The Spirit of Present-Day Spain

THE common belief that Spain is a rigidly conservative country, unchanging and unchangeable, is not without an element of truth. There is a certain tenacity of fibre in the people of this land, tempered during untold generations by the mingled fire and ice of their keen Castilian climate, which makes it easy to recognize in the Spaniard of to-day the Iberian described by Strabo two thousand years ago. But this tenacity is like that of his famed old Toledo blades; it admits a high degree of flexibility. Of all the larger countries of Europe with a great past behind them, Spain has most fallen to the rear; but this has been the result of circumstances more than of any natural inaptitude for the tasks of civilization.

It is highly instructive to-day to read Gautier’s Voyage en Espagne. This book is much more than a fine piece of impressionism. It is a massive intellectual achievement. Journeying in a little-visited country, with few modern means of locomotion, and with no Baedeker in his hand (it is scarcely ten years, indeed, since Baedeker recognized the existence of Spain), Gautier grasped in a few weeks all the more salient characteristics of the people and the land, and set them down in the clearest and firmest fashion. His book will never cease to have its value, for it represents a state of things which has largely vanished. No one nowadays need make his Spanish tour in a diligence, and no one now is likely to be permitted, as Gautier was, to spread out his mattress at night in the courts of the Alhambra. The virginal romanticism of a splendid and tattered Spain such as Gautier found has gone, almost as completely as the splendidly ruinous Rome that Goethe entered in his carriage has today been swallowed up in the shoddy capital of modern Italy. Spain, indeed, has not yet attained the depressing exuberance of renovated Italy, — and the peoples of the two peninsulas are far too unlike to make any such resemblance probable, — but the contrast between Gautier’s Spain of less than a century ago and the Spain of to-day is sufficiently striking to dispel forever the notion that we are here concerned with a country which has been hopelessly left behind in the march of civilization.

I have been able to realize this transforming movement in Spain in the course of my own acquaintance with the country during the past twenty years, — never more vividly than now, as I return from my fifth visit to a land which to me has long seemed perhaps the most fascinating I know, in the New World or the Old. And when I compare the Spain I have just left with the Spain I first entered at Port Bou twenty years ago, the magnitude of the changes which have been effected in so brief a space seems to me very remarkable. As soon as we leave the railway track, indeed, we enter at once what may be called the eternal Spain — the Spain sub specie œternitatis — which Cervantes has immortalized. It is in the cities and towns that the change has chiefly been manifested.

Spaniards are now experiencing the modern European tendency to crowd into towns. All the recent consular reports, from north and from south alike, contain the same monotonous refrain that the towns are becoming crowded and that the expenses of town life, both as regards rents and the prices of commodities, are increasing. Yet the population of Spain, as the censuses show, is not increasing at any inordinate rate. What is happening is that urban life is developing, and as it develops its attractive power increases, and it draws the country-dwellers more and more within its circle. The brothers Quintero who rank high among the Spanish dramatists of to-day, in one of the best of their comedies, El Amor que Pasa, have presented a delightful picture of an oldworld Andalusian village from which the tide of life has receded, where men are scarce and strangers rarely come, and all the vivacity and intelligence of the place are concentrated in a few girls whom there is no one to woo. It was not part of the dramatists’ object to elucidate this question of urban development; but it is easy to see from their picture how the city has impoverished the village, and how those who are left only feel with the greater force the fascination of the city.

The more flourishing Spanish cities are nowadays full of life and animation. Not only are the large and handsome cafés crowded, — that is no novelty, —but factories are springing up, the signs of commercial and industrial activity abound, and the streets swarm with electric cars. In the use of electricity, indeed, Spain is before rather than behind most European countries. Electric lighting is becoming universal; even the smallest and most ancient cities are now covered with networks of wires, and as the massive old churches offer a tempting basis of attachment, the most beautiful and picturesque spots and buildings are everywhere being desecrated and disfigured, to the disgust of the traveling lover of the picturesque. The brilliance, vivacity, and modern activity of a large Spanish city, a certain touch of almost Oriental color in it, suggest that the Spaniards are taking as their models the Hungarians of Buda-Pesth, a city which, in the opinion of some, represents the highest point of city development Europe has yet attained.

The conservatism and traditionalism of the Spaniard, we have to realize, are compatible not only with an aptitude for change, but even with an eager delight in novelty and a certain discontent with the past. It would be surprising indeed if that spirit of restless adventure which enabled Spaniards to add America to the world, while the Portuguese of the same Iberian race were unveiling India and the farther East, had completely died out with the days of great adventure. The Spaniard, even the Spaniard of the people, is eager for reform. The more or less philosophical Republicanism, so frequently found in Spain, as well as the Anarchism — a peaceful and humanitarian Anarchism for the most part — which flourishes to a greater extent in Spain than elsewhere, alike testify to this desire. The newspaper press of Spain — especially as represented by the Heraldo of Madrid and the new Republican journal La Nueva España — is enlightened and intelligent, in the best sense Liberal. The fermenting discontent with sacerdotal bigotry, and especially with the extreme developments of monasticism, which has spread among all classes in the country, even leading to restriction of the freedom of public religious processions, — notwithstanding the firm manner in which the Church is here rooted, — is another sign of the same kind, strikingly manifested a few years ago when the Electra of the popular author Galdos was performed amid opposing demonstrations of popular feeling all over Spain; it is not necessarily a movement hostile to the Church, — certainly not in so far as Galdos is its representative,— but it demands a purified and humanized Catholicism which shall be in harmony with the claims of Nature and of social progress. The bull-fight, again, the national pastime of Spain, — long a mark for opprobrium among Englishspeaking peoples, always so keen to see the mote in other people’s eyes, — no longer meets with universal acceptance; and this year, with the approval of many prominent toreadors, steps have been taken to mitigate its more offensive features.

In all the practical appliances of domestic and working life, although it is the Spaniard’s instinct to cultivate an austere simplicity, he is yet adopting the devices and appliances of more advanced nations, — with the same ease with which he is abandoning his national beverage, chocolate, for the foreigner’s coffee, — and in cleanliness and convenience a Spanish city will usually compare favorably with a Provençal city. The Spaniard is honest, he is sometimes a little slow of comprehension, he is proverbially proud of his country’s ancient glory; but he is at the same time deeply convinced that Spain has fallen behind in the race of civilization, and is eager to see her again to the front.

I find the typical Spaniard of to-day in an Aragonese peasant, elderly but lithe, whom I lately saw jump from the train at a little country station to examine a very complicated French agricultural machine drawn up on a siding; he looked at it above and below with wrinkled brows and intent eyes, he ran all round it, he clearly could not quite make it out; but there was no flippancy or indifference in his attitude towards this new strange thing; he would never rest, one felt, until he reached the meaning of it. And many of us will regret that in this eager thirst for novelties the Spaniard will cast aside not a few of the things which now draw us to Spain.

There can be no doubt that this attitude of the Spaniard of to-day, inevitable in any case, has been greatly fostered by the war. Thoughtful observers of great movements have often felt that the old cry “Vae victis! ” requires very serious and even radical modification. In many a war it has been the vanquished, not the victor, who has carried off the finest spoils. Cuba and the Philippines have been like a tumor in the side of Spain, dragging her down in the race of civilization. They have drained her life-blood and disturbed all her national activities. Only a serious surgical operation could remove this exhausting excrescence; and Spaniards themselves have been the first to recognize that the operation, though painful, was in the highest degree beneficial. Not even the most Quixotic of Spaniards dreams of regaining these lost possessions. The war has been beneficial in at least two different ways. It has had a healthy economic influence, because, besides directing the manhood of Spain into sober industrial channels, it has led to the removal of artificial restrictions in the path of commercial activity. It has been advantageous morally, because it has forced even the most narrow and ignorant Spaniard to face the actual facts of the modern world.

The war has had a further result in leading to a movement for a closer sympathy between Spain and the Spanish states of South America. The attitude of these states towards the mother country has hitherto been somewhat unsympathetic; they have regarded her as hopelessly opposed to all reform; the hostility of Spain to the aspirations of Cuba and their own earlier struggles for freedom amply accounted for such an attitude. Now there is nothing to stand in the way of a movement towards approximation which has already begun to manifest itself, and may ultimately possess a serious significance.

It can scarcely be expected that the lover of Spain should view this new movement of progress and reform with unmitigated satisfaction. No traveler will complain that Spanish hotel-keepers are beginning to obtain their sanitary fittings from England, or that clerical and secular authorities alike are putting down the national vice of spitting. But the stranger can feel no enthusiasm when he finds that similar zeal is exercised in suppressing, on the slightest pretexts, the national dances, unique in Europe for their grace and charm and ancient descent, or in discarding the beautiful and becoming national costumes. It is a little depressing to find a cinematographic show set up in the market-place of even the remotest cities, to hear the squeak of the gramophone where one has once heard the haunting wail of the malagueña, or to have to admit that the barrel-organ is taking the place of the guitar. Civilization is good, and progress is necessary for any people. But “civilization ” and “progress ” mean much more than a feverish thirst for new things or a mad race for wealth; and some of us think that, however salutary the lessons that Spain may learn from the more prosperous nations of to-day, there are still more salutary lessons in the art of living which those nations may learn from Spain. One would grieve to see that in the attempt to purify her national currency Spain should cast away her gold with her dross.

When I entered Spain twenty years ago I said to myself that here was a land where the manners and customs of mediæval Europe still survived. Spain seemed in many respects to be about three hundred years behind the age. Now, when all things are in flux, it is pleasant to find that that early impression need not be absolutely effaced. Spain is still the most democratic of countries. The familiar and intimate relationship which we know in the old comedies of Europe and other sources as subsisting between master and servant, between gentleman and peasant, is still universal. The waiter, even in your modern hotel a few paces from the Puerta del Sol, pats you on the back with friendly intimacy as you step out of the lift even on the day after your arrival; and every low-class Spaniard expects, as a matter of course, to be treated as an equal. We are not unfamiliar with that attitude in more progressive countries; but the Spaniard shows that he is entitled to such courtesy by knowing how to return it; and that is a phenomenon we are less familiar with.

There is among Spanish people a friendly trustfulness towards all, even towards strangers and foreigners, which belongs to an age when in a well-knit community no fear was necessary. The man of shifting and progressive civilization is always prepared to be suspicious; he scrutinizes a stranger carefully and feels his way slowly. That outcome of modern progress seems unknown to the Spanish man or woman; it is always assumed that your attitude is friendly; and on the strength of this trustfulness even the instinct of modesty, or the not less instinctive fear of ridicule, seems in Spain to become slightly modified.

We realize how far we are from the present when we enter a Spanish Church. The ecstatic attitude of devotion which the worshiper sometimes falls into, without thought of any observer, is altogether unlike the consciously elegant grace of the French worshiper or the rigid decorum of the English ; while perhaps, if there is music, groups of women cluster with their fans at the foot of the piers, and children quietly play about in corners with unchecked and innocent freedom. Nor are the dogs and cats less free than the children ; at Tudela I have even seen a dog curled up in the most comfortable chair by the high altar, probably left in charge of the church, for he raised his head in a watchful and suspicious manner when the stranger entered; and in Gerona Cathedral there was a cat who would stroll about in front of the capilla mayor during the progress of mass, receiving the caresses of the passers-by. It would be a serious mistake to see here any indifference to religion; on the contrary, this easy familiarity with sacred things is simply the attitude of those who in Wordsworth’s phrase “lie in Abraham’s bosom all the year,” and do not, as often among ourselves, enter a church once a week to show how severely respectable, for the example of others, they can on occasion show themselves to be. It was thus that our own ancestors, whose faith was assuredly less questioning than ours, made themselves at home in the aisles of Old Saint Paul’s. It would be easy to enumerate many details of life in Spain which remind us of a past which we have ourselves long left behind.

It is pleasant to feel that such evidences of the community of Old Spain with a world — in many respects an excellent world — from which we have ourselves emerged have not yet ceased to exist. When we pass out of the beaten tracks we still come in touch with it almost everywhere in Spain. The stranger cannot perhaps more easily get a glimpse of the true and ancient Spain than by acquiring the habit of traveling third-class. The seats, indeed, are hard, but the company is usually excellent, charming in its manners and not offensive to any sense. Here a constant series of novel pictures is presented to the traveler who may quietly study them at leisure. Perhaps it is a dozen merry girls on their way to a festival, packed tightly together and laden with packages; some, the more sedate among them, wear mantillas, some bright handkerchiefs on their heads, or go with hair uncovered; but, however they are dressed, to whatever class they belong, they are all clean and sweet. They carefully tie to the racks the little bunches of deep-toned carnations they bear, — Spanish women always treat carnations tenderly, — and give themselves up to unrestrained chatter and laughter; their voices are apt to be somewhat piercingly vibrant and metallic, but their delight is good to see; the younger girls at the climax of their glee will perhaps stand up and flutter their arms like wings, and the elder women, if any there be, join in with only more restrained enjoyment.

Or, perhaps, it is a less crowded carriage one enters; there are two middleclass Spaniards and a peasant group of three: a fat, jolly, middle-aged man in a peasant’s costume, but clean and new, almost stylish; a woman of like age,— one of those free, robust, kindly women whom Spain produces so often ; and a pretty bare-headed girl, evidently her daughter, though the man seems a friend or relative who is escorting them on their journey. By and by, when we have been some hours on our journey, he lifts from the seat in front of him the large, heavy, embroidered wallet, —that alforja which Sancho Panza was always so anxious to keep well filled, — unwinds it and draws out one of the great flat delicious Spanish loaves and throws it on the woman’s lap. Then a dish of stewed meat appears, and the bread is cut into slices which serve as plates for the meat. But before the meal is begun the peasant turns round with a hearty “ Gusta ? ” It is the invitation to share in the feast which every polite Spaniard must make even to strangers who happen to be present, and it is as a matter of course politely refused : “Muchas gracias.” Before long, the black leather wine-bottle is produced from the wallet, and the meal proceeds. At its final stage some kind of sweetmeat appears and small fragments are offered to the two middle-class Spaniards, and then — with a slight half-movement, expressing a fine courtesy restrained by the fear of offering any offensive attention — to the foreign caballero also. It is not improper to accept this time, and now the leather bottle is handed round and the middle-class Spaniards avail themselves of it, though with awkward unfamiliarity, for it requires some skill to drink from this vessel with grace: you fold over the belly of the vessel to the angle demanded by the state of its repletion, and as you apply the mouthpiece to your lips you slowly elevate your eyes towards the zenith. The two Spaniards quietly remark to each other that the wine is of first-ciass quality, and even without such an assurance one would know that that peasant never drank anything that was not of first-class quality.

Once more one enters a carriage, this time second-class, where sits a charming and beautiful Spanish lady with her child, opposite to a man who, with little success, is paying attentions to the child with the object of opening up conversation with the mother. Two black-robed monks enter. They do not look at the pretty lady, they seem unconscious of her presence, and the elder of the two, a man of gentle, refined face, alone greets us with the customary “Good day.” The other brother, wearing gold-rimmed spectacles, is a larger man, of more stolid and impassive type evidently of lower grade in the order. The two exchange very few words in the course of their three hours’ journey, and it is always the elder and more intelligent man who takes the initiative. He sits with folded hands, quietly but alertly interested in every smallest incident, while the younger man, having placed his spectacles on the seat beside him, leans back, calmly vegetative, with arms folded within his sleeves. After a while the other, with gentle feminine fingers, touches him softly on the arm without a word. He understands, and produces a bundle fastened in a knotted blue check handkerchief. I imagine for a moment that the holy men are about to partake of a frugal repast; but the bundle contains a large book of devotions, in which the elder monk reads for a short time, then fastens it again in the bundle and pushes it toward his companion as its recognized guardian. A little girl enters the carriage with her small basket; the elder monk looks at her with affectionate interest; and when she passes him to get out at the next station he smiles sweetly at her, speaking a few words to which she responds with an “Adios.” I seem to see here typified the two varieties into which the discipline of the cloister moulds men — the sensitively feminine and the listlessly vegetative. All the life of these men has marked itself upon them. I realize how true are the words of the wise physician, that “from him who has eyes to see and ears to hear no mortal can hide his secret; he whose lips are silent chatters with his finger-tips and betrays himself through all his pores.”

If I were asked to sum up the dominant impression that the survival in Spain of old-world mediævalism makes, I should say that Spain is, in the precise and specific sense of the word, the home of romance. The special character of the Spanish temperament and of Spanish developments in literature and in art is marked, not by classic feeling, — though Spain owed so much to ancient Rome and Rome to Spain, — but by a quality, rising and sinking with the rise and fall of Gothic, which we call the romantic spirit: a mixture, that is, of the mysterious and grandiose with the grotesquely bizarre, of the soaringly ideal with the crudely real,—a mixture which to us to-day has the cunning fascination of art, but was really on both sides the natural outcome of the experiences and feelings of the men who created it. This romantic spirit was once the common possession of all Christendom; but the Spanish temperament peculiarly lent itself to the romantic attitude, and it is in Spain to-day that we may catch its final vanishing echoes. It was certainly no accident that Victor Hugo, who created the renaissance of romantic drama in France, went to Spain for his inspiration. It is sometimes said that Hugo had but slight knowledge of Spain; he went there as a child of ten, that was all. But this child of precocious genius was able even at that age to receive impressions strong enough to germinate in the fullness of time. The whole of the earlier and more fruitful period of Hugo’s work may be said to have been due to the stimulus which came to him from Spain.

To-day it is the Church, always the most powerful stronghold of tradition among any people, which enables the stranger most vividly to realize how well the romantic spirit has been preserved in Spain. Notwithstanding invasions from without and revolutions from within, especially during the early years of the last century, Spain is still the country where the mediæval spirit of romantic devotion is most splendidly embodied and preserved. To the English visitor, in whose churches nearly every beautiful thing that royal despoilers had left was battered and broken by still more energetic Puritans, it is a perpetual miracle to find so much delicate work from remote ages which has never been ravaged by revolutionists or restorers.

Moreover, there is no type of architecture which so admirably embodies the romantic spirit as Spanish Gothic. Such a statement implies no heresy against the supremacy of French Gothic. But the very qualities of harmony and balance, of finely tempered reason, which make French Gothic so exquisitely satisfying, softened the combination of mysteriously grandiose splendor with detailed realism in which lies the essence of Gothic as the manifestation of the romantic spirit. Spanish Gothic, at once by its massiveness and extravagance and by its realistic naturalness, far more potently embodies the spirit of mediæval life. It is less æsthetically beautiful, but it is more romantic. In Leon Cathedral Spain possesses one of the very noblest and purest examples of French Gothic, — a church which may almost be said to be the supreme type of the Gothic ideal of a delicate house of glass finely poised between buttresses ; but there is nothing Spanish about it. For the typical Gothic of Spain we must go to Toledo and Burgos, to Tarragona and Barcelona. Here we find the elements of stupendous size, of mysterious gloom, of grotesque and yet realistic energy, which are the dominant characters alike of Spanish architecture and of mediæval romance.

We find the same character in every object which subserves the Church service and ritual. The Spaniard has no fine instinct for the æsthetic; but in the sphere of devotion his romantic instinct is always right. The gloom which pervades Spanish churches — so unlike French churches, which are a blaze of light — has its source in the need for tempering the glare of the southern sun. But this gloom is finely subdued to the purposes of devotion, exquisitely tempered not only by windows which are always painted, but by the use of candles as the only source of artificial illumination. Though here and there, as in Toledo Cathedral, we find the hideous French device of the electric light that pretends to be a candle, Spaniards still understand not only that the candle is the illuminant which symbolically best lends itself to Christian worship, but that the full and equable illumination necessary to reveal the symmetry of classic buildings is worse than useless in this more mysterious Gothic art, which demands the emphasis of its perspective, the broken play of light and shade.

The affinity of the Spaniard for the romantic spirit is far from being, in the common sense of the word “romantic,” the expression of a superficial sentimentality. The chivalry peculiarly identified with Spain,—the chivalry, embodied in the conception of the Cid, which finally drove the Moor out of Spain, — however fantastic and extravagant it sometimes became, was stern in its ideals and very practical in its achievements. Interwoven with the manifestations of the romantic spirit in Spain, indeed a part of its texture, there is a perpetual insistence on suffering and death. A certain indifference to pain, even a positive delight in it, was long ago observed by Strabo to mark the Iberian. And the deliberate emphasis of the thought of death, so congenial to the ethical temper of this people, has always been a note of the romantic mood. But while the favorite mediæval conception of the Dance of Death has elsewhere passed out of the living traditions of European peoples, — for the new interest in the poignant old English morality, Everyman, is but an artificial revival, — in Spain the naked lugubrious fact of death is still made part of the lesson of daily life. “Hic jacet pulvis, cinis, nihil: ” that inscription in huge letters, marking the grave of a great Archbishop on the floor of Toledo Cathedral, well expresses the Spaniard’s haughty humility. The Escorial, the royal Spanish temple to Death, is unique in its elaborate and impressive circumstances ; every ruling Spanish monarch may here descend the dark marble staircase to the little vault below the high altar and view the sarcophagus which was prepared for him centuries before he was born.

The Spaniard broods over and emphasizes the naked Majesty of Death. Very far from him is the sunny and serene saying of Spinoza that “ there is nothing the wise man thinks of less than of death.” In Barcelona Cathedral, the most solemnly impressive model of Catalan architecture, the broad and stately entrance to the crypt, the gloomy house of Death, is placed in the centre of the church between the capilla mayor and the choir. Every Spanish sacristan seems to possess a wellpolished skull and a couple of thigh-bones with which to crown the catafalque it is his duty to erect, — a task in which we may sometimes find him engaged in the silent church at twilight, preparing for the funeral ceremony of the morrow. In a church in the heart of the city of Zamora I have found, prominently placed on a pedestal, a skeleton of fine proportions holding an hour-glass in one hand and a scythe in the other, while high on the interior wall of Salamanca Cathedral one discerns a skeleton of lesser proportions with what seems to be the skin still clinging to its bones.

The age of chivalry, as we know, is over; and the romantic spirit is rooted in conceptions of life and of death which are not able to flourish vitally in the soil of our time. It is inevitable that, however firmly the mediæval conception may have persisted in Spain, its tendency must be, if not to die out, at all events to become attenuated, overlaid, — at the least, transformed in its manifestations. But a nation that at one moment led the world, and has always shown an aptitude for bringing forth great personalities, must not be too hastily dismissed as no longer able to exert an influence in human affairs. The people of Spain are sound at the core; they have suffered as much from their virtues as from their vices — from their idealism, their indifference to worldly advantage, their cheerful good nature, their stoical resignation. In the women of Spain, also, one may discern an element of promise. However hampered by lack of education and a habit of Oriental seclusion, Spanish women have always possessed a singular native vigor and fibre. It is not alone their beauty and charm which distinguish them, but intelligence and character. As queens and as heroines and as saints, in literature and in philanthropy, Spanish women have in all ages asserted themselves.

Spain has suffered from incompetent and treacherous rulers, from her own lack of political instinct, even from a too ready response to chivalrous and humanitarian ideals. It has become a commonplace to say that the Spaniards are a decaying nation. A country, however, which is noted for the number of its centenarians scarcely seems to be suffering from physical decadence; a nation which has learned to gain strength out of defeat can scarcely be held to be in a state of moral decadence.