed, when we talk to unprofessional people we will often make our mental illness worse by confirming our symptoms with fellow sufferers. Jackson situates himself rhetorically by supposing that academia shares the stigmatic silence of society at large on the question of mental illness. From my personal experience, and from the socially anxious conversations over chewy bagels and cheap coffee at academic conferences across the country, I do not think we have a silence problem on the question of mental illness in academia. Rather, we have an ineffective dialogue problem.

Gerrard Winstanley wrote heatedly in 1649 that, “words are nothing…action is the life of all,” and this is the real problem with mental illness in academia. It is not silence that plagues us but inaction. Every semester I assign a personal essay as the first assignment in my composition classes. Every semester, I get a few that at times graphically detail problems with self-injury and suicide. Every time I ask those students in conferences if they are alright and if they have sought out treatment. Every time, they act like that is a stupid question. Similarly, I have talked at great length with colleagues about their struggles with mental illness openly in our dilapidated through populated TA offices. When the discussion turns towards actions, therapy and medication, the problem is shrugged off as not that serious or my colleague is abashed to admit they already take medication. This is not a problem of dialogue but a problem of the way we understand mental illness. We discuss our problems well, at least in my experience with English departments (discussing is what we do for a meager living), but we demure from action. We demure, I think, because mental illness is classified as something that we talk about and not fix. It is not a deadly disease but a transitive personality state that will eventually evaporate if given enough dialogic light. When we are sick, we rush to the doctor before further damage accrues. When we suffer from depression, anxiety, bipolar, borderline, etc.,  we…talk to the guy next to us or race to facebook? The variables in mental illness may be complex, but the solutions are scientifically tested and effective. It is imperative that those of us in academia stop acting like mental illness is a contentious passage in Paradise Lost that can be reasoned through with dialogue, and understand that it is a serious, life-threatening health problem that demands medical treatment.

Jackson’s textual aim is noble but his methods are scarred by the stigma that surrounds the mentally ill. Truly fighting stigma demands that we encourage sufferers towards professional help, and reinforce an understanding that this help is functionally not different from going to the doctor for any other health problem. We cannot fight stigma by encouraging the mentally ill to talk to each other or their inexperienced coworkers when they need real, professional help. I believe in hope, in being cured, in having self-control over the chemical impulses that drag your mood up and down. Because I believe in these things, I encourage those around me who suffer from mental illness to seek medical help and abandon notions of mental illness as a passive trait that can be solved by openness and dialogue. We don’t need radical honesty about our health problems between each other, we need radical access to healthcare and a willingness to encourage those around us to seek that help which we cannot provide. Those of us in academia carry so many personal and political burdens, and the burden of addressing the problem of mental illness in our society musn’t fall to just us and our dialogues, but to the institutions of healthcare and social welfare in our society. Defending those institutions is a task for the radically honest, anti-stigma academic. And it is a task with ever-increasing importance.

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John Donne, Erasmus, and Religious Warfare


he work of John Donne has traditionally been subdivided into that of “Jack” and “Doctor” Donne, based in the topical breach that occurs over Donne’s career from the bedroom to the pulpit. Yet as Richard Strier remarks in his article “Radical Donne: ‘Satire III,’” critics have recently sought to find the underlying themes that find vitality in Donne’s work from early to late. One such theme is religion and religious conflict. Donne’s conversion experience is the autobiographical catalyst in the distinction between Jack and Doctor Donne, yet critics such as Strier seek the shared anxiety, tension, and ambition in Donne’s religious thinking throughout his career. Strier makes a compelling case in “Radical Donne” that Donne’s early Satire III (composed at the end of the 16th century) shows a radical coexistence of Catholic and Protestant theology and scholarship. In this essay I want to suggest further that not only does “Satire III” show the marks of an author versed in both Erasmus and Luther as Strier suggests; it also shows a radical desire for peace on a continent fraying and eventually breaking at the seams over the course of Donne’s life, a peace evoked in “Satire III,” the Holy Sonnets, and the Meditations in opposition to the imagery of war. Thus, another critical facet of Donne’s “radicalism” is his desire for peace forged in dialogue with chivalric and classical militarism, Erasmus’ calls for peace, and contemporary martyrology. Donne argues throughout his poetry and satires for a  Christian valiance in opposition to bravery, war, and corrupt princes.

The nature of Donne’s radicalism as defined by Empson and Strier is worth considering further in the context of the language of war and peace in the Satire itself and Donne’s later poems and poetry. For Empson, Donne was a rung in the ladder up to modern political thought, an author that “-[gives] an inherent argument for freedom of conscience” (Empson). Strier is right to suggest that this concept alone was hardly radical for the time period, at least in itself; and Empson’s rendering does suggest a mechanistic view of the relationship between literary project and history that is less prevalent in contemporary criticism.  Empson’s argument is Strier’s springboard though, and the latter does base his own project on the general desire to read Donne as aspiring religiously and politically for a radical harmony between Protestant and Catholic. Strier elucidates, “Donne can be seen to have shown…the perhaps surprising compatibility of three of the most radical notions of the European sixteenth-century: Erasmus’ “Philosophy of Christ,” Castellio’s vindication of doubt, and Luther’s conception of conscience” (Strier 312-3). For Strier, Donne’s radicalism is markedly his own in that it is constructed of conflicting Catholic and Protestant theologies. Such tolerance was a radical notion in the period leading up to the Thirty Years War, an era historian C.V. Wedgewood described as “thick with the apprehension of conflict” (Wedgewood 12).  Strier convincingly makes the case that Donne seeks to synthesize these contradictions in the Satire. Yet there is some merit in Empson’s original critical project to seek not only the hermeneutical, epistemological, theological, and philosophical in Donne’s Satire but also the historical. The historical threat and reality of religious war emerges again and again in the text, making the conclusion of Donne’s Satire not only a call for theological and philosophical coexistence but also an anxious interaction with the threat of religious war.

From the very first lines of the Satire, Donne invokes the language of martial battle and then vanquishes its value with a rhetorical equivalency between Protestant and Catholic that Strier highlights. Donne begins, “Kind pity chokes my spleen; brave scorn forbids / Those tears to issue which swell my eyelids” (ll. 1-2) It is disquieting that we begin this Satire that so ardently argues for radical tolerance with imagery of paralysis. Pity chokes, while “brave” scorn forbids (like a King) tears to flow from his eyes. Catholic and Protestant talking points are immediately invoked in these opening lines. Donne summons the physical, the source of Protestant anxiety, and suggests that kind pity emerges from his body and mind (the spleen representing both) (Strier 286) as well as despair. Such a description complicates a more radical Protestant reading of the body as an instrument of declination and corruption, a complication the early Donne pursues in several of his love poems. With the next stroke of his pen, Donne rejects the notion that authority may assuage the moisture that rises to our eyes, a markedly Protestant critique of Catholic bureaucracy. Authority forbids us only from visibly crying and cannot vanquish the tears “which swell my eyelids.” This is much in line with Strier’s project to find coexistence in the Satire, but I think Donne’s use of the concept of bravery in these opening lines is also significant. Brave scorn, that which prevents us from “weep[ing] sins,” has decidedly martial social connotation to it. Bravery and honor, cornerstones of chivalric nationalism (and what Donne famously attacks in “Death Be Not Proud”), are what enable sin through “forbidding” the poet from ridding himself of that sin.

Only a few lines later, Donne pursues the inability of the martial to absolve sin and the theological differences of the day. Donne continues, “Is not our mistress, fair Religion, / As worth of all our souls’ devotion / As virtue was to the first blinded age? / Are not heaven’s joys as valiant to assuage / Lusts, as earth’s honor was to them” (ll. 5-9)? Donne asks a provocative question that seeks to challenge contemporary readers with a historical equivalency between the classical and the present. Strier is right to suggest that this is not a condemnation of the classical by Donne. Donne questions, as Strier states, how “faire religion” has failed to inspire similar devotion (Strier 288). Yet that very question as Donne has constructed it seeks to blend these eras and to see the tendrils of influence between them. What Donne invokes from the classical is markedly martial – bravery and virtue (the latter word rooted in the Latin vir, which Donne plays with in “Death Be Not Proud”). Donne offers an alternative to that bravery, virtue, and honor that defined the classics and that now prevent the poet from ridding himself of sin. He suggests that to seek the synthesized, general Christian project is true valiance, a surely martial concept. But the rhetorical necessity of the question denotes the anxiety that underlies much of the Satire. Donne desires a radical valiance for peace, but his era is steeped instead in the martial bravery and honor of the classical age. Both sides are accused in this opening section, the “Spanish fire,” and the “courage of straw” that serves as kindling. There is certainly a desire here for religious synthesis, but there is also a profound anxiety over the martial realities of these questions. When Donne writes lines later, “O, if thou dar’st, fear this; / This fear great courage and high valor is” (ll. 16), he is interacting with the martial reality of the day at the turn of the 17th century, where bravery and honor prevent reconciliation and actively push Protestants and Catholics towards war. For Donne, fear is the truly valorous and courageous act, fear of a culture of martial courage, and fear to follow “tyrannous rage” (ll. 105) towards disastrous ends.

The ending of the Satire incorporates much of this martial imagery and the nature of the ending in light of this imagery divides critics. Strier, for example, reads the end as a positively ambivalent one. Strier writes in the conclusion to his own piece, “The integral soul, standing still, refusing to be bound, waiting for a personal revelation that may or may not come, is the final positive image of Satire III” (Strier 312). For Strier, the poet is ultimately not tied down with “fetters,” and the end of the Satire expresses an ideology of coexistence. The martial imagery here, as it does in the opening sections, evokes an underlying anxiety that needs further exploration. In concluding, Donne writes,

“As streams are, power is; those blest flowers that dwell / At the rough stream’s calm head, thrive and prove well, / But having left their roots, and themselves given / To the stream’s tyrannous rage, alas, are driven / Through mills, and rocks, and woods, and at last, almost / Consumed in going, in the sea are lost. / So perish souls, which more choose men’s unjust / Power from God claim’d, than God himself to trust” (ll. 103-108).

Donne’s conclusion complements the poem’s opening emphasis on tears with Christian imagery of water. It is now tyrannous rage (instead of bravery or honor) that drives the water with haste away from less destructive paths. The image of consumption through a process of movement is undeniably militaristic. Like a war, the river courses through the countryside and destroys as it moves through. This destruction is tied on the sentence level to an abandonment of “roots” located in a “calmer” section, a section without tyrannous rage and “unjust Power.” I think Strier is right to suggest that these roots are not specifically Catholic (as could be inferred by an abandonment of tradition). Donne is instead suggesting a more general Christian ancestry, an ancestry he endeavors in the opening of the Satire to describe as valiant. But here as before in the face of that valiant cause is the threat of tyranny and incorrect choice. Donne’s inclusion of choice in these final lines complicates Strier’s claim that the ending optimistically looks to religious coexistence. Donne undeniably desires such an accomplishment amid the commingled worlds of religion and politics in the late sixteenth century, but the idea remains just that:  a desire. Like the kind pity and deeply felt sorrow of the introduction, this ultimate desire remains challenged by the threat of religious conflict rooted in classical notions of bravery, courage, and anti-tyrannical rebellion.

Before turning to Donne’s Holy Sonnets and Meditations, I want to explore further the nature of Donne’s peace and the intellectual influences and precedents for Donne’s interaction with the threat of religious warfare. Strier cogently argues that a main facet of the religious synthesis at the heart of Satire III, that I argue is put into crisis by the threat of war, is the work of  Erasmus. Erasmus, as critic Robert Allen suggests in his book The Better Part f Valor: More, Erasmus, Colet, and Vivies, on Humanism, War, and Peace, 1496-1535, wrote at great length on what Strier terms “pacifism” (Strier 291). I will argue, though, that Donne’s utilization of Erasmus is not merely one that invokes Erasmus’ universal pacifism but rather a pointed political, historical critique of the religious warfare of the 16th and 17th century – a distinction that can be found in Erasmus’ own critique of corrupt government and chivalric courage. Erasmus’ philosophy of Christ is fundamentally a reaction to the secular, warring, and political machinations of the late Medieval church, and the dialectical and often directly involved shadow of the threat of war in Erasmus is reflected repeatedly in Donne’s Satires and later poetry. Adams describes Erasmus’ conception of war in the following terms, which is a useful entry point to the influence of Erasmus on Donne’s poetic depiction of peace: “His (Erasmus) practical proposal is that leaders on both sides, as rational men pursuing self-interest , should count in advance all war’s costs. When this is done, wisdom will dictate settling disputes quietly by arbitration… when full accounting is made of costs, all military triumphs turn out to be Cadmean: everyone suffers ruin” (Adams 101). Donne’s thesis in Satire III is markedly similar to Adam’s summation of Erasmus’ objection to war. Donne brings the cost of war repeatedly to the center of the Satire, and the central moment of contrast between mistress and faire religion relies on the imagery of chivalric idealism and religious persecution (the courage of straw and fires of spain, for example). While Erasmus, like Donne, ultimately does make a transcendent conclusion that war is anti-Christian and ruinous for all participants, the avenue through which Erasmus makes this meta-critique is specifically late Medieval and Renaissance religious strife. Like Donne, Erasmus aims not only at the abolition of all conflict but also a specific political and historical peace. Donne and Erasmus share a Humanist desire to reform the social and cultural ills (often associated with ignorance in Humanist discourses) towards the end of manifesting a more just society. The consummate Humanist, Erasmus spends much of Erasmus Against War making a an argument that relies on this rhetoric of moving from social ills to transcendent, spiritual solutions and conclusions.

Erasmus’ rhetorical structure in Erasmus Against War strongly mirrors Donne’s own in the Holy Sonnets and Meditations and it is a structure that suggests the connection between Erasmusian peace and the political origination of Donne’s own peace. In the opening argument of the treatise, Erasmus asserts the following about war, “War, what other thing is it than a common manslaughter of many men together, and a robbery, to which, the farther it sprawleth abroad, the more mischievous it is? But many gross gentlemen nowadays laugh merrily at these things, as though they were the dreams and dotings of schoolmen, the which, saving the shape, have no point of manhood, yet seem they in their own conceit to be Gods” (Erasmus 23-24). The last part of the quoted section strikingly mirrors the end of Satire III and Sonnet 10, and the general rhetorical thrust of Erasmus’ description demands further exploration. He begins with a general reflection on the sinful nature of killing, but then returns to the secular in the middle section with his allusion to the chivalric gentleman of the age before ultimately returning to the fact that war makes men conceive of themselves as God. This stop on the secular in the median of a rhetorical thrust towards transcendental synthesis is one that Donne will repeatedly do in his Holy Sonnets and Meditations, and it introduces an anxiety that I highlighted in Satire III and that is at play in Donne’s later work. Resting rhetorically between theological condemnations of religious violence is the anxious rendering (if only to attempt to vanquish the threat with a final, universal coup de grâce) of chivalric bravery and martial courage that Adams is right to suggest is the subject of many early 16th century humanist projects. Like Donne in Satire III, Erasmus must reckon the threat of secular, martial culture in his generalizing rhetoric against war. This rhetorical structure is the one I will highlight in Donne’s later work, and its a rhetorical structure that is for Donne further contextualized with the question of martyrdom in a period of religious war.

The concept of martyrdom for both Erasmus and Donne played a significant role in the way religious warfare was understood, and Donne’s specific interaction with the concept of martyrdom lends further context to the nature of peace in the Holy Sonnets and Meditations. Critic Susannah Monta in her article “When the Truth Hurts: Suffering and the Question of Religious Confidence” usefully places Donne in the environment of 16th and 17th century martyrology in response to religious persecution and war. Monta begins, “Donne’s preordination prose questions common martyrological assumptions, arguments, and rhetoric. His poetry explores the psychological effects of the notion that suffering could confer religious confidence, while his sermons postulate alternative, spiritualized forms of agonistic struggle that both honor intense spiritual quests and confer the benefits of religious confidence without the actual shedding of blood” (Monta 118). As I have argued before, Donne’s alternative agonists are not merely spiritual or escapist theology but rather a specifically political and historical reaction to religious war. Yet, Monta gives a provocative further vocabulary for Donne’s interaction with the threat of spilt blood. Religious confidence, a confidence in election in Monta’s argument, could be conferred without martial struggle. This is a passivity that we found in Erasmus and Donne’s rejection of men who would be gods. Donne’s opposition to Martyrdom, as Monta cogently summarizes, is one that opposes agonizing one’s own death. This is something Donne will satirize and interact with in Pseudo-Martyr and Biathanatos, and it is a central concern that finds life in Donne’s sonnets and meditations. War for Donne is institutionalized martyrdom, the replacement of a valiant faith with a courageous death – a break from providence towards grim, rushing waters.

Monta makes a second important distinction in Donne’s reaction to emergent martyrology. Donne, as the evasive rhetoric of Satire III suggests, is ultimately unwilling to ascribe himself to either Catholic or Protestant notions of martyrdom in the period. Monta writes, “But rather than simply celebrating Protestant and/or Foxean versions of martyrdom instead –  Donne often posits alternative forms of interior, spiritualized suffering and argues that those forms of suffering may confer all of martyrdom benefits – Donne’s persistent engagements with martyrdom undergird his reconciliation of his conformity to the Church of England with his family’s sufferings for Catholicism” (Monta 119). Donne rejects throughout his career the martyrdom of Foxe and Southwell, instead offering a nominally Protestant third partyism in opposition to martyrdom. Yet the autobiographical criticism often offered in response to Donne’s religious experience hampers our readings of Donne’s interaction with historical and political circumstance. Donne’s ambivalence towards martyrdom shares many of the themes outlined in Satire III in his critique of martial valor. Monta accurately suggests that Donne’s discomfort with martyrdom is rooted in his ambition to procure the benefits of martyrdom without violence – to, put differently, have a peaceful martyrdom. I argue that the ambivalence of Donne to Catholic and Protestant martyrdom, when rendered next to his invocation of Erasmus’ commentary on war, is rooted more significantly in a desire for peace between the two splitting religious factions rather than Donne’s personal experience with conversion. It is a hegemony of two currents that are undeniably connected in Donne’s thought, yet that former fear of religious war hampering transcendent peace is represented to a significant degree in the poetry and prose in Donne’s later work. In the Holy Sonnets and Meditations, we find a markedly similar rhetorical structure to that of Erasmus in response to war and Donne in response to martyrdom, and it is a rhetorical structure based not merely in the theological and autobiographical respectively, but also in the historical and political.

Donne’s tenth Holy Sonnet is perhaps his most canonical poem, and has long been read as a reflection on the temporary death associated with chivalric courage and the permanent life associated with “faire religion.” Yet Donne also implements a rhetorical structure found in Erasmus of interrupting a transcendent image with war and chivalric ideology, leading to an ultimate vanquishing of temporary martiality with transcendent spirituality at the end of the rhetorical arc. Donne begins the poem, “Death, be not proud, though some have called thee / Mighty and dreaful, for thou art not so; / For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow / Die not, poor death, nor yet canst thou kill me” (“Sonnet 10” ll. 1-4). The poem begins with a spondee (in opposition to its generally iambic form) that calls attention to the declarative nature of the poem, and the stresses then hit “proud”, “some”, and “call(éd),” all words that undermine the addressee. The metric form remains important in Donne’s effort to undermine death and establish a dichotomy in the poem between true religion and false “pictures” (ll. 5). Importantly, though, Donne begins with a general retort against death; one that seeks to vanquish the power of death just as Erasmus sought to diminish war to institutionalized petty crime (“manslaughter”). Like Erasmus in Erasmus Against War, the poet differentiates himself from those who would ascribe a greater meaning to death or war. Though others might “call” death powerful, he is not, and the main conceit of the poem is undermining death’s power in this way. Donne’s own rhetoric, though, continues to mirror Erasmus’ as the specter of those would “call” death powerful emerges to the narrative center of the poem.

In separating himself from those he is rhetorically opposing himself to, Donne invokes the threat of religious warfare in the minds of those who call death powerful, and like Erasmus, he must address this issue before getting to his transcendent anti-war conclusion. Donne reflects of the men who march off to war, as he once did, “And soonest our best men with thee do go, / Rest of their bones, and soul’s delivery. Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men, / And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell” (“Sonnet 10” ll. 7-9). The stresses in this section are also critical, as Donne includes a spondaic section where “slave, fate, chance, kings, men, poison, war, and sickness” are all stressed. The section is not simply a rejection of martial courage or soldiers who go to war. Instead, Donne ambivalently suggests that England’s “best men” go off to war and are led astray and ultimately killed by the string of stressed syllables. Like it was for Erasmus, the problem for Donne is that class of “gentleman” who fancy themselves “to be gods” in “dreams and dotings” (Erasmus 24). The poem heavily mirrors Erasmus’ focus on the fraudulent narrative of death, and here, Donne movingly suggests the costs of that narrative. Poison, sickness, and war itself are all images associated with the religious conflict on the continent in the late 16th and early 17th century, as pestilence specifically killed thousands in armies made up frequently of men who were travelling for the first time (Wedgewood 28). Critically, Donne, like Erasmus, interrupts his narrative on the fraudulency of death to discourse with the very real allure of war to the “best men” of Europe. Led by corrupt princes, the topic of much of Erasmus’ writing, good men in Sonnet 10 could empower death to be that which Donne says it is not. It is a very real threat, represented in this section on the metrical and linguistic level. Donne interrupts his rhetorical thrust towards God with a narrative on those who would see themselves as God. This rhetorical construction is a direct mirror of Erasmus’ language in Erasmus Against War, and Donne’s synthetic and triumphant ending section strives for the same transcendent, though textured, peace Erasmus describes in that text.

Donne’s 10th Holy Sonnet ends in a provocative way that mirrors the rhetorical structure outlined in Erasmus. Donne concludes after his interaction with men who would be gods, “One short sleep past, we wake eternally / And death shall be no more Death, thou shalt die” (“Sonnet 10” ll. 13-14). Like Erasmus, Donne concludes by returning to divinity and a transcendent spirituality. The section, though, has divided critics. The nature of the inversion at the end does cast a shadow of ambivalence over the poem specifically in the context of the previously outlined passage on war. In the rhetoric of the poem, chivalric courage and corrupt kings empower death and in doing so die themselves. In the imagery, then, death and its earthly messengers (those kings and wars) are conflated. Thus, when Donne says “death, thou shalt die,” is the aim only the death he originally addressed himself to? Indeed, that original invocation of death is followed in the very opening couplet by those who would call it powerful. The ending puts into center view the crisis of the Humanist project for Erasmus, More, and Donne in this poem. Erasmus renders in Erasmus Against War that corrupt princes can lead men to disastrous ends, as Donne suggests in Sonnet 10, yet Erasmus spends much of the treatise suggesting ways to fix the problem. As with the issue of martyrdom, Donne remains evasive in the Sonnets and even in the Meditations as to what can catalyze the death of death. The necessity of the death of chivalric virtue and martyrdom was evident to Donne and Erasmus before him, yet at the turn of the 17th century the humanist project of More and Erasmus was becoming increasingly estranged from the reality of religious conflict. Certainly the difference can be attributed to genre (between treatise and poem), but in the ending of Sonnet 10 there is a peculiar ambivalence in subject and outcome. Donne movingly establishes the cost of war in that section that interrupts his rhetorical arc (the same rhetorical structure Erasmus uses in calling for peace), and knows it must end in peace, but is ultimately unsure as to how to secure it in this realm. He settles instead for supplicating such concerns to God, and not be a man who fancies himself as God. Yet, the poem is catalyzed by that section that opposes such a transcendental and spiritual conclusion to the very real secular threat of religious war.

The very next sonnet in the Holy Sonnet sequence deals intimately with the question of martyrdom, secular rule, and solutions. In the middle of Sonnet 11, Donne reflects of the crucifixion, “They killed once an inglorious man, but I / Crucify him daily, being now glorified. Oh let me then, his strange love still admire. / Kings pardon, but he bore our punishment” (“Sonnet 11” ll. 7-9). Donne’s description of Jesus as an “inglorious man” is telling to the countercultural persona at work in the Sonnets. Like the persona in Sonnet 10, Donne in Sonnet 11 opposes himself immediately to prevailing notions of “glory,” a central facet of contemporary martyrology. Donne establishes Jesus in this passage in opposition to those forces he had put in death’s party, and it is a distinction that is a very expected one coming after Sonner 10. Importantly for Monta’s context on Donne’s ambivalence to the question of both Catholic and Protestant martyrdom, Donne further enters into the question of kingly punishment. Very much in line with Erasmus’ description of those who seek war as men who think themselves God, Donne describes the pardoning of Kings as fraudulently conflated with true sacrifice. Donne undermines this notion by asserting instead that Jesus himself bore the punishment of mankind. This difference between active sacrifice and secular violence mirrors the distinction Donne drew between “brave men” and “kings” in Sonnet 10, and gives a provocative context to Donne’s views on martyrdom. As in Satire III, Donne evades a dogmatic condemnation of solely secular kingship or anti-tyrannical protestant martyrdom. Instead Donne suggests a third position, a position for political peace and spiritual supplication to providence.

Donne’s famous “Meditation 17,” written at the end of his life, is a suitable text to finish a discussion on the question of political and historical peace in Donne’s greater interaction with war on the continent. In it, many of the anxieties hitherto outlined come to the fore of Donne’s interaction with warfare. The question of Humanist potential to reform the chivalric, militaristic culture of the day that drove Europe actively to war as he wrote the Meditation is central, as is the general Erasmusian desire for peace in response to secular division. In perhaps his most famous written words, Donne urges the reader, “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were. Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee” (“Meditation 17” 1305). As with the Sonnets and is Erasmus’ Erasmus Against War, Donne begins with a transcendent ambition and then interrupts it with this narrative on the threat of religious war. But the threat in the early 1620s, well into the crisis of the Holy Roman Empire that devolved into the Thirty Years War, is markedly less chivalric and classical (as it was in Satire III). Instead, we get a tenor that is thematically kindred with Erasmus in Erasmus Against War. Donne urges his reader, as Adams summarized of Erasmus, to consider the whole cost of war on estates personal and non. The lynch pin upon which he constructs this urge to reason is Europe itself, and provocatively, the water imagery of Satire III. Donne now does not address the general crisis of poor kingship and chivalric courage, but rather the immense human cost that began to soar as the 1620s advanced and Denmark and Sweden entered the war in Germany. Donne no longer wishes to differentiate himself from the militaristic other, he now writes for a radical peace begotten of a radical homogeneity amongst human beings. The influence of Erasmus on this most memorable of Donne’s passages cannot be overstated, and while the variables shift slightly away from a direct opposition to courage and war and towards a universal human kindred there is a shared rhetorical construct at play in the Meditation. Like in Satire III and the Holy Sonnets, Donne interrupts his narrative that seeks a transcendent spiritual peace with the very real threat of war. Erasmus had precedented the rhetorical move in his own treatise against war, and Donne reinvokes the rhetoric in Meditation 17 not only to argue ultimately for a transcendent spiritual supplication but also to render the very real and tragic nature of the wars in Europe as they unfolded. War had gone from a Dutch problem during the period of the Satire’s and Sonnet’s authorship to a generalized, destructive, and irresistible torrent over all of Central Europe. Donne interrupts his ambition in Meditation 17 with this mournful narrative, before ultimately framing his synthesis with the looming threat of war.

In the conclusion to the Meditation, Donne offers a provocative if/then statement on the ambition he has for the written word. Donne reflects, “-if by this consideration of another’s danger I take mine own into contemplation and so secure myself by making my recourse to my God, who is our only security” (“Meditation 17” 1306). I had suggested earlier that Donne is often evasive as to real solutions to the problem of war he so intimately deals with in the Satires and Sonnets, but here Donne reveals the fundamentally Humanist and Erasmusian ambition to fight war with rhetoric. Donne the Englishmen, a nation still only liminally involved in the war, urges his readers to partake in his process of reckoning the danger of others to proof against that danger spreading. I argue that we see this ideology at play in Satire III and the Holy Sonnets. Donne has an ambition for his poetry to interact with and counter war as it developed on the continent in the early 17th century. As before, Donne reckons a supplication as the only truly knowable solution to the problem. But as in the Satire and Sonnets, he comes to this conclusion after a rhetorical construction interrupted by religious warfare.

Following in Erasmus’ footsteps, Donne ultimately argues for political peace through a rhetorical trajectory that ends in religious transcendence. In Satire III there is a profound ambivalence at play over the question of religious war and its interference in the procurement of the religious synthesis Donne undeniably desires and as Strier highlights. In the Sonnets, I argue that this rhetoric is enacted, with inspiration from Erasmus, in the way Sonnets 10 and 11 are interrupted by the threat of  war before ultimately finishing with an ambivalent inversion of death. In “Meditation 17,” Donne is less ambivalent about his opposition to war through poetry, and specifically hopes in a Humanist fashion for the reason and reckoning of another’s grave, mortal danger to reform the world around him as it collapsed into war. Throughout Donne’s later work, though, I argue that the religious synthesis Strier is apt to highlight in Satire III is in every case placed consciously next to the threat of war by Donne. The synthesis is thus never truly complete for Donne in his poetry and prose. Donne and his poetry may very well declare that death will die, but Donne never forgets the “brave men” who perish by their thousands in following kings who may never take their own danger into contemplation.

*Note: I do not include works cited pages to impede academic plagiarism.  Let me know via email or a comment if you want the works cited entry for the articles and books cited here.

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The Civil War and the Importance of Historical Theory

The monument to the 54th Massachusetts in Boston, MA. 300,000 African Americans joined the Union Army, and many historians credit the change in Union strategy in 1864 to this development.

he American Civil War has always lingered in the hidden caverns of american nationhood, whether it be in the way we understand the Civil Rights Movement as a continuation of the 19th century conflict, or in the hushed reverence we give to the Gettysburg Address in our English classes. As the country presently puts its foot down one more time on the issue of the confederacy, the climactic event of the american national experience has surged into the popular discourse of the day. As a student of the conflict and a member of an organization that seeks to preserve the physical memory of the Civil War, I looked on these developments with excitement.

Mirroring the conflict itself, my excitement was met with a somber recognition that it should never have taken a terrorist attack to elicit this debate. The fault is not with those who have recently come to advocate for the destruction of confederate imagery on our nation’s buildings, I applaud them, the fault lies instead with our retelling of the event in our history classrooms and on the pages of history journals and popular historical publications. In an era where enrollment in history classes is plummeting and where the importance of an institution for the study history is being doubted by “program prioritization” at universities across the country, the events in Charleston offer a grim and terrifying reminder of the importance of the way we study history at the academy and the ways we write about it in our publications.

For the better part of the 20th century, the Civil War was portrayed as a tragic failure to compromise that broke apart old army college buddies and houses across the country. Amidst the slaughter of hundreds of thousands towards the defeat of slavery (sorry – “state’s rights,” and “union” according to Shelby Foote and Gary Gallagher, respectively) a few “authentic geniuses” (2) emerged to seek what sanity they could in this cataclysmic struggle. Happily, the social history movement of the 60s and 70s attacked the great man romanticization that dominated Civil War historiography, but there is still more work to do. In Ken Burn’s massively popular documentary, for example, the army of Northern Virginia was called “the greatest army in the history of world.” (3) Later in the series, Shelby Foote was inexplicably allowed to say that the two “authentic geniuses” of the war were Abraham Lincoln and Nathan Bedford Forest. If only the South Carolina Senate could vote to make putting those two names next to each other illegal.

This idea of “authentic geniuses” is a good one to frame a short discussion on how the way in which we have depicted the Civil War (the historiography we have utilized in studying it) at the academy and in popular media has stunted our national discussion on the continuing relevance of the Civil War. Implicit in such a discussion is the fact that history is important, and the work we do at the academy with it has significant impact on people living right now.

Foote said WHAT?!

Shelby Foote’s assertion that the author of the Emancipation Proclamation and the First Grand Wizard of the Klu Klux Klan are both geniuses is not as out of place as you might think in the historiography of the Civil War. Ronald Maxwell’s Gods and Generals, a major motion picture, portrays Stonewall Jackson as a deeply religious man who actually liked black people (4). The film’s predecessor, Gettysburg, decided to portray Pickett’s Charge, a battle in which thousands were gunned down in an insane frontal assault ordered by the equally mystical Robert E. Lee, as a a quirky reunion between confederate general Lewis Armistead and union general Winfield Scott Hancock – two old West Point pals.

This odious great man theory, or an approach to history that sees the actions of heroic individuals as central rather than the political struggles of millions, serves a specific purpose in that paralyzing historiography of the Civil War that social historians righteously attacked. When a conflict of millions for the liberation of millions is reduced to the heroism of a handful of men, the political content that defined their decisions to fight for the union or confederacy is lost in a haze of personal traits that serve only to make the event theatrical.

For example, Bruce Catton claimed in his book A Stillness at Appomattox, that Union soldiers saluted Robert E. Lee as he rode off into the sunset, having butchered 300,000 of their friends. Later historians of the event have found no evidence for this, and the anecdote has generally been written off as pure falsehood. The falsehood is reflective of much of what we find in the above mentioned movies and similar popular histories – the deep political divisions between confederate and unionist, the disagreement on whether it was righteous under the lord to own another man, whether it was economically fair to do so, whether the declaration of independence and the founding ideals of the United States of America should include all men – are lost in a dramatized great man narrative that supposes that these divisions would be dropped as soon as the bullets stopped flying. Nathan Bedford Forest and Abraham Lincoln would reconcile, the confederate flag and the american flag could fly simultaneously – all because the great men who fought this war held within their hearts magnanimous mercy, forgiveness, and mutual respect.

The move to vanquish politics under the smoke and mirrors of great men is a clever one, as through the ripples the Civil War sent through society grew a growing radical sentiment for a more generalized liberation and a radical stomping out of confederate ideology. By robbing the conflict of this political content, the nascent american myths could endure – compromise is the american way, republican democracy can cure all social ills, and peaceful protest is the way to true change.

But as current events prove so magnificently, the political content at the heart of the Civil War and in the hearts of the men and women who fought in it, can be hidden no longer. The social history of authors such as James McPherson have begun to turn the page in Civil War historiography, but the historiography of eras past still propagates the idea that confederate ideology holds no political content and is merely a reflection of personal identity (a direct product of the depoliticization described above). In opposition to this group has grown a new generation of union soldiers, armed not with rifles but with climbing equipment, picket signs, and keyboards. Our historiography must nurture the sentiment that the Civil War was a fundamentally political struggle in which millions of people made a deliberate decision to fight for freedom and to fight for slavery. That same choice is now before us.

American history as a field has always been dominated by exceptionalist and great man ideology. Yet just as the political movements of the 60s and 70s created an environment for challenging and reevaluating those dominant methods, modern historians must react to the events unfolding on our streets and upon the glow of monitors across the country. Our history can unfold this much obfuscated conflict, and show that in an era not so long ago Americans fought for the liberation of the mistreated and enslaved for political, religious, and economic reasons. In such a message holds the catalyst for a national reckoning, where studious eyes find a political truth in the dim and flaring lamps of an every growing camp (5).

(1) Excluding James McPherson’s The Battle Cry of Freedom, which is an excellent text that garnered well deserved acclaim and popularity.
(2) To use Shelby Foote’s terminology
(3) I wish I was joking.
(4) Roger Ebert was right when he said it’s a movie only Trent Lott would enjoy.

(5) See: Battle Hymn of the Republic:
I have seen Him in the watch-fires of a hundred circling camps,
They have builded Him an altar in the evening dews and damps;
I can read His righteous sentence by the dim and flaring lamps:

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The Classroom of Revolution: The Revolutionary Cuban Intelligentsia’s History and Legacy

A truck used by student insurgents in their attack on the presidential palace in Havana, 1957.

The Cuban Revolution is a historical singularity; a revolution, unlike its socialist counterparts, that included a vast left-center coalition that resulted in the establishment of soviet-styled socialism (Wolf). Yet, the parts that made up that coalition, so critical for revolutionary success, did not vanish from Cuban Society nor did they simply appear in 1959.  The college students and the intelligentsia at large as a part of this coalition is worth stopping upon, as Education and its ease of access in Cuba is commonly highlighted as one of the most successful aspects of the historical Cuban Revolution and the revolution of today.

When I went to Cuba I intended to find the remnants and ancestors of those first college students from the early 20th century to the mid-20th century students that stormed Batista’s palace in Havana, and appraise in what relation these remnants interact with the Cuban Revolution of today. By studying (1) the historical role of the Cuban college students and greater intelligentsia in the revolution of 1959 and earlier oppositions movements, (2) and the dynamic of the University of Havana in Cuban revolutionary society a greater understanding of the relationship between past rebellion and present reform concerning the intelligentsia emerges. I found in my trip to Cuba that the intelligentsia remains detached yet critically engaged with Cuban socio-political life in a uniquely Cuban way, one that critiques the Communist Party but rejects North American hegemony and is desirous of true Cuban autonomy. It is my contention that this is a remnant of the historical presence of a critical yet skeptical opposition movement centered in the urban intelligentsia in Havana , that saw the necessity of revolution and at the same time remained ever critical of socialist policies.

The first era that I will highlight as important in the development of the Cuban Intelligentsia’s keen desire for self-determination is the period of the Platt Amendment’s domination (subsequent to the original Cuban Revolution of Marti), and the periods of disillusionment before and after the presidency of Gerardo Machado and Ramon Grau San Martin from 1925 to 1933. The revolutionary upswing of the turn of the 20th century is still remembered in the countless statues of Jose Marti throughout Havana. These revolutionary sentiments and victories were future looking but inherently chained to the occupying North American forces who entered Cuba in 1912 and 1917, to finally leave in 1923 (Sweig 13). Before the rise of Machado, author Julia Sweig highlights in her book Cuba: What Everyone Needs to Know, that, “Throughout the 1920s, public frustration and fervor grew pervasive among an ever wider swatch of Cubans. Intellectuals, labor activists, veterans of the Wars of Independence, and student movements all grew jaded by the failure of Cuba’s leaders to fulfill the idealism and potential of the independence movement itself” (Sweig 13). It is here that we see the first unique character of the Cuban intelligentsia that we see still today; a keen sense and desire for self determination. Sweig continues, “the liberal-democratic student movement remained not so much anti-American but anti-interventionist” (Sweig 14). This is a concept keenly reflected today in Cuba, were a desire for self-determination transcends any national rivalry, even in the case of the United States who has quite literally attacked Cuba from every side.

Author Eric Wolf would elucidate this point further in his chapter on Cuba in Peasant Wars of the Twentieth Century; quoting the Cuban historian Herminio Portel Vila, who wrote, “The incendiary torch, the struggle the reconcentration camps, the defeat of the Spanish party, were preparing the future for a new Cuba when North American intervention re-established and consolidated the economic and social aspects of the destroyed regime, with all their political implications” (Vila 255). Wolf concludes, with the reader, “In this perspective, Cuban intellectuals long spoke of a ‘frustrated revolution,’ frustrated by the United States” (Wolf 255). Even before the disappointing presidency of Machado, the Cuban intelligentsia and student movements had developed anti-imperialism without the name – a desire to be free of the tyranny of the Platt Amendment and be at once free to self-create a state of their making. So we see that the Cuban intelligentsia and indeed the Cuban revolutionary movement had its roots in opposition to foreign occupation in the nationalist movement of Marti, made more concrete by the Platt Amendment  and Machado’s failure to free Cuba from US hegemonic control (Sweig 15). The impulse for self-determination  is one that is profoundly seen in Cuba today where reform is seen as necessary in the face of “Stalinist bureaucracy” as professor Antonio Romero Gomez (University of Havana) called it – the specter of reform is ever present but in a “Cuban way” as professor Rafael Betancourt (San Geronimo de la Havana) stressed so keenly in a lecture. This idea will be highlighted later in this article, but first we must move our historical narrative forward were disillusionment in the intelligentsia would become even more crystallized in the failed regime of San Martin and the rise of Fulgencio Batista.

Both during Machado’s reign and the short-lived regime of Grau San Martin, students at the University of Havana staged an occupation of the campus; demonstrating their power and fervent participation  in these opposition movements before the final triumph of 1959 (Wolf  267), and the fall of San Martin and the rise of Batista made concrete through synthesis the previously highlighted desire of the Cuban intelligentsia for self-determination and introduced another unique characteristic of the Cuban intelligentsia – a contentious relationship with the Cuban Communist Party before the revolution and its post-revolution reconstruction . In the “campus seizures” during Machado’s reign, the youthful communist party played a preeminent role but the CP would quickly oppose mass action in fear of an foreign intervention, oppose Grau and eventually actively support the Batista regime (Wolf 267). This tension between student unrest and CP policy mounted during the years of Grau’s fall and Batista’s rise, as the official communist party fell monumentally short of the revolutionary student’s ideals. Due to the communist party’s failure to either reconcile with student radicalism  or fully support Grau, Grau San Martin found himself attacked on all sides, by conservatives for his radicalism, by radicals for his liberalism (Sweig). It was perhaps for this reason that Grau San Martin lasted for so short a time, yet some of the socialist sources I have consulted on this period have over idealized the connection between the Communist Party and early student radicals.

Author Ricardo Alarcon De Quesada, and president of Cuba’s national assembly for many years wrote in an article “Cuba: Education and Revolution” found in the “Monthly Review” that during this period,

“Public education was a refuge for Cuban patriotism throughout the first half of the twentieth century. But during the U.S. domination of the island, either in a direct form or via repressive and corrupt U.S.-sponsored regimes, it was education that enabled the student movement and the best of Cuban intellectuals to resist. In fact, student movements and Cuban intellectuals participated decisively in the political and social struggles of the Cuban nation both during the long period of Spanish colonialism and U.S. hegemony, initiating and developing socialist and anti-imperialist thinking.”

While it is objectively true that the University of Havana did and continues to shelter opposition to the regime and offer an avenue for criticism in Cuban society, it is important to note that while socialist thought intermingled in the student radicalism of this period, as Wolf points out, there was a keen sense of separation between the radicalism of the students and the institutionalized leftist parties that self-labeled as socialist and this separation grew in the period of the fall of Grau San Martin, his ultimate return at the head of the Autenticos, the subsequent return of corruption in Havana and eventually the rise of Batista, the political “chameleon” (Swieg 19).

The emergence of violent radicalism in Cuba can be traced, as we have here, to two key problems in Cuban Society; (1) The Cuban Communist Party was a front for counterrevolutionary statesmanship and (2) elected liberal parties failed utterly to meet the expectations of the revolutionary intelligentsia in Havana. For these reasons the student movements against Batista became increasingly violent and increasingly threw their support behind the July 26th movement (not explicitly a socialist movement). Of import, the students of this period before the struggle against Batista were critical of the regime but skeptical of the Communist Party, a theme that remains today. So we see that each period beget the next, or at the very least, each period of student rebellion cast its shadow on the next; the revolutionary sentiment of  Marti leading to a desire for self-determination that ousted Machado under pressure from  the urban intelligentsia in Havana (Sweig) that intern lead to a disillusionment with institutionalized parties and leaders; leading the students of Havana to more radical means to their ends in the period of Batista – which was not unnoticed by the populist turned dictator.

The early 1950s marked the high-tide of student resistance to the Cuban regime, and much of this resistance was violent and radical in nature. Yet not all resistance was this way, as evidenced by the Orthodoxo Party, founded by Eduardo Chibas, himself a former student activist (Sweig 19) in opposition to yet another former student activist, Carlos Prio Socarres, standing President of Cuba and Autentico. Fidel Castro was originally a member of the Orthodoxos yet following Chibas suicide on public radio, the Autenticos turning the University of Havana into the capital of “political gangsterism” in Havana, and the ever present fear of the growing clout of the Orthodoxos and leftism in general, Batista launched a coup months before an election he was certain to lose (Sweig 19). This coup, as Sweig points out, made concrete the disillusionment with electoral systems in the face of such corruption and willing disrespect for the comparatively radical constitution drafted by the Batista regime but a decade earlier (in the coup of 1933). This frustration, rooted in the first failure of Grau and even the Platt Amendment of the early 20th century, came to a head in Havana when Batista subverted the electoral process. The year 1953, merely a year after Batista’s rise to power , proved violent and  radical. Fidel launched his attack on the Moncada Barracks and University of Havana professor Rafael Barcena lead a short-lived anti-Batista conspiracy (Sweig 28). Fidel and his rebels were banished, but revolutionary sparks met dry tinder in Havana in their absence. Tensions reached a fever pitch with the arrival of the Granma and the actions of the Revolutionary National Action group headed by Frank Pais, which, as Sweig points out, played a critical role in exporting Sierra socialism to the country entire in 1956.

In March of 1957, a group of clandestine students, members of the Revolutionary Directorate and future enemies of Fidel, stormed Batista’s presidential palace, the bullet-holes of the event still adorn the wall of the building. Ultimately the attack failed and its members defeated and killed, but the stunning success of the rebels in the Sierra Maestra both elevated Fidel’s power and inspired continued struggle (Wolf 271).  Keenly, the directorate’s leader, a student named Jose Echeverria was killed in a shootout at a radio station in a related assault. The directorate itself stands as a historical testament to the division of students and the intelligentsia on the subject of socialism, given the directorate’s staunch anti-communist approach that lead to their forceful dissolution and incorporation into the newly formed Communist Party of Cuba in 1961. It’s important to note, as Sweig does, that the newly formed Communist Party of Cuba was indeed a coercive attack on fractious student revolutionary movements, but it was also a move against the PSP that had backed Batista and was subservient to Moscow; as Fidel himself desired the unification of student groups under the tent of the CPC to allow for truly autonomous nation-building to begin in earnest (Sweig). So we see that ultimately the student revolutionary movements that moved in the era of Batista, notably the directorate, were indeed absorbed and dissolved, but their influence was a dialectical one, one that does not simply vanish when the institution of their ideological power vanishes. Put simply, Cuban society after the triumph of the cuban revolution retained much of the ideas that formed in the days of Marti, Machado and Grau, namely a desire to be truly autonomous, a deep skepticism of outside influence and to be skeptical of organized parties and ideologies including the PSP and future CPC. The influence of the intelligentsia, put differently, the purveying desire of the Cuban revolutionary movement to be autonomous, can be found in one final place, and that is in the very sailors of the Granma.

For socialist revolutionaries, Fidel and his fellow rebels aboard the Granma were keenly abstracted from the rural proletariat they endeavored to liberate. Eric Wolf makes note of this in his class analysis, but the fact is not lost in an analysis of the importance of the intelligentsia in the Cuban Revolution namely because Fidel was a member of the intelligentsia. Wolf remarks, “How did the rebel group galvanize the masses? The original core of the rebel force was composed primarily of what have been called “revolutionary intellectuals,” mostly middle-class origins. Some were students (Raul Castro, Faure Chomon), some lawyers, (Fidel, Dorticos), some doctors, some teachers (Frank Pais)…”(Wolf 269). Che Guevara himself went on to remark, “none of the first group who came on the Granma …had worker’s or peasant’s backgrounds” (Wolf 269). Wolf continues his analysis in saying that Fidel’s move to guerilla tactics after the catastrophe of the Granma’s original landing was keenly anti-Marxist, from a Leninist perspective. Here we see the role of the intelligentsia in action; socialist revolutionaries heeding not the words of Marx or Lenin (or his Muscovite successors) but the realities of their material conditions. So we see, not only was the revolution a conglomerate of revolutionary students, lumpen proletariat, proletariat, petty-bourgeois peasants and even bourgeois elements but also one that preserved the original revolutionary urge to attain autonomy in practice. These urges remain today, and I found that out profoundly upon visiting Havana and its university.

The University of Havana remains a center, as Ricardo Alarcon De Quesada remarked upon its historical role, of dissent and criticism for the regime. I learned about this role by simply being around it, hearing lectures from professors and talking to a few students and college-aged youths in the city of Havana. Dr. Antonio Romero Gomez of the Universities’ international economy department gave a lecture with a keen sense of both factors I have highlighted about the historical role of the intelligentsia in Cuban society.  Firstly Dr. Gomez highlighted the necessity of change in light of the special period and critiqued the lack of foresight in the planning of the Cuban Economy. When the crises occurred, Dr. Gomez and his colleagues had encouraged Fidel and the Communist Party to take immediate action (Gomez), but the CPC leadership for too long blamed the crises on external factors according to Dr. Gomez. Immediately I saw the relationship I had read about in action – the intelligentsia centered in Havana ever skeptical of party dialogue and urging for reform. Yet, this reform was not like that in Guatemala, Chile and others where national movements were crushed by foreign backed coups – the reform advocated for by Dr. Gomez was one intimately interested in Cuban sovereignty.

I found in my historical survey that such a motion was in line with over a hundred years of revolutionary development. The classroom of revolution had taught the Cuban intelligentsia much about reform, practicality and defending their autonomy. Admittedly, the perspective was historical and validated, but I remained skeptical that such reforms could occur while at the same time respecting their original tenants – mainly remaining autonomous and free from international monetary control. Indeed, a recent Reuters article declared that school enrollment had dropped 27% between 2008 and  2012 and that extensive cuts had been made to education spending (Reuters). I agreed with Dr. Gomez critique of the old system in a world without the Soviet Union, yet this point was something to stop on – had Cuba really achieved the autonomy it so desired during the period of its alliance with the Soviet Union? Dr. Gomez suggested not, given that the fact that imports decreased over 70% after the fall (Gomez) and planning had lacked the backwards and forwards linkages between industries with an over-focus on industry in the soviet-style. Perhaps, I pontificated, could this period after the special period produce a true autonomy of Cuban development devoid of a greater state’s influence? Could the reforms be the outcome of a historical process spanning back centuries, made possible by the revolution, but necessitating a new approach to reach? This idea was elucidated further by another professor.

Rafael Betancourt, himself a professor in Havana highlighted the victories of the revolution while in line with the long history of the intelligentsia in Havana critiquing the weaknesses of the bureaucratic system currently in place.  Having seen Dr. Gomez’ presentation previously, I went into Professor Betancourt’s presentation with the questions raised above in mind. Professor Betancourt highlighted in detail the Guidlines published in 2011 by the Communist Party on the new reforms, chief among them that the state will continue to own the main means of production while at the same time giving more autonomy to the private sector and also to state-run operations. Again the distrust of bureaucracy yet focus on making something of unique Cuban character was at the heart of the professor’s analysis. I remained skeptical, as the professor claimed that 7% growth for almost 30 years was necessary to stabilize the Cuban economy, and in an era of scarcity, growth every year will become impossible. That notwithstanding, Professor Betancourt stressed, as Dr. Gomez did, the necessity of change in a Cuban way. The analysis seemed universal in the Cuban Intelligentsia and Cuban society at large; change is necessary, but the Cuban people most come to it through consensus and mutual work, to come to their own synthesis of planned and private, in their own national way. I found, by surveying the historical struggle of the intelligentsia in Cuba that such a desire was an inevitable product of the political developments of the first half of the 20th century and into Cuba’s soviet-influenced, socialist transition.

Cuba was for me a place of socialist victory, my choice to go a sign of solidarity; and it is perhaps for this reason that their move away from socialist policies left me fearful for the future of the Cuban revolution’s gains. Yet by studying history and looking to the ancestors of those first professors and students who fought against the Platt Amendment a keen insight emerged about the revolution of 1958/9; its socialist character was crucial and influential, and from this base came an emergent quality of the revolution – the revolution had empowered all of the people of Cuba, the intelligentsia included. By studying the history of the student movements and their influence on the Cuban revolution at large and then offering two anecdotes on my experience with modern Cuban intellectuals at the University of Havana a greater understanding of the thread I am connecting between past revolution and current reform emerges. We should not be surprised that in the nation born out of student riots and Sierra idealists should continue to be a synthesis of these two competing yet irrevocably attached ideological threads. Cuban Socialism has, after all, been but one step in a long historical progression towards autonomy for Cuba manifested noticeably in the intelligentsia’s unending desire for it; and perhaps in time, history may “absolve” both  Fidel and his compatriots in their struggle for political autonomy and procure a future best fit for Cuba – at the decision of none other than Cubans themselves.

Works Cited:

Alarcon De Quesada, Ricardo. “Cuba: Education and Revolution.” Monthly Review. N.p., July-    Aug. 2011. Web. 25 July 2013.

Betancourt, Rafael. “Cuba in Transition: Towards a New Economic Model.” Colegio  Universitario San Gerónimo De La Habana, Havana. June  2013. Lecture.

Gomez, Antonio R. “Cuba: Economic Transformations and International Re-Insertion.”   University of Havana, Havana. June 2013. Lecture.

Sweig, Julia. Cuba: What Everyone Needs to Know. Oxford: Oxford UP,   2009. Print.

“With Cuts, Free Education Is No Longer a Cuban Birthright.” New York   Times. Reuters, 3 Oct.   2012. Web.

Wolf, Eric R. Peasant Wars of the Twentieth Century. New York: Harper & Row, 1969.    Print.

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