Various notable individuals have lauded Guevara as a hero; for example, Nelson Mandela referred to him as "an inspiration for every human being who loves freedom",while Jean-Paul Sartre described him as "not only an intellectual but also the most complete human being of our age". Others who have expressed their admiration include authors Graham Greene, who remarked that Guevara "represented the idea of gallantry, chivalry, and adventure", and Susan Sontag, who supposed that "[Che's] goal was nothing less than the cause of humanity itself." ... Praise has been reflected throughout the political spectrum, with the libertarian theorist Murray Rothbard extolling Guevara as a "heroic figure", lamenting after his death that "more than any man of our epoch or even of our century, [Che] was the living embodiment of the principle of revolution", while journalist Christopher Hitchens commented that "[Che's] death meant a lot to me and countless like me at the time, he was a role model, albeit an impossible one for us bourgeois romantics insofar as he went and did what revolutionaries were meant to do—fought and died for his beliefs. (Source)
Yes, I know this post should be about Mandela, but I've had Guevara on my mind, and Mandela's death gives me the opportunity to talk about what I've been thinking about both of them.
Steinbeck's East of Eden is a study of two personality types that define, I think in a profound way, a basic polarity that defines our human nature--the Cain and Abel or imp/angel archetypes. Cal and Cathy Imps; Adam and Aron, Angels. But these basic archetypes are found everywhere: Tom Sawyer, Imp; Huck Finn, Angel. Ivan and Alyosha Karamazov, Angels; Fyodor, Dmitri, and Smerdyakov,Imps. (See my post on this theme.)
Neither is morally superior, but the Imps type often gets a bad rap because they are a little too comfortable with their 'falleness' and tend to be transgressive rules breakers. The Angel type is an idealist and rules follower and is often embraced as "good" because he is an exemplar of tribal virtue. But for Steinbeck, Dostoyevski, Twain (and me) he isn't good or better than the Imp type. Like Imps, Angels have a moral task, a life work that they must accomplish if they are to become truly good. It's a harder road, I think, for the angel than it is for the imp.
Imps are at home in the world and accept the world on its own terms. They are averse to making moral judgments. Some could be simply understood as people stuck in Kierkegaard's aesthetic stage. They live for enjoyment. Rules, laws, moral restrictions are hard for them to take seriously. This can have a naive or immature, good-old-boy character, in a person who lives unconsciously according driven impulsively by fear and desire. For such people the goal is simply to do as he pleases without getting caught. Or the Imp can be more shrewd and cold-blooded as in the characters Fyodor Dostoyevski or Cathy Trask, for whom everything is a calculation regarding maximizing gain and minimizing loss, for whom nothing ever is given without extracting something in return. We see these types all the time in popular fiction in books and on screens.
Imps thrive on Wall Street. They have no concept of the common good. For them the common good a silly abstraction embraced by people--Angels--who don't understand how the world works. Imps in France in 1940 shrugged and did what was necessary to get along with the Nazis. The Angels joined the resistance--and they got their revenge on collaborators after the war. Angels can be harshly judgmental, and often ruthless in the service of their ideals or mission, but it has to be a mission they beliieve serves a higher purpose than their own self interest.
Each Imp-dominant personality has a suppressed Angel, and each Angel-dominant personality has a suppressed Imp. The meaning of the gospel admonition to become shrewd as serpents and guileless as doves is for Angels to embrace their suppressed Imp, and for Imps to embrace their suppressed Angel, and in doing so to effect a balance--or metaxis--between the part of us that is attuned to heaven and the part that is attuned to the earth. To effect the integration is not easy; it requires living in an uncomfortable tension between them. It is much easier to be one sided--to be Angel or Imp. It's much harder to be both.
But to succeed is to achieve a kind of greatness; to fail, or at least not to try, is to remain a soul mediocrity, a stagnant hodgepodge of instinctual impulses and culturally conditioned attitudes and beliefs. The challenge for each is to call the suppressed part of themselves out of the shadows and to integrate it into his personality. This is a moral task, but it is very different for the two types. In popular culture, this moral transformation is mostly described on 'Imp' terms, e.g., the self-absorbed sybarite, the narcissistic careerist who meets the woman of his dreams,usually an Angel-dominant type, who forces a choice, who calls him to commitment and to clean up his act. (See the film Tao of Steve for a classic, entertaining example about the classic move from Kierkegaard's aesthetic to the ethical. Dickens's Scrooge is the story of a man who when confronted with the choice failed to make the move.)
Less common are stories about the moral transformation of Angels, and if the story is depicted at all, it's a story of their failure. How does this relate to Mandela and Guevara? They are both Angels; one succeeded in his moral transformation, and the other didn't.
So the Angel type fails if he stagnates in conventional, rules-following mediocrity. These are the good little boys and girls that priggish adults love, and that the movies hate because they are so predictably boring. Angels turning sour, however, is another possibility, and one that is worth writing about. Angels who sour come in three basic categories and combinations of them--the Cynic, the Drunk, and the Jacobin.
The Cynic is a lapsed idealist. He rejects his natural idealism as delusional once it becomes clear to him that the world has the effrontery not to conform to the way he thinks it should be. He can be angry and embittered or depressed and withdrawn.
The Drunk is another kind of soured Angel. He seeks escape from an ugly world he cannot abide, especially if there is a better one in his imagination. Dylan Thomas comes to mind. Christopher Hitchens was a combination of this and the first.
The Jacobin is the most interesting of the three. His response to his discovery of an ugly world is to re-engineer it, to seek to control it, using whatever amount of violence and force necessary to make it conform to the ideal template he has for it in his mind.
Each is a failed response to a shock of some kind that can be an opportunity if the shock is dealt with effectively. And for each of these failed responses recovery is possible. But of these three possibilities, the Jacobin is the most attractive, especially in the young, because at least it's a positive response that engages with the world, and as such provides a better chance of recovery than that provided Drunks and Cynics. But Jacobins can become monsters if they fail.
Both Mandela and Che were Jacobins in their twenties. Che died one, Mandela didn't. The difference? Mandela went to prison, and Che went to Bolivia. Mandela matured; Che did not. Did Che die a monster? I think he did.
I have Che on my mind because in October I rewatched The Motorcycle Diaries and saw for the first time Che, the two-part film by Stephen Soderberg. The Ernesto Guevara of The Motorcycle Diaries is well named. He is a classic Angel type who pairs up with Alberto, a classic, pleasure-seeking Imp--Che is Hal to Alberto's Falstaff. There is something big-souled and appealing about the twenty-three-year old Ernesto. He has a great, compassionate soul, and he has an intelligence and thoughtfulness that make him stand out. But there was a stubborn, perhaps even compulsive, absolutist quality to him, which is typical of Angel prodigies. That stubbornness--that refusal to accept the world on its own terms--can lead to greatness or monstrousness.
In Soderberg's film, Che contrasts dramatically with Fidel, who is more practical, down to earth, and as such more human. Che was successful in Cuba because he had Fidel to temper his revolutionary angelism; Che failed in Africa and Bolivia because he was on his own and he had no one he trusted who could balance him out. He had a very hard time dealing with the political realities and the frailties of the people he sought to help. He lacked patience and could barely control his contempt for anyone who was not motivated by the same ideals and willingness to sacrifice as he. He needed Fidel (or Alberto) to bring him down to earth.
I'd argue that Che's story is one of tragic failure, not just because of the fiascos in Africa and Bolivia, but because those failures didn't temper him. If anything they reinforced his Jacobinism and kept him stuck. It's fortunate for the world that he never got into a position where his revolutionary angelism could have been given a wider scope. I'm not saying he'd be as bad as Mao or Pol Pot, but there would be similarities. It's unfortunate that he was shot and didn't spend time in prison to recover himself.
The crisis for Angels is usually a moment when life deals them a harsh blow, and everything depends on how they react to it. Breaking Bad's Walter White was an Angel stuck in conventional mediocrity when the news of his cancer delivered that blow--it transformed him into a bitter, cynical, control freak--a drug-lord Robespierre. Adam in East of Eden goes into an irresponsibly self-absorbed, child-neglecting depression after Cathy shoots and leaves him. Aron in the same book freaks out and runs away when he learns his mother is a madam at a nearby whorehouse. Alyosha Karamazov is devastated upon hearing of the humiliating premature decay of his hero Zossima's corpse. But Alyosha recovers. Those who recover, who find a way of keeping one foot in heaven and the other on the earth, are best described by the Yiddish word, 'mensch'.
Marjorie Kinnan Rawling's The Yearling is also a success story about three Angel-dominant types, Penny and Ora Baxter, and their son, Jody. Penny Baxter is a mensch, he is the model of the integrated Angel/imp, serpent and dove. His wife, however, failed to recover from life's cruel blows and became embittered and depressed. The narrative arc of the book sets up a similar kind of blow that will be dealt to Jody, when he is told that he must destroy his pet deer, Flag. And the question that's implied in this crisis is whether Jody will respond to this blow as his mother did or as his father. Jody's reaction was a lot like Aron's in East of Eden--to run away. But he came back, and Penny's speech to Jody when he returns points out how it's possible for Angels to come down to earth and to live on it as a mensch:
You've seed how things goes in the world o' men. You've knowed men to be low-down and mean. You've seed ol' Death at his tricks...Ever' man wants life to be a fine thing, and a easy. 'Tis fine, boy, powerful fine, but 'tain't easy. Life knocks a man down and he gits up and it knocks him down agin. I've been uneasy all my life...I've wanted life to be easy for you. Easier'n 'twas for me. A man's heart aches, seein' his young uns face the world. Knowin' they got to get their guts tore out, the way his was tore. I wanted to spare you, long as I could. I wanted you to frolic with your yearlin'. I knowed the lonesomeness he eased for you. But ever' man's lonesome. What's he to do then? What's he to do when he gits knocked down? Why, take it for his share and go on.
If the blow for Che was his failure in Africa, the blow for Mandela was his being thrown into prison for twenty-four years. Everything depended on how they responded to those blows. It could have made them into embittered cynics or bloodthirsty Jacobins--or it could have given them the opportunity to become mensches. Mandela became the mensch, and Che remained a Jacobin. That's the difference between Mandela and Che, regardless of their relative historical importance. Both were prodigies in their own way, both potential great souls, but Mandela realized that potential while Che did not.
Mandela's imprisonment provided the context for his 'integration' of serpent and dove, for the Angel in him to develop a compassion that was stronger than his outrage at the egregious injustices done to him and to his people. He came to accept the world as it was, and yet not to give up his ideals. Che, I would argue, would have benefitted from spending time in prison, too. It might have given him the chance to effect a similar kind of integration. It might have given him more time and perspective. But then again it might have more deeply embittered him.
I think Fidel is a wiser, shrewder man than Che. Fidel is a mensch, and he would have more admirers in the U.S. if his revolution had taken place at a time other than when Americans could only view it through a Cold War lens. History will be kinder to him than American public opinion has been, and he is a bigger, better man than Che was.