Our Only Salvation Lies in Words: On Arenas’s Before Night Falls
by Mark Chmiel
All dictatorships are sexually repressive and anti-life. All affirmations of life are diametrically opposed to dogmatic regimes. It was logical for Fidel Castro to persecute us, not to let us fuck, and to try to suppress any public display of the life force.
-— Reinaldo Arenas
Reinaldo Arenas, Before Night Falls: A Memoir
Powerful and gripping memoir by homosexual, writer, dissident, which awakened me to Castro’s crimes against naysayers and gays.
Herein are great passages about the beauty of Cuba, its beaches and the sea, the countryside, the animals, the rivers, the trees, as in “And the sky’s radiance was not constant but an unending blaze of changing hues and, stars that burst and disappeared (after having existed for millions of years) just to enrapture us for a few moments.” Or, “I always thought that in Cuba the only thing that saved us from absolute insanity was that, being surrounded by water, we had to chance to go to shore and swim.” Arenas appreciated the created order throughout his life and seemed not to take it for granted. Could not his sexual voracity also be an element of the Via Positiva? For it is all about pleasure and enjoyment and splendor, he seemed, after he came out, remarkably free of guilt and anxiety (from this anyway) and self-hatred. So: “To get to a beach was like entering paradise because all the young people wanted to make love, and there were always dozens of them ready to go into the bushes.”
And yet, he too was schooled in the Via Negativa, principally through letting go of his freedom, letting go of his homeland, letting go of his health, about which he doesn’t write very much. When the repression began, he lamented: “It was the end of an era, underground and defiant, but still full of creativity, eroticism, intelligence, and beauty.” It was the dark night of the soul and body for Arenas and his friends. He knew his weakness and likely fate: He tries to escape by sea, fails, attempts suicide, is arrested, and writes a statement to be circulated later: “I want now to affirm that what I am saying here is the truth, even though under torture I might later be forced to say the opposite.” He was forced to sign a recantation, which was devastating to him: “All of a sudden, everything positive had disappeared from my file, and was nothing but a homosexual counterrevolutionary who had dared to publish books abroad.” He was in Morro Castle: “Nobody called them homosexuals; they were called fairies, faggots, queers, or at best, gays. The wards for fairies were really the last circle of hell.” Later, in New York, he realized: “And for Cubans who, like us, have suffered persecution for twenty years in that terrible world, there is really no solace anywhere. Suffering has marked us forever, and only with people who have gone through a similar experience can we perhaps find some level of understanding.”
The Via Creativa is here, too: especially in his magical, though impoverished, childhood, his celebration of writing and reading aloud to his compañeros, and his philosophy of beauty: “A sense of beauty is always dangerous and antagonistic to any dictatorship because it implies a realm extending beyond the limits that a dictatorship can impose on human beings. Beauty is a territory that escapes the control of the political police. Being independent and outside of their domain, beauty is so irritating to dictators that they attempt to destroy it whichever way they can. Under a dictatorship, beauty is always a dissident force, because a dictatorship is itself unaesthetic, grotesque; to a dictator and his agents, the attempt to create beauty is an escapist or reactionary act.” And again, “Sexual pleasure often exacts a high price; sooner or later we pay with years of sorrow for every moment of pleasure. It is not God’s vengeance but that of the Devil, the enemy of everything beautiful. Beauty has always been dangerous. Marti said that everyone who is the bearer of light remains alone; I would say that anyone who takes part in certain acts of beauty is eventually destroyed. Humanity in general does not tolerate beauty, perhaps because we cannot live without it; the horror of ugliness advances day by day at an ever-increasing pace.” Therefore, his manuscripts were lost and destroyed frequently, and he vowed to rewrite the work from memory. (I wonder if Steiner has ever read Arenas?)
Yesterday I was discussing with Bella at Einstein’s in the CWE about Arenas’s lack of candor about the social and economic benefits the Castro regime had provided Cubans; nevertheless, the book does deal with the Via Transformativa, as he struggled against political and sexual repression and exemplifies what Walter Brueggemann wrote about the artist: “Every totalitarian regime is frightened of the artist. It is the vocation of the prophet to keep alive the ministry of imagination, to keep on conjuring and proposing alternative futures to the single one the king wants to urge as the only thinkable one.” About arriving in the US after the Mariel boat lift, Arenas asserted, “The difference between the communist and capitalist system 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.” And here he sounds like Elie Wiesel: “I have never considered myself as belonging to the “left” or the “right,” nor do I want to be included under any opportunistic or political label. I tell my truth, as does the Jew who has suffered racism or the Russian who has been in the Gulag, or any human being who has eyes to see the way things really are. I scream, therefore I exist.” And in his Farewell letter before he committed suicide, he wrote: “There is one person I hold accountable: Fidel Castro. The sufferings of exile, the pain of being banished from my country, the loneliness, and the diseases contracted in exile would probably never have occurred if I had been able to enjoy freedom in my country.”
Further, I can appreciate his love of reading, writing, and talking about books: (1) “Walking among those shelves, I saw, radiating from each book, the scintillating promise of a unique mystery.” (2) “Meeting Lezama was an entirely different experience. Here was a man who had made literature his very life; here was one of the most erudite human beings I had ever met. He did not use his knowledge to show off; it was simply something to hang on to for survival, something vital that fired his imagination and at the same time reflected on anyone who came close to him. Lezama had the extraordinary gift of radiating creative vitality. After talking with him I would go home and sit down at my typewriter to write, because it was impossible to listen to that man without being inspired. In him, wisdom and innocence met. He had a special talent for giving meaning to the life of others.” (3) “We wrote incessantly and would read anywhere: in abandoned houses, in parks, at beaches, while walking over rocks. We would read not only our own words but also those of great writers…. We would read for everyone to enjoy.” (4) “Sometimes we would get a house for the weekend or, at times, for the whole week. It was a great feast. We would bring our notebooks and write poems or chapters of our books, and would have sex with armies of young men. The erotic and literary went hand in hand.” (5) “Writing crowned or complemented all other pleasures as well as calamities.” (6) “I started writing my memoirs in the notebooks that Juan had brought me. Under the title “Before Night Falls” I would write all day until dark, waiting for the other darkness that would come when the police eventually found me. I had to hurry to get my writing done before my world finally darkened, before I was thrown in jail.” (7) “Sometimes at night I would continue reading The Iliad with the help of my lighter.” (8) “At midnight we parted and Lezama said to me: ‘Remember that our only salvation lies in words: Write!’”
Last, he is refreshingly funny: His Termination of Friendship Notice: “Mr. _____: In accordance with the balance sheet of termination of friendships I prepare at the end of each year, based on meticulously exact data, I hereby inform you that your name has been added to the list of those terminated. Yours very truly, Reinaldo Arenas”
Also, “If Cuba is Hell, Miami is Purgatory.”