Portraying Guevara

by Chris Bertram on October 10, 2004

Matt Yglesias had some sensible comments the other day concerning Paul Berman’s philistine reaction to The Motorcycle Diaries. As a film, I thought it was OK, though I looked at my watch from time to time. There’s a real question, though, about how to portray Guevara and I’ve strugged with writing something about this for a week. I haven’t reached a satisfactory conclusion, just assembled some provisional thoughts partly inspired by Hegel and partly by Alasdair Macintyre.

Hagiography should be out, but so should the sort of reaction that just carpingly lists bad things he did or unwise decisions he made. One reaction to that type of braying criticism is Hegel’s discussion of critics of Alexander in the Philosophy of History (scroll down to § 34). But Hegel’s remarks are inappropriate for Guevara because of the way in which he points to Alexander’s success in the conquest of Asia. Lack of success and damaging facts should not necessarily be enough to deprive a hero of heroic status: Achilles was flawed, and Achilles was cruel, and Achilles failed, but we still respond to him.

And then there’s the question of sympathetic identification with the cause. In his essay “How not to write about Lenin”, Alasdair Macintyre argues:

For those who intend to write about Lenin there are at least two prerequisites. The first is a sense of scale. One dare not approach greatness of a certain dimension without a sense of one’s own limitations. A Liliputian who sets out to write Gulliver’s biography had best take care. Above all he dare not be patronizing…..The second prerequisite is a sense of tragedy which will enable the historian to feel both the greatness and the tragedy of the October Revolution. Those for whom the whole project of the revolutionary liberation of mankind from exploitation and alienation is an absurb fantasy disqualify themselves from writing about Communism in the same way that those who find the notion of the supernatural redemption of the world from sin disqualify themselves from writing ecclesiastical history.

Guevara wasn’t Lenin, just as he wasn’t Alexander, but he did personify a historical moment and he did turn his back on a comfortable future as a communist bureaucrat to pursue the goal of the revolutionary liberation of humanity. Thersites from Des Moines (or wherever) can carp all he wants—and much of the carping will consist in a recitation of facts—but criticism that isn’t appropriately informed by a sense of grandeur, tragedy, heroism and tragic failure just misses the mark.

{ 28 comments }

1

jam 10.10.04 at 2:04 pm

“those who find the notion of the supernatural redemption of the world from sin [absurd] disqualify themselves from writing ecclesiastical history.”

As in Gibbon’s 15th and 16th chapters?

Atheists don’t usually write ecclesiastical history because they’re not interested in it. But to claim they’re a priori disqualified is clearly untrue.

What is interesting about the simile is Macintyre’s comparison of Communism with religion.

I don’t think you want to base your thinking about Guevara on Macintyre.

2

David Weman 10.10.04 at 2:06 pm

I’m speechless.

3

Chris Bertram 10.10.04 at 2:24 pm

Jam: you’ll be interested to know that Macintyre’s immediately following sentence reads:

bq. How much can be achieved none the less is witnessed to by Gibbon and Hume, as well as by their successors; and how much is necessariliy missed out at the same time.

I didn’t base my thinking about Guevara on Macintyre. Had I wished to do so directly, I would have relied upon his “Marxism of the Will” from the same volume( _Against the Self-images of the Age_ ) in which he convicts Guevara of abstract Kantian moralism.

4

Matt 10.10.04 at 2:54 pm

Jam said: “What is interesting about the simile is Macintyre’s comparison of Communism with religion.” That is interesting, I suppose, but perhaps less surprising when you know that when he wrote that, MacIntyre was a marxist christian, and that that wasn’t such a rare breed in those days (see generally, liberation theology- Jesus was a revolutionary, as they use to say.) In general I did like the film, though some of the non-historical (to my knowledge) scenes that were added did go a bit over the top in trying to make Che look saintly. One almost expected him to start minstering to trees and animals in the end, as always happens in the lives of the saints.

5

Hektor Bim 10.10.04 at 3:44 pm

People can write whatever they like, and other people can decide whether they think it is good or not. There is such a thing as a free exchange of ideas, and it is reprehensible to say that people of a certain kind “cannot” analyze something, which is really the same as saying that should such a person analyze this subject, we can disregard their points without thinking.

I don’t agree with this point at all.

6

asg 10.10.04 at 4:12 pm

Words fail me.

7

Giles 10.10.04 at 4:30 pm

“Lack of success and damaging facts should not necessarily be enough to deprive a hero of heroic status”

Hey, does that mean I’m a hero too?

8

Ray Davis 10.10.04 at 4:53 pm

Myself, I’m sorry that anyone should think Lenin deserves special treatment in this regard. A biographer should approach any subject with the same humility.

That is, Giles’s biographer should respect Giles’s status as hero of the biography even if no one else does.

9

Chris Bertram 10.10.04 at 5:00 pm

Brad DeLong writes over at his place:

bq. Chris Bertram writes something inexplicable:

bq. Crooked Timber: Portraying Guevara : Lack of success and damaging facts should not necessarily be enough to deprive a hero of heroic status: Achilles was flawed, and Achilles was cruel, and Achilles failed, but we still respond to him.

bq. As far as I’m concerned, we “respond” to Achilles–we may even pity him–but we do not admire him. None of us would wish to have the character of Achilles.

bq. Hektor is the one we admire. Hektor is the hero of the Iliad.

bq. And none of us would wish to have the character of Che Guevara.

And I respond in comments there:

bq.Brad, I would not wish to have the character of Achilles, nor that of Guevara, Lenin, Trotsky, Robespierre, Bonaparte…. But the point of my post over at CT was not to say that I wished to have their character, but rather to say that a certain type of commentary (the Thersites/Berman type) is wholly inadequate to capture what is humanly important about these people and their projects.

10

roger 10.10.04 at 5:21 pm

Jam, I’m with you. That MacIntyre immediately instances Gibbon and Hume, who contradict his thesis, as if they support it shows the value of it. It isn’t a sense of tragedy that is requisite, it is merely an imagination lively enough to understand another’s goals without constant reference to one’s own, or to one’s own biases. In another words, one needs a firm sense of the other’s autonomy. The sense of tragedy strikes me as subtly patronizing — ‘of course this poor deluded character is going to fail because that is just the way human nature/history is.’

11

Bernard Yomtov 10.10.04 at 5:27 pm

I don’t understand at all.

Hagiography should be out, but so should the sort of reaction that just carpingly lists bad things he did or unwise decisions he made.

What if we list them uncarpingly, just as facts?

Lack of success and damaging facts should not necessarily be enough to deprive a hero of heroic status

So accomplishing nothing that is good and a great deal that is very bad does not “deprive a hero of heroic status?” On what basis do you grant that status to begin with?

12

WeSaferThemHealthier 10.10.04 at 5:27 pm

“and much of the carping will consist in a recitation of facts — but criticism that isn’t appropriately informed by a sense of grandeur, tragedy, heroism and tragic failure just misses the mark.”

And

“Those for whom the whole project of the revolutionary liberation of mankind from exploitation and alienation is an absurb fantasy disqualify themselves from writing about Communism “

So, umm, where does this leave us when it comes to, I don’t know, Mussolini? Will Chris and Macintyre only consider the opinion of fascist biographers? Of those who approach fascism with a proper sense of grandeur and heroism and don’t let mere “facts” get in the way?

Chris, when it comes to the Bush presidency, do you only get your information from people who are convinced of Bush’s heroism and grandeur and, again, don’t care much about petty little facts? Are the only ones allowed to write about the Grand Engineering of the Mideast those who fully stand behind it?

When can we expect the “Bush: The hero” post that quotes Krauthammer, Kagan, Safire, Perle, Steyn and Hitchens?

13

Abiola Lapite 10.10.04 at 6:26 pm

“On what basis do you grant that status to begin with?”

He had brooding good looks, and had “the right intentions?”

I’m pretty sure that if Che had been an ugly right-wing extremist instead of a handsome extreme leftist, no one on here would be bending himself into pretzels to make him out as a “hero.”

14

mona 10.10.04 at 7:42 pm

Maybe it’s a cultural barrier thing? I had this feeling when reading this comment from carlos on Yglesias:

“I think Berman is pissed off that, despite everything that has happened since the sixties, Ché is still a loved figure (at least in Latin America). ¿Maybe instead of ranting about it in movie reviews he should travel here and try to figure out why?”

But how could anyone who thinks what Chris or Matthew wrote is “inexplicable” be interested in figuring out why the Ché is so loved? How could they be interested in a film that tries to explain some of that?

15

dsquared 10.10.04 at 7:54 pm

David and “asq”; if you are lost for words, there is always the option of shutting up.

16

jamie 10.10.04 at 8:08 pm

Chris: There’s a bit in the Songlines where Bruce Chatwin compares the major points of Guevara’s career to the tale of Beowulf and finds them almost identical in structure. Chatwin puts this down to primeval longing for the nomad state. He seems to put most things down to such longings, though.

More generally, I’m surprised that so many people seem to be shocked by Chris’ point. Obviously, you can’t look at a claim to transcendence from a narrow rational/moral perspective to fully understand it, whether you agree with it or not. Liberal universalism seems so infantile at times…

17

WeSaferThemHealthier 10.10.04 at 8:22 pm

Jamie,

Bertram quoted a passage that said people are disqualified from writing about X if they disagree with X. It goes a bit further than what you said.

I ask again: Are Mussolini lovers the only viable ( as in, not disqualified ) candidates for Mussolini biographers?

18

jamie 10.10.04 at 8:33 pm

Are Mussolini lovers the only viable ( as in, not disqualified ) candidates for Mussolini biographers?

It’s not about whether you agree. it’s about whether you understand what the hero in question was trying to do, and what compelled him or her to do it. A moral perspective isn’t adequate to this task.

19

Chris Bertram 10.10.04 at 8:37 pm

“wesaferthemhealthier” wrote:

bq. Bertram quoted a passage that said people are disqualified from writing about X if they disagree with X.

No, the passage Bertram quoted did _not_ say that. It said that those who thought the communist project (as characterized by Macintyre) was an absurd fantasy were so disqualified. And the qualification is clearly a _relative_ one: they are _as_ disqualified as atheists writing ecclesiastical history are (i.e. not absolutely).

20

yabonn 10.10.04 at 9:02 pm

Off tracks, mostly :

_Paul Berman’s philistine reaction to The Motorcycle Diaries_

A propos of philistinery, no one else appaled by the weekly standard article about jelinek’s nobel?

“Upon learning her award, let’s not forget, my good fellows, that she is a *commie bitch, commie bitch, commie bitch*, and, as such, a bad writer.”

And Seems like there’s nothing like a maccarthyte titillation to spice up the same old, same old warmongering.

Ah yes and, she’s a feminazi too. I mean “Viennese virago”.

21

WeSaferThemHealthier 10.10.04 at 9:05 pm

Bertram,

Not that clearly.

Where does he say to what degree they are disqualified? Where do you get the “not absolutely”?

When someone says that one is disqualified and never mentions degrees, I understand that to mean that the person is completely disqualified. Is that reasonable?

“In the same way” appears to mean “for the same reasons”.

Jamie,

“It’s not about whether you agree. it’s about whether you understand what the hero in question was trying to do, and what compelled him or her to do it.”

Many people who disagree with an idea or person are capable of taking a descriptive rather than normative view of that idea/person. One doesn’t need to excuse to explain.

Macintyre didn’t say that a book containing normative judgements is disqualified, he said an author who thinks an idea absurd is disqualified. It’s all about whether or not you agree.

“Liberal universalism seems so infantile at times…”
Yeah, let’s try something else.

22

Detached Observer 10.10.04 at 10:54 pm

Chris wrote “[Che] did turn his back on a comfortable future as a communist bureaucrat to pursue the goal of the revolutionary liberation of humanity.”

And Osama Bin Laden turned his back on a comfortable future as a millionare to execute what he perceived as God’s will. Should our discourse about him be similarly informed by a sense of grandeur, tragedy, and heroism?

23

asg 10.11.04 at 12:16 am

Thanks, Daniel, I’ll keep that in mind, but since this is, you know, a weblog, with comments threads, somehow I don’t think “shutting up” is what I, or anyone else, come visiting here to do.

24

jam 10.11.04 at 1:20 am

If I may come back in.

I, too, have a lot of problems coming to a final (?) position on Che. I left school in 1967. I “sat in” as a University freshman in 1968. Much of my young self is involved in some way with the figure that Che projected. And yes, Abiola, being a handsome young leftist was certainly part of that.

But, given the massive mismatch between Che’s declared aims on the one hand and his actions and achievements on the other, it does seem to me that to come to a balanced judgement requires a dose of scepticism about his aims.

We have had this discussion before. A little while ago, Brad Delong put up an anti-Nader-supporter post under the title “An Infantile Disorder” referring to Lenin’s attack on what he then called Left-wing Communism. I could certainly see such an attack being made on Che. But it would not be made by someone who saw grandeur in Che’s life.

25

mcgruff 10.11.04 at 3:33 am

The most striking line in Chris’s post is this one–“Hagiography should be out, but so should the sort of reaction that just carpingly lists bad things”– since Berman’s essay wasn’t a first order portrayal of Che, but a response to what he described reasonably as hagiography. I.e, Achilles without the killng.

IF hagiography is out, why isn’t carping criticism a legitimate response to it?

26

veebee 10.11.04 at 6:06 am

How to write about Che? If I were to do it, my inspiration would come from Nietzsche. Twilight of the Idols, anyone?

27

Colby Cosh 10.11.04 at 9:38 am

This entry + the very recent entry on “less Tubman, more [Robert E.] Lee” = typically comic Crooked Timber cognitive trainwreck.

28

Sebastian Holsclaw 10.12.04 at 6:12 am

“Lack of success and damaging facts should not necessarily be enough to deprive a hero of heroic status”

Chris Bertram thinks Bush is a hero. Cool.

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