The Presence of Spain
An Explanation of Spain
Take a look at Evelyn Hofer’s photographs in James Morris’s The Presence of Spain. Probably no other photographer has got Spain so instinctively right. The nuns, the lottery-sellers, the shaft of sunlight on the Romanesque cloister—here, sharply delineated, and only occasionally over-dramatized—is Spain as it is: a country at once timeless and time-worn, a country frozen, in that brilliant sunshine, into a succession of immobile façades which yet dissolve as you look at them, to reveal the vigor and the misery, the integrity and the emptiness, that lie beneath. Everything is here; everything, at least, which emphasizes the solitary and the individualistic in the life of the Spaniard. For, if Miss Hofer’s camera misses anything, it is the sociability and gregariousness which represent the other side of the coin. Her Spain is essentially the Spain of the monk and the shepherd, lonely figures lost in immense landscapes, clinging to their identity in the midst of nothingness. But where is that other Spain, convivial, affable, and totally indifferent to the demands of privacy? The Spain, above all, of the café and the railway compartment; the Spain not of the individual but the group?
Perhaps nobody, not even Miss Hofer with her camera, can catch it all. In the end the generalizations cancel each other out, and the kalcidoscopic pattern, momentarily fixed, dissolves, before it can be recorded, into a cascade of splintering fragments. It is, however, this very diversity and endless self-contradiction which make Spain peculiarly well adapted to the literary gifts of James Morris. Mr. Morris’s technique is by now well known—the verbal pyrotechnics, the dazzling use of detail to evoke a scene and a mood. He has, I think, never written better or more convincingly, and the hard brilliance of the Spanish landscape is splendidly reflected in the hard brilliance of his style. At times, no doubt, he over-writes, as if he found it difficult to leave a good adjective alone. He can be repetitive, too: twice in a book of a hundred pages Colonel Moscardo makes his famous telephone call from the Toledo Alcazar. At times, also, the details are too deliberately scattered over the page, and Mr. Morris assumes a fleeting resemblance to the Bishop of Ciudad Rodrigo, who (he tells us) was found by his assassins in the Civil War to have been devoting his energies to sorting out his 13,400 card references to the history of Toledo. Spanish bridges; dogs and cats—one occasionally has an uneasy feeling that the conscientious card-indexer, enamored of his references, is breathing too heavily down the author’s neck. But, at his best, how good, and incisive, he can be! It is hard, for instance, to recall a neater or more effective description of El Greco’s great “Burial of Count Orgaz.” Perhaps the best tribute that one can pay to Miss Hofer’s and Mr. Morris’s book is to say that it makes one want to take the next plane to—well, not Madrid, but virtually any other city that Mr. Morris cares to name.
The Spain revealed beneath the brittle surface of Mr. Morris’s imagery is a country characterized, for him, by her “lack of fulfillment”—a country that is introspective, endlessly diverse, and geopolitically separate from the rest of the world. It is a country with style, and a country with a past—a past which needs understanding if ever the present is to be understood, for, as he writes of the Civil War: “The passions it brought so hideously to the boil had been simmering for five centuries, and were so wounding that to this day the scars still show.” He has neither the space, nor perhaps the temperament, to do more than evoke the past, whereas Mlle. de La Souchère’s An Explanation of Spain is a sustained attempt to place modern Spain—the Spain of the Civil War and of Franco—into the perspective that only a historical analysis can hope to provide. Her book is long, detailed, and profoundly serious in intention—so much so that one regrets the occasional and unnecessary blemishes, such as the absence of index and bibliography, and the curious rendering of Catalonia as Catalona, which is neither Castilian, Catalan, nor English.
Mlle. de La Souchère has adopted the right approach. At a time when so much contemporary political analysis, particularly in the United States, has been vitiated by the lack of, and indifference to, any sense of historical perspective, she has made a really valuable attempt to give a historical dimension to the contemporary scene. If her attempt is not as successful as one might have wished, this does not mean that the effort was not worth making, or that she does not have a great deal to contribute to our understanding of General Franco’s Spain. Indeed, her book should be required reading for any member of the State Department who has had anything to do with the shaping of America’s Spanish policies since 1951.
If the approach is right, there are, none the less, two dangers in particular which tend to confront anyone attempting to study a contemporary society in terms of its historical development. The first of these, which has had particularly unfortunate consequences in relation to Spain, is the danger of artificially isolating a country’s history from that of its neighbors. Spaniards, as Mr. Morris points out, have always tended to look upon themselves as different, and the English, the French, and the Americans, all determined in their own ways to emphasize the more romantic aspects of Spanish life, have been much too ready to accept this assessment of the peninsula by its inhabitants at its face value. There are, in fact, far closer parallels between sixteenth and seventeenth-century Spanish society and that of England and France in the same period than is frequently assumed; and while the differences no doubt remain very considerable, the time is long overdue for a comparative study of the historical development of Spain and other European states which will reduce these differences to their proper proportions. Here, Mlle. de La Souchère has nothing to offer. Her references to the outer world are virtually non-existent, and a passing remark on the rebellion of the “Huguenots of Holland” and the “Catholics of Belgium” against Philip II, does not arouse much confidence in her understanding of European history.
The other danger inherent in a historical approach lies in the artificial isolation, and consequent distortion, of those elements in the past of a society that seem particularly relevant to the contemporary scene. Mlle. de La Souchère writes as a good liberal democrat, and it must be confessed that her political predilections, which do her credit, tend to get in the way of her historical scholarship, which is sometimes very bad. In particular, her obsession with the democratic tendencies in the Spanish make-up has led to some very odd history indeed. Anyone who can talk about the consolidation of Spain as a “bourgeois democracy” under Ferdinand and Isabella displays not only a historical ignorance but also a historical innocence which is all the more alarming when it is found in someone with the general sensitivity and intelligence of Mlle. de La Souchère.
Yet if Mlle. de La Souchère’s historical equipment is not fully adequate for the extremely ambitious task she has set herself, this is counterbalanced by flashes of historical insight and intuition which frequently illuminate whole areas of darkness. Over and over again she makes a point which, if not in itself new, is nonetheless incisively expressed and unusually revealing about the texture of Spanish life. She is particularly good, for instance, on the matriarchal tradition in Spanish society, and on the difficulties inherent in mobilizing individual Spaniards for some collective endeavor. These are points from which a professional historian, while he is no doubt well aware of them, tends to shy away, simply because they are so difficult to evaluate in historical terms and to handle with finesse. Mlle. de La Souchère, with fewer inhibitions, has brought them into play, and in so doing has greatly enriched the texture of her narrative. This becomes particularly apparent when one reaches the second and third parts of her book, devoted respectively to the origins of the Civil War and to the history of Spain under Franco, almost until today. In these sections her remarkable gifts as a political commentator and analyst come into their own, and her very fair and judicious appraisal of the contemporary scene gains depth from the interpretation, in the introductory section, of what she calls “the deep-lying tendencies of the race.” Her verdict, for example, on the fundamental dilemma of Spain today—that it is caught between the prospect of industrial collapse and structural reform—acquires an extra degree of authority in the light of her earlier analysis of the unreformed structure, and of the obstacles it has imposed in the way of economic and intellectual renewal.
Ultimately, the “explanation of Spain” must lie in its history; and perhaps, above all, in two aspects of that history. First, the history of its relationship with the rest of Europe, a relationship which has swung between acceptance and rejection over the course of the centuries. Second, the history of the interrelationship between its constituent parts—between Castile and the peripheral provinces, those provinces which Mr. Morris unkindly calls “Spain minus.” Mlle. de La Souchère makes some good points about this diversity within unity—about “Spain and the several Spains” as she prefers to call them. But it is one of the failures of professional historians that their history of Spain since the Union of the Crowns has tended to be little more than the history of Castile. The history of the other parts of the peninsula has been absurdly neglected, or has been left to the mercies of nationalist historians, who have hardly been remarkable for their historical detachment. Yet there are great areas here which urgently need close scrutiny and research. When one finds a Castilian policeman in the streets of modern Barcelona upbraiding a Catalan in exactly the same phraseology as was used by a Castilian pamphleteer in 1640 for “not talking the language of the Empire,” it is obvious that Spain is a country in which the special gifts of the historian can do their part in promoting, if not reconciliation, at least a greater degree of mutual understanding. If Mlle. de La Souchère is a better journalist and political analyst than she is a historian, she has nonetheless shown what can be done, and has set an example which deserves to be followed.