Lights and Shades of Spanish Character

THERE is something enigmatical and peculiar in the make-up of the Spaniard, — du je ne sais quoi, as a Frenchman might express it. In trying to fathom Iberian ways of thought and feeling, we are frequently forced to fall back on the supposition of a recent writer, that “ there is something Spanish in the Spaniard which causes him to behave in a Spanish manner.” I remember that when I visited Spain, a few years ago, I was somewhat disappointed in the appearance of the country itself, though it has all the beauty of line and color of a land for the most part devoid of turf and trees. I found, however, an ample compensation in the interest afforded by this intense idiosyncrasy of the national temperament. Abandoning the beaten paths of travel, I spent several months journeying over the Peninsula on foot, from the Pyrenees to Gibraltar. In this way, I was enabled to get beyond the French civilization of Madrid, and penetrate to the old Spanish civilization which still lingers in the villages and provincial towns. But even with these opportunities for observation I was often at a loss to formulate my impressions of the Spaniards. This arose partly from the strong Moorish and Oriental element which combines in them so strangely with European traits, partly from Spain itself being preëminently the land of puzzling anomalies. Both in the country and in the national character a shining virtue usually goes hand in hand with an egregious fault. In no like area in Europe, perhaps not in the world, do there exist such extremes of dryness and moisture, heat and cold, fertility and barrenness, such smiling landscapes and such dreary desolation. And contrasts such as we find between the arid steppes of Aragon and the huerta of Valencia, between the bleak uplands of Castile and the palm groves of Elche, between the wind-blown wastes of La Mancha and the vega of Granada, are not without counterpart in the character of the inhabitants. What, for instance, can be affirmed of a Catalan which will also hold true of a native of Seville ? I remember that a theatre audience at Madrid thought it the height of comic incongruity when a stage valet declared that he was a mixture of Galician and Andalusian. (“ Yo soy una mezcla de Gallego y Andaluz.”) It is hard, indeed, to avoid a seeming abuse of paradox and antithesis in speaking of Spain, — “ that singular country, which,” in the words of Ford, " hovers between Europe and Africa, between civilization and barbarism; that land of the green valley and barren mountain, of the boundless plain and 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; . . . that original unchanged country, 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 ignorance and erudition stand in violent and striking contrast.”

We almost refuse to credit Madame d’Aulnoy’s account of the mingled squalor and magnificence, barbarism and refinement, that existed at Madrid toward the end of the seventeenth century, when Spain, isolated from the rest of Europe, was still free to express her antithetical nature. Throughout nearly everything Spanish there runs this chiaroscuro, this intense play of light and shade. In the history of what other nation do we find such alternations of energy and inertia, such sudden vicissitudes of greatness and decay ? On the one hand, Spanish religion in the sixteenth century culminated in the Inquisition; and on the other, it attained to the purest spirituality and Christian charity in Santa Teresa, Fray Luis de Leon, and San Juan de la Cruz, the last of the great mystics, the splendid sunset glow of mediæval Catholicism. The brilliant literature of the Golden Age died away abruptly into platitude and insignificance. Among the masterpieces of this literature itself we pass with little interval from heights of mysticism and strains of lyric eloquence to the works of the picaresque writers, recounting the exploits of rogues and vagabonds. Spanish society, which until recently had no middle class, suggested to Cervantes the perfect antithesis of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza; and in Sancho Panza himself, the Spanish peasant of Cervantes’ time and of to-day, there is the contrast between his shrewd mother wit and his ignorance and credulity. Spain has left almost entirely uncultivated that intermediary region of lucidity, good sense, and critical discrimination which France has made her special domain.

Perhaps the first requisite to getting a clear notion of the Spaniard is to realize in what respects he is not like the Frenchman. We should not allow ourselves to be misled by any supposed solidarity of the Latin races. In certain essential traits the Spanish differ from the French almost as much as the Hindus from the Chinese, and in somewhat the same manner. The chief thing that strikes one in French literature is the absence of what the Germans call Innigkeit, of inwardness, — the subordination of everything in man to his social qualities ; among the Spaniards, on the other hand, there is vastly greater capacity for solitude and isolation. In France, reason, insufficiently quickened by the imagination, easily degenerates into dry rationalism ; whereas in the land of Don Quixote the imagination tends to break away from the control of the senses and understanding, and is unwilling to accept the limitations of the real, and then follows the inevitable disenchantment when the world turns out to be different in fact from what it had been painted in fancy. Engaño and desengaño, illusion and disillusion, eternal themes of Spanish poetry !

Intimately related to this intemperate imagination of the Spaniard is his pride, his power of self-idealization, his exalted notion of his personal dignity. He is capable of almost any sacrifice when appealed to in the name of his honor, — the peculiar form his self-respect assumes, — and of almost any violence and cruelty when he believes his honor to be offended. The Spanish classic theatre revolves almost entirely around this sentiment of honor, which is mediæval and Gothic, and the sentiment of jealousy, which is Oriental. It was by working upon his pride and sense of honor far more than upon his religious instinct that Rome induced the Spaniard to become her champion in her warfare against the modern spirit. He looked upon himself as the caballero andante who sallied forth to do heroic battle for Mother Church.

This self-absorption of the Spaniard has interfered with his acceptance of the new humanitarian ideal. Don Juan, in Molière’s play, tells his valet to give alms to the beggar, not for the love of God, but for the love of humanity. In fact, since the time of Molière man has been substituting for the worship of God and for the old notion of individual salvation this cult of Humanity, this apotheosis of himself in his collective capacity. He has idealized his own future, and thus evolved the idea of progress. He has dwelt with minute interest on his own past, and has thus given rise to the historical spirit. He has ministered with ever increasing solicitude to his own convenience and comfort, and has sought to find in this world some equivalent for his vanished dream of paradise. The individual has so subordinated himself to this vast common work that he has almost lost the sense of his independent value. “ The individual,” said M. Berthelot only the other day, “ will count for less and less in the society of the future.”

The Spaniard, however, refuses thus to identify the interests of his individual self with the interests of humanity. He is filled with that subtle egotism, engendered by mediæval religion, which neglected man’s relation to nature and his fellows, and fixed his attention solely on the problem of his personal salvation. In the olden time, it was not uncommon for a pious Spaniard, on dying, to defraud his earthly creditors in order that he might pay masses for the welfare of his soul; and it was said of such a man that he had “made his soul his heir.” The Spaniard remains thus self-centred. He has little capacity for trusting his fellow men, for coöperating with them and working disinterestedly to a common end ; he is impatient of organization and discipline. And so, as some one has remarked, he is warlike without being military. We may add that he is overflowing with national pride without being really patriotic. He still has in his blood something of the wild desert instinct of the Arab, and the love of personal independence of the Goth. “ You would rather suspect,” says an old English author, speaking of the Spaniards, “ that they did but live together for fear of wolves.” As a public servant the Spaniard is likely to take for his motto, “ Après moi le déluge,” or, as the proverb puts it, “ El ultimo mono se ahoga ” (The last monkey gets drowned).

In the Spaniard’s indifference to bodily comfort and material refinements we find traces of the Oriental and mediæval contempt for the body.

“ Le corps, cette guenille, est-il d’une importance
D 'un prix à, méer settlement qu’on y tance, peuse ? ”

However, those happy days of Spanish abstemiousness which Juan Valera describes have passed, never to return ; that golden era before the advent of French cookery, when all classes, from grandee to muleteer, partook with equal relish of the national mixture of garlic and red peppers ; when window-glass was still a rarity in the Peninsula ; when, if a tenth part of the inhabitants of Madrid had taken it into their heads to bathe, there would have been no water left to drink, or to cook those garbanzos (chick-peas) so essential in the .Spanish dietary. But in spite of the spread of modern luxury, which Senor Valera looks upon with ascetic distrust, the Spaniards still remain in the mass the most temperate people in Europe.

The cruelty of the Spaniard — or rather, his callousness, his recklessness of his own life and of the lives of others — is another mediæval and Oriental survival ; and then, too, there underlies the Spanish temperament I know not what vein of primitive Iberian savagery. Madame d’Aulnoy relates that on a certain day of the year it was customary for court gallants to run along one of the main streets of Madrid, lashing furiously their bare shoulders; and when one of these penitents passed the lady of his choice among the spectators, lie bespattered her with his blood, as a special mark of his favor. Insensibility to the suffering of animals, though general in Spain, is not any greater, so far as my own observation goes, than in the other Latin countries. Possibly, mediæval religion, in so exalting man above other creatures, in refusing to recognize his relations to the rest of nature, tended to increase this lack of sympathy with brute creation. The Spanish peasant belabors his ass for the same reason that Malebranche kicked his dog, — because he has not learned to see in it a being organized to feel pain in the same way as himself.

Closely akin, also, to the Spaniard’s mediæval and aristocratic attitude toward life is his curious lack of practical sense and mechanical skill. “ The good qualities of the Spaniards,” writes Mr. Butler Clarke, “ alike with their defects, have an old world flavor that renders their possessors unfit to excel in an inartistic, commercial, democratic, and skeptical age.” Juan Valera admits this practical awkwardness and inefficiency of the Spaniard, but exclaims, “Sublime incapacity ! ” and discovers in it a mark of his “ mystic, ecstatic, and transcendental nature.” The Spaniard, then, finds it hard to light a kerosene lamp without breaking the chimney, much as Emerson made his friends uneasy when he began to handle a gun. Unfortunately, nature knows how to revenge herself cruelly on those who affect to treat her with seraphic disdain, and on those who, like the Spaniards, see in a lack of prudence and economy a proof of aristocratic detachment. “ Qui veut faire l’ange fait la bete.” After centuries of mortal tension, man has finally given over trying to look upon himself as a pure spirit. (Indeed, in the case of M. Zola and his school, he has tried to look upon himself as a pure animal.) He has been gradually learning to honor his senses and to live on friendly terms with nature. The Spaniard, however, has refused to adjust himself to the laws of time and space. He is unwilling to recognize that the most sublime enterprises usually go amiss from the neglect of the homeliest details. He has failed to develop those faculties of observation and analysis by which man, since the Renaissance, has been laying hold upon the world of matter with an ever firmer grasp. The splendid sonorities of the Spanish language serve in its poetry as a substitute for the exact rendering of nature, and take the place of a precise mastery of facts in the speech of the orator in Cortes. The Spaniard is reluctant to mar the poetry of existence by an excessive accuracy. Steamboats are advertised in Spanish newspapers to start at such and such an hour more or less (mas ó menos). Procrastination is the national vice. As I walked along the alameda at Saragossa, shortly after arriving in Spain, the words I caught constantly rising above the hum of voices were, “ mañana, mañana por la manana, mañana ” (to-morrow, to-morrow morning, to-morrow). “In Spain,” says Ford, “everything is put off until to-morrow — except bankruptcy.” “ A thing in Spain is begun late, and never finished,” runs .a native proverb (En Espana se empieza tarde, y se acaba nunca) ; and again, “ Spanish succor arrives late or never ” (Socorro de España ó tarde ó nunca).

Along with this Oriental disregard for the value of time there is a dash of Oriental fatalism. I remember once talking the matter over with an old peasant, as we walked together over the pass of Despeñaperros into Andalusia. “ In this accursed world,” he ended by saying, “a man who is born a cuarto ” (a copper coin) “ is not going to turn out a peseta ” (a coin of silver). A curious comparison might be made between this true Eastern fatalism of the Spaniard, the fatalism of predestination, and that fatalism of evolution which seems to be gaining ground with us.

Another Oriental and mediæval trait in the Spaniard is his lack of curiosity. “Quien sabe ? ” (Who knows?) is the formula of his intellectual indifference, just as “ No se puede ” (It is impossible) is the formula of his fatalism. The modern world is coining more and more to seek its salvation in the development of the reason and intelligence; and from this point of view Renan is consistent in exalting “ curiosity ” above all other virtues. Christianity, on the other hand, may justly be suspected of having insufficiently recognized from the start the rôle of the intellect, and at times has inclined to Show a special tenderness toward ignorance. Pascal was but true to the tradition of the Christian mystics when he branded the whole process of modern scientific inquiry as a form of concupiscence, — libido sciendi, the lust of knowing. When he felt the rise within him of the new power of the reason which threatened the integrity of his mediæval faith, he exclaimed in self-admonishment, “ You must use holy water and hear masses, and that will lead you to believe naturally and will make you stupid.” Spain, for several centuries back, has applied with great success this panacea of Pascal for any undue activity of the reason. The abject ignorance into which she has fallen is the result, then, partly of Christian obscurantism, and in part of Oriental incuriousness.

Which is worse, after all, some of us may be prompted to ask in passing, this incuriousness of the Spaniard, or that eager inquisitiveness of his antipode the American, which leads him to saturate his soul in all the infinite futility of his daily newspaper ? Spain may at least owe to her ignorance some of that wisdom of little children so highly prized by Christianity. “ There is more simplicity, kindliness, and naïveté in Spain than in the rest of Europe,” writes Wilhelm von Humboldt to Goethe. Other Western countries are showing signs at present of intellectual overtraining. The impression we get from a typical Parisian Frenchman of to-day is that the whole energy of the man’s personality has gone to feed the critical intellect, at the expense both of what is below and of what is above the intellect, — of the body and the soul. The critical intellect of the Spaniard has been so stunted and atrophied by centuries of disuse that he has lost the very sense of his deficiency. Education is as truly the last object of his concern as it is the first of the American.

Juan Valera, who has analyzed with great acuteness the causes of Spanish decadence, says that Spain’s head was turned in the sixteenth century by her sudden accession to world-wide dominion, coinciding as it did with her triumph, after seven centuries of conflict, over the Moors. She became filled with a fanatical faith in herself, with a “ delirium of pride,” and since then has hugged with desperate tenacity, as embodying absolute and immutable truth, those medieval forms to which she ascribed her greatness. In the meanwhile, the rest of the world has been quietly changing from a medieval to a Greek view of culture. It has been discovering that growth is not in one, but in a multitude of directions, and tliat the nation no less than the individual is greatest which can take up and harmonize in itself the largest number of opposing qualities. France, indeed, lias been almost fatally crippled by her attempt to carry into modern times the principle of mediaeval exclusiveness. Sainte-Beuve traces to the persecution of the Jansenists and the expulsion of the Huguenots a loss of balance in the French national character. It was perhaps no idle fancy that led the Parisian Nefftzer to exclaim, as he heard the boom of the German guns about the city in the siege of 1870, “We are paying for Saint Bartholomew’s Day ! ” The history of Spain bears still more tragic witness to the truth of Emerson’s saying that exclusiveness excludes itself. Nearly all her skill in finance, manufacture, and agriculture departed from her with the banishment of the Jews and Moriscos ; and the Inquisition shut that intellectual element from her life which was needed as a corrective of her over-ardent imagination and narrow intensity.

However, modern ideas have fairly got a footing in Spain during the past forty years, and new and old have been arrayed against each other with a truly Iberian vividness of contrast. This battle beween mediæval and modern is the favorite topic of recent Spanish literature. It has been treated, often with great power, by novelists like Galdós, Alarcon, and Valera, and has inspired the work of poets like Nuñez de Arce and Campoamor. It is curious, this spectacle of a nation hesitating between contradictory ideals. Spain looks doubtfully on our scientific and industrial civilization, and in the very act of accepting it feels that she is perhaps entering the path of perdition. She does not share our exuberant optimism, and has misgivings about our idea of progress. She cannot, like other Western nations, throw herself with fierce energy upon the task of winning dominion over matter, and forget,

“ In action’s dizzying eddy whirl’d,
The something that infects the world.”

She is haunted at times by the Eastern sense of the unreality of life. It is no mere chance that the title of the most famous play of Spain’s greatest dramatist is La Vida es Sueño, Life is a Dream. This note, which is heard only occasionally in English, and notably in Shakespeare, recurs constantly in Spanish from the Couplets of Manrique to Espronceda. Wisdom, often for the Spaniard as always for the Oriental, reveals herself as some strange process of solitary illumination, comparable to the awakening from a dream. " The mysterious virgin,” she calls herself in Espronceda’s poem, “ on whom man bestows his last affections, and in whom all science becomes mute.”

“ Soy la vírgen misteriosa
De los últimos amores,” etc.

Whereas Bacon, speaking for the West, says that the way of knowledge is one that no man can travel alone.

We might augur more hopefully of Spain’s attempt to enter upon the path of modern progress if she had been more happily inspired in the choice of a model. Wilhelm von Humboldt, one of the few philosophical observers of Spain, remarks that her greatest misfortune is her geographical position. All her ideas come to her through France, and France is above all dangerous to her. In that ideal cosmopolitanism of which Goethe dreamed, each country was to broaden itself by a wise assimilation of the excellencies of other nationalities. The actual cosmopolitanism which has arisen during the present century has perhaps resulted in an interchange of vices rather than of virtues. I have sometimes been tempted to see a symbol of this cosmopolitanism in a certain square at Florence whose fine old native architecture has given way to a cheap imitation of the Parisian boulevard ; and over the front of one of these modern structures appear in flaming letters the words “ Gambrinus Halle ” !

In theory, Spain should have sent hundreds of her young men to German universities and to English and American technical schools, in order that they might thus acquire the scientific method of the Teuton and the practical and executive instinct of the Anglo-Saxon. She should have fostered among her sons an interest in commerce, in manufacture, and above all in agriculture ; they should have been encouraged to go forth and reclaim the waste tracts of their native land, plant forests, and heal that longstanding feud between man and nature which in Spain is written on the very face of the landscape.

Instead of this, she has turned for her exemplar to France, to the ideal, infinitely seductive and infinitely false, embodied in Paris. She has been guided in this choice by her incurably aristocratic instinct. It is estimated that in the days of Spanish greatness only three million out of a population of nine million consented to work ; and Spain still remains a nation of aristocrats. Every true Castilian still aspires to be a caballero, or horseman ; the Spaniard is unwilling to come down from his horse and put his shoulder to the work of modern civilization. I find in an old English author the following judgment on Spain, which has lost little of its truth : " The ground is uncultivated partly through the paucity and partly through the pride of the people, who breed themselves up to bigger thoughts than they are born to, and scorn to be that which we call ploughmen and peasants. . . . And if you take men of that nation, before they have spoiled themselves, either by getting some great office at home or else by much walking abroad, to seek some employment or fortune there, you shall find them for the most part to be of noble and courteous and quiet minds, in the very natural constitution thereof. Whereas, if you show them a new and sweeter way of life, either at home or abroad, it intoxicates them so with the vanities and vices of the world that they are many of them quickly wont to suck the venom in, and become the very worst of men. So that naturally I hold them good ; and that by accident and infection they grow easily to be stark naught.”

The Spaniards, then, have sucked in the venom of the Parisian boulevard, and have raised up in their capital a showy façade of borrowed elegance to which nothing in the country corresponds. I know of no more startling contrast, even in Spain, than to pass suddenly from some gray, poverty-stricken village of Old Castile into the factitious glare and glitter of the Fuente Castellana at Madrid. The highest ambition of thousands of young Spanish provincials is to swagger about in close-fitting frock coats, and seek for political preferment, any meaner occupation being unworthy of such noble hidalgos. Government places are few compared with the number of applicants; they are ill paid and of uncertain tenure, and the officeholder has little choice except to steal or starve. The vicious traditions of the old absolutism have thus united with the new frivolity to produce in the modern Spanish official that harmonious blending of corruption and incompetency with which we are familiar.

However, we must remember how little these afrancesados, these café-haunting, Frenchified Spaniards of Madrid really represent the nation. In Spain, even more than in France and Italy, the germs of promise for the future are to be sought anywhere rather than in the upper classes. Even among the upper classes, if we are to judge from recent literature, there are those who do not accept the French ideal of l’homme moyen sensuel, who would have the Spanish character come under certain modern influences, without therefore sacrificing its own native gravity and religious seriousness. It is encouraging to note in many of the Spanish books published of late years something of that robustness and virility wherein lies the natural superiority of the Spaniard over the other Latins. Spain has as yet no decadent writers, no Zola and no Gabriele d’Annunzio.

To speak, then, of the lower classes, there is a singular agreement among those who have really mingled with them as to their natural possibilities for good. “ I have found in Spain,” says Borrow, “ amongst much that is lamentable and reprehensible, much that is noble and to be admired, much stern, heroic virtue, much savage and horrible crime ; of low, vulgar vice very little, at least amongst the great body of the Spanish nation. . . . There is still valor in Asturia, generosity in Aragon, probity in Old Castile.” But how far will these old world virtues of the Spanish peasantry be able to withstand the contact with nineteenthcentury civilization ? Will not the profound poetry of their simple instinctive life fade away at its touch, and the racy originality of their native ways be smothered under its smug uniformity ? Will they be able, in short, to make the difficult passage from the mediæval to the modern habit of mind without falling into anarchy and confusion ? More than any other land, Spain came under the control of that Jesuitical Catholicism issued from the Council of Trent which has poisoned the very life-blood of the Latin races ; which, rather than lose its hold upon the minds of men, has consented through its casuists to sanction self-indulgence ; which has retarded by every means in its power the development of those virtues of self-reliance and self-control that more than any others measure a man’s advancement in the modern spirit ; and now that the Spaniards are escaping from the artificial restraint of their religion they are left, passionate and impulsive children, to meet the responsibilities of nineteenth-century life. From my observation of the common people, I should say that already the power of the priesthood is broken, that respect for the institution of monarchy is undermined, and that there is a rapid drift toward republicanism joined to a profound distrust of the present rulers. The desengaño, or rude disillusion, they are likely to experience before the end of the present struggle may result in some fierce outburst, boding disaster to the political jobbers at Madrid. Yet no prudent man would risk a prophecy about Peninsular politics; for Spain is le pays de l’imprévu, the land of the unexpected, where the logical and obvious thing is least likely to happen ; and that is perhaps one of the reasons why she still retains her hold on the man of imagination.

Whatever comes to pass, we may be sure that Spain will not modify immediately the mental habits of centuries of spiritual and political absolutism. In attempting to escape from the past, she will no doubt shift from the fanatical belief in a religious creed to the fanatical belief in revolutionary formulæ, and perhaps pass through all the other lamentable phases of Latin-country radicalism. Yet if space allowed I could give reasons for the belief that there are more elements of real republicanism in Spain than in France or Italy. This remark, as well as nearly everything else I have said, I mean to apply especially to the Castiles, Aragon, and the northwestern provinces, the real backbone of the Peninsula.

In any case, those who have a firsthand knowledge of Spain will be loath to place her on that list of “ dying nations ” to which Lord Salisbury recently referred. She is still rich in virtues which the world at present can ill afford to lose. It remains to be seen whether she can rid herself of the impediments which are rendering these virtues ineffectual. Will she be able to expel the Jesuit poison from her blood ? Will she learn to found her self-respect on conscience, instead of on the mediæval sentiment of honor, and come to rely on action, the religion of the modern man, rather than on Maria Santissima ? Chief question of all, will she succeed in taming her Gotho - Bedouin instincts, and become capable of the degree of orderly coöperation necessary for good government ? Alas ! the Spaniards themselves relate that the Virgin once granted various boons to Spain, at the prayer of Santiago, but refused the boon of good government, lest then the angels forsake heaven, and prefer Spain to paradise.

Irving Babbitt.