December 14, 2011

The Hemingway Paradigm Is… "bull-fights, bandits and black eyes"

In a previous entry I quoted a book by Richard Ford, Gatherings from Spain, and mentioned Ford's provocative, yet succinct characterization of the common Anglophone stereotypes of Spain as "bull-fights, bandits, and black eyes." Since this is my 50th entry, I thought I would mark the occasion, returning to the theme of the "Hemingway paradigm," by sharing with you the fuller excerpt from Ford's book. It's fascinating both for images of Spain in it that still resonate today, and also for its stereotypes that, in their dated, blatant or bald form, help underscore the intransigent nature of many Anglophone clichés about Spain which have somehow persisted despite the intervention of more than 150 years of history and dramatic social change.

I direct your attentions to Chapter XX of Richard Ford, Gatherings from Spain (1846) [all textual references here are made to the PDF version available at this link], whose opening summary of contents reveals much:
"What to observe in Spain—How to observe—Spanish Incuriousness and Suspicions—French Spies and Plunderers—Difficulties; How Surmounted—Efficacy of Passports and Bribes—Uncertainty and Want of Information in the Natives."
"Spanish Incuriousness and Suspicions," oh my! The fact that Chapter XX is preceded by a chapter on "The Spanish Figaro," a taxonomy of facial hair and other Barber Shop barbarities (yes, as in the barber of Seville), and followed by "Origin of Bull-fight or Festival, and its religious Character," also says much.

The excerpt that especially caught my attention in this chapter is from the section on "How to observe":
"The country is little better than a terra incognita, to naturalists, geologists, and all other branches of ists and ologists. Every where there, the material is as superabundant as native laborers and operatives are deficient. All these interesting branches of inquiry, healthful and agreeable, as being out-of-door pursuits, and bringing the amateur in close contact with nature, offer to embryo authors who are ambitious to book something new, a more worthy subject than the old story of dangers of bull-fights, bandits, and black eyes. Those who aspire to the romantic, the poetical, the sentimental, the artistical, the antiquarian, the classical, in short, to any of the sublime and beautiful lines, will find both in the past and present state of Spain, subjects enough in wandering with lead pencil and note-book through this singular country, which hovers between Europe and Africa, between civilization and barbarism ; this land of the green valley and barren mountain, of the boundless plain and the broken sierra ; those Elysian gardens of the vine, the olive, the orange, and the aloe ; those trackless, vast, silent, uncultivated wastes, the heritage of the wild bee ; in flying from the dull uniformity, the polished monotony of Europe, to the racy freshness of that original, unchanged country, where antiquity treads on the heels of to-day, where Paganism disputes the very altar with Christianity, where indulgence and luxury contend with privation and poverty, where a want of all that is generous or merciful is blended with the most devoted heroic virtues, where the most cold-blooded cruelty is linked with the fiery passions of Africa, where ignorance and erudition stand in violent and striking contrast." (pp. 268-269)
Where to start? Perhaps with Ford's homage to the agrarian, Mediterranean floraEvery time my in-laws take me out to some rural road or country trail, I'm continually startled to find that thyme and rosemary grow as wild weeds here! Our (European) culinary traditions live in the hills of many Spanish regions as "indigenous" flora, harkening back to the Ancient World... the Etruscan, then Greek, and finally Roman sea invaders. "Those Elysian gardens of the vine, the olive, the orange, and the aloe," what a wonderful way to capture that! The funny thing is that, 150 years later, and Ford might still find a need to coax his fellow Brits away from bullfights and beaches into the Spanish hills and pastureland. While rural tourism is quite popular among Spaniards, it is often not really appreciated by visiting tourists (with the possible exception of agritourism and visiting vineyards), who tend to focus more on the more peopled areas of pueblos, cities, or beach urbanizaciones. In this passage, Ford captures something true about Spain as a cultural and geographical crossroads, but falls back on the convenient dualism of placing it between fully European (domesticated, civilized) versus a (still barbaric) Africa. (Or Middle East: at times Ford describes Spaniards as "Oriental," recurring to a kind of "orientalism" which would leap off the pages of an Edward Said critique.)

Elysian gardens? This photo was among those submitted by the Fundación Dieta Mediterranea
in its (eventually successful) bid to include the Mediterranean diet as one of
UNESCO's protected "Intangible Cultural Heritage"

Spices grow like weeds! I took these photos of thyme or "tomillo" (left) and
camomile (right), "manzanilla", growing alongside the highway
the other day on our day trip to the Sierra de Gúdar.

Being myself trained more in the history of science, I also rather like (in the scholarly sense of the word "like," which is to say "want to heavily deride") another (problematic) subtext of this passage: that Spaniards themselves make for poor scientists naturalists and have thus failed to appreciate their own natural splendor. Here Ford is brushing up against a subject which seems to touch a nerve with Spaniards, in what at times feels to me like an "inferiority complex" in Spanish science… It takes the form of constant comparison to other countries ("as good as French X…") or constant reference to international standards and recognition at the expense of appreciating local acclaim ("Dr. Y is _globally_ recognized as one of the best Z scientists" or "She was awarded Prize A in foreign country B"). Of course the story is never so simple. Some colleagues of mine have struck upon the interesting strategy of looking at the history of science in Spain as a study in "science in the European periphery," where their central contribution is to highlight how often science in periphery countries (i.e. not the dominant centers in Germany, France, and England, and later the United States) was often quite innovative since it wasn't saddled with the egos paradigm biases at the center. (Sometime I should write about the areas in science, medicine, and technology today where Spain is not a periphery but in fact a center... wind and other alternative energies, computer programming, organ transplantation, telecommunications engineering...)

"...where Paganism disputes the very altar with Christianity..." This is a Romantic (with a capital "R") construct… the notion of atavistic pre-Christian traditions existing in cultural enclaves as leftovers of another era. I think it still tempts us in our cross-cultural comparisons today. How many times have I had to resist the urge to describe Fallas, the burning of incredibly works of papier-mâché art, as some pagan or deeply rooted anarchical impulse and ritual… when it is probably more correct to fit it into a very modern and urban context of city festivals, leisure time, and tourism attractions. (Though this kind of explanation is not limited to the Hemingways of Spain. People regularly try to explain Halloween or Christmas as some kind of pagan-Christian hybrid, when capitalism and consumerism might better serve to make sense of them today.)

Is "crossroads" ("encrucijada")
the master metaphor for Spain?
As I said, this passage is rich with vivid natural imagery, suggestive metaphors, and provocative critique. While it is just waiting to be torn apart, deconstructed, and psychoanalyzed by a better-trained scholar than me (and surely already has been), there is also something deeply appealing about it. Perhaps it's the mythical Spain that is worth mentioning or telling first (sort of like the "frontier thesis" for America Studies, or "island mentality" for Great Britain)… before, that is, we raise our eyebrows and purse our lips and commence to explain that these silly notions need to be disregarded (after all, the wilderness, a.k.a. terra nullius, wasn't actually "empty" beyond the frontier in America, and the English Channel is only 34 kilometers wide and Dover to Calais can even be swum across)... to remind that Spain is a perfectly modern country, or that there are many Spains, not just one, and so on and so forth…

Our pithy commentator, Richard Ford.

Lest I leave the reader feeling sour about Ford, I'll end with this interesting proviso he provides, drawn from the same troublesome fascinating Chapter XX:
"Few gentlemen who publish the notes of their Peninsular gallop much improve their light diaries by discussing heavy handbook subjects ; skimming, like swallows, over the surface, and in pursuit of insects, they neither heed nor discern the gems which lurk in the deeps below ; they see indeed all the scum and straws which float on the surface, and write down on their tablets all that is rotten in the state of Spain. Hence the sameness of some of their works ; one book and bandit reflects another, until writers and readers are imprisoned in a vicious circle. Nothing gives more pain to Spaniards than seeing volume after volume written on themselves and their country by foreigners, who have only rapidly glanced at one-half of the subject, and that half the one of which they are the most ashamed, and consider the least worth notice. This constant prying into the nakedness of the land and exposing it afterwards, has increased the dislike which they entertain towards the impertinente curioso tribe : they well know and deeply feel their country's decline; but like poor gentlefolks, who have nothing but the past to be proud of, they are anxious to keep these family secrets concealed, even from themselves, and still more from the observations of those who happen to be their superiors, not in blood, but in worldly prosperity." (p. 266)
Impertinente curioso indeed! My fellow expats, let's all add this phrase to our personal dictionaries, and be ever ready to serve it along with a slice of humble pie!

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