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?


  1. What's "dubious" about Rodrigo Diaz de Vivar, aka El Cid Campeador?

  2. I guess it depends which El Cid we are talking about - the historical figure who fought as a mercenary in the service of the Muslim taifa kingdoms before changing sides at an opportune moment - just as the tide was turning against his ertswhile allies - or the mythologised emblem of Catholic 'Holy War' (the so-called 'reconquista' of the Iberian peninsula), 'pura sangre' and Castillian supremacy.

    The former I can relate to as a human being motivated by normal human impulses, the latter I find somewhat problematic, to say the least...but then I say this as someone to whom patriotism is the worst of all vices, while betrayal of the 'fatherland' is a positive ethical imperative :)

  3. Looks like you had a really good trip.
    I had to look up Logrono, below. You were there in the winter I think, fairly cold i suppose.

  4. Sorry to barge in here, I couldn't find your email address on the site... I had just been wanting for a while to point you to two blogs by Kathy Korcheck (one in English, one in Spanish) that I think will be of interst to you:

  5. Cheers for the links Giovanni - will have to follow up...

    And yes Peter, it was certainly very cold in Logroño (and Castilla as well) - kind of like spending winter in the Maniototo!

  6. Interesting post, Fatal Paradox. I look forward to exploring your blog (Giovanni sent me the link).

    I spend so much time thinking about the relationship of the Catholic Church to Franco -- and how those effects are still everywhere -- that it's refreshing to read things from this angle.

    It's hard to imagine Spain ever embracing the kind of secularism that a country like France enjoys. But I wonder how much these festivals, parades and processions are tied to the secularist tourist economy world, rather than the Church these days, even in Spain.

    In the States, I think of Mardi Gras in New Orleans. How many people are going to observe Lent the next day?

  7. Hi Kathy,

    I totally agree with you that most Spanish peoples' engagement with Catholicism these days is at a primarily superficial, aesthetic level rather than symbolising some deep spiritual attachment. This is probably no bad thing given (as you rightly point out) the complicity of the Catholic Church in the crimes of Francoism - I am reminded of the fact that even in 2010 it is possible to see Francoist insignia and commemorative plaques in cathedrals such as those in Toledo and Logroño.

    I guess what I was mainly interested in though (coming from a country that is nominally secular though culturally and historically dominated by Protestantism) was not so much the Catholic religion itself but rather the various indirect, subtle ways in which it has gone about trying to achieve cultural hegemony (as opposed to the direct-marketing approach of evangelical Protestants and many secular leftist groups), and whether perhaps there are some useful lessons to be learned from this...

  8. P.S. thanks for drawing my attention to the Garzón petition - have added my name just now!