By Dayan Jayatilleka –
Discussing his birth with biographer Ignacio Ramonet (‘My Life’), Fidel observed that a man is marked, shaped, by the times into which he is born; the period of history, its main dynamics and events. I was born on Dec 3rd 1956. On Dec 2nd 1956 half a world away on another, larger, tropical island, Fidel, Che and Raul and 80 others had landed in the leaky yacht Granma to start the revolutionary guerrilla war. (If one adjusts for the time difference, it was a gap of just a few hours). Dec 2nd is designated the Day of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Cuba, founded by Fidel and headed subsequently by Raul. I turn 60 the day that Raul will make his valedictory at the final mass rally in Santiago de Cuba to bid farewell to Fidel. The next day (Dec 4) Fidel’s ashes will be interred at St. Iphigenia’ cemetery where the Cuban national hero Jose Marti is buried. I have been but a poor and inconsistent follower and student, but I would not have been the man I became nor would my life have been what it has been, had I not been born under the sign of Fidel.
The philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre who pioneered “existential psychology” was of the view that one’s choices reveal one’s character and therefore you can understand yourself or anyone else by looking back and tracing the history of the choices they made at various turning points; forks in the road. He goes on to say that there is an original choice made most probably in adolescence if not childhood, which tends to be the key to all the subsequent choices, the tracing of which will reveal the project/s of the individual. Decades earlier, the psychologist Carl Jung, the dissenting pupil of Freud, had ventured to suggest that each of us has wittingly or unwittingly chosen a guiding archetype which we then internalize and act out/upon, and he identifies a menu of the master archetypes. One of the tasks of psychology is to uncover the recessed archetype.
One must be honest in using both these keys, because airbrushing or outright mythmaking is an omnipresent temptation. Therefore—and I suppose, also because of my journalistic lineage– I prefer to go by the record; by text, by the verifiable printed word, even or especially when the subject is myself. What I have as evidence are four essays, two in English and two in Sinhala, published in “Blue and White” the magazine of “St. Joseph’s College, Colombo, Ceylon” in September 1969 and November 1971, respectively the ‘Diamond Jubilee Number’ and ‘the 75th Anniversary commemoration number’ of the College. The former is listed as Volume 60, the latter, covering the period 1969-1970, as Volume 61. I have opted to reproduce the two English language texts.
The first of the two articles lists the author as “Dayan Jayatilleka, Grade 6A”. This means I was aged 12 plus (the magazine is dated Sept ’69 and I hadn’t turned 13 yet). It is entitled ‘I SAW THE HOLY LAND’ and is reproduced below:
“THERE is no city in the world holier than Jerusalem, because three great religious faiths of the world–Christianity, Judaism and Islam–hold it sacred. But Jerusalem’s fame rests mainly on the fact that it is in the land of the Bible. Four years ago, I stood on Mount Zion and saw below a divided city. Barbed wire and cement barriers cut through the heart of the Holy City, and gun barrels on either side of the Mandelbaum Gate glistened in the sunlight. But today it is one city again.
In June last year, I walked along the streets of Jerusalem and visited the holy places surrounding it. Driving through the blistering heat of the valley of Jordan, I came on a cool evening to the hilltop Jerusalem.
Jerusalem was rich in a mixture of colours, like a Persian carpet. There was also a variety of sounds, sights and smells. The sound of church bells ringing, the chant of Moslem priests and the drone of the Jews praying at the Wailing Wail created a pleasant noisy confusion. Beside me was an Arab boy trying to sell me something from his tray of coloured sweetmeats, and beyond was an Israel soldier walking with a gun slung on his shoulder. However, I had not gone there to enjoy the excitement or beauty of that city, but to pay homage to its holiness. The next morning, as I went from one sacred spot to another, things I had learnt in the Bible, things ancient and holy, came to life. There in the Garden of Gethsemane, my mind was filled with the image of Jesus awaiting crucifixion and praying to His Father. With a strong wind blowing in our faces, we climbed a small hill, and olive twig into my hand, for that was the Mount of Olives. After a visit to the church of the Holy Sepulcher, we drove to Bethlehem and there visited the church of the Nativity, built on the spot where Jesus Christ, our Saviour, was born.
In Nazareth a church is being built which, it is said, will be one of the most beautiful in the world when completed. But it was the past that thrilled me more. I went step by step deep into a cave where the Holy Family had lived, and saw where they had stored their food and where St. Joseph had worked.
While driving down a long winding road, our driver stopped to point out to us a hillock, full of scrub and stone with goats and sheep grazing idly. No scene could be more ordinary and yet this was the spot from which the message of Christ went out to the world, for here He had spoken to His people and delivered what we now call the Sermon on the Mount. So, in the Holy Land, names and places and events known to me in the Bible became an experience I shall never forget.” (Blue & White, Sept 1969, Vol 60, pp. 72-73)
What strikes me are the following features, though there are others that may be noted by the reader. Firstly, internationalism: the choice of an international subject, and an early experience of the world. “In June last year” means I was writing about a visit in 1968 at age 11 plus. The reference to “four years ago” means a visit in 1964 at age 7. Secondly, the schoolboy essay shows an acute awareness of changing politico-military contextual realities. Thirdly, the non-mention of parents and the individuality of the reported experience indicates an early crystallization of a strong, independent identity, consciousness and perspective. Fourthly, the outlook is clearly cosmopolitan. Fifthly, the figure of Jesus Christ emerges strongly.
What would have been a display of cosmopolitanism characteristic of a Colombo private school is made rather more interesting by the Sinhala essay (on page 111) entitled “Magay Rata” (“My Country”) and signed Dayan de S. Jayatilleka, ‘Hayaveni Pela’ (Grade Six). I was among the few, perhaps the only one, to contribute to the college magazine in both languages.
Most telling of all from the point of view of Jungian archetypes and Sartrean existential psychology is the essay in Volume 61 of the college magazine, covering 1969-1970 and bearing the date of issue November 1971 (the delay being due to the April 1971 insurrection and the closure of schools). While page 67 carries an article in Sinhala on “How to improve Lanka’s Economic Situation” by Dayan Jayatilleka of Grade 8, the section designated “Student Writers Forum” carries an essay in English by Dayan de S. Jayatilleke of ‘Grade 9A Science’. Thus the writer was aged 13 plus. The essay was entitled “WHEN DEATH IS WELCOME”:
“THE Veddah was still alive when they found him lying in a pool of blood, hideously scarred and mutilated almost beyond recognition. While they carried him to the village, he rambled on deliriously: He spoke of a huge beast with gleaming fangs, and kept muttering in agonized whispers about flashing claws and blazing eyes. “The beast, the beast….” and then death mercifully claimed him. Yes, the reign of terror had begun.
Each night the creature of the Veddah’s terrifying tale came out of the jungle, and each time he claimed a victim. Today the village would mourn for a lonely boy who had strolled along a jungle path, and tomorrow it would be a poor, helpless farmer.
The village was caught in a grip of fear. Nobody was brave enough or foolhardy enough to venture out of his home in the dark. Nobody would even leave the village in broad daylight, for the jungle lay close by, and in in the jungle the night is eternal. Doors padlocked, windows barred, gate shut, fences quickly erected, the village was a virtual fortress. Hardly a thing moved on the struts; and by dusk, it was a ghost town.
Soon it was harvest time. But the fields lay deserted. Nobody would reap the harvest or thresh the paddy. There was no grain to store, and as the fruits of the season fell upon the ground for the last time, the village starved.
If the village had to be saved, the beast had to die. Even the children knew this. One day, after weeks of argument, the elders decided that there was only one hope. They had to flee from the village. The villagers came out and assembled in the bare, dusty square, and were told of this decision.
Suddenly a voice cried out: “No”. As the crowd stirred and the excited jabbering ceased, the voice went on:
“We must not leave our homes: This is our village, the village of our ancestors. It must be the village of our children some- day. We cannot leave. ‘We must not run. Are we not men? I will stay back and fight this beast you fear so much. If death is to be my fate, then it is welcome. I would have fought and died for my home, my village, my forefathers and for the generations unborn.
What better death is there?”
In the still morning light, they saw him go. The old stared blankly. The women wept, and the boys cheered, and in the crowd there were some old men who could not stop tears come to their eyes as they remembered the now forgotten dreams of their own once proud youth. One, a lean, gnarled tracker, spoke their silent thoughts: “May the gods go with him for he surely goes to his death.
It was nightfall, the time for sacrifice. An eerie sound spread through the jungle. The silence was broken only by the unearthly hoot of an owl or the repulsive cackle of a prowling hyena.
In the dark depths of the jungle, man and beast stalked each other. The hunter was hunted. The hunted had turned hunter. The air was charged with tension. The hunter could hear each second tick by. Sweat made beads on his forehead and icy fingers crept up and down his spine. The beast had to be near. He could sense it, somewhere very close, it had to be. And then–the beast sprang! The shotgun dropped from his hand. Now it was a matter of minutes. Pain, death– he was ready to accept, but not defeat. They fought on, under the stars, with only the jungle and its creatures as spectators. They fought on, man and beast, knowing that life was not the prize but pride. One would die, perhaps both, but not to yield. That was the prize, and it was a common bond.
The man plunged his knife in, again and again. Tooth and nail against cold steel. For hours they fought and it was as if all the old battles were being re-enacted—Theseus versus Minotaur and a thousand other battles, here it was, in the jungle that night.
As the night sky changed and a new glow fell upon the wild ground, two figures sank slowly to the earth.
In the bright light of day, the villagers, curious but cautious walked quietly into the jungle. They found them—the man and the beast, lying in each other’s arms, united it seemed in a strangely poignant tableau of death.” (Blue & White, Vol. 61, Nov 1971, pp. 55-56)
The title betrays the influence of the 13 year old author’s reading: “where death is welcome” is clearly an echo of Che Guevara’s “wherever death may surprise us, let it be welcome” from his valedictory “Message to the Tricontinental”. There is very clear difference in the two essays of 1969 and 1971 i.e. the ages of 11plus and 13plus. The first piece on the Holy Land befits a Josephian living down Ward Place, a prize winner and a member of the BOAC Junior Jet Club; a confident precocious boy with a distinctive gaze on the world, who would graduate with a “first class of unsurpassed excellence” in Political Science (Prof. Emeritus Carlo Fonseka, ‘13th Amendment, Dayan & Malinda’, The Island, July 15, 2009) and wind up an ambassador to the UN-Geneva and Chairman of the ILO. The writer of the second essay was probably no less destined to become a man who turned 30 living La Vida Clandestina –as Enrique Oltuski, activist of the Cuban revolutionary urban underground, youngest member of Fidel’s first Cabinet and later Che’s deputy Minister, entitled his memoirs.
In the 13 year-old boy’s essay, there is blood, violence, danger, pain, combat, death, community, extreme situation, existential threat and existential choice. The internationalism of the early essay has narrowed in focus and increased in depth and intensity. The outward gaze had moved inward and then outward again but into the dialectic between individual and community. A possible explanation is an awareness of the violence and massive repression of April 1971, but that doesn’t fully explain the new paradigm, because the essay is not one of a heroic collective subject—student rebellion, revolutionary party or guerrilla band—but an exceptional individual and a lonely fate. The classic Jungian archetype has therefore been arrived at by an only child/only son at age13 and stands revealed: ‘The Hero’. In closer focus the archetypal figure belongs among what Leonard Cohen called “lonesome heroes” (“Leonard Cohen’s Lonesome Heroes” was the title of a scholarly documentary film).
Fast forward to the present: ‘“Every civilization rests on its heroes”, stated Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka at the book launch of “War Heroes Killed in Action” by General Gerry de Silva. “Civilizations and even communities”, he explains, “attract barbarism, invasions, and aggressors”. It is the heroes who come forward, “willing to do what the average is unwilling to do, willing to take a risk, suffer pain, even death in defence of the community”, that protect communities and civilizations from these dangers…“If we don’t honour our heroes, what are the values we pass down to our next generation?” ’ (‘Spare a Thought for Disabled Soldiers’, Shivanthi Ranasinghe, Ceylon Today, Nov 7, 2016).
My book on a paradigm-changing hero of modern world history, Fidel, has yielded an Iranian (Farsi) edition while a new book entitled “Blood and Progress: Violence in Pursuit of Emancipation” by Nick Hewlett, D.Litt., Professor of French Studies at the University of Warwick and author of “Badiou, Balibar, Ranciere” (Bloomsbury 2007) has just been published by Edinburgh University Press (Sept 2016) and reveals the influence of my work. The references in his chapter on “Castro, Humanism and Revolution” to my tripartite classification of positions on violence, “convincing argument” encompassing Sorel, Camus, Sartre and Fanon, and my “insightful study” of Fidel’s ethics of violence, constitute a welcome if entirely unintended birthday gift as I turn 60.