Monday, February 22, 2010

Antonio Machado and the uses of Spanish history

As I've noted on other occasions (see for instance here and here) the poetry of the Spanish writer and "martyr" for the Republican cause Antonio Machado is both endlessly fascinating and, at the same time, deeply problematic in the way it manages to combine progressive leftist political sentiments with a Romantic attachment to symbols of Spain's imperialist past and ideas of Castillian supremacy. Yet, at the same time there is a powerful argument that poetry is not an exercise in instrumental reason and as such should be judged solely according to political criteria (a fact that I think also makes it hard to dismiss anti-rationalist philosophers such as Unamuno and Zambrano so hard to dismiss).
Looking down the River Dureo towards the Hermitage of San Saturio

I was reminded of this paradox during my visit last month to Soria, high up at the eastern end of the Castillian meseta near the headwaters of the River Duero, where Machado wrote his most famous collection of poems - Campos de Castilla - and where he met, married and then buried his young wife Leonor. While the strident literary nationalism that inhabits much of this collection is disconcerting, when actually physically confronted with the landscape which Machado describes in these poems it is difficult not to feel moved in a similarly irrational, 'Romantic' way... Somehow this desolate, rocky terrain - with its accumulated millenia of ruined cities, fortresses and monasteries - speaks to you in a way that the empty vistas of 'Godzone' can never even hope to aspire to...
The ruins of the 12th century monastery of San Juan del Duero

While the town of Soria itself is perhaps today a little too eager to cash-in on the legacy of its most famous resident (as evidenced by the 'Cervecería Machado' I encountered in the Calle de los Estudios which sold only Belgian beer...) and has lost some of its poetic 'lustre', a short walk across to the other side of the river you find yourself amidst the familiar vistas so beloved by the poet:

He vuelto a ver los álamos dorados,
álamos del camino en la ribera
del Duero, entre San Polo y San Saturio,

tras las murallas viejas de Soria - barbacana
hacia Aragón, en castellana tierra-.

Estos chopos del río, que acompañan

con el sonido de sus hojas secas

el son del agua, cuando el viento sopla,

tienen en sus cortezas
grabadas iniciales que son nombres

de enamorados, cifras que son fechas.
¡Alamos del amor que ayer tuvisteis

de ruiseñores vuestras ramas llenas;

álamos que seréis mañana liras

del viento perfumado en primavera;

álamos del amor cerca del agua

que corre y pasa y sueña;

alamos de las márgenes del Duero,

conmigo vais, mi corazón os lleva!

('Campos de Soria' VIII)

Along the banks of the river it is also possible to see the remains of the monastery of San Polo, which belonged to the Templar military order until their forcible dissolution in the 14th century, and about which the patron saint of Spanish Romanticism Gustavo Bécquer dedicated his gothic tales 'El Monte de los Ánimas' and 'El Rayo de Luna'.
The gatehouse of the monastery of San Polo, which sits astride the old road between San Juan del Duero and the Hermitage of San Saturio

In the midst of all this history, it is hard to begrudge Machado's appropriation of Castile's store of cultural and historical capital in the pursuit of his modernista literary project, even though the nationalist overtones make his poetry difficult to defend from an objective, political point of view. Perhaps the real problem for Machado (and his fellow Republican intellectuals) was not so much their tendency to appeal to nationalist sentimentality and a rose-tinted view of Spain's military past, but rather the fact that Franco's Nationalists were simply more credible representatives of this historical tradition. What was needed therefore was not so much a simple appeal to history but rather, as Juan Goytisolo advocates in his novel Juan sin tierra, a systematic re-writing or re-imagining of the national past, which promotes dissident figures such as Enrique IV (the reputedly - at least according to according to Gregorio Marañon - homosexual and morisco-phile half brother of Isabel 'la Católica') at the expense of the dominant "Golden Age" narrative handed down to us by authors such as Menéndez Pidal.

In this sense then, it might be said that the problem is not so much a surfeit of irrationality or Romanticism on the part of Machado, but rather that in his pursuit of these strategies he simply does not go far enough...


I couldn't conclude this brief soliloquy on Spanish left nationalism without mentioning the website of the Castilian federation of the Stalinist Partido Comunista de los Pueblos de España, which amusingly fights for the self-determination of Castile (along with all the other "oppressed nations" of Spain) and 'liberation' from the rule of EU and US imperialism (since they view Spain as essentially an exploited neo-colony of these latter). Somewhat scarily, in large parts of provincial Spain (such as La Rioja, where I spent the majority of time during my recent trip to the Iberian peninsular) these guys seem to be just about the only organised far left force!

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Of festivals, saints and the aesthetic appeal of the irrational

In Burgos - the old capital of mediaeval Castilla and home of Spain's dubious national hero "El Cid" - during the festival of the San Lesmes (the city´s patron saint) over the weekend I was struck (as I have so often been in my travels around Spain) by the tremendous attraction that Catholicism exerts on a aesthetic level in this part of the world, despite sharing in the manifest intellectual bankruptcy of all religion and blind-faith based ideologies.

Even a cynic such as myself cannot help but be impressed by the visual grandeur of it all - a grandeur with which evangelical and fundamentalist Protestantism simply cannot hope to compete (although perhaps High Church Anglicanism comes a little closer to matching it). It would seem that the Roman Catholic Church understood better than its rivals the importance of offering something more tangible and concrete than the promise of heavenly salvation, which was why it was able to sink such deep and enduring roots in the soil of the Old Roman Empire. Like 19th century Social Democracy, Catholicism achieved hegemony not so much through evangelical fervour but rather through the slow permeation or co-option of every facet of mass, popular culture.
Possibly this is why evangelism (in both its religious and Leninist variants) has been unable to offer anything other than the most fleeting of challenges to the Old Religions - of Saint Peter and of Kautsky and Bernstein - despite the obvious deficiencies and internal contradictions of both. Perhaps the best option for the anti-capitalist left in its efforts to capture the imagination of the working class is also to cultivate, as another blogger has recently suggested, a sense of the irrational and marvelous - as opposed to the standard devices of logic and reason.

Perhaps, like Unamuno's San Manuel Bueno, we should accept that at the end of the day what matters not so much what people believe but rather the objective function that belief fulfils?