Cintio Vitier, five years after his death

A classic work of Cuban thinking.

The fifth anniversary of the passing away of Cintio Vitier (Key West 1921-Havana 2009) was commemorated last October 1. He was a member of the Orígenes Group, that promotion of authors that contributed in a singular way to Cuban culture, first from the pages of the magazine by the same name between 1944 and 1958 and then with his individual works throughout the rest of the 20th century.

The son of philosopher and pedagogue Medardo Vitier, Cintio shared with José Lezama Lima many of the glorious moments of their literary promotion: the common influence exercised on them by Juan Ramón Jiménez; the edition of magazine like Espuela de plata and Orígenes, without forgetting the famous meetings in Bauta, presided over by priest and poet Angel Gaztelu.

What was essential of his poetic creation was recognised in three large volumes: Vísperas (1953), Testimonios (1968) and Nupcias (1993). He himself defined in 1948 the fundamental subjects that around that time were dealt with in those verses, full of a metaphysical longing: “the strangeness of the world, the mystery of the look and the memory, the passage of the oneiric to the aridity of the spirit, the impossible as home.” However, his conversion to Christianity in 1953 opens his poetry to other destinations: the search for the expressive simplicity, the rejection of the purely literary artifices, the voluntary nearness to close poets from San Juan de la Cruz to Unamuno and Gabriela Mistral.

Though his poetic accomplishments would have guaranteed him his inclusion in the history of Cuban literature, it is his work as an essayist and researcher that, in my opinion, offers more relevant fruits. The anthology Diez poetas cubanos (Ten Cuban Poets; 1948) was the first joint vision of the poetry of Orígenes and the first separation from the constant themes, aesthetic affinities and contributions of that group of authors, at that time novel. Ciencuenta años de poesía cubana (Fifty Years of Cuban Poetry; 1952), for its part, is the personal balance, serene and controversial, of the most notable texts the island has bequeathed to the first half of the 20th century. In this volume he has the essential merit of reviewing Cuban poetry with an integrating view that makes the isms and most diverse positions cohabit with audacious criteria, like that of including in its pages an author like José Angel Buesa, whose work was a sort of taboo in the land of “haute literature”.

When Vicentina Antuña, on behalf of the Lyceum and Lawn Tennis Club women’s society, asked him for a series of lectures on Cuban poetry, which he gave in its halls between October 9 and December 13, 1957, they were turned into the book Lo cubano en la poesía (The Cuban in Poetry), which dealt with Cuba’s poetic trajectory, from Columbus’ “navigation logs” to the poets that had made themselves known in Orígenes, with the will to decipher in them the hidden keys of the Cuban. Years later the writer was reproached for the use of a group of classifications, coined by him: the weightlessness, the distance, the indifference, the cold, hard pressed to be verified based on literary science. However, the book has become an indispensable text in Cuban literary studies since its acute intuitions and certain surprising pages of its impressionist prose are already the common patrimony of our culture.

For Cintio, obsessed with the links between poetry and ethics, Martí’s works were a greater challenge. Together with his wife Fina García Marruz, he brought to light Temas martianos (Martí Themes), in addition to the contribution of both to the preparation of the complex critical edition of Martí’s work. Furthermore, the most mature products of Vitier’s essay writing are based, lucidly and voluntarily, on Martí budgets, be it the history of Cuban ethics developed in Ese sol del mundo moral (That Sun of the Moral World; 1975) or those controversial lectures collected afterwards in the book Rescate de Zenea (Zenea’s Recue; 1987).

Like other authors of his time, Vitier suffered the consequences of the so-called “grey quinquennium” for Cuban culture. Separated from the Martí Hall which he had founded in the National Library, he remained in that institution together with Fina. He worked for years in a small cubicle, during which no offer to leave the country could interrupt his research work and he even found strength to begin the series of testimonial fiction made up by the novel De Peña Pobre (Of Peña Pobre) and continued in the small multigeneric and unclassifiable volumes: Los papeles de Jacinto Finalé (Jacinto Finalé’s Papers) and Rajando la leña está (Chopping Wood He Is).

The foundation of the Centre for Martí Studies, to which Cintio and Fina were convened in 1977, came to take them out of the singular ostracism. Starting then his work became more visible, thanks to the support of this and other official institutions.

After the death of Lezama in 1976, Cintio started being seen as the most notable of the figures of Orígenes on the island. He became the principal disseminator of Lezama’s history and thinking. He helped to set the text of the novel Paradiso for its critical edition in the international collection Archivos, he published books and pamphlets, and he reinitiated an active work as a lecturer.

Even though starting then he enjoyed the recognition of the Cuban authorities, his more or less “canonical” vision of the group, as well as the teleological sense with which he interpreted Cuban history, earned him the criticism of Cuban and foreign authors. His controversy with young historian Rafael Rojas and other more or less novel poets of the Diaspora group, who refused to accept some of his presupposed criticism as if they were dogmas, is recalled.

At present, the gradual appearance of the tomes of his complete works, published by the Arte y Literatura publishing house, will make it easy for the critics to separate the circumstantial from the indispensable, to be able to define the real achievements of his legacy. However, there is no doubt that that with his writing, marked by the tutelary influences of Juan Ramon Jiménez, Lezama and Martí himself and in which incorporates elements of the neo-Thomist thinking, Marxism and liberation theology, Cintio Vitier has been able to edify a work already classical within Cuban thinking. (2014)

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