Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Remembering Jorge Valls Arango: The Cuban Stoic who triumphed over totalitarianism

''The only thing that can give you joy and pain is what happens inside, not outside you.''- Jorge Valls Arango, April 20, 1986 in The New York Times

Jorge Valls Arango (on the left) March 13, 2015
 Last night I attended the wake for Jorge Valls Arango paying my respects and expressing my condolences to his family members. Listening to anecdotes from family and friends. The funeral card contained the Virgin of Charity with the three Juans on one side and The Prayer of St. Francis of Assisi on the other side. This morning a Requiem Mass was held at St. Kevin Church for Jorge, who was a man of letters who rejected materialism. Jorge refused a million dollar offer from Universal Studios to make a film based on his life explaining to a shocked relative at the time that money is debasing. The conversation took place after Val Kilmer appeared at his modest apartment in New York City, since the letters sent by Universal Studios had gone unanswered, to verbally make the offer only to have Jorge respond repeatedly: No. Jorge Valls conceived happiness as the cultivation of virtue and unhappiness that which tended towards vice. In order for Jorge Valls to be happy with himself, as he perceived it, he had to reject the million dollar offer because of the negative impact the money and notoriety would have on his person.

Jorge Valls fought against tyranny and barbarism his whole life and in Cuba that meant challenging the dictatorships of Fulgencio Batista and Fidel Castro. He suffered prison and exile during the Batista regime. During the Castro regime he was arrested in 1964 and sentenced to 20 years in prison for testifying in defense of a friend who was being subjected to a show trial. While in prison he organized teach ins, taught some prisoners how to read and smuggled his poems out of prison. One of the poems is translated to English is reproduced below:

Where I am there is no light
and it is barred.
Just beyond
there lies a lighted space.
Therefore light must exist.
further on, there is an even deeper gloom.
There are no hanged men now:
all of them are on fire.
Could they be made of kerosene inside?
They go on talking,
moving from here to there,
from there to here,
Some are sleeping.
Someone is outside.
Somewhere there is sunshine.
Inevitably, the sun exists.
I can no longer leave:
I`ll go and sleep.
Inevitably, I`ll wake up again.
And so on, and on and on.
The kerosene burns inexhaustibly.

Having served the two decade stretch in conditions that can politely be described as inhumane, the prison commissars held him for an additional forty days. My first encounter with Jorge Valls was in the 1987 documentary Nobody Listened. Janet Maslin of The New York Times in 1988 reviewed this important film at the time and highlighted the imprisoned poet:
Jorge Valls, a writer, on the other hand, points out that at least ''free thinking dwelt behind prison walls; it was truly the free territory of Cuba.'' As for public free expression at the time of the revolution, Mr. Valls says: ''None of that in 1959! Just extraordinary exaltation, fanatical idolatry of the victorious warrior, and rampant folly that made everything acceptable.'' 
The next time I met him was at Florida International University in the early 1990s sitting near the student union and struck up a conversation with him. Traveling by bus through Miami I would occasionally run into Jorge Valls and engage with him in conversations on Cuba, the Caribbean, human rights, and theology.

Over the past 25 years had the opportunity to attend teach ins, poetry readings, and gatherings led by Jorge Valls. On a couple of occasions was honored to have him as a guest on a radio program. He was truly an original thinker and a man of great faith and courage.We often disagreed on policy questions but not on the fundamentals.

The last time I saw Jorge Valls was on March 13, 2015 at Our Lady of Charity to attend a Mass in memory of José Antonio Echeverría. We chatted briefly, exchanging pleasantries and agreed to catch up soon. Sadly, it did not come to pass.

In Book Two, Chapter 19 of The Discourses of Epictetus, one of the later Stoic philosophers, who lived at the height of the Roman empire explained the way of life of one who followed stoicism:
"Who then is a Stoic? As we call a statue Phidiac which is fashioned according to the art of Phidias; so show me a man who is fashioned according to the doctrines which he utters. Show me a man who is sick and happy, in danger and happy, dying and happy, in exile and happy, in disgrace and happy. Show him: I desire, by the gods, to see a Stoic. You cannot show me one fashioned so; but show me at least one who is forming, who has shown a tendency to be a Stoic."
Jorge Valls was a man that confronted cancer for over two decades, on more than one occasion all around him thought he was going to die, and went through the ordeal a happy man. He defended a friend, at great danger to himself and spent 20 years and 40 days in prison for his troubles but remained throughout the ordeal a happy man who aided others, describing prison as the one place to speak freely in Cuba. Released from prison in 1984, he was forcibly exiled for thirty years, Jorge Valls endured his separation from his homeland and continued to teach, pray, help others, and was a happy man. Epicetus would find in the life that he lived that Jorge Valls was a stoic.

His passing is a great loss for all of us lucky enough to have known this man. The Cuban Stoic who triumphed over totalitarianism in all its forms.

No comments:

Post a Comment