Some things never change

ErnestoCardenal.jpgErnesto Cardenal’s time in the media spotlight was brief but iconic. The bearded poet of the Sandinista revolution removed his beret and attempted to kneel when greeting Pope John Paul II in Managua, Nicaragua, in 1983. John Paul not only stopped Cardenal from kneeling but also delivered a finger-wagging scolding about the priest’s volunteering his talent for verse to the Sandinista cause.

Cardenal popped up on one of many video summaries of John Paul’s 26-year papacy — just long enough to say the pope misunderstood Marxism. Reed Johnson of the Los Angeles Times has written a 1,700-word Column One piece on Cardenal’s continuing commitment to the Sandinista vision (though not to former president Daniel Ortega, “whom Cardenal has accused of acting like a dictator by quashing dissent within the Sandinista party and cutting cynical deals with the party’s former opponents”).

Johnson’s piece is a reminder that although Cardenal has no use for U.S. foreign policy, he’s been shaped by American culture, including a time as a disciple of Thomas Merton (who also was no slouch when it came to opposing U.S. foreign policy):

Cardenal’s life is one of active solitude. He spends much of his time reading and writing. He receives visitors at home but doesn’t use the Internet, entrusting a secretary with his extensive correspondence. He still sculpts, a passion that began during his student days at New York’s Columbia University in the late 1940s. With satisfaction, he points to an elegant abstract piece modeled after a tropical plant.

And he still writes poetry.

In a country where poets are treated like movie stars, Cardenal is admired for his plain-spoken candor, technical innovations and sheer productivity. His wide-ranging intellect, epigrammatic style and blank-verse emotional immediacy recall such key influences as Walt Whitman, Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams.

In his longer narrative poems such as “With Walker in Nicaragua,” about William Walker, the Tennessee soldier of fortune who invaded Nicaragua in the 1850s and tried to transform it into a slave society, Cardenal uses the canto form to spin history into verse. Reminiscent of T.S. Eliot’s “Journey of the Magi” in its lush, symbolic imagery and haunted, backward-glancing point of view, “With Walker in Nicaragua” is a masterpiece of historical re-imagination.

Only in some later works does Cardenal occasionally fall into polemics. “He can be such a superb poet,” critic Richard Elman wrote in the Nation in 1985, “that his occasional wordiness and heavy-handedness is all the more unforgivable.”

Cardenal’s emphatically mixed feelings about the United States surface in many of his poems, as well as in his latest memoirs. As a young man he honed his beliefs while living in a Trappist monastery in Kentucky, where he became a disciple of Thomas Merton, the monk who was a poet, theologian and social justice advocate. Though his spoken English is limited, he has read widely in that language and has translated English poetry into Spanish. “American poetry has influenced me more than that of any other country,” he says.

Although Cardenal has not, like Dominican-turned-Episcopalian Matthew Fox, prepared 22 questions for John Paul’s successor, he shares Fox’s pessimism about the Catholic Church under Benedict XVI: “Asked about the new pope in an interview last week with a Nicaraguan publication, Cardenal described Benedict as an ‘inquisitor’ and called his election a ‘fatal’ decision by the church.”

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  • John Hetman

    Even in my “Leftist” days, I found Ernesto to be a tedious poet. The wind blows where it will, to paraphrase Christ, and Ernesto will be a forgotten figure, but for a few footnotes, here and there, as will Matthew Fox. These are men without substance, boring and hollow.

  • Elizabeth D

    Came here through beliefnet; this is a wonderfully well written blog. I have been interested in learning more about the Central American Marxists since reading repeatedly that Ratzinger had famously stomped on liberation theology. Being a Christian lefty, I am interested in the approaches people take in different places to questions of poverty, inequity, and community.

  • Stephen A.

    How delightfully retro this posting was, Douglas!

    It’s almost QUAINT to read about a die-hard, Marxist who’s still alive and still Believes. Especially one (and this is icing on the cake!) that comes complete with the glowing Che-eque hagiography of the “humble poet” living isolated from the People so he can “think big thoughts.” Wow. I only get to glimpse the visage of such demigods when Castro is discussed on CNN.

    I haven’t read of such an Old School Marxist since the 80s, and haven’t heard such Sandinista worship since I warmed a pew in an Unitarian Universalist “Fellowship” for a few months in 1989.

    It sounds like the scolding’s been good for this priest’s career. Hope he gets another.

    p.s. The “22 questions” by Fox are a thousand giggles, too. “Do you want to put gays in concentration camps like Hitler did?,” he would ask Benedict. And he apprently believes someone murdered John Paul I in 1978. Wow. As the kids say: Is he for real, dude?

  • Huw Raphael

    I agree with Stephen A: this was a retro post and enjoyable because of its retro qualities.

    I’m still not sure why finding an active marxist is not as terrifying as finding an active Nazi: communism killed many many times more people – most of them Christians – than Nazism did…

    Oh. wait.

  • Bartholomew

    Gosh, a man who actually holds on to idealistic beliefs despite them being unfashionable! What a loser! Let’s not bother with what he actually says in the article, or try to understand his motives: let’s just say “worse than Hitler” and move on. Oliver North in 2008, anyone?

    (comments directed at other posters, not Doug LeBlanc)

  • Erik Nelson

    Idealistic beliefs that resulted in a great deal of evil, Bartholonew, and a river of flowing blood.

    But, hell, whats a hundred million dead when he’s so persistent in holding to his ideals?

  • dpt

    I read Matthew Fox’s 22 questions; it comes across as sad and pathetic.

  • Huw Raphael

    Bartholomew, you misread my post (at least) if you think rightly noting the blood on the hands of the far left is the same thing as supporting the far right (or the not so far). Both have done enough damage to God’s Human Icons to earn a sound “pthphphtpt” from me whenever either the left or right claims to be “on God’s side”.

  • J Wild

    It would be quite a blast if Pope Benedict actually did answer Matthew Fox’s questions!

  • Tom Breen

    I liked the piece on Cardenal. It was well-written, and the reporter actually tried to understand the subject. It reminded me of some of the profiles in Murray Kempton’s great “Part of Our Time.”

  • Bartholomew

    Erik Nelson:
    “But, hell, whats a hundred million dead when he’s so persistent in holding to his ideals?”

    Well, seeing as Cardenal explicitly rejects the Soviet Union’s idea of doing things that’s a bit of a smear.

    I know that today if anyone offers any sort of analysis of economics, class or culture that contains some sort of Marxist theory it’s very easy just to say “oh, you’re in favour of the Communists killing all those people” (or “oh, what you believe must lead to Communists killing lots of people”). That’s good for shutting down debate and glossing over possible problems with capitalism and US power, but it’s hardly sensible discourse.

  • Stephen A.

    “I know that today if anyone offers any sort of analysis of economics, class or culture that contains some sort of Marxist theory it’s very easy just to say “oh, you’re in favour of the Communists killing all those people”

    Correct. Just like someone who offered any sort of analysis of economics, class or culture that contains some sort of NAZI theory would be greeted with “Oh, you favor the mass murder millions of people” And that would be justified, too.

  • Bartholomew

    Yes. Terry Eagleton. Frederic Jameson. Christopher Hill. Theodor Adorno. Walter Benjamin (etc. etc.). Anyone who finds any use for any of their work is the moral equivalent of a Nazi. Very sensible.

  • Andrea Harris

    Aw guys, those killers of millions of people weren’t real communists, they were just pretending to be communist, in order to bring the Cause down. Stalin was probably a Sekret Republican! Remember, Communism Hasn’t Really Been Tried Yet!™.

    Personally, I blame Karl Rove.

  • Stephen A.

    Bartholomew: I’m not familiar with your list of intellectuals, so I Googled Jameson:

    “Jameson’s thought builds on the foundation of Western Marxism, a predominantly Hegelian, non-Stalinist strain which has evolved in Europe since the 1920s. But he does not confine himself to this tradition. Jameson seriously engages numerous non-Marxist approaches to art, identifies their local validities, and deftly adapts their insights to his own purposes. This inclusiveness produces an intellectual method that both revitalizes classical Marxism’s core concepts and revolutionizes our understanding of the politics of artistic practice since the nineteenth century.”


    I was half expecting this bio of him to say he drew upon Classical Nazi philosophy to create a “post-Nazi view of politics” or some such thing.

    I searched a bit on a couple of the other names, but they, too, appear to be free of Nazi sympathies.

    So you seem to have missed the point. Perhaps you’re trying too hard.

    Once again: Anyone who tries to find legitimacy in Nazism would be condemned, or at least exposed for trying something so foolish. The same is true (meaning: I’m making an analogy here) with those lonely folks who are still trying to squeeze sweet tasting philosophy out of Marxist lemons. It ain’t possible, because its rotten to the core, just like those who say, “Hey, there was some good in Nazism.”

    Those still hanging onto these dead ‘isms are living in the past.

  • Bartholomew

    Is this deliberate obtuseness? The original claim made by yourself and Raphael was that just as anyone who sees something useful in Nazism should be condemned for their association with a bloody philosophy, so should anyone who sees anything useful in Marxism. The argument was therefore that the two are morally equivalent.

    So when I listed some theorists and a historian who have used Marxist theory to demonstrate that this supposed moral equivalence is false, OBVIOUSLY I was not accusing either them or their sympathetic readers of being Nazis (Adorno and Benjamin were both Jews persecuted by the Nazis, by the way. Their work, however, is still popular).

  • Stephen A.

    It wasn’t obvious what you were trying to say, since these folks aren’t exactly household names (at least not in my household.) The Internet sometimes leads to misunderstood emotional tones and meanings. So I’m sorry I missed your point.

    That said, I stand by my thesis, and question why we have such a double standard. If Marxism is a perfectly good starting point for modern theories of society or politics, then why isn’t Nazism, or some other perniscious philosophy of the past?

    The answer is they’re not.

    It would be silly of someone to say “Let’s ‘re-imagine’ Nazism to fit 21st century society,” or “We don’t know if Nazism works because Nazism was never tried” and it’s just as silly to say these kinds of things about Marxism, a thoroughly discredited, dehumanizing scourge on mankind, as was Nazism.

  • Tom Breen

    The arguments that “some adherents of a philosophy did bad things, ergo all adherents of the philosophy are guilty” and “some adherents of a philosophy did bad things, ergo the philosophy always leads to bad things” are used against Christianity with mind-numbing regularity. I don’t find them any more convincing in the case of Christianity (or Islam, or religious belief in general) than in the case of Marxism (or non-Marxist Socialism).

  • Stephen A.

    Gosh, I’d hate to unfairly tar the reputation of a Nazi with guilt by association…or even a Marxist. (sarcasm)

    So let’s try again:

    I don’t believe European Socialists, for example, are guilty of perpetrating the Soviet gulags, so no, I wasn’t making that kind of “guilt by association” implication that is being said I did.

    However, if someone says “I’m mining Marxism (or Communism, or Nazism) for relevant theories to apply to politics today,” I say again – that’s a bit perverse.

    And if you think it’s just fine to use Marxism’s dry bones as source material for political action – and I’m sure college students are getting quite a dose of this kind of poison – then that is no better than someone using Nazism in the same way, and for the same reasons: Both philosophies have very little, if any, redeeming values.

    Just because a philosohpy is dressed up in nice words and pleasant-sounding truisms (“equality is an ideal”) doesn’t mean the use of those words isn’t deliberate obfuscation on the part of the politicians using them.

    Even a tenured professor would get fired if he praised the Nazi’s employment policies. I wonder if he’d get fired, or praised, if he praised the “social equality of workers” in totalitarian Russia in the 1930s? Bet both have already happened.

    I’ve explained this to death now.