How can one write about Martí’s letters? Where to start, how to never stop talking about them? Where had we seen, in what literature, in what hymnbook, in what declaration of love, silences and words, beginnings and farewells like these? It is impossible to capture in a few lines the incomparable spell. A spell cannot be told, described, analyzed: it is necessary to participate. And that is what these letters written with a feverish hand first ask of us: to participate. It no longer is possible to flee. We remain committed from the first instant and for always. It can be explained that such a man has drawn a people. What is there in Martí’s letters that we do not find in another collection of letters, no matter how illustrious it is? From where does that force of his come to implicate us immediately in the warm halo of his argumentation, of his enthusiasm or of his sorrow? How do these outpourings said to others concern us, these tasks of an already historic past that, all of a sudden, seem to confront us with our own time, as if demanding from us something that we would have forgotten, or that were directly addressed to each one of us?
The first thing that calls attention in Martí’s letters is that none of the various aptitudes with which he was gifted – that of poet, thinker, revolutionary – exclusively and “professionally,” to call it thus, conforms any of his letters, as if they came from another man, being this an “upright” feature – a word he always uses in a significant way – of each citizen, which he wanted to place as foundation and first law of the Republic, also the foundation and first law of his expression. Since note that Martí being a fine poet, his letters do not have that personal and vaguely discriminatory poetry that the letters of poets usually have, the collection of letters of a Keats, of a Rilke, for example, as also being a fine revolutionary neither do his letters have, if we compare them with those of other political leaders, that excluding character. He who at some point excused himself for having had to follow two university careers, since, for him, “I would follow no more career than that of man,” always writes from all the man, and addresses him, which is why he only “defended” his cause and that his accent be at the same time that of a teacher, of a lover, of a father, of a son, so that we all feel that we have received all his letters, as if they were addressed to an acquaintance or to a stranger, to someone close or someone distant.
And this is like this in double meaning: not just in what directly concerns us, despite time, but also when they are addressed to that better “other” inside each man, in whose painful birth there is barely someone to help, despite being this the most important and urgent task. The radical difference between Martí and the other liberators of peoples is that of having proposed a double redemption, political and personal; it is not only the homeland that he wants to redeem but what there is of prisoner in each man. For that it is necessary to place before him his best possibility, not in the form of generalized abstract ideal, but rather as his “virtue,” in its original sense of strength, his own, nontransferable; for that it is necessary “to believe” in that virtue, thus helping to create it. He always addresses that lost “uprightness” when writing to them. That is why we at times ask ourselves: but who were these men to whom Martí spoke, where were paragons of such private and public virtue seen? We have come to wonder if they are the creation of his unique generosity and charity, until we understand that both are right, that they were perhaps common men, but also that any common man, supernaturally loved, can give of himself that which was hidden inside him as his principal secret.
To carry out this mission Martí uses a delicate and perhaps dangerous instrument: praise. Nothing more unfair than confusing his use of those he once called “the trades of praise” with vulgar flattery, especially since on the outside it could resemble it, when actually it is its antithesis. Thus we see him express, with some sorrow, his fear of looking like a flattering person, a fear not unfounded, since the unrefined ear does not discern, when what he wants is not to flatter but rather awaken that which is dormant, or potential, which exists in each man, arousing them to the noble vanity of reaching the height in which his faith has put them. Thus far from loosening them, as flattery does, he lifts each one of them to their full dignity, to a forgotten hierarchy that makes them be recognized, moved, as a redeemer, as an apostle of the “entire” man. And when he asks, in his moving farewells, “Love me,” “Think of me,” “act as if I were always present,” he is like a needy god that also needs to be believed in to believe, that faith in a man has no less mortal weaknesses than the divine faith, as if it were more difficult and discouraging. But the man who “bites the hand” of he who cures him is not what is seen, rather “what is not seen.” We always see him as the son of the guard, guarding the best of each man, as if in this he had the pristine image of the homeland, which is “the merit of his children”: it is this good that he wants to provoke in the other, the one that is of “his Martí,” just as he is the servant of only this. It is like this that his letters, no matter his immediate purpose, always point to a more distant and decisive one; to be “making,” as he used to say, souls.
And that sort of apostolate does not cease. It is not by chance that his work continues producing more than true critics, unconditional lovers, men who on meeting Martí, at any stage of his life, remain with him for always, without being able to do anything else but to follow him, study him, love him. His knowledge, even if passed on, always constitutes a personal discovery. This is his first characteristic. Varona is read, Del Monte is studied, but Martí is “discovered.”
Someone who does better, who awakens the generous desire for sacrifice, the “Delegate,” of a concrete party as well as of an unknown totality. Some of the reservations he aroused among the old fighters derive from that: they do not understand in what his superior influx consists. His exterior biography explains nothing. Any one of them had participated in greater feats. Many other Cubans had also gone to prison or suffered exile or died in the battlefield. Why him? Who is this man? From where does his strength come? He does what another could do in an absolutely unique way. He acts at another level. He doesn’t have more feats but rather more spirit. The old warriors of 1868 have to admit they have met with one who is worth what they are worth without having fought in a single battle, and that even, mysteriously, incomprehensibly, is more. The more generous admit it; the others are offended for always…. It is not about the distrust that the man of action could feel in the face of the man “of mere verb,” as he used to say, a justified distrust and even shared by Martí himself, neither of an alleged inability of these men, of such high human and patriotic merits, to generously recognize a higher merit, the ability they confirmed on so many occasions, like when we see Gómez exalt up to the hyperbole the military merits of José Maceo. What prevented Gómez, Collazo, Maceo from understanding Martí is not that Martí was superior to them but rather the impossibility of understanding the source, for them unknown, of that superiority. That initial lack of understanding determines the others and explains that “bad-tempered” character that accompanied them, since perhaps the principal cause of all bad temper resides precisely in the impossibility of specifying it, in that character of confused irritability that produces a discomfort whose central focus is unknown to us….
It is not a chance event that when Martí speaks of another’s merits he seems to be speaking of himself or that he affirms feeling as his own all the joy or misfortunes of others. This, which should be natural, is strange, but it is the natural strange, a rather different being, as Juan Ramón Jiménez (recalling some exotic copies of modernism) from those who are “strange” for not being natural. Martí’s exceptionality consisted in being, among so many sketches of man or so much individual genius, an “upright” natural creature, a man “of truth and simplicity,” and that is why one never finishes knowing him, and not as some believe, because he still has not been sufficiently seen, because he has that inexhaustible quality of the natural creatures, of a fountain, of a tree. At some time one finishes reading Plato but one never finishes seeing a tree.