Fernández Retamar, Roberto. “Caliban: Notes Toward a Discussion of Culture in Our America.” In Calibán and Other Essays. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989.
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In this essay, Roberto Fernández Retamar outlines a vision for a revolutionary American culture based in a political and intellectual history that began with José Martí and other intellectual-soldiers of the era of Independence in Latin America, and has been most recently realized by the Cuban Revolution. In sections entitled, “Toward the History of Caliban” and “Our Symbol,” Retamar traces the dialectics of the Caliban versus Ariel—both as symbols of barbaric versus civilized America—and their conflicting links with Prospero, the character in Shakespeare’s The Tempest who represents the colonizer. Tracing the evolution of the Caliban’s symbolism through Columbus’ letters, Shakespeare’s works, [José Enrique] Rodó’s Ariel, and other sources, Retamar argues that even as European colonizers have sought to degrade America by assigning it the identity of the Caliban and as writers like Rodó have embraced this negative view of the Caliban, American culture must be derived from its Caliban [cannibalistic] characteristics. In the subsequent sections, “Again Martí” and “The Real Life of a False Dilemma,” Retamar argues that American culture must be based on Martí’s conception of “our America” as mestizo, which was “Calibanesque” and utterly opposed to [Domingo Faustino Sarmiento’s] “civilization versus barbarism” concept of American culture. In the next section, entitled “On the Free World,” he elaborates on his argument against [Sarmiento’s opposition] by demonstrating how pro-Yankee sentiment has infected a strain of bourgeois Latin American intellectuals, including Jorge Luis Borges and Carlos Fuentes, and has also proven that intellectual conflicts have essentially been “class confrontation[s].” Retamar concludes by reiterating his argument that Latin American culture can exist only as “resistance” against civilization (i.e. colonialism), that an authentic American culture can be created only by the mestizo, Indian, and Black under-classes, and furthermore, that the Cuban Revolution (by means of Che Guevara and Fidel Castro) is leading the developing world in forming this new brand of socialist culture.
Cuban poet and literary critic Roberto Fernández Retamar (b. 1930) first published this essay entitled “Caliban: Notes Toward a Discussion of Culture in Our America,” in the September-October 1971 issue of Casa de Las Américas, a Havana-based journal he has edited since 1965, which was a leading anti-Imperialist voice in debates about culture and politics in Latin America during the 1960s and ‘70s. This essay, in which Retamar lays out an argument that an authentic American culture can be fostered only in a socialist society like Cuba’s, fiercely opposes U.S. intervention in Latin America, and pits the Communist developing world—encompassing Communist movements in Vietnam, China, and African countries—against what he ironically calls the “Free World.” Among other things, this essay traces a history of anti-colonial defiance among American intellectuals, beginning with Bolívar and Martí in the nineteenth century, to José Carlos Mariátegui and Alfonso Reyes during the 1920s, up to Retamar’s contemporaries Franz Fanon and Aimé Cesaire. On the other hand, Retamar argues that Latin American intellectuals’ failure to reject bourgeois values—especially in Mexico and Argentina—has contributed to the self-colonizing postures assumed by Rodó, Jorge Luis Borges and Carlos Fuentes. Retamar’s theory that the Caliban’s character—at once colonized and enslaved but unassimilated and resistant—serves as a symbol for a dialectical American culture, a culture-in-progress, or “on the move” in his own words, that owes much to his use of Marxist theory, including Marx and Engels essentials, as well as Gramsci’s idea of the organic intellectual. It is clear, in the closing passages of Retamar’s essay in which he extensively cites both speeches by Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, that he kept in mind the socialist vision in which the cultural drive is created anew by the under-classes, as occurring in the Revolutionary Cuba of the 1960s and early ‘70s.