Toledo lived in my mind just as El Greco had painted it in the storm: towering, ascetic, scourged by sudden flashes of light, with the arrow of her marvellous Gothic Cathedral, like the arrow of the human soul piercing God's thunder-laden clouds. Half her towers, half her ramparts, half her houses lit with the bluish glint of lightning; the other side collapsing into the abyss in utter darkness. Toledo rose in my mind identical with El Greco's spirit: pierced by light on the one side, pitch dark on the other; unapproachable, on the heights of endeavor, where, as the Byzantine mystic said, lies the starting point of divine madness, not apathy.
But when I reached Toledo and began climbing her narrow little streets, it was a peaceful pleasant morning. The womenfolk were coming back from the famous Arab piazza, Zocodover Square, their baskets full of vegetables and red peppers. The heavy bells of the Cathedral were striking with a deep tired voice. The houses were open, streaming with light, and inside the cool inner courtyards, little girls were watering their decorated flowerpots. As is often the case, the terrifying contact did not come in the form of a thunderbolt or a blaze of fire or a great idea. It came like a gentle spring breeze.
What a pity to seek picturesque ruins and romantic retreats in the famous old cities, along with all the other painted stage effects, where our whorish imaginations like to revel and blare. It is very hard to see a place with our own eyes when a great poet has passed through the place before us. Spain is the discovery of a few poets and painters and flamboyant tourists. Ever since, the mantillas and bullfights and castanets and gypsies of Granada and cigarette girls of Seville and gardens of Valencia have been firing our imaginations.
I am struggling to detach myself from this yoke. As the lives of the saints express it, there are two invisible spirits sitting on man's shoulders. On his right shoulder sits the angel and on his left, the devil. That morning I was aware of the two spirits gazing at Toledo and debating.
The devil on my left, with his thin-pressed sarcastic lips, stammered: "So this is the imperial city, the famous Toledo we so longed to see! Is this plump, overstuffed nursemaid the wondrous Cathedral? Is this dust-covered, flea-bitten bridge the vaunted Alcántara? Where are the cities we have seen that made our hearts dance? Remember Jerusalem, Mycenae, and Moscow! Remember Samarkand and Bukhara! Remember Jaroslav and Novgorod and Assisi! And then make sure you are not fooled by romantic swoonings. Such filthy roads, such ugly women, such insufferable flocks of tourists, such humdrum! Let's get out of here!"
But the angel with his calm sweet voice murmured in my right ear: "Let's go see El Greco!"
I was in no hurry. For I knew very well how pleasant it is to stand near the gate of delight and delay stretching out your hand. I passed El Greco's house in Ovriaki. The big gate was open and I stood at the threshold: a peaceful garden, warm, neglected; a pomegranate tree in bloom, flowering like a blaze of fire; two or three thistly fig-trees; an ancient marble statue. The ivy had taken root and was consuming the walls. A wrinkled old woman sitting in the sun, all stooped over, was cleaning mustard plants. She was just like an old Cretan woman. In the back of the garden there was a terrace supported by high columns, and over the terrace, a window with crisscross iron bars--El Greco's house. The old woman raised her head, looked at me indifferently and bent over her mustard plants again. Warm, fragrant serenity, all Crete rose in my mind, and I could no longer restrain myself. I wandered around El Greco's house and the museum and churches, where his works are. His whole life and struggle were alive in my mind. My eyes were dazzled by the sharp fervent mouths and pale hands with long fingers like starfish, and the fiery-fixed eyes. All these delights lay before me, impatient to enter into me and assume expression. I too was impatient, but restrained myself. For I knew that as soon as the instant of perfect contact comes, then desire (I mean, supreme pleasure) dies.