The Paradox of Spain

Editor of the Atlantic from 1908 to 1938, ELLERY SEDGWICK made his first visit to Spain in the year of the King’s abdication (1931). He went back again in 1937. this time in company with his friend Cameron Forbes, the former Governor General of the Philippines. And for the past three years he has spent the winter on the Peninsula noting the contrasts and characteristics which have made Spain a special focus of American interest since first Columbus showed us the way.



WHEN Jacob struck his sagacious bargain with the Lord, securing permanent tenure of his land and stipulating for its increment, at a fixed rental of ten per cent per annum, he created a precedent so satisfactory that it has lasted to this day; for one tenth is still the tithe favored by the Church. Unfortunately the large question of the equitable division of capital between man and his Maker has never been resolved. And a most puzzling question it is, resting on a paradox which no realtor on earth takes note of. Search out the richest land, the warmest sun, the most inviting prospect and there, hidden among citrus groves, sugar cane, and olives, will be spread before you not affluence but dire poverty.

This contribution I make to what I may call the science of visual economics. Travel south. The air grows balmy and delicious. The sun comforts and cajoles. The black loam of the fields brings forth tenfold. Endless rows of oranges, olives, and lemons proclaim a Paradise of Plenty. It is all a delusion. Abundance marks the gateway of want. It is so in Italy. So it is in Spain.

Hosea Biglow was right: —

You’ve gut. to git up airly
Ef you want to take in God.

The more God does for man, the less man sees the necessity of doing for himself. He starves in the midst of plenty. It is where the land is stubborn and the sun tempts not to idleness, that man flourishes by the sweat of his brow.

Of this endemic dilemma Spain offers a remarkable illustration. Throughout the north there are many evidences of prosperity. But in the deep south, between the Sierras and the lovely coastline, only the rich grow richer and the poverty about them is stark and terrible.

No race on the European continent has America known longer than she has known the Spaniards, but after five centuries our national understanding of Spain and her people is, broadly speaking, nonexistent. Today our tourists swarm through their country but the American yardstick is still our domestic measure. At home there are few things we do not cavil at, but abroad, American folkways are our single standard. Why don’t the Spaniards practice democracy? we ask. Why don’t they level down their hidalgos and level up their peasants by income taxes? Win don’t they divide their land properly? These are our insistent questions and because Spaniards show a strong disinclination to do any of these things we shrug them off as incompetents or worse, as Tories or bigots. Spaniards are better worth understanding than we think.

No comedy holds a livelier dialogue than the discussion of democracy between an American and a Spaniard. To each the contentious word has an entirely different meaning. With justice, Spaniards regard themselves as the most democratic of peoples. What we mean by democracy is political equality (unless the FEPC is to the fore). With them if is a social attitude. They are of one inheritance and talk to each other as equals. A great duke who owns half of Andalusia said to me: “When my tenants come to discuss our affairs with me, do they lake off their hats? They do not.” A man’s a man, for gold brocade and a’ that. When persons of what we think of as totally different classes meet, there is no trace either of servility or superiority to mark the gap between them. Indeed as Charles V boasted, Spanish manners are the best in Europe. The beggar asks alms simply as a courteous request from one Christian to another. There is complete urbanity on both sides and that freedom from hurry which is the hallmark of courtesy. Held up by a puncture on the road, a few years since, at the house of a comfortable farmer, I was bidden to a seat at the lunch table as naturally as if I had been a familiar neighbor. There was no trace of awkwardness or false pride. But political democracy is quite another thing.

Manners, opinions, and politics are based on history. Spain is not a country but a group of countries. Province by province it was rescued from the Moors, and each province with all its prejudices, its local loyalties, its insulated eccentricities, is hedged from its neighbors by the Sierras. The King, when Spain had one, was crowned King of the Spains, and each “Spain” is prouder than Lucifer of its individuality, its monuments, and its sacred figures. “Oh,” cried my chauffer, a friend of three years’ standing, “where can you find a people like ours of Viscaya? So honest, so generous; but over there,” pointing to a gap in the mountains, “you have to button your pockets tight!”

With fifty provinces, each going its ancestral way; without navigable rivers other than coastwise; crisscrossed by formidable mountains; with a history of misgovernment running back to antiquity, broken in modern times only by the iron beneficence of Primo de Rivera — hated in his life and, after the familiar pattern, mourned in his death—Spain offers thin soil for political democratic seed.

Taxgathering in Latin countries loses its tragic note. A friend describes for me the amenities of his recent interview with a publican who, conscious of the unpopularity of his calling, is anxious that courtesy shall not be strained. The victim greets him pleasantly: “Señor, it is delightful to see you well and prosperous after your labors.”

“Far from prosperous,” replies the publican. “Times are very hard, but one must feel well in such beautiful weather.”

“Ah,” replies the farmer, “in spite of the past rain, how slowly the crops grow! I can’t believe my cabbages are really cabbages. They are so many tennis balls, and oh, señor, there is positively no market. How fortunate you are! Frost, hail, drought, your income is secure. All my prayers to San Isidro hardly bring me food to eat.”

So the talk runs on, each commiserating himself and congratulating the other, till very, very gradually they strike a painless bargain.

Spanish pleasures are social. From six to eight is the hour of the paseo. Up the street villagers and townsmen walk in groups, men together, girls together. Then they walk down again. In every village the crowd is impenetrable. Automobiles slow to a stop. Talk and affability have the right of way.

The acme of sociability is the bargain. Don’t give your cook a day off, but let her go marketing every day. It is not the tiny squeeze she will secure for herself but the drama that she loves. Chaffering and the play of wits are her relaxation, her movie, her motorcar. Go to market yourself and watch the accomplished acting, urbanity, amazement, satire, horror, final satisfaction, all wrapped up in a dish of beans. There is no pleasanter lesson to be learned from travel than the joy that comes from simple things.


A CHIEF affliction of Spain is the ruthlessness of its wage scale. A capable field hand starting at 25 cents a day can climb to 40 cents. A competent laundress can amass 35 cents in her ten-hour workday. The lowest order of labor is offered by the rock pile on the roads. Ten cents does for a beginner there. How do such people live? Pooling their resources, one man buys beans and rice for the group. I noted one of these unfortunates who expressed his sense of outrage by throwing stones and malediction at our car, and I had nothing but sympathy for him.

Poorest of the poor in Spain are the fisher people. In Barcelona, a city modern and busy as Pittsburgh, the trade is organized and the fish market is a glorious pattern of still life that would have sent Rembrandt or Snyders rushing for his paints; but along the southern coast, it is every family for himself. The leaky boats put to sea at every dawn which withholds the threat of a storm, and every evening men and boys toil at their windlasses drawing them high on the shingle. Such craft cannot venture far and the catch is pitiful, sometimes nothing at all. Then the children are bidden to lie flat on cottage floors to ease the gripes of hunger. Yet it is wonderful to see how clean are the cottages. Even hovels are fresh as new pins, shining with whitewash within and without and bowered in jasmine and bougainvillaea.

It must not be supposed that society is blind to the plight of these poor people. Strong efforts are made to transfer fisherfolk to agriculture. But Spanish obduracy stands firm. Pride is as rampant in rags as in broadcloth. “Our fathers fished the sea. So will our sons. We thank you for your kindness, but we will live as we wish.”

One class there is that might be supposed to fare worse than fishermen. But a thousand years of begging technique have taught Spanish mendicants every trick Autolycus knew. Though their profession is banned by law, beggars courteously refuse the offer of communal quarters and work that will feed them. Well-advised they are, for begging is a sociable trade and a lucrative one. Alms to the poor is an article of Spanish faith and it is only the American traveler, remembering the tenets of his Charity Organization Society, who refuses his pennies. Beggars are a fraternity. They value their profession and protect it as jealously as ever a plumbers’ union. In Malaga I noted with amusement that the fashionable district of Limosna, pleasantly shaded by its lemon groves, has about it an invisible line (like that on 14th Street, which prohibits crooks from invading downtown New York) that interdicts every alien beggar from committing a trespass. The union enforces the law and polices its rights after the manner of high-tariff manufacturers in our own advanced civilization.

No company of fakirs is more delightful than these Spanish beggars, immortalized centuries ago by Cervantes, Velasquez, and Murillo. Gil Blas, if you remember that prince of rogues, set the captivating pattern. More than one friend of mine has bought at attractive prices packages, even cartons, of American cigarettes, to discover that the protruding sample contained tobacco, the rest being neatly stuffed with sawdust. Now and then you come on a peculiarly ill-favored hag with a blind eye or ear askew outscaring a scarecrow in her habiliments. About her straggle a family of the most unfortunate children that nature ever dedicated to misery. One has a squinting eye, another a withered arm, a third hobbles on rickety legs. Scrofula has done its worst to a fourth. What Christian would button his pockets against such misfortune! In defiance of eleemosynary precepts, you give and give twice — and when you reach your hotel, you learn that every member of that pathetic family has been selected with consummate art. The derelicts of a score of households have been culled to create a single group of unapproachably philanthropic attraction.

High among charlatans, the brotherhood of bootblacks is eminent for the adroitness of its chicanery. Since Sister Arthritis loves me with more than a sister’s love, I travel by wheel chair, and one lovely morning I sat in the scented park of Seville, sniffing the myrtle hedges and the jasmine twining among the rosebushes. One could not displease the Lord on such a day; and though my shoes already shone brightly, I beckoned to a carefree young shoeblack who approached me whistling, his box on his shoulder. He set to work while I dreamed away my enjoyment of the place and hour. Suddenly I heard a snap and looked up to see the boy holding in his hand one of my new rubber heels. “How lucky!" he remarked in Spanish, which even I understood. “ You were in for a stumble and here I have another that will make your shoes good as new.”I burbled my indignation but the rascal was unperturbed. Without ado he took a replacement from his box and in a jiffy the new heel was nailed on. Never did he stop whistling, and I could not keep my smile under control. “ What are you charging me for this outrage?” I inquired with exaggerated courtesy. “Only seventy-five pesetas, señor. It is the best rubber.” “Seventy-five pesetas [about $1.50]! What rubbish! I will give you ten.” Then the scalawag’s real enjoyment began. It was ten pesetas against seventy-five, twenty against sixty. On and on the gap narrowed, but there was so much laughter in my indignation that I settled for thirty and the rapscallion went off whistling his carol. Later on I discovered that from Barcelona to Madrid, from Madrid to Seville, this swindle is the first trick in every bool black’s box.

How endearing is the fraud of an accomplished rascal! Virtue cannot hope to emulate it. Anger is powerless against it.

A word must be said in answer to the third American question about dividing the land. Nothing is more necessary. Nothing more difficult. In the north, freeholds are common. The paunchy stucco houses bulge with patriarchal families who till ancestral acres. Cattle, crowding in the byre (which always takes up the ground floor), give out a comfortable aromatic heat and constitute the family furnace as well as the family subsistence. But in the fertile, poverty-ridden south, great landlords rule the land. Long files of donkeys, hoes, and peasants (to pul them in proper order of value) start at dawn to reach fields half a dozen miles away; for the peasant loves to huddle in his village. Yet to partition the land is patently uneconomic. Large holdings are the price of farm machinery. Sometimes the government purchases considerable tracts to be cut into small plots. But unless the peasant’s roots are deep in the soil, his first desire is to sell it and enjoy life on the proceeds. The heart of the problem is the indurated conservatism of the native. He loves not new things.


I AM, I fear, a more casual churchgoer than my soul requires, but if there is one lesson I have learned from sermons, n is the universal axiom that what the world needs for its salvation is religion, and that from religion must come a society made perfect or nearly so. This is the core of Christian ethics. Now since the Fall of Jerusalem there has not been a country to which religion is so all-in-all as Spain. The rest is dust beside it. But would our preachers say that thereby is Spain made perfect?

The Faith of the Spaniard is unique. His country is the eldest daughter of the Church and there is vanity in it. The Inquisition was thorough, and there is arrogance in it. In a wonderful way, this faith accepts sorrow. Alone in Europe the Spaniard does not resent suffering. He believes in it. His holy figures express it. The Mater Dolorosa, seven swords buried in her bosom, goes forth on holy days to moot her Son. His hands and side still dripping with the sacred blood explain to the Spaniard the necessity of suffering. The mystery of life seems revealed. No Protestant acid can eat away that supreme consolation. To a Spaniard, pain is the price of eternal felicity. The name of Torquemada is still revered in the land.

No human explanation could have been of such avail but for the mysticism of the fellow countrymen of Santa Teresa. History to them is but a chain of miracles, many yet to be made clear. Like the Jews, they despise outside opinion. I doubt if there is a volume in the library of Seville not the work of a Spanish author or some chronicler in intimate collaboration with him. When the cry of Santiago drove the Moors from one incredible fastness after another, was Saint James an idle spectator? Was not the Blessed Virgin on her throne when she called for the pearls and gold of a New World? Of what avail were the thousand years of grinding misgovernment, punctuated by murder and revolution — were they not leading to a holy end?

One thing exacerbates American opinion of things Spanish — the harassment, even the persecution, of small Protestant churches and chapels. The most outrageous example was obviously instigated by the Cardinal Archbishop of Seville, who recently proclaimed his detestation of American aid, saying that if only the people would spurn heretical dollars and renew their fealty to the Blessed Virgin, all would be well. There is no doubt that the spirit of the auto-da-fe still burns brightly in His Eminence’s lofty bosom. But many ecclesiastics and most officers of the government are more modern and much more practical. They fully realize that violent persecution trims, not snuffs, that candle which Master Hugh Latimer prayed “shall by God’s grace never be put out.”

George Borrow, when he so delightfully sowed broadcast the Bibles of the London Missionary Society throughout Spain, did not foresee how many would fall on stony ground. I have sought to estimate how much danger to souls freighted for Paradise exists from the seeping of heretical poison, but I can raise only a tiny corner of the curtain. In one large city, the Protestant congregation, purely Spanish, numbers 240 souls, representing a tiny fraction of one per cent of the population. Utterly insignificant, says the American. Subdivide poison a thousand times, says the Spaniard, and it is poison still. And before we dismiss such an argument, let us remember the disquiet a corresponding percentage of Communists excites in America. Moreover, our disquiet is based on thoughts of time, Spaniards on thoughts of eternity.

What is a religious person in the most Catholic of countries? The Puritan smiles cynically at the comparative unimportance of the ingredient we most value — conduct. To the Catholic, trust, mysticism, and what to us seems superstition, blend into a supreme desire for divine grace. Grace is the sole essential. Watch the devotional life of Spain and you understand afresh the medieval perception of the immanence of the unseen. The grasp on the eternal comes most strongly from some physical manifestation of holiness. Every church in Spain has its peculiarly venerated statue or picture. Amongst the communicants a sort of sacred club is formed. Two or three hundred men proclaim their personal allegiance to some tormented saint or agonized figure of Christ — it is always by suffering that the Spanish imagination is most quickly kindled — with human hair and ofttimes human blood. On holy days he is borne aloft in solemn pageant through the streets. Behind him march rank on rank his special devotees, each figure masked and shrouded in gown of black or white, red or yellow, topped by weird conical hats such as Penitentes once wore on their dismal way to the bonfires, earthly reflections of everlasting flames.


THE affecting ceremonies of Easter week are a cynosure for the traveler, but to a foreigner living in Spain, it is the consummate perfection of Faith seen daily in the churches which touches him most nearly. At Saragossa there is an object of peculiar veneration, a diminutive, doll-like Virgin, standing on a pillar. Sheltering her is the most costly chapel in the entire Peninsula. Of all heiresses the Virgen del Pilar is incomparably the richest. Remembering that pillar worship long antedated all representation of human form, that God Himself commanded Moses: “and if thou wilt make me an altar of stone, thou shalt not build it of hewn stone, for if thou lift up thy tool upon it, thou hast polluted it,” and knowing how through the ages, man’s love of beauty and sense of fitness have contravened the divine command, and substituted first a wrought column, then a statue, for the work of God’s hand, I was curious to examine the pillar itself. Descending from the chapel into the body of the church, I sought to find the base on w hich the little figure of the Virgin rested. The shaft was hidden but within a few feel of it, sharing its sanctity, was another column of stone encased in marble and silver, and there, as I had surmised, was a tiny orifice permitting the faithful to kiss the pillar itself. The Virgen del Pilar and her column are of nc venerable age themselves but together they typify all the ages of Faith — dawn, high noon, and dusk.

No wonder the people adore her. She has brought to her city riches and honor. Every shop windowholds her portrait and constant pilgrimages bring offerings to her altar and custom to the merchants of her city. But what was most interesting to me was the character of her worshippers. Widows and the unfortunate were, of course, in constant attendance, but in the late hours of the afternoon troop on troop of fashionable young men, officers of the Elite Corps, in the smartest of uniforms, modern to the toes of their trimly cut boots, would kneel at the foot of her pedestal, lost in the intensity of passionate prayer. As my chair rolled away, I pondered many things.

His Eminence Cardinal Spellman returns from his pilgrimage to Spain and reports that obviously Generalissimo Franco is very, very popular. That would not be in accord with ray judgment. No ruler of Spain is ever popular for long. What keeps him in his place is the Army, and more powerful even than the Army is the universal dread of another Civil War. To put the case compactly and conclusively, there is no present alternative to Franco.

The black horror of brother killing brother is ceaselessly in every mind. The very ruffians who burned the churches and slew the priests before their altars pray at those very altars and (I speak not of the Communists but of the rabble that followed them) subscribe money to mend the ruin they have wrought. Every church displays its roster of martyrs. In the Cathedral at Tarragona, I counted the names of 180 priests murdered in a single province. This sense of fearful dread is latent everywhere. Men do not talk of these things but they think of them. They little doubt that if again the Devil is unchained, the hands that were blackened in the last conflagration will brandish their relighted torches.

With his garrisons firmly behind him, the Caudillo is the sole safeguard of order and of peace. And without peace what counts justice and what good government? If Franco had not led his revolt, Spain and, after Spain, France would have gone Communist. This is not the argument of the idealist, and the public conscience has a right to be queasy, but in this shaking world, order comes first and other arguments seem futile.

I have not spoken of the beauty of the country. Along her coasts the towering cliffs have an austere grandeur beyond those of Southern France. About the Sierras, there is a relentlessness that proclaims the fear of the Lord, present and terrible. Every monastery, every castled hill is history itself. There is no city in Europe where one feels its presence so tangibly as in Toledo. And no gallery has for me the majesty of the Prado. Yet Spain is not a happy country. Its Christ is the Man of Sorrows. Its God is the dread judge, and men call on the Blessed Virgin to shield them from His wrath.