Tag Archives: freedom

Book Review: Before Night Falls by Reinaldo Arenas

21 Oct

I just finished reading a fascinating book: Reinaldo Arenas’s beautiful memoir Before Night Falls. Reinaldo Arenas (1943-1990), the self proclaimed “bad poet in love with the moon” (in Spanish: “Mal poeta enamorado de la luna”) was a gay Cuban poet, novelist and playwright who fled to the United States in 1980.

The sea; turquoise blue and whispering thousands of secrets in every wave that rhythmically kisses the soft and golden sand of the beach. Photo found here.

Reinaldo Arenas… When I whisper his name, I hear the murmur of the sea, and that ‘r’ melts on my tongue like pure golden honey… Arenas… And ‘arena’ means ‘sand’ in Spanish.

How did I came to know about Arenas? Well, it all started one warm crimson night in August when I first watched the film Before Night Falls (2000) based on his autobiography, starring Javier Bardem as Reinaldo. The film struck a chord with me; there was something poignant about the talented boy from the provincial area arriving to Havana to study agronomy, the boy who was at the same time naive and enraptured by the new and exciting possibilities that the big city offered. The sea, ahhh, the clear and warm sea in colours of turquoise and teal, the endless sandy beeches, and the vibrant architecture of Havana with colourful but decaying buildings with iron fences and palm trees everywhere…  And I’ll be honest, just gazing at Javier on the screen was nice too! I soon found myself daydreaming of Havana and I couldn’t get Reinaldo Arenas out of my head, so I read some of his poetry. His famous Auto-epitaph, written in New York in 1989, is just mind-blowing:

“A bad poet in love with the moon,

he counted terror as his only fortune :

and it was enough because, being no saint,

he knew that life is risk or abstinence,

that every great ambition is great insanity

and the most sordid horror has its charm.

He lived for life’s sake, which means seeing death

as a daily occurrence on which we wager

a splendid body or our entire lot.

He knew the best things are those we abandon

— precisely because we are leaving.

The everyday becomes hateful,

there s just one place to live – the impossible.

He knew imprisonment offenses

typical of human baseness ;

but was always escorted by a certain stoicism

that helped him walk the tightrope

or enjoy the morning’s glory,

and when he tottered, a window would appear

for him to jump toward infinity.

He wanted no ceremony, speech, mourning or cry,

no sandy mound where his skeleton be laid to rest

(not even after death did he wish to live in peace).

He ordered that his ashes be scattered at sea

where they would be in constant flow.

He hasn’t lost the habit of dreaming :

he hopes some adolescent will plunge into his waters.”

It’s hard to put in words what this poem meant to me in those warm afternoons of August I spent soaking in the golden rays of sun and daydreaming of the tropical sea, and what it still means to me. There is one line that’s particularly poignant to me and I dare say it’s almost burned in my mind: “Sólo hay un lugar para vivir – el imposible.” (There is just one place to live – the impossible.)

This painting by Hermenegildo Anglada Camarasa (1871–1959) has absolutely nothing to do with the book, but if I had to chose one painting to describe my feelings upon reading the book, this would be it: bloom, vibrancy and ecstasy!

It took me only a few pages to realise that the book I am holding in my hands is a very special book, so I read it slowly, savouring every page. Arenas’s writing is so flowing, brutally honest and poetic despite the grittiness of his life. If I had to describe the book in short, I would say: sea, sex, madness for living and writing, and fighting Fidel Castro’s regime. The book starts with memories of his childhood; he was brought up by a single-mother and lived with her large family. He described his mother as a very beautiful and a very lonely woman. Despite their material poverty, he, along with other children, discovered beauty all around them; in the morning fogs, in silent nights in the village, and especially in soil. He writes about an almost primordial connection to the soil; he ate soil as a child, his first crib was a hole in the ground dug by his grandmother, he made mud castles, and in the end the dead body would rot in the soil and become reborn as a flower, a tree or some other plant. Still, the thing that enraptured him the most was the sea which was a constant presence in his life. The sea, with its rhythmic play of waves and its blueness, spoke of freedom. This is what he says about the sea later in the book: “The sea was like a feast and forced us to be happy, even when we did not particularly want to be. Perhaps subconsciously we loved the sea as a way to escape from the land where we were repressed; perhaps in floating on the waves we escaped our cursed insularity.

Winslow Homer – A Garden in Nassau, 1885

Here are some quotes about his childhood fascination with the trees:

“I used to climb trees, and everything seemed much more beautiful from up there. I could embrace the world in completeness and feel a harmony that I could not experience down below.”

“Trees have a secret life that is only revealed to those willing to climb them. To climb a tree is to slowly discover a unique world, rhythmic, magical and harmonious, with its worms, insects, birds, and other living things, all apparently insignificant creatures, telling us their secrets.”

And here is one about his mother; the lingering sadness and disappointment of her life is so poignant:

“Before getting to my mother’s house, I would always think of her on the porch or even on the street, sweeping. She had a light way of sweeping, as if removing the dirt were not as important as moving the broom over the ground. Her way of sweeping was symbolic; so airy, so fragile, with a broom she tried to sweep away all the horrors, all the loneliness, all the misery that had accompanied her all her life…”

Colourful architecture of Havana. Photo found here.

At one point he moved from his little village to the city of Holguín, and in 1963 he won Fidel Castro’s scholarship and moved to Havana to study at the School of Planification. Later he studied literature and philosophy at the Unversidad de La Habana, but left the course without completing a degree. Ever since he first visited Havana, Arenas felt drawn to it, he felt it is the place to be: a big vibrant city where no one knows your name, a place far away from the poverty of the countryside. There he meets many interesting people: bohemians, painters, eccentrics and fellow writers such as Eliseo Diego and Lezama Lima. Arenas’s time spent in the sixties Havana was a vibrant and a happy period of his life, filled with sexual escapades, swimming, spending evenings at the famous cabaret Tropicana. There were three things he enjoyed in the early sixties: his typewriter, countless young men (fulfilling lust was a path to liberty because it was anti-regime), and the full discovery of the sea. Arenas wrote that sitting down and writing was a special experience and that the rhythm of his typing would inspire him and chapters would come like waves of the sea, first strong and wild then silent and slow. Many pages are devoted to descriptions of his writing and wild parties where everyone brought their notebooks, wrote poems or chapters of novels which they would then read to each other and, of course, made love. As Reinaldo said: literature and passion went hand in hand.

But things changed in the late sixties when Reinaldo’s openly gay lifestyle and his writing fell out of favour with the Communist regime. He had to hide his manuscripts and his novels were published abroad with the help of his French friends. In 1974 he was arrested and sent to prison. After he escaped from prison and tried to flee Cuba he was arrested again and sent to the notorious prison called El Morro Castle where he lived in gruesome circumstances. There’s a great scene in the film where in the middle of a dirty prison cell and loud inmates, Reinaldo is shown writing. Nothing could stop him from creating; hunger, imprisonment, illness. Creative expression was everything. While he was in prison he organised French lessons and helped his inmates by writing love letters to their girlfriends or wives. If you’re looking for self-pity, you won’t find it on any page of Before Night Falls.

Peder Severin Krøyer,Summer evening at the South Beach, 1893

Winslow Homer – Sponge Fishermen, Bahamas, 1885

And here is an explanation for the book’s title ‘Before Night Falls’ (original: Antes que anochezca: autobiografía):

‘Being a fugitive living in the woods at the time, I had to write before it got dark. Now darkness was approaching again, only more insidiously. It was the dark night of death. I really had to finish my memoirs before nightfall. I took it as a challenge.’

There is such a romanticism about Reinaldo’s life; the way he was never spiritless despite the hardships, imprisonments and betrayals of people he considered to be friends. It seems like nothing could really get him down, and he never wasted time but wrote, wrote and wrote. He lived for his writing, everything else came second, and despite his relatively short life his oeuvre proves his fruitfulness as an artist. Particularly interesting was to read about the creation of his novel “Farewell to the Sea” (Otra vez el mar). I honestly can’t even remember how many times he wrote that novel but every time the manuscript would get lost, stolen, burnt, you name it. And you know what he did? He started writing it again.

In 1987 Reinaldo was diagnosed with AIDS. On 7th December 1990 he died after an intentional overdose on alcohol and drugs. His decision to end his life instead of passively waiting for death is summed in this quote: “I have always considered it despicable to to grovel for your life as if life were a favor. If you cannot live the way you want, there is no point in living.”

In this photo you can see the man himself.

To close this ode to Reinaldo, here is another interesting thing, an interview from 1983 which you can read here. Here is a fragment from the beginning, the interviewer’s impression of Reinaldo: “Though I was nervous about meeting the great man, one of Cuba’s most admired writers, Arenas immediately put me at ease. “Encantado,” he said, smiling and taking my hand. Forty years old at the time, he had thick, curly black hair and enormous, sad eyes…”

I was especially interested to hear about his writing process and choosing different styles of writing for different scenes:

“If there’s a moment—as in my novel “Farewell to the Sea”—where you want to satirize all the uniforms, swords, and so forth of a dictator, you can do a caricature of the baroque. If you’re describing the characters’ nightmares, that may be the time for surrealism. All of these techniques or styles can come into play as you realize your vision. (…) But there’s a moment for every style. That’s why I advocate an eclectic technique.”

I loved this book because I felt as if I was on a journey with Arenas, through space and time. I loved it because of its wild and sincere yearning to live life to the fullest, to write and create and breathe and be excited by the sight of the sea for the thousandth time. In his last letter, Arenas wrote: “I end my life voluntarily because I cannot continue working … I do not want to convey to you a message of defeat but of continued struggle and of hope. Cuba will be free. I already am.

I see this book as a gift from Reinaldo, it gave me hope and assured me in my opinion that there is nothing more elevating than suffering and struggling for art.

Bohemian Life: Romantics, Pre-Raphaelites, Hippies

27 Sep

Bohemian way of life has always been alluring to me and in this post I decided to assemble my love for Romanticists, Pre-Raphaelites and London Underground scene in the 1960s with a bit of fashion, aesthetics, art and music. I’ve also made collages which serve to substantiate the connection between these three art movements/counter cultures and the bohemian way of life. Enjoy 🙂

hippie romantics 1 text a(Click to enlarge)

‘Cult of genius’ emerged during Romanticism – for the first time in history an artist was considered an individual, an imaginative creature rather than a craftsman as it had been understood before. Romantics were the first rebellions, mostly artists and intellectuals led by the ideals of individuality and freedom they opposed the serious rules of the rationalistic world of neoclassicism. In the aspect of individuality, all the art movements that followed and the very perception of the artist himself owe a great deal to Romantic movement.

It’s not unusual that the word ‘bohemian’ appeared in the 19th century, though a bit after the romantics, but its meaning can fully be applied in context of Romanticists and their lifestyles. Term ‘bohemian’ was first used in French language to describe Romani people because it was believed that they came from Bohemia, Czech Republic, but it later came to symbolize any kind of unconventional lifestyle, often in the poorer but culturally richer parts of the city, involving musical, artistic, or literary pursuits. Bohemians are also seen as wanderers and adventurists. When Pre-Raphaelites arrived on the art scene in the mid-Victorian era, they opposed realism and materialism, and questioned the false values and morals of Victorian society.

A century later numerous young people chose more unconventional ways of living and  opposed the conformist and consumerist Western society – those were the hippies. As you can see, every time period has its bohemians or outsiders. I could write about the large number of artists/bohemians on Montmartre in the late 19th century or the crazy early 20th century bunch on Montparnasse, but in this post I decided to focus on three art movement/countercultures that share similarities in terms of values, ideas, inspirations and aesthetics. How could I not compare the dangerous and dashing Dante Gabriel Rossetti with dark and brooding Lord Byron, and both of them with Syd Barrett for example – art knows no time, art knows ideals, moods and feelings.

hippie romantics 2 a text

Romanticists were rebellions and idealists, and in their works (especially regards literature and music) they put emphasis on subjectivity, love and intimacy, appreciation of nature, and delved into mysticism: they celebrated everything that contrasted neoclassicism and enlightenment. Romantic painters focused on the glorious past, though it often carried characteristics of escapism. The need to escape time or space is a longing which arises from the sense of dissatisfaction in a hopeless reality, and this longing characterised the whole art of Romanticism. Similarly, members of the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood were fascinated with the past, and in the idealised Medieval world they found the spiritual and creative energy that was (according to them) lost in the industrialised Victorian world. Pre-Raphaelites also found inspiration in their ‘spiritual predecessors’ the Romantics, and their artworks show their interest in mythology, specially Greek and Roman.

A century after the Pre-Raphaelites, in the late 1960s London’s underground came alive. As the Mods and Dollies were on the wane, an alternative scene was thriving in obscurity. Acid heads, pop stars, different eccentrics, artists and outsiders graced the London scene in those years, among that horde was Syd Barrett. ‘Syd was happy being a bohemian, like the romanticised ‘poetes maudits’.* Just like Romantics and Pre-Raphaelites before them, the London hippies drank from the fountain of the past. They drew inspiration from Eastern mysticism (yoga, Hare Krishna, Buddhism, I Ching, Ravi Shankar, Tagore) European mythology, Celts, English folklore, astrology, occult, Ouija boards, tarot cards, meditation and vegetarianism.

hippie romantics 7 text

Music: Ravi Shankar

Parallels between Pre-Raphaelites and London Underground can also be drawn in terms of aesthetics. When artists Michael English and Nigel Waymouth were commissioned to make posters for the UFO, they sought inspiration in the 19th century Orientalism and artists such as William Morris who was a member of the Arts and Crafts Movements, befriended Pre-Raphaelites and shared their ideas and style. In terms of fashion, one can notice similarities. In both cases, a bohemian lifestyle needed a bohemian fashion to match. Pre-Raphaelites came up with the aesthetic dress movement in an effort to loosen and brighten up the rigid and somber Victorian fashion. Likewise, London bohemians found a unique way of expressing themselves by wearing brightly coloured satin, floral prints, wooden bracelets, antique silver jewellery, bizarre and floral prints, velvet trousers, flowing silks… Although they lived a century apart, in terms of aesthetics and style, Jane Morris with her loosely cut dresses in natural fabrics and Marianne Faithfull or Brian Jones with their extravagant psychedelic outfits rightfully belong to the same stylistic universe.

hippie romantics 3 textMusic: Pink Floyd – Chapter 24

Apart from the fact they were inspired by similar things, these three groups of bohemians also shared some ideas despite the fact that they lived in different times and in differently structured society and social norms. Romantics, Pre-Raphaelites and hippies all shared ideas of originality, idealism, emphasis on feelings and love towards nature. Love, intimacy and identification with nature was for Romantics a wellspring of deep, almost mystical rapture. In poetry Nature reflected the way artist felt, but also influenced his feelings. As for Pre-Raphaelites, their paintings speak for themselves, but I won’t fail to mention the patience with which Millais painted the nature surrounding his drowning Ophelia. For London Underground, a part of which was formed by a group of young people from Cambridge, including Syd, nature was part of the growing up; they all enjoyed the Cantabrigian landscape, long walks by the river, in the woods. For Syd nature was imbued with mystical overtones, and he had a spiritual connection with it. I’ll quote the book:

”This profound connection with nature never left him. In his lyrics, the sky was a woman, and love was air.”*

Another thing they shared in common was the ideal of ‘free love’; a social movement which rejects marriage and perceives it as a form of social and financial bondage. It’s not the same as supporting promiscuity. Although the idea of free love is mostly associated with hippies and counterculture of the late 1960s and 1970s, ‘free love’ was a much more radical and controversial concept earlier in the past than in the ’60s. Many Romantic poets supported the idea of ‘free love’, William Blake and Shelley among them. For example, Blake believed that ‘humans were ‘fallen’ and that a major impediment to a free love society was corrupt human nature.’ Percy Shelley, along with Mary Shelley who had inherited her mother’s liberal worldviews, also supported free love, along with vegetarianism – another trait common with hippies. As for the Pre-Raphaelites, one doesn’t need to go too far, Dante Gabriel Rossetti is a good example because he lived with Elizabeth Siddal c. ten years before they married, an act very scandalous in Victorian times.

hippie romantics 4 textMusic: Syd Barrett – Opel

Caspar David Friedrich, the most famous German Romantic painter, is well-known for his landscapes with figures turning their backs on the viewers, as if they are gazing towards something eternal and infinite. Syd Barrett’s song Opel reminded me of Friedrich’s painting ‘Moonrise over the Sea’ which can be seen in the collage above. The beginning of the song beautifully captures Friedrich’s landscapes of skies in the dusk, evening or moonrises, emptiness painted in soft transitions of purple and yellow colour, tiny figures against the vast backdrop of the sea…

On a distant shore, miles from land
Stands the ebony totem in ebony sand
A dream in a mist of grey…
On a far distant shore…” (Syd Barrett – Opel)

In addition to the ideas shared by all three groups of bohemians, Romantics and hippies also shared the idea of pacifism, specially Percy Bysshe Shelley. However, the mood of Romanticism was a mood of disappointment, melancholy, sadness, loss of hope in society, whilst hippies tended to be a rather cheerful bunch (maybe Romantics would have been merry too, had they used acid), putting emphasis on altruism and their inner peace. Live and let live.

hippie romantics 8 text

And last, but not least, we could see how these bohemians lived their lives in different times and expressed their ideas. Percy Bysshe Shelley for example, lived a short but turbulent and unconventional life (as did many bohemians =). In poetry he cherished a ‘cult of pure beauty’, and supported idealism, nonviolence, social justice and vegetarianism (he supported rights of all living creatures that he saw being treated unjustly!). With his strong principles and interesting ideas he became a hero for the generation that followed, poets beyond Europe, such as Rabindranath Tagore (whom the hippies loved) admired his work. Lord Byron ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know‘ led a completely different life, with more danger than integrity, but his actions are good examples of unconventionality. He had numerous love affairs, you could say that free love was his cup of tea, fought in Greece and died there also very young.

As for Pre-Raphaelites, well William Holman Hunt traveled a bit, Millais ‘stole’ Ruskin’s wife Effie and had eight children, and Rossetti lived with Elizabeth Siddal until she overdosed on laudanum and died, painted a few beautiful red haired models, then retreated himself in a house in Chelsea, London, surrounded by ‘extravagant furnishings and a parade of exotic birds and animals’. Oh, by the way, did I tell you that Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s mother Frances Mary Polidori was John Polidori’s sister? And John Polidori was a friend of both Lord Byron and Percy Shelley. Strange.

hippie romantics 5 text

First and foremost, London bohemians of the late ’60s disapproved the lifestyle their parents led so the natural thing to do was to behave in a totally different way; to begin with they listened to blues records, wore colourful clothes and accepted a laid back attitude to life. They traded the drab and grey post-war reality with a colourful, psychedelic and mystical world of arts, music, flamboyance, love and freedom.

All in all, bohemianism is a personal, cultural and social reaction to the bourgeois life. The choice is yours, ladies and gentleman. Peace.

*Syd Barrett and Pink Floyd: Dark Globe – Julian Palacios