Cuban Counterpoint


Cuba is different. What is different about Cuba tells us everything about ourselves. There they make music and dance with all the seriousness with which we work. There they are not allowed to work for more than the most basic subsistence, a dollar a day at most. Private enterprise is all but banned. There they have nothing but time, here we have everything but time. Religion is to them a central part of everyday life, out of which their music and dance is born: as prayer, worship, celebration and thanksgiving for the gift of life itself. To them it is everything, to us it is nothing. This is the story of two islands and two continents: Britain and Europe, Cuba and America; two islands in splendid isolation from their continents.


Fernando Ortiz, the author of Cuban Counterpoint: Tobacco and Sugar (1940) called his native Cuba the “greatest island of America” and Britain the “greatest island of Europe” explaining that Cuban tobacco was known in England before it had colonies in America. That is, before Puritanism encouraged the first settlers to leave. And it is this that explains the difference. Cuba has never known Puritanism, except as Communist moral rectitude, but the British and American way of life is defined by it, albeit in a lapsed form. In his book Ortiz reproduces a famous broadside of 1641 depicting the followers of Sir John Suckling, a Cavalier poet, in which they are mocked for their smoking, their dandyism, and most important of all, for their Catholic sympathies. It is suggested that their dissipation, their “wine and women, horses, hounds, and whores, dancing, dicing, drabbing, drinking” are the consequence of their religion.


These are children of Spirituall fornication, such as goe a Whoring from God after the idols of their owne braines: Hos. I.2. such are superstitious Romanists, tutoured by their Ghostly Fathers, to beleeve in grosse as the Church beleeveth, which (as Luther saith) is grosse Divinity. These fall not onely from piety to impuritie, but also from Christian verities, to Antichristian vanities, fopperies, and trumperies.


This is English Civil War propaganda in which loyalty to the monarch is associated with religion and culture and way of life. It still applies today. For the so-called Glorious Revolution of 1688 was not only the victory of parliament and a de facto Dutch invasion, but also the victory of the lapsed puritan religion of the Whigs. It was to triumph in America in 1776. This “Puritan Cultural Revolution” destroyed the art of contemplation in the Anglo-Saxon world, for it is contemplation that is at the heart of the Catholic religion and which is the basis of its extraordinary culture. And as that world has engulfed the rest of the world, it has destroyed it there too. Cuba is the exception in the Western world.


Because of this it is not an easy place to visit. The real Cuba is not easy to encounter, or to understand. It challenges everything. Travel there has the same effect as travel to any Latin culture from an Anglo-Saxon one. The influence of the latter is growing stronger every day, and has already had a profound economic and cultural influence, but Cuba has been the least affected. For a Latin culture is essentially Catholic, one that has been least affected by the influences of the Reformation, of Luther and Calvin in particular, in the way that Anglo-Saxon culture has. It retains its historic link with the legacy of the Roman Empire, and its classical culture, which became the influence of the Roman Catholic Church.


In my book, The Spiritual History of English, I examine the relationship between religion and literature in England, and identify the essential continuity that is necessary for a culture to survive. In the case of English literature it is the Latin Classical tradition associated with the Church which provides its trunk. The roots are the providential mixture of Latin, Greek and Jewish culture which came together in the Latin Middle Ages to provide the basis for some of the world’s greatest cultural achievements, including English literature and especially poetry. The Middle Ages were the period in which classical culture migrated north, to make its home there instead.


In the case of Cuban culture it is a mixture of European and African traditions, which are also found in Iberian culture; and which provide a counterpoint to that of the United States, where those same cultural elements are configured very differently. In his Cuban Counterpoint, Fernando Ortiz, the greatest Cuban scholar of his own culture, meditates on the two great products of that island, Tobacco and Sugar. He considers their cultural, economic, social, religious and even racial connotations. The contrast might be illustrated by considering that between the production of tobacco in the United States and in Cuba. In Virginia tobacco was produced capitalistically, in Cuba by hand; the result is the difference between the cigarette and the cigar; a difference which hardly needs further explication. It may also be seen in the contrast between protestant attitudes to African culture under slavery, and those in Catholic colonies.


In America, the only place where an African was permitted to play his drum was in Congo Square, New Orleans, which is therefore known as the birthplace of jazz. In America, and the British Caribbean, most people of African descent have little idea of the culture of their ancestors. In Cuba and in Brazil, for example, things are very different. Indeed in Cuba, as in Hispaniola, and even in some respects in the Iberian peninsula, the African culture pre-dominates. Cuba is perhaps the only such colony where people of European descent have taken on the cultural forms and even religions of those of African descent. Catholicism was more tolerant of non-European cultural forms, into which the faith might be inculturated. In Protestantism there was only the Book, and the reformation culture that had wiped clean the medieval culture of Northern Europe, which would wipe clean the African cultures too.


Indeed, I make the point in my book that it is in the United States that the principle of the individual’s pre-eminence over the authority of tradition, or of the monarch or the Church, has been taken to its logical conclusion. The consequence of this is an extremely rich but also a deeply flawed culture. The greatest modern poet, Charles Baudelaire, in his biography of Edgar Allen Poe described America as a “gaslit desert of barbarism”. This might seem excessive, but we can see his point. In American culture the reformation principle of wiping everything clean that has gone before, and starting again from scratch, has been taken to its logical conclusion. The result is a culture in which the popular and the avant-garde predominate, and the influence of the European tradition is seen as hostile. It is inherently iconoclastic and populist, commercial and capitalist. Its gifts to culture are jazz and blues, avant-garde and abstract art, and commercial or popular music and art. The logical answer to this iconoclastic atomizing individualism would to re-accept the authority of the British monarchy, the Papacy and the European tradition in art.


The central modern dilemma is between the individual and authority, between different conceptions of the rights of the individual and their responsibilities towards others, between relativism and objective truth. Bodies such as the Catholic Church which assert the objective truth of their teachings pose a fundamental challenge to liberalism. However, it is Christianity which asserts the ultimate autonomy of the individual conscience from the teaching of authority. The individual always has a free choice as to whether to accept the truth or not. So this dilemma is one which emerges from within Christianity itself. In various ways medieval Christianity was evicted from its dominant position in society, to be replaced by the authority of the individual. The result was protestant and then liberal beliefs, which sometimes gave way to secular collectivist ideologies such as nationalism, socialism and fascism.


The authentic music of modernity therefore is a counterpoint between the individual and authority: and it is in Cuba that this music is most vividly heard. For it is there alone in the Western world that the dominant individualist culture is rejected; and so Cuba is rejected, made the scapegoat, for the ultra-competitive, power-crazed, relativist society ninety shark-infested miles away. And many Cubans fall prey to these sharks, as they attempt to flee the communist dictatorship, but as they do, and as all Cubans do who leave for the United States, they also fall prey to the relativist, individualist culture of their haven. Their choice is between communist dictatorship and the dictatorship of relativism. The tragedy of people missing to the sea is profound and affects everyone in Cuba.


The American economic embargo, the bloqueo, instituted by John F. Kennedy after the Cuban Missile Crisis, and kept in place by every President since, is the means by which this scapegoating takes place. And it is a cynical de facto Faustian pact. Were the embargo to be lifted tomorrow then the communist system would fall almost immediately, and this has been true from the beginning. But, as the disputed outcome of the 2000 presidential election and the Elian Gonzalez affair under President Clinton show, Florida with its large number of Cuban exiles has always been a crucial swing state. It keeps American Presidents in power, and it has also kept the Castro brothers in power.


Classical music is the music of counterpoint, of polyphony. It emerged in the church in twelfth century Paris, accompanying the new architecture of the Gothic, the new philosophy of the Aristotelian revival, and the new theology of Aquinas. But the music of Cuba, and its dance, is that of polyrhythm: of sub-Saharan Africa. The popular commercial music of the modern West, in blues and pop and rock and roll and their derivatives, is mono-rhythmic. The origin of Classical music is in the Church, but the origin of the blues, and the popular forms built upon it, is in North Africa, where Arabic influences wiped out the rhythmic complexity of the South. The music of the blues can be heard in the folk music of Mali for instance. It is mono-rhythmic. Polyrhythm is music of the body, not music of the mind. When Cuban people dance you can see the music in their bodies. Despite the lack of personal freedom, both economic and political, this is where Cuban freedom, Cuba Libre, is truly to be found, in the liberation of the body from its purely functional aspects. It becomes an instrument of worship, prayer, celebration and joy. In the formal and degraded popular dance of the West all you can see is formal restraint and Dionysian anarchy.


This is the true Cuban counterpoint, polyrhythm and the dances that go with it. And it is at odds with the puritan monoculture of the United States and of Islam, which deny the body; which is at once the denial of the incarnation of God; it is the dualist heresy which has re-appeared throughout the history of Christianity. And it has infected even the Catholic Church until the sexual revolution of our times forced it, in the person of Pope John Paul II, to develop a more adequate “theology of the body” as a response to the self oriented “culture of death.” Cuban life with all its difficulties is a demonstration of the truth that life in the spirit is lived in the body and in relation to other people, not just to oneself; that the authentic spiritual life is one lived in communion, and that the alternative is spiritual death;  that being is prior to doing or thinking or saying. In this we have the explanation for the magic that is to be found even in images of poverty and decay in Cuba, for the strange, ghostly, other-worldly quality of them. For there the world of the spirit is really present.