Friday, April 22, 2016

David Brooks went to Cuba...

... and all I got was this shitty T-shirt:

José Martí shirt, from Karoll William's Online Shop.
Actually it's a pretty nice shirt, though Yanqui-made, but then I had to find it myself.

Brooks was on a junket accompanying the President's Committee on the Arts and Humanities delegation to Cuba for a three-day visit this week,
to advance deeper cooperation around the common bonds of our heritages – arts and culture – and identify greater opportunities for people-to-people artistic and cultural collaborations. The visit itinerary will include both lively scholarly and artistic event and exchanges, as well as meetings with Cuban government officials and directors of cultural institutions.
Or as Davy himself put it,
I am here with the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, part of President Obama’s reconciliation with Cuba. Musicians like Smokey Robinson, Dave Matthews, Joshua Bell, John Lloyd Young and Usher and creative types like the playwright John Guare and the choreographer Martha Clarke, got to interact with their Cuban counterparts, while government officials negotiated future exchanges.
Musicians and creative types? Both? I guess that covers all the bases.

Brooks wasn't there as a musician or a creative type, I'm glad to say. He wasn't part of the delegation, though of course he'd like you to think he was ("I am here with...")—he had wangled his way into the press corps, though as we know he hasn't strictly speaking reported a story since that fresh-out-of-college summer job in 1983 ("Jesus, Andrew, you always let Maureen do this kind of thing... I'll bet it's because she's a Democrat...").

Nor does he report this one. Even though he manages not to mention the vintage cars on the street (it's quite possible he literally hasn't been on the street, but simply shuttled from hotel to performance space and back for the whole 72 hours), there's hardly a word he couldn't have picked up at home in DC from the Times website, and if there is he got it from one of the actual journalists he was having breakfast, lunch, and dinner with, sometimes to fairly hilarious effect:

The current government slogan — not without haste, but without pause — suggests a steady reform process, but in fact the old people running this effort are halting and glacial.
Sadly, no; if that ancient Spanish catchword really is a current government slogan, it's yes without haste—sin prisa pero sin pausa, unhurried but unceasing—which does make quite a bit more sense when you think about it.

I don't think glaciers halt too often, either. Glaciers are as sin prisa pero sin pausa as it gets.

The most interesting thing is probably the way Cuba seems to be exactly the way Brooks wants America to be:

The neighborhoods feel warmer and more communal than those in many other nations....
there is one big thing Cuba definitely has going for it: national pride. One encounters a fierce love of country, a sense of national solidarity and a confident patriotic spirit that is today lacking in the United States....
A lot of that national pride is based on cultural achievements.... The artistic community is consistently dazzling. It’s not only the high artistic standards. There is a radiating joy in performance that glows out of each artist, a blaze from something deep in the Cuban soul....
Watch out for that radiation sickness!

it’s exciting to see a nation that has a palpable sense of its own soul....
Every nation needs to know who it is and what its collective story is....
And the worst is, Cubans have a national poet!

But Cuban national pride has another source: the 19th-century poet and journalist José Martí. I was amazed how much Martí’s name came up in conversation here and how little Fidel Castro’s did.

That is so fucking unfair! A society run on the basis of a single monolithic leftist creed by a sclerotic bunch of octogenarians seems to have exactly the virtues Brooks has been wishing on his own society, and they seem to get away with it, and they even have a national poet! They talk about him all the time instead of talking about politicians! And America doesn't have shit! How does God even allow this to happen?

The other interesting thing is that he clearly doesn't want to look at any of José Martí's poetry; doesn't say a word about what kind of poetry it might be or how it feels, hasn't asked a soul. It doesn't occur to him that the quality of your national poet would make a difference. He probably thinks a nation acquires a national poet by some kind of judicious compromise.

Which is not the case: it's really about ecstasy and irony. Martí was a very partisan figure, a revolutionary polemicist, an organizer and intriguer, and in the end, too, blown away on a ridiculously ill-chosen battlefield. He was 42 when he died. But he was an ecstatic poet. The passage I found that I felt like trying to translate isn't quite typical, I don't think, but very good. It's from "Amor de ciudad grande" (Big-city love) in his collection of Versos libres, found after his death in 1895 and published in 1913:
Se ama de pie, en las calles, entre el polvo
De los salones y las piazas; muere
La flor que nace. Aquella virgen
Trémula que antes a la muerte daba
La mano pura que a ignorado mozo;
El goce de temer; aquel salirse
Del pecho el corazón; el inefable
Placer de merecer; el grato susto
De caminar de prisa en derechura
Del hogar de la amada, y a sus puertas
Como un niño feliz romper en llanto;—
Y aquel mirar, de nuestro amor al fuego,
Irse tiñendo de color las rosas,—
Ea, que son patrañas! Pues ¿quién tiene
Tiempo de ser hidalgo? Bien que sienta
Cual áureo vaso o lienzo suntuoso
Dama gentil en casa de magnate!
One loves on foot, in the street, amid the dust
of saloons and of public squares; the flower dying
even as it's being born; that girl trembling
because she could die before giving her hand to some boy
she hasn't yet met; the thrill of fear; the way the heart
leaps from his chest; the ineffable pleasure of
deserving the love he gets; the welcome panic
as he hurries to the beloved and, right at her door,
bursts into tears like an over-happy child;—
and the watching, in the case of our own love by the fire,
the roses filling, bit by bit, with color,—
Bah, what a lot of nonsense! And who has the time
to be a knight? Though the high-born lady feels
like a golden vase or rich canvas in the grandee's house!
As for Brooks, you'll want to check out Driftglass, obviously.

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