Casal and Maceo: Art, War and Race in Colonial Havana


Oscar Montero
Lehman College and The Graduate Center, CUNY


In the history of Cuban culture in the nineteenth century, it would be difficult to conceive of two images as diametrically opposed as Julián del Casal and Antonio Maceo. A boxing ring configuration comes to mind, called out in the rough voice of a carnival barker. In this corner: sublime poet Julián del Casal (1863-1893), among the first Spanish American writers to translate European aestheticism into a native idiom. And in this corner, ladies and gentlemen: the great war hero Antonio Maceo (1845-1896), the most feared and most effective military leader in Cuba's long struggle for independence. The contrast I have just crudely sketched out is founded on the classic opposition between the sword and the pen. The contrast generates other opposites organized around these two iconic images of the poet and the warrior: virility vs. weakness, country vs. city, patriotism vs. decadence, body vs. writing.

As iconic figures in Cuban culture, Maceo and Casal occupy violently opposed categories, an opposition made more complex by the racial politics of colonial Cuba. Maceo's position on the questions of race and independence was clear, forthright and downright visionary: he affirmed his pride as a black man, defended the rights of Afro-Cubans, and at the same time insisted that racial equality was inseparable from the struggle for Cuban independence. It goes without saying that Maceo's progressive ideas troubled white independence leaders, many of whom watched warily as Maceo rose through the ranks of the insurrectionist army. In fact, Maceo was forced to fight on two fronts: on one front, he fought the Spaniards; on the other, he faced the racism of white Cuban leaders eager to control, if not stop, his increasing powers. Casal was a white man, the impoverished heir of a Spanish sugar mill owner and a woman of the Cuban bourgeoisie. Casal's so-called decadence and the ambiguities associated with the erotic drift of his work pushed him to another sort of margin. Racial prejudice and cultural exclusion of a different sort mark my two men. Although it may now seem unlikely to consider them in the same realm, in the cultural politics of the time their meeting was inevitable. Tokens of their mutual respect, admiration and even love have remained. My aim is to reconstruct something of the individual trajectories that led to their meeting and to the subsequent polarization of their images in the national imagination.

Maceo began his military career in the early days of the Ten Years' War, Cuba's first War of Independence, which began on October 10, 1868, under the leadership of wealthy landowner Carlos Manuel de Céspedes. In the early battles of that war, Maceo rose quickly to the rank of commander and saw his father killed at his side. In Cuban culture, the revolutionary zeal of the Maceo family is legendary. The story of Maceo's heroic mother Mariana Grajales, told by Martí in 1894, has been taught to every Cuban child as the epitome of love of country and patriotism. For Maceo the abolition of slavery was inseparable from the struggle for independence. The slaves he freed joined the liberating army. The participation of the freed slaves and of the lower classes, both black and white, in the Ten Years' War ultimately resulted in a conflict with the conservative landowners, owners who had led the struggle in the fist place (Foner 28-9). As the war effort continued, from the ranks of these men rose an all-out racist campaign to accuse Maceo of fighting to create a black republic. The Spanish information services seized the opportunity and contributed to the rumors about Maceo, fed by the ever-feared specter of Haiti.

The first War of Independence ended in 1878 with the infamous Pact of Zanjón, which neither put an end to slavery nor granted independence to Cuba. Disgusted with the Pact, Maceo continued fighting in the hills of eastern Cuba. To a great extent, it was Maceo's refusal to give in to the terms of the truce that insured the reorganization of the independence struggle and paved the way for the war of 1895. Maceo spent the intervening years in exile. With Máximo Gómez and Martí, he raised funds and prepared for an eventual invasion of Cuba. In 1890, Maceo took advantage of changes in Spanish colonial policy and entered Cuba through Santiago, eventually arriving in Havana in the month of February.

In Cuban culture Maceo is recognized as the epitome of the war hero, long on brawn and implicitly short on brain. In fact, during his dangerous visit to Havana, he moved with the ease of a seasoned diplomat, suggesting to the Spanish authorities that he had accepted the peace agreement and was merely on a business trip. While in Cuba, Maceo met extensively with pro-independence leaders, sympathetic intellectuals and journalists. Maceo's legend as a war hero was well known to the residents of Havana, but like an experienced politician, he used his physical presence, charisma and attractiveness to further his desire to unify the rather tattered Cuban opposition to the Spanish regime (Franco 346).

During one of the interviews Maceo granted at the Hotel Inglaterra, where he stayed during his visit to Havana, a group of young journalists crowded around him demanding to hear about his war exploits. Not one to brag on his war deeds, yet tired of the journalists’ questions, Maceo stripped to the waist, revealing the dozens of scars that covered his torso. Pointing to each scar, Maceo went on to tell the story of the battles where he was wounded (Franco 347). With one dramatic gesture, Maceo cut off the eager questions of the young writers and reporters who surrounded him. In this scene, the body replaces all possible rhetoric, becoming the evidence of heroic deeds, too powerful to be recounted in mere words. For a brief moment, the realities of the battlefield invade the city through the presence of the scarred body. At exactly the same time, in the same city, Casal's body was the center of a radically different strategy of representation, one where the sick, deviant body inscribed its own drama through the power of words.

Casal probably met Maceo in April or May of 1890, perhaps a few weeks later. Photographic portraits were one of Casal's passions. Maceo gave his photograph to Casal, and the two were photographed together. I want to stop on these two images: the body of the hero, scarred and literally storied, and Casal's photograph. Each scar on the hero's body is a story. The scar points to the heroism of the battlefield, and the body tautologically gives credence to the story. The scar is also the fresh memory of the tortured slave body, now redeemed in the heroic presence of Maceo. On the other hand, Casal's photograph is all surface. As a unique representation, the photograph resists the process of classification that would constitute a corpus, that is, an object of study. As Roland Barthes has suggested, the photograph is the place of an ever repeated subjective encounter: the photograph "leads the corpus I need back to the body I see" (4). The voice of the hero gives life to a story that issues from the body itself. The photograph represents the immanence of repetition and death. The body, marked with stories, and the dead gaze of the photograph are the emblems of two distinct journeys, the hero's and the poet's, which cross in 1890, some place in Havana. It was a fleeting moment of mutual respect, admiration and even love between two iconic opposites. This meeting, to borrow another term from Barthes's essay on photography, is the punctum of my work, the moment on which I focus, obsessively, myopically.

From the very beginning, the transformation of Maceo into the legendary Bronze Titan figured prominently in the construction of a heroic figure all-of-a-piece, feared on the battlefield yet supposedly lacking in a strong intellect. In fact, the value placed on Maceo's heroism at the expense of his intellectual powers became a topic of his biography. Maceo's victories on the battlefield troubled many white independence leaders, anxious to protect the privileges of their race and their class. In the construction of a Maceo legend, the reality of the man, feared in life and in death, was conveniently recast. In an essay from 1942, critic Juan Marinello summed it up this way: "A thousand times Maceo's color was given as a limiting factor, as a fact that devalued his greatness" (39). "As a revolutionary and as a mulatto," Marinello wrote, Maceo lived "in a perilous crossroads," where he felt "the anguish of living on the border": "la angustia de lo fronterizo" (14-6).

After his death, Maceo's image was ripe to enter the national pantheon transformed into a heroic statue, an equestrian bronze that in popular Cuban lore was said to match the color of his skin. Maceo's eloquent defenses in the face of racist attacks, his unwavering support of unconditional national sovereignty, his generosity in victory and his interest in self-improvement and education were diluted in the smelting of the bronze statue that came to represent him in the Republic. The stately dignity of the statue erased and silenced. In 1916 the creation of a Maceo myth was grandiosely accomplished with the dedication in Havana of the hero's equestrian monument. To mark the occasion, a slim paperback edition of Maceo's papers, titled De la campaña, was distributed in Havana. In a didactic introduction "To the Reader," the editor and compiler, Néstor Carbonell, praises Maceo's heroism while explicitly contrasting it to his lack of formal education. Carbonell writes about Maceo: "Maceo lacked the time to obtain a degree or learn grammar and arithmetic, but not for becoming a professional in heroism […] he was not a thinker but rather a brilliant warrior, the Hero par excellence" (3). Carbonell concludes his portrait of the hero with a mixed metaphor, combining the notion of rectitude with a blatantly racist contrast between "black" and "white." According to Carbonell, Maceo's life "was a straight line from dawn to dusk; [he] was bronze on the outside, yet inside, [he was] pure marble, without a single black streak" (4). In other words, according to Carbonell, Maceo was a straight arrow, and if, during his life, race had been a "problem," certainly in death, the hero could be conveniently whitened "inside", turned to "pure marble."

On his arrival in Havana, Maceo immediately expressed his "repugnance towards everything I see," he said to a journalist (Aparicio 327). Maceo was no doubt referring to the deteriorated condition of the city and the poverty of its people but also to moral conditions he associated with colonial rule. On the other hand, in spite of its dirty streets and destitute inhabitants, Havana in 1890 had remained far from the horrors of war. It was a city of coffee shops, bars, tertulias and department stores. It was the Havana where prostitutes and homosexuals paraded on the periphery of the main square. Havana had become an important port city in an increasingly global economic system that was beginning to overflow the ideological limits of the national project imagined by Maceo and Martí. This Havana was Julián del Casal's city.

Casal lived and wrote in a city in the grip of what he called "a squandering fever," a disease of getting and spending that failed to mask the squalor of the streets and the dearth of spirit. With uncommon intuition, Casal seemed to sense that decadent Havana was the city of the future, and he transformed the limits of his own predicament into images of another sort, a fragile, yet powerful, recompense. At the same time, Casal began to use aesthetic criticism of an almost Wildean bent as a political tool. In a series of articles that he intended for a never completed book titled "Society in Havana," he ridiculed the Captain General and his wife, partly on aesthetic grounds. Casal equated a sublime aesthetic sensibility with national values. The publication provoked a scandal and cost Casal the job that had guaranteed his economic stability. Paradoxically, as his reputation as a Cuban writer to be reckoned with was established, Casal became increasingly alienated from colonial society. In a city where technical progress and European luxuries coexisted with poverty and exploitation, in a city that must have seemed at times to be a grotesque copy of a European capital, he responded with the simulacrum of art.

Casal's work in various Havana periodicals involved writing crónicas, brief, often-subjective impressions about various topics: theatrical events, the arrival of transatlantic steamers, society parties or even the opening of a new department store. At times, it seems as if Casal carried out these tasks with barely concealed impatience or even distaste. In a review of a department store, the writer seems to drift from a vague, barely convincing admiration for the objects piled up in the store to a critical attitude for the type of economy already taking hold in the colonial capital. In this crónica, about one of the new stores in Havana, the writer strolls through the aisles, only to flee horrified by the piling up of artistic objects alongside objects of questionable value. The ambiguities associated with Casal's situation become increasingly related to the predicaments of the work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction, the terms used by Benjamin many years later in his famous essay. By contrast, in Maceo's project, ethical polarities are clearly spelled out, and there is little room for nuance and ambiguity. Maceo was the unequivocal warrior hero in what Martí called a legitimate war on Spanish oppression.

For Casal, the writer in the colonial capital, ambiguity is the name of the game. Casal must recast himself precisely as an ambiguous, extravagant subject, all the more troubling in the nascent republic of letters, because, no less so than the hero Maceo, he proclaims his national identity from the start. An early poem, titled "Autobiografía" begins "Nací en Cuba," ‘I was born in Cuba.’ Casal's admiration for European art and literature and the many uses of imported, translated aesthetic values in his work do not contradict this early affirmation of Cuban nationality, which would cast its aura over the rest of his work. It was in these circumstances, the predicament of a devout aesthete in one of Spain's remaining colonies, that Casal responded to Maceo's visit, first with genuine admiration, then with a sonnet where the legendary hero is brought into Casal's aesthetic realm.

In a letter to a friend, dated August 1, 1890, Casal refers to his encounter with Maceo. In one sentence, he captures the image of the General. The second paragraph is a compact self-portrait, achieved through a contrast with the hero:

These past few days I have only met one person whom I have found appealing. Who do you think it is? Maceo, who is a beautiful man, solidly built, with a sharp mind and a will of iron.

I do not know if my sympathy for our General is caused by the neurosis from which I suffer, which makes me admire creatures whose conditions and qualities are opposed to mine; but I assure you that few men have impressed me as favorably as he. He has already left, and I do not know if he will return. After all, I am glad, for people always look better to our eyes when we see them from far away. (Prosas 3:82).

In the letter, Casal's epigrammatic style seems to strain for effect. The writer refers casually to his neurosis and creates a clever contrast of types between Maceo and himself. On the other hand, Casal's sincere admiration for Maceo comes through in the expression, "our general," a forbidden expression in the colonial capital and a clear sign of a restated solidarity with the struggle for independence. After his meeting with Casal, Maceo returned to the battlefield. He died in a minor skirmish in 1896, short of his goal of leading a Cuban Ayacucho, that is, a definitive victory that would give Cuba its independence, just as the famous battle of 1824 had ended Spanish domination in South America. Biographers and eulogists have used the image of the straight line to refer to the stellar trajectory of Maceo, from his humble birth to national glory. By contrast, Casal has been consistently identified with deviance and marginality. Suffering from a vaguely diagnosed ailment and increasingly at odds with colonial culture, Casal retreated to borrowed quarters overlooking the sea, and there wrote his last and best works, among them the sonnet to the admired hero.

In the sonnet "To a Hero," Casal recasts the return of the warrior and the values associated with him. Casal's sonnet was published in the journal La Habana Literaria, October 30, 1892, a year before his death. The sonnet is part of a trilogy; the other two sonnets, published alongside, are respectively titled "O Altitudo" and "Desecration." "O Altitudo" contains a stanza that portrays the young poet as a banished god:

No one knows of your disease; because you yourself,

Stifling mortal sensations before they bloom,

Have chosen darkness for your life,

Like a god condemned to ostracism.

The young poet, ostracized because of some unknown malady, theatrically sets off the image of the hero in the accompanying sonnet. Through this contrast, a transformed, one might say a rewritten Maceo enters the realm of Casal's aestheticism. Casal transforms the details of Maceo's return to Cuba into a dramatic scene, worthy of Gustave Moreau, the painter most admired by the Cuban poet. At the same time, Casal constructs his own stylized version of Cuba's colonial condition.

In the sonnet "To a Hero," the returning hero is portrayed as a galleon, resplendent with gold and corals. On his arrival, the hero, personified as the arriving galleon, sees "mortal plagues that ravage the ancient city; the docks are empty; the shores, deserted". In the sonnet, the opulence of the hero's galleon contrasts with a desolate landscape, where instead of "brave companions," the hero finds "hungry ghosts greedy for gold, ruling over miserable slaves" (1:218). The scene recalls Piranesi's popular depictions of dungeons and catacombs, much admired by Casal. In the sonnet, Maceo's heroic stature contrasts with the horror of a country where all the people are slaves. During the wars of independence, Maceo struggled for the abolition of slavery and subsequently for the rights of people of African descent. In the sonnet, colonial rule transforms the entire country into a slave camp.

Prestigious man of letters Enrique José Varona, one of Casal's early mentors, criticized him for creating "Oriental fantasies" alien to the circumstances in which he lived. Casal's aesthetic deformations disturbed Varona's almost neoclassical sense of decorum and clouded a republican ideal whose foundations Varona worked hard to establish. In fact, Casal's poetic praise of the hero and his depiction of a degraded colonial space were no less a "fantasy" than the "Oriental" reveries that upset Varona. And yet, the chiseled language of the sonnet hits the mark; through it, the visiting hero descends into a capital transformed into a tropical hell, painted by Piranesi. In his brief letter about Maceo's visit, Casal had expressed his admiration for the hero. However, in the sonnet, Casal translates his admiration for the hero and his journey into startling images, brought to life by a richly ornamented, yet subtly suggestive style, whose aesthetic power endures. Through the sonnet, Maceo enters Casal's "ideal museum", the title of a sonnet sequence included in Casal's Nieve. In the "ideal museum", the military hero is disfigured so that he may enter a realm far from the dualities of war and politics, an aesthetic realm controlled and created by the poet, characterized by rich ambiguities and dramatic contrasts.

After his death on the battlefield in 1896, Maceo was condemned to the rigidity of the bronze statue. There are no statues to Casal in Cuba, nor is his name engraved over the entrance of our National Library. The mortal remains of one of our most significant poets still lie in a borrowed grave in Havana's cemetery. Casal's death effigy is not the official statue, commissioned by a jittery republic to exorcise the ghosts of its own oppressions. It is a bizarre mask, observed by a visitor to Casal's room in the final weeks of his illness. The visitor, pro-independence writer Manuel Sanguily, describes Casal's imagination in almost Proustean terms, to which he adds terms such as "exotic", "artificial" and "sick": In his mind, as in a kaleidoscope turning incessantly, the images of a fleeting world followed analogous images, all combining with each other and deforming themselves successively.

In Sanguily's comment, the succession of analogous, fleeting images, their subsequent deformation, and their unstoppable sequence, allude to the key points of Casal's aesthetics. Its final emblem is a mask, described by Sanguily as "the horrible Asian mask, hanging from the wall, eternally opening its dreadful mouth, bristling with carnivorous teeth" (Prosas 1:30). In Sanguily's authoritative gesture, pointing out the horrible mask in Casal's room, one must also read the desire to underscore Casal's marginality in Cuban culture. That the gesture comes from a man identified with the most racist sectors of Cuban society is not insignificant. Maceo, the powerful black hero, and Casal, the ambiguous white aesthete, both inhabit margins, distant yet complementary, apparently necessary in the formation of a republic eventually ruled by men whose whiteness and whose "straightness" became requirements for access to power and centrality in Cuban affairs.

After the war, after the partial retreat of the new invader, the days of the longed-for republic finally arrived, a Cuban republic founded on compromises and exclusions: of black people, like Maceo, of homosexuals, such as Casal. Instead of putting an end to half a century of struggle, the sacrifices of Martí, Maceo and a generation of patriots marked the beginning of new battles, some yet to be fought. After 1898, what came to matter were the hollow rituals of nationhood: the civic act, the parade, the unveiling of monuments, all hailed by the orator's flailing rhetoric. Casal's mask, with its horrible mouth and carnivorous teeth, does not belong in the paradigm of nationhood handled and shaped by generations of politicians and demagogues. It is made of a different stuff, marginal yet hard and enduring. Like a rediscovered cultural artifact, its possible meanings must be unearthed. As a reader, Cuban, queer, exiled, I have sought to return the empty gaze of Casal's mask, in order to reconsider Maceo's heroic legacy, his defeat and his transformation into a mute national icon: the Bronze Titan. The muteness of that icon contrasts with the legacy of the poet, the dangerously perverse weak creature, whose extravagant visions persist, still suggesting ways of rereading, and perhaps reinventing, the nation.


Works Cited

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