Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Before Night Falls - A Voice for Freedom

A few semesters ago, I read Before Night Falls as part of a course Latin American Literature: Strange Dreams, Strange Desires. Of the pieces we read, it was one of the less creative in form, but it struck me more personally. It was more honest, more forthright. I have great respect for this author's ability not to hold anything back for the fear of being rejected by his readers. Reinaldo Arenas provides many realistic and strikingly honest images of his experience as a homosexual writer struggling for freedom in Cuba. He drives home one of the most powerful of human experiences, for men, that of ejaculation. It’s no coincidence that the result of this act can be procreation, creation itself, another life. Allegorically, the image carries a message that if one is not free, one cannot create. While I think it’s important to recognize the display of his strong sexual identity, it is not singular in its function as a metaphor for freedom. Arenas powerfully encapsulates many images of his struggle for freedom and free speech in Before Night Falls. A critical one is illustrated in the following passage.
None of this surprised me: I already knew that the capitalist system was also sordid and money-hungry. In one of my first statements after leaving Cuba I had declared that the difference between the communist and capitalist systems is that, although both give you a kick in the ass, in the communist system you have to applaud, while in the capitalist system you can scream, And I came here to scream.
With this one simple paragraph, Arenas breaks through the societal, political and economical cohesion of stereotypes and exposes a fundamental truth. For it is only through the freedom of speech that we can surpass the trappings made by our moral costumes. The free communication of ideas and philosophies provides a path for humanity to walk upon.

Through my own personal experience I can really relate to Arenas and I adore the revelation he provides me with in Before Night Falls. I am the daughter of a holocaust survivor and a woman who is separated from her husband, but not legally divorced. I am sexually active and, at the same time, yearn for an all encompassing relationship with one person for physical, emotional and intellectual intimacy. Even in the United States, and living in the New York metropolitan area, there are external limitations that I feel are put  upon me by society for my behavior and the choices in how I live my life. I admit to being fearful about  exposing these facts about myself in a public forum. Still I believe that it's important for me to get past that, it pales in comparison to the personal knowledge of what my mother and her family went through along with 6 million other victims of the Holocaust. As a result, I find that I am particularly passionate about the voice of freedom, the scream for humanity.

I am aware of the irony, as I believe Arenas was, that "those great writers who had left Cuba in search of freedom" were not able to publish their work and voice that scream, when they escaped to live in freedom in the United States. Renaldo chose to look past this irony; he recognized that freedom is priceless:
When I saw this blind old lady signing her books under a Mango tree, I understood that she represented a greatness and a spirit of rebellion.

I think he knew, that the “greatness might no longer exist in any of our writers, either in Cuba  or in Exile,” if that same constriction did not exist, as it is often that same restriction which is the impetus for that voice – that scream – that greatness.  Resplendent in Arenas’s “appeal to the International Red Cross, the UN and UNESCO, and the countries still privileged to hear the truth” was the exact paradigm of his conviction: Arenas rewrote his book three or more times, because he had to flee before being arrested, because he was  imprisoned, or because it was stolen showing the drive he possessed toward achieving his freedom of speech. His passion “kept him warm and active during the most turbulent of times.”  Renaldo, was well aware of the darker side of life, the kicks in the pants we all receive in life, the stumbling blocks, pits in the road, and he had many. Even after he left Cuba he felt them, when his manuscripts were stolen, his work was not recognized or remunerated fairly, and when he wasn't able to earn a living. He also felt alienated by his homosexuality in a way that he hadn’t in Cuba though it was outlawed there, and the fact that though in New York and Miami he was not persecuted as a criminal for being a homosexual, it created a nullified voice – less a scream – more a sore throat.

Had it not been for the revolution in Cuba and Castro’s dictatorship, I think that Arenas would have written a very different story. This is the sad paradox which Arenas alludes to by saying that “none of this surprised” him is that the oppression of humanity is one of the greatest inducements to our growth and creativity. Where there is plenty, a kind of complacency and disintegration of values into a hegemonic force of collective greed is fed. Bluntly put, humans become “sordid and money-hungry.”  And where there is religious and political fanaticism the force becomes one of judgment and abuse of those who won’t follow the collective will. The attempt to quell that voice is what actually stimulates it to scream. Those who have had to exist in unbearable conditions such as filth, poverty, and physical and mental abuse bear out this case in point too.  “For three days,” he “walked around Guantanomo without any food.” Many others have survived much worse. The list of crimes against humanity goes on and on.

Arenas believed that his generation in Cuba was destroyed by the communist regime. Yet the regime in Cuba incited his scream, and others continue to scream after near and utter desolation, in Ireland after the potato famine, in Cambodia after the Khmer Rouge, in Europe after the Holocaust, and today in Darfur.

Learn more about history of violence in Darfur  
The struggle for freedom and humanity live on in that sheer scream, in the stories of bloodshed, human lives loved, lost and survived that are communicated.

The actual 
limitation on this great writer’s ability to scream—on his freedom to create, to write, to have consensual sexual relations, was the stirring of his passion. Despite the freedom he held living in New York, after escaping another imprisonment and surviving the hardships he suffered in Cuba, and after the physical deterioration from AIDS that stopped him from writing, I believe what ultimately led Arenas to take his own life was the sorrow and grave depression he suffered from his exile and inability to live “and scream” as a free man in his own home land.

I found Before Night Falls, though sad, to be a memorable and inspirational autobiography. I have since seen the film of the same name that tells the story of this great writer's life and I will write about that in a future post.

Thanks for reading. Peace out.

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