A working method of understanding Spain

It's relatively easy to get a working method of understanding Spain: that is, to understand well enough for the purposes of a month's visit. Spain gives the impression of being schematically divided. On one side there is an archaic mode of thought, founded and built up on the active memory of a people whose roots reach a long way back, a good deal further than our Christian era. On the other side there is a modern mode of thought, modern since the conversion to Christianity and the Moors, but entering its decisive phase after that, in the general interplay of world developments. The men who work the land, formerly hunters and today agricultural labourers, remain faithful to the tradition of 'natural' man. They belong to a race of people who strike the ground with their heels to invoke the first proof of their existence, which is the land; and this is the arrogant, earthy movement performed by the flamenco dancers, ending with a kind of self-induced frenzy -- as if at the peak of the trials and tribulations of life the only way for a Spaniard to assert himself were a frantic effort to find incontestible, tangible proof of his own existence.

And over the centuries these people who communicate through images and symbols and glances as much as through conversation, and who can go from the art of seeing to the art of speaking without making any difference to their way of thinking, have developed a ritual and brought it to a focus in the mythical act of the famous fiesta nacional. For a mythical act is just what it is; and its effects reach far beyond the plaza where it takes place. A whole hidden life, buried under the upheavals of history, comes out into the open. And just as the sun is the giver of life, so this myth, like an artificial sun, gives life to the Spanish people: by its light they grow, and increase, and spread their shoots until they penetrate even the dark corners that seemed forbidden. They do this so succesfully that just as one is managing to pin down, for example, a simple characteristic, such as the appetite for conquest -- the need for uncontested triumph which nurtures fanaticism -- one glimpses in the distance the relentless and unchanging gesture of the matador, who must kill so that others may live. Conquest is a necessity. And Spanish ardour for conquest knows no respite. It is renewed at every fiesta. The corrida is the great reservoir of energy from which the people recharge their bloodstreams several times a year; if it weren't for this, it would merely be an empty spectacle soon destroyed by its own weapons. It's true that some people regard it as highly reprehensible; they criticize it for its spectacular cruelty, and for the Spaniard's apparent blindness to the suffering that takes place. But seen as an expression of an archaic mode of thought, it serves as a powerful regenerator. And if this body of archaic thought is regarded as an organism that has evolved in the margins of history, without any break up to the present day, then the corrida plays the part of the spinal cord.

More than that, it confirms the definition of man as a victorious creature. In its matter-of-fact way, but without ignoring the suffering, it recalls the primary task of man, who by hunting and killing had to win his right to live. (It's impossible in this brief outline to go into the detailed movements of the corrida, which represents a way of thought developed and refined over thousands of years.) Since the will to live was responsible for human domination, it must be overthrown. At the fiesta de los toros it is obvious to anyone who is watching that the matador kills solemnly and without pleasure -obvious, that is, to the spectator who is sufficiently acclimatized to Spain to understand the language of gesture and take it in like a dialogue, giving full weight to its implications and allusions. Because the whole action is in terms of gesture and visual images and these are seen against an imagined ideal which the aficionado carries in his mind's eye. In the long series of passes and figures which make up the 'work' of the arena, he will see the matador and the animal in the light of his 'ideal' vision, making a kind of delicate approximation to it. And it will also be obvious to the spectator that this is a ritual murder, exhibiting man's old ferocious desire to be the first of terrestrial creatures, in action against the creature that is well-qualified to be the second: the bull. This is why the Spaniards, who understand everything that is going on and can draw on the teeming reserve of images that make up their vocabulary, will applaud in turn both the animal and its vanquisher.

Out of this central act arises a whole network of strands that advance and complicate the definition of man. But the origin of man as the first creature was in his will to be so. This, by implication, wards off the idea of a divinity too close at hand and too closely concerned with human affairs, or else so much a part of the human being that it is inseparable from him. And this in turn gives rise to the quality of pride that is embedded in the Spanish soul -- or honra, as it is better to call it, as it means much more than vanity or the opposite of modesty.

Since man owes his status to himself, he also owes it to himself not to forfeit that status. The symbolic act of the corrida which accords him his place, the only acceptable place (where quite naturally one man is worth as much as another, in the words of the proverb), also imposes on him the obligation not to discredit the vanquished by too much passivity on the part of the victor and his supporters. A whole relentless ethic has grown up gradually over the centuries, which is based on a thorough psychological insight and is so well adapted to the demands of man's nature that it allows, and even encourages, a measure of freedom in the prescribed pattern. This ethic is perpetuated by the undiminished vigour of the myth that created it. But its influence reaches beyond the arena -- and beyond the related interest in bulls and bull-breeding which is quite a different aspect of the whole thing -- by means of a proverbial literature which is shrewd and succinct, and is in line with the idea that man has won his terrestrial existence in the course of a never-ending battle. It is a spoken literature. Its images reflect the continuation of this battle, and its sequence of actions, which have never entirely lost their meaning, breaks through again and again. For those who are familiar with it, this literature amounts to an impressive development of the basic and unchallenged theme that man is his own begetter, and has only to continue to be so. Needless to say, it doesn't have to be a logical development. It is obvious that the Spaniard has the kind of intelligence that seizes on ideas rather than absorbs them; he 'gives them the pass', as the matador says of the bull, and makes a single movement representing a whole potential of details that aren't separately expressed.

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