Review: What’s Up with Catalonia?

Review: What’s Up with Catalonia?

What's Up with Catalonia?What’s Up with Catalonia? by Liz Castro

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Do not invite an American to speak about Europe; he will usually display great presumption and a rather ridiculous arrogance.

—Alexis de Toqueville

Perhaps the most politically controversial topic here in Madrid is the Catalonian independence movement. Almost everyone I speak to is vigorously against it, for one reason or another. I’ve heard people say that it is just a bluff for political negotiations; that it is based on calculated lies; that it is illegal and unconstitutional; that the Catalans are just crazy people; and so on. Indeed, it is my understanding that disagreement over the Catalonia Question is one of the major causes of the current political deadlock in Spain.

People talk about it a lot. But even after dozens of conversations, I still felt that I didn’t understand the situation; I was only hearing one side of the story. So for my first trip to Barcelona, I decided to open this book, a collection of essays by several pro-independence authors. It is a quick read: I read half of the book on the flight to Barcelona, and the other half on the flight back to Madrid. And now that I think of it, that is probably the best place to read this book, suspended in midair between the two cities.

It is this stance, an attempt at impartiality, that I am trying to maintain. But this is difficult for me. As one of the essays in this collection explains, many Americans are predisposed against independence movements because it reminds us of our Civil War. Of course, Catalonia is a completely different issue, so my association is illogical and unfair; and besides, my whole country originated in a war for independence. Yet I find it difficult to contemplate the option of secession without feeling queasy. That’s my bias.

This collections offers a variety of arguments for and perspectives on independence. The reasons offered for secession range from economic, to sentimental, to nationalistic, to linguistic, to historical, to political, often in combination. But, to quote Warwick, the result is less than the sum of its parts. The authors have different priorities and their arguments often contradict one another, which creates a sense of incoherence. One author argues that the Catalan language cannot be used as the primary marker of their identity, since a significant portion of the region’s inhabitants don’t speak it fluently; but another author comes out strongly for Catalan. Lots of authors talk about taxation and fiscal spending—all of them quoting the same statistics, which got rather tiresome by the end—but others said that they would want independence even if these financial troubles were cleared up. The tone of the essays ranged from dry analysis to impassioned pleas. It’s a hodgepodge.

One thing seriously lacking from the discussions of taxation and fiscal spending was how the Catalonia situation compared with that of other countries. In a nutshell, the complaint is that the Spanish government takes more money from Catalonia than they spend on it. But it is my understanding that this is a common occurrence when one region of a country is richer than another: money is diverted to where it is needed most. New York and California help to fund other states; and from what I’m told, Berlin is on the receiving end of a lot of financial support. If one of the authors had framed the fiscal situation in an international context, it would be easier to see whether it was fair.

These criticisms notwithstanding, I think this is an extremely valuable collection. Yes, there are much better overviews of the independence movement in Tremlett’s Ghosts of Spain and Hooper’s The New Spaniards; but those are two foreigners trying to summarize a complicated situation. This collection lets the Catalans speak for themselves, leading to a much more nuanced view of the independence movement. It shouldn’t be read in isolation; this is only one half of the debate. But it is an important half.

Personally I can’t decide how I feel about the whole thing. I am hostile to nationalism in general; and it strikes me that both the pro- and anti-independence positions are tinged with nationalism, for Catalonia or for Spain. I can certainly understand why, after Franco’s repressive policies, there is a considerable amount of bad blood built up in Catalonia; and I appreciate that it would make many Catalans very happy to have a country of their own. On the other hand, I think one mark of a country’s greatness is the amount of diversity it can incorporate, so I’d prefer it if the opposing sides could figure out how to live together without stepping on each other’s toes. Secession strikes my American mind as an overly drastic solution to the problem. But at this point I will take heed from Toqueville’s warning and say no more.

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Homage to Catalunya: Introduction & Background

Homage to Catalunya: Introduction & Background

This is Part One of a seven-part series on Catalonia, following this plan:

  1. Introduction & Background
  2. The City of Barcelona
  3. Museums of Barcelona
  4. Architecture of Barcelona
  5. The Museum of Dalí
  6. Montserrat
  7. Tarragona

Introduction & Background

No region of Spain has been more in the news lately than Catalonia. And this region is also, by chance, the most visited part of the country, mostly thanks to Barcelona. So what sets Catalonia apart from the rest of Spain? In this series of posts I hope to give you some suggestions of an answer.

Catalonia (Cataluña in Spanish, Catalunya in Catalan) is a triangular plot of land that sits at the northeastern corner of the Iberian peninsula. To the north is France, to the south Valencia, to the west Aragón, to the east the shimmering Mediterranean. Divided into four provinces—Barcelona, Tarragona, Girona, and Leida—the region is home to more than 7.5 millions people (about 16% of Spain’s total), most of whom are concentrated around Barcelona, the region’s capital. This storied city is the second biggest in the country, after Madrid, and is in the top ten largest of Europe.

The history of Catalonia is deep and complex. After the fall of Rome it came under the control of the invading Visigoths, and then eventually the invading Moors. After that it was made a sort of Frankish protectorate, serving as a heavily militarized buffer zone between the Carolingian empire and the Moors of the Iberian peninsula. The region became more and more independent until it was essentially autonomous; the hereditary title of Catalonia’s ruler was the “Count of Barcelona.” In 1137 one of these, Ramon Berenguer IV, married the daughter of the King of Aragón, effectively joining the two lands.

Eventually the Kingdom of Aragón came to comprise the whole eastern part of the Peninsula, including Valencia and the Balearic Islands. Then, in 1469, Isabel of Castile married Ferdinand of Aragón, thus swallowing up Catalonia into yet another large polity—the beginnings of Spain as we know it.

From the very beginning there was some tension in this unification. Catalonia, you see, has always been a mercantile area. Its Mediterranean perch makes it an ideal place for trade by sea. As such, Catalonia has historically been prosperous and liberal—with democratic institutions and limitations on centralized power. (Barcelona’s “Council of 100,” a group of 100 citizens from every rung of society, was one of the first democratic institutions in post-Roman Europe). This tendency has continued to the present day, with Catalonia typically voting for the left; and the region remains one of the wealthiest in the country. Castille (comprising the Western, inland half of the country), on the other hand, has a history of centralized rule and militarism; and many parts of Castille, then and now, are poor and agricultural.

This tension was dealt with, originally, by preserving the liberal institutions of Aragón—not only in Catalonia, but throughout the kingdom. (J.H. Elliot’s book, Imperial Spain, covers this subject and more with admirable clarity.) But Catalonians have a habit of backing the wrong horse when wars break out. This happened in the War of Spanish Succession (1701 – 1714), when the death of the last Hapsburg ruler, Charles II, without an heir (he was the feeble product of inbreeding) led to a fight for the Spanish crown. Full of anti-French sentiment due to the French occupation of Barcelona after the Franco-Spanish War (1635 – 1659), the Catalans rallied against the French Bourbon candidate to the throne. Unluckily for them, it was this candidate who eventually won the war and became Philip V.

Philip V was the grandson of Louis XIV of France—that famed “sun king” who brought about so much political centralization north of the Pyrenees. Philip V emulated his grandfather in this centralization, eliminating the Catalan institutions with his Nueva Planta decrees and replacing them with those of Castile. (He emulated his grandfather in another way, building his own version of Versailles in La Granja.) These decrees made Castilian Spanish the official language, thus limiting the use of Catalan. Clearly the new king had little scruples in curtailing the freedom of a people who had opposed his ascension to the throne. The same dynamic played out, three hundred years later, when Franco conquered Catalonia, forbade the use of Catalan, and eliminated the Generalitat (the name for Catalonia’s government).

In spite of this political oppression, Catalonia continued to be an economic powerhouse during Franco’s rule. As a result huge numbers of Spaniards from poorer regions, notably Andalucia and Estremadura, moved to Catalonia. This adds a touch of irony to the recent independence struggles, since many present-day Catalans are “first-generation,” so to speak, being descended from Spaniards.

Since the transition to democracy after Franco’s death, Catalonia has gained much of its previous autonomy. Now the Catalans have their own police force (Mossos d’Esquadra), their own parliament and president (in the aforementioned Generalitat), and control of their own educational system. The Catalan language is presently (along with Castilian, Basque, and Gallego) enshrined as one of the four national languages of Spain. It is the primary language of instruction in Catalan schools—a fact that bothers many Spaniards I’ve spoken to—and a major object of ethnic pride in the region (and thus not to be confused with Castilian Spanish!). This fact notwithstanding, Castilian is widely spoken and almost universally understood in Catalonia.

(It should be noted that Catalan is not only spoken in Catalonia. Many also speak the language in Valencia and in the Balearic Islands; but for political reasons they are officially called different names in these places. Nevertheless it is only in Catalonia where it is the primary language of instruction and where it is exerts such a powerful cultural force.)

Catalan is a Romance language with obvious similarities to its neighboring Romance languages, Castilian and French. But none of these are mutually intelligible. Knowing Spanish, in other words, will not allow you to fluently understand spoken Catalan. Both the pronunciation and the vocabulary of Catalan are strikingly different from Spanish; and consequently many Catalans speak Castilian with a marked accent. To get a taste for this difference, compare the Catalan beginning of the Lord’s Prayer (“Pare nostra, que esteu en el cel; sigui santificat el vostre nom; vingui a nosaltres el vostre Regne…”) with the Spanish version (“Padre nuestro que estás en el cielo, santificado sea tu nombre, venga a nosotros tu Reino…”). With about ten million speakers—four million of them native, and many of them passionate—and a strong literary tradition, Catalan is in no danger of disappearing.

Languages, by their nature, are relatively closed systems; the difference in grammar and accent between neighboring languages prevent them from freely mixing, though individual words travel easily enough. (Languages are also more easily controlled by official bodies bent on keeping them “pure.”) But nothing prevents cultures from being so mixed. Thus while traveling from Valencia or Aragón into Catalonia there is not any especially noticeable cultural differences. It is not anything like, say, going from Spain to Portugal or to France; which makes me scratch my head when I see Catalonia described in English media as having “its own culture.” In my experience the cultural difference between, say, Madrid and Granada is far more striking than that between Madrid and Barcelona. To give just one example, typical Spanish foods, such as tortilla and paella, have made their way into Catalonia; and typical Catalan foods, such as butifarra, fuet, and toast with tomato, have become staples in Spain.

More generally, in terms of eating habits, dressing habits, and basic lifestyle I fail to see much of a difference between Catalonia and the rest of Spain. But some difference is certainly perceived within Spain and Catalonia. The stereotype in Spain, as far as I can make out, is that Catalans are more hardworking, stingy, and reserved than other Spaniards. I have not spent nearly enough time in Catalonia to give the Catalan side of the story.

More tangibly, Catalonia has several distinctive customs. Their most famous dance is the sardana, a bouncing circular style, accompanied by traditional oboes. More impressive, for me, is the tradition of Castell, which is the art of making giant human pyramids. I have unfortunately never seen it in person, but the pictures make it look incredible. (Click the links for videos.) Also worthy of note is the Catalan tradition on the Diada de Sant Jordi (Saint George’s Day, April 23), in which boys give girls a rose, and girls give boys a book.


I cannot write this post in good conscience without discussing the Catalan independence movement. Nevertheless I hesitate to, considering how divisive this issue is within Spain. Trump’s presidency is scarcely less controversial and absorbs hardly more media attention than the Catalan crisis does here.

Open displays of patriotism in Spain are quite rare, largely because of the nasty odor left by Franco’s nationalist regime. But in the wake of the Catalan referendum of October 1, 2017—which was not authorized by the Spanish government and which eventually led Catalonia’s president, Carles Puigdemont, to declare independence—Spaniards started putting up flags on balconies and windows all over Madrid. Puigdemont’s declaration also provoked more decisive action from the Spanish government: article 155 of the Spanish constitution was triggered, which dismissed the Catalan government and led to direct rule from Madrid, until new elections were held in December. Puigdemont, meanwhile, fled into exile in Belgium.

But why was Puigdemont led into such precipitate action? Well, the roots of Catalan separatism extend far into the past. As we have seen, there were important institutional and cultural differences between Castile and Aragón; and these persisted long after their unification. We have also seen that the Spanish government has several times abolished Catalonia’s institutions and banned its language. But I do not think any reasonable visitor to Barcelona today would conclude that the Catalans are oppressed; indeed, they have regained their historic autonomy.

One persistent feature in Catalan separatism is a concern with taxes. Catalonia contributes more to the national government in taxes than it receives back in services. Catalans see this as a form of theft, and this is hardly a new complaint. As Gerald Brenan said in his 1943 book on the Spanish Civil War:

“We in Catalonia must sweat and toil so that ten thousand drones in the Madrid Government offices may live,” the Catalans would say. And they would go on to point out that, although their population was only one-eighth of that of Spain, they paid one-quarter of the State taxes and that only one-tenth of the total budget came back to their province. These were much the same complaints that their ancestors had expressed in 1640.

The Catalans may feel, in other words, that the lazy Spanish are stealing their hard-earned money; while the Spanish think that the Catalans are greedy and selfish. In any case, provided that the taxes contributed by Catalonia are not used for frivolous purposes, but are redistributed to the poorer regions of Spain, this tax deficit seems perfectly normal to me. All over the world rich regions pay more than they receive in services, in order to bolster up the poorer regions. Thus I have trouble seeing why this issue has been so bothersome to the Catalans. Further, I have difficulty believing something as dry as a tax deficit could be the true emotional driving factor in the independence movement.

Perhaps looking for a special cause is misguided, anyhow. For, as Gerald Brenan also pointed out: “The Catalan question is, to begin with, merely one rather special instance of the general problem of Spanish regionalism.” In the 1980s and 90s Spain had another separatism crisis: the Basque terrorist organization, ETA, which killed hundreds of people in their quest to achieve Basque independence. And regionalism is a major feature of Spanish culture more broadly. The English traveler Richard Ford perceived this as far back as the 1840s; and Spain’s leading philosopher, José Ortega y Gasset, wrote a book about this very problem in 1922.

Nevertheless, it is true that Catalans have been especially proud of their independence. As evidence of this, Robert Hughes cites the medieval Catalan oath of allegiance to the Spanish crown:

We, who are as good as you, swear to you, who are not better than us, to accept you as our king and sovereign, provided you observe all our liberties and laws; but if not, not.

It seems clear to me, especially after reading a collection of pro-independence writers, What’s Up with Catalonia?, that many Catalans want independence for its own sake—not for anything to do with taxes. Well, whatever the reason, the percentage of the population in favor of independence has been hovering somewhere around 50% in recent years. The pro-independence coalition which brought Puigdemont to power had a narrow majority; and though control of Parliament was retained after the most recent elections, their percentage of the votes fell to 47.5%.

In a time when Spain is relatively peaceful and Catalonia has a considerable amount of autonomy, why are millions of Catalans in favor of seceding from Spain? Separatism has a long history in Catalonia, but serious efforts for separatism only flare up once in a while. Why this should be so is an extremely complex question, of course; but I am inclined to agree with Joseph Stiglitz in blaming the European debt crisis.

The crisis of 2009 hit Spain hard, with economic contraction and unemployment comparable to the Great Depression; and it took a long time to even begin to recover from the shock. True, the situation has been improving recently, albeit slowly; but I think Tocqueville’s maxim applies here: “the most critical moment for bad governments is the one which witnesses their first steps towards reform.”  In other words, when things are at their worst, as in a crisis, people are unlikely to try to change the political order; yet when the crisis abates somewhat, the memory of suffering lingers on and the disaffected regain the time and resources to point fingers. The economic suffering of the debt crisis is why, I think, so many Catalans have focused their energy on the tax imbalance.

While the Catalan independence movement can be seen more broadly as but one manifestation of regionalism within Spain, it is also but one manifestation of separatism in Europe. In a continent full of ethnic groups notoriously unable to get along, this is no surprise. The wealthy north of Italy might be the closest case to Catalonia, with the industrious inhabitants of Veneto and Lombardy resenting their support for the poorer south—though Scotland, Northern Ireland, Bavaria, and Flanders are also afflicted by this tendency.

It is difficult for me to envision how this separatism would play out. Should every ethnic group get its own polity? And if so, what qualifies as an ethnic group? These centrifugal forces, if successful, could divide Europe into a checkerboard of nations. Yet if Europe is to be competitive in the coming years, poised between the United States and China, it needs more integration, not less. Only as a continent working together will Europe have the clout to greatly influence world affairs. And I sincerely hope it does, considering how attractive the European way of life has proven.

But enough of these dreary political matters. Let us take a look inside this region, beginning with its capital city.

Review: Why Buddhism is True

Review: Why Buddhism is True

Why Buddhism is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and EnlightenmentWhy Buddhism is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment by Robert Wright

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A far more accurate title for this book would be Why Mindfulness Meditation is Good. For as Wright—who does not consider himself a Buddhist—admits, he is not really here to talk about any form of traditional Buddhism. He does not even present a strictly “orthodox” view of any secular, Western variety of Buddhism. Instead, this is a rather selective interpretation of some Buddhist doctrines in the light of evolutionary psychology.

Wright’s essential message is that the evolutionary process that shaped the human brain did not adequately program us for life in the modern world; and that mindfulness meditation can help to correct this bad programming.

The first of these claims is fairly uncontroversial. To give an obvious example, our love of salt, beneficial when sodium was hard to come by in natural products, has become maladaptive in the modern world where salt is cheap and plentiful. Our emotions, too, can misfire nowadays. Caring deeply that people have a high opinion of you makes sense when you are, say, living in a small village full of people you know and interact with daily; but it makes little sense when you are surrounded by strangers on a bus.

This mismatch between our emotional setup and the newly complex social world is one reason for rampant stress and anxiety. Something like a job interview—trying to impress a perfect stranger to earn a livelihood—simply didn’t exist for our ancestors. This can also explain of tribalism, which Wright sees as the most pressing danger of the modern world. It makes evolutionary sense to care deeply for oneself and one’s kin, with some close friends thrown in; and those who fall outside of this circle should, following evolutionary logic, be treated with suspicion—which explains why humans are so prone to dividing themselves into mutually antagonistic groups.

But how can mindfulness meditation help? Most obviously, it is a practice designed to give us some distance from our emotions. This is done by separating the feeling from its narrative. In daily life, for example, anger is never experienced “purely”; we always get angry about something; and the thought of this event is a huge component of its experience. But the meditator does her best to focus on the feeling itself, to examine its manifestation in her body and brain, while letting go of the corresponding narrative. Stripped of the provoking incident, the feeling itself ceases to be provocative; and the anger may even disappear completely.

Explained in this way, mindfulness meditation is the mirror image of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT). In CBT the anger is attacked from the opposite side: by focusing on the narrative and subjecting it to logical criticism. In my experience, at least, the things one tells oneself while angry rarely stand up to cool analysis. And when one ceases to believe in the thought, the feeling disappears. The efficacy of both mindfulness meditation and CBT, then, is based on the interdependence of feeling and thought. If separated—either by focusing on the feeling during meditation, or the thought through analysis—the emotion disappears.

This, in a nutshell, is how mindfulness meditation can be therapeutic. But Wright wants to make a far more grandiose claim: that mindfulness meditation can reveal truths about the nature of mind, the world, and morality.

One of the central ideas of Buddhism is that of “emptiness”: that the enlightened meditator sees the world as empty of essential form. The first time I encountered this idea in a Buddhist text it made no sense to me; but Wright gives it an intriguing interpretation. Our brain, designed to survive, naturally assigns value to things in our environment based on how useful or harmful they are to us. These evaluations are, according to Wright’s theory, experienced as emotional reactions. I have quite warm and fuzzy feelings about my laptop, for example; and even the communal computers where I work evoke in me a comforting sense of familiarity and utility.

These emotions, which are sometimes very tiny indeed, are what give experiential reality a sense of essence. The emotions, in other words, help us to quickly identify and use objects: I don’t have to think too much about the computers, for example, since the micro-emotion brings its instrumental qualities quickly to my attention. The advantages of this are obvious to anyone in a hurry. Likewise, this emotional registering is equally advantageous in avoiding danger, since taking time to ponder a rattlesnake isn’t advisable.

But the downside is that we can look at the world quite narrowly, ignoring the sensuous qualities of objects in favor of an instrumental view. Visual art actively works against this tendency, I think, by creating images that thwart our normal registering system, thus prompting us into a sensuous examination of the work. Good paintings make us into children again, exploring the world without worrying about making use of things. Mindfulness meditation is supposed to engender this same attitude, not just with regards to a painting, but to everything. Stripped of these identifying emotional reactions, the world might indeed seem “empty”—empty of distinctions, though full of rich sensation.

With objects, it is hard to see why this state of emptiness would be very desirable. (Also it should be said that this idea of micro-emotions serving as registers of essential distinctions is Wright’s interpretation of the psychological data, and is rather speculative.) But with regards to humans, this mindset might have its advantages. Instead of attributing essential qualities of good and bad to somebody we might see that their behavior can vary quite a bit depending on circumstances, and this can make us less judgmental and more forgiving.

Wright also has a go at the traditional Buddhist idea that the self is a delusion. According to what we know about the brain, he says, there is no executive seat of consciousness. He cites the famous split-brain experiments, and others like it, to argue that consciousness is not the powerful decision-maker we once assumed, but is more like a publicity agent: making our actions seem more cogent to others.

This is necessary because, underneath the apparent unity of conscious experience, there are several domain-specific “modules”—such as for sexual jealousy, romantic wooing, and so on—that fight amongst themselves in the brain for power and attention. Each module governs our behavior in different ways; and environmental stimuli determine which module is in control. Our consciousness gives a sense of continuity and coherence to this shifting control, which makes us look better in the eyes of our peers—or that’s how the theory goes, which Wright says is well-supported.

In any case, the upshot of this theory still would not be that the self doesn’t exist; only that the self is more fragmented and less executive than we once supposed. Unfortunately, the book steeply declines in quality in the last few chapters—where Wright tackles the most mystical propositions of Buddhism—when the final stage of the no-self argument is given. This leads him into the following speculations:

If our thoughts are generated by a variety of modules, which use emotion to get our attention; and if we can learn to dissociate ourselves from these emotions and see the world as “empty”; if, in short, we can reach a certain level of detachment from our thoughts and emotions: then, perhaps, we can see sensations arising in our body as equivalent to sensations arising from without. And maybe, too, this state of detachment will allow us to experience other people’s emotions as equivalent to our own, like how we feel pain from seeing a loved one in pain. In this case, can we not be said to have seen the true oneness of reality and the corresponding unreality of personal identity?

These lofty considerations aside, when I am struck by a car they better not take the driver to the emergency room; and when Robert Wright gets a book deal he would be upset if they gave me the money. My point is that this experience of oneness in no way undermines the reality of distinct personal identity, without which we could hardly go a day. And this state of perfect detachment is arguably, contra Wright, a far less realistic way of seeing things, since being genuinely unconcerned as to whom a pain belonged, for example, would make us unable to help. (Also in this way, contra Wight, it would make us obviously less moral.)

More generally, I think Wright is wrong in insisting that meditation can help us to experience reality more “truly.” Admittedly, I know from experience that meditation can be a great aid to introspection and can allow us to deal with our emotions more effectively. But the notion that a meditative experience can allow us to see a metaphysical truth—the unreality of self or the oneness of the cosmos—I reject completely. An essentially private experience cannot confirm or deny anything, as Wright himself says earlier on.

I also reject Wright’s claim that meditation can help us to see moral reality more clearly. By this he means that the detachment engendered by meditation can allow us to see every person as equally valuable rather than selfishly considering one’s own desires more important.

Now, I do not doubt that meditation can make people calmer and even nicer. But detachment does not lead logically to any moral clarity. Detachment is just that—detachment, which means unconcern; and morality is impossible without concern. Indeed, it seems to me that an enlightened person would be even less likely to improve the world, since they can accept any situation with perfect equanimity. Granted, if everyone were perfectly enlightened there would be no reason to improve anything—but I believe the expression about hell freezing over applies here.

Aside from the intellectual weakness of these later chapters, full as they are of vague hand-waving, the book has other flaws. I often got the sense that Wright was presenting the psychological evidence very selectively, emphasizing the studies and theories that accorded with his interpretations of Buddhism, without taking nearly enough time to give the contrasting views. On the other hand, he interprets the Buddhist doctrines quite freely—so in the end, when he says that modern science is confirming Buddhism, I wonder what is confirming what, exactly. The writing, while quite clear, was too hokey and jokey for me.

Last, I found his framing of meditation as a way to save humanity from destructive tribalism as both naïve and misguided. In brief, I think that we ought to try to create a society in which the selfish interests of the greatest number of people are aligned. Selfish attachment, while potentially narrow, need not be if these selves are in enmeshed in mutually beneficial relationships; and some amount of attachment, with its concomitant dissatisfactions, seems necessary for people to exert great effort in improving their station and thus changing our world.

Encouraging people to become selflessly detached, on the other hand, besides being unrealistic, also strikes me as generally undesirable. For all the suffering caused by attachment—of which I am well aware—I am not convinced that life is better without it. As Orwell said: “Many people genuinely do not wish to be saints, and it is probable that some who achieve or aspire to sainthood have never felt much temptation to be human beings.”

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Quotes & Commentary #62: Santayana

Quotes & Commentary #62: Santayana

Matters of religion should never be matters of controversy. We neither argue with a lover about his taste, nor condemn him, if we are just, for knowing so human a passion.

—George Santayana

This quote sums up the apparent futility of argument—not only about religion, but about so many things that arouse strong feeling. I have never seen, or even heard of, a discussion about religion or politics that ended with one of the participants being convinced. If anything, conversations about these topics seem only to entrench the opposing parties in their positions.

This occurrence appears common and universal; and yet its implications strike at one of the pillars of western thought—that rational arguments can be used to reach the truth and to convince others—as well as of liberal democracy, which rests on the ideal that, to paraphrase John Milton, truth emerges victorious from open encounters with untruth. If debate is really futile in matters religious (which involves our ultimate views of life and the universe) and politics (which involves our stance on society), then are we doomed to endless tribal bickering based on nothing more than group mentality?

I strongly wish that this wasn’t the case; but I admit that, judging on my actions in daily life, I have little faith in the power of reason in these matters. I tend to avoid topics like religion and politics, even among friends. Powerful emotions underpin these aspects of life; values and identity are implicated; and individual psychology—background, traumas, inadequacies—may render the action far removed from cold calculation.

To a large extent, admittedly, rationality has only a subsidiary role in decision-making. Hume was quite right, I believe, to call reason a “slave of the passions.” We are never motivated by reason alone; indeed I don’t even know what that would look like. We are motivated, instead, by desires, which are organic facts. In themselves, desires are neither rational nor irrational. Rationality only applies, first, when we are figuring our how to satisfy these desires; and, second, when multiple, conflicting desires are at play.

The desires to be skinny and to eat three pints of ice cream a day, for example, conflict with one another, and reasoning is needed to achieve a harmony between these two. A reasoner may realize that, however, delicious ice cream may be, the desire to be skinny is consonant with the strong desire to be healthy and live long, so the ice cream is reduced. Both internally, within our psyches, and externally, within society, reason is how we achieve the most satisfying balance of competing desires.

Since reason rests on a fundamentally non-rational bases—namely, desires—it may be the case that reason has no appeal. In politics, for example, somebody may crave equality, and another person freedom; and no argument could move or undermine these desires, since neither is rational in the first place. Different political orientations are rooted in different value systems; and values are nothing but orientations of desires.

But I think it is often the case that competing value systems have many points in common. Grave inequality can, for instance, curtail freedom; and enforced inequality can do the same. For either party, then, a satisfactory society cannot have absolute inequality, absolute equality, absolute freedom, or absolute slavery. These different values are therefore not totally at odds, but are merely different emphases of the same basic desires, different ways to harmonize competing pulls. And in cases like these, rational argument can help to achieve a compromise.

What about religion? Here the case seems somewhat different from politics, since religion is not just a question of values but involves a view of reality.

Admittedly, political ideologies also involve a certain view of reality. Each ideology comes with its own historical narrative. Sometimes these narratives are nothing but a tissue of lies, as with the Nazis; and even the most respectable political narrative may make some dubious assumptions. Nevertheless, the validity of political opinions is not purely a matter of the truth of their historical narrative. Somebody may genuinely desire communism even if everything they assert about the Soviet Union is wrong; and if debunking their history makes us doubtful of the possibility of satisfying their desire, it does not invalidate the desire itself.

With religion, to repeat, the case is somewhat different, since religions assert some set of facts about the universe; and without this set of facts, the religion falls to pieces. All of Marx’s theories of history may be wrong, but you can still rationally want a communist society. But a Christianity without a belief in a divine Jesus has lost its core. It is no longer a religion. In this way religion is decidedly not like falling in love, contrary to Santayana, since love, being pure desire, makes no assertion about the world.

This seems to put religions on a different footing, since they rest not only on desires, but beliefs. And if these beliefs prove incorrect or irrational, then the religion ceases to make sense. From my readings in history, science, philosophy, and theology, it seems quite clear to me that this is the case: that insofar as religious notions can be disproved, they have been; and insofar as they are unprovable, they are irrational to believe.

Indeed, I think with enough time I could explain this quite clearly to a believer. But I have never tried, since I am almost positive it wouldn’t work—that their religious beliefs would be impervious to argument. I also admit that the thought of doing so, of trying to talk someone out of a religion, makes me feel uneasy. It seems impolite and invasive to try to exert so much pressure on somebody’s fundamental beliefs. And even if I were successful, I believe I would feel somewhat guilty, like I had just told a child that Santa wasn’t real.

But is this uneasiness justified? If religions are truly irrational, based on a mistaken picture of the world, then they can give rise to unjustifiable actions. The religiously inspired fight against gay marriage, climate change, and abortion are excellent examples of this. Furthermore, if people habitually accept an irrational picture of the world, basing beliefs on religious authority rather than reasoned arguments, then perhaps they will be more easily manipulated by unscrupulous leaders.

On the other hand, living in a liberal society requires tolerance of others’ beliefs, rational or otherwise. And living in a polite society requires that we respect even when we do not agree. So it seems that a balance must be struck between arguing against an irrational belief and keeping considerate silence.

Review: The Dehumanization of Art

Review: The Dehumanization of Art

La deshumanización del arte y otros ensayos de estéticaLa deshumanización del arte y otros ensayos de estética by José Ortega y Gasset

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In my judgment, the characteristic feature of new art “from the sociological point of view” is that it divides the public into two categories: those that understand it, and those that don’t.

The more I read of José Ortega y Gasset, the more I discover that he was one of the most complete intellectuals of the previous century. During his prolific career he made contributions to political theory, to philosophy, to literary criticism, and now I see to art criticism.

In the title essay of this collection, Ortega sets out to explain and defend the “new art.” He was writing at the high point of modernism, when the artists of the Generation of ’27 in Spain—a cadre that included Dalí, Buñuel, and Lorca—were embarking on new stylistic experiments. Somewhat older and rather conservative by temper, Ortega shows a surprising (to me) affinity for the new art. He sees cubism and surrealism as inevitable products of art history, and thinks it imperative to attempt to understand the young artists.

One reason why Ortega is attracted to this art is precisely because of its inaccessibility. An elitist to the bone, he firmly believed that humankind could be neatly divided into two sorts, the masses and the innovatives, and had nothing but scorn for the former. Thus new art’s intentional difficulty is, for Ortega, a way of pushing back against the artistic tyranny of the vulgar crowd. This shift was made, says Ortega, as a reaction against the trend of the preceding century, when art became more and more accessible.

The titular “dehumanization” consists of the new art’s content becoming increasingly remote from human life. The art of the nineteenth century was, on the whole, confessional and sympathetic, relying on its audience’s ability to identify with characters or the artist himself. But the new art is not based on fellow-feeling. It is an art for artists, and appeals only to our pure aesthetic sense.

As usual, Ortega is bursting with intriguing ideas that are not fully developed. He notes the new art’s use of irony, oneiric symbolism, its rejection of transcendence, its insistence on artistic purity, and its heavy use of metaphor. But he does not delve deeply into any of these topics, and he does not carefully investigate any particular work or movement. Ortega’s mind is like a simmering ember that sheds sparks but never properly ignites. He has a seemingly limitless store of pithy observations and intriguing theories, but never builds these into a complete system. He is like a child on a beach, picking up rocks, examining them, and then moving on. He wasn’t one for sand castles.

One reason for this is that he normally wrote in a short format—essays, articles, and speeches—and only later wove these into books. It is a journalistic philosophy, assembled on the fly. Personally I find this manner of philosophizing intriguing and valuable. His books are short, punchy, and rich; and even if I am seldom convinced by his views, I also never put down one of his books without a store of ideas to ponder. He is even worth reading just for his style; like Bertrand Russell in English, Ortega manages to combine clarity, sophistication, and personality. I look forward to the next book.

View all my reviews

Flight to Mallorca

Flight to Mallorca

“Wake me up when it’s time to go,” GF said. “And don’t bother me until then.”

She bundled up her jacket and her scarf, and laid down on the plastic airport seats to sleep. I was sitting nearby, reading my kindle. It was very early. Horribly early. We had a flight at 8:30; our boarding call was at 8:00, but we had already gotten through security by 6:20. We had a lot of time to kill.

Our destination was Mallorca. We weren’t going because either of us particularly wanted to go. Indeed, neither of us knew anything at all about Mallorca beforehand. We had booked the flights because they were cheap on Ryanair: €15 each way. With airfare that low, you’re crazy not to go, wherever it is. But the catch was that both flights, there and back, were so early in the morning that it was impossible to get to the airport with public transportation. Think about this next time you book a flight.

The long, early-morning hours between our arrival and our flight passed slowly and uneventfully, except for the loud, angry outburst of a passenger who was told that he bag was too big to carry-on, and he would have to pay to check it. Ryanair’s flight are cheap; but their fines and extra charges can be murderous.

Finally it was time for us to board. The plane was of medium size, big enough for 100 passengers. As befitting a budget airline, everything was bare and functional. The seats were plain rubber. There was no pouch on the seatbacks, there was no monitor to play a safety video, no nothing. But when you’re paying €15 a flight you can’t complain.

The plain taxied and took off right on time. Lucky for me, I had a window seat. It was a clear and sunny day, and the view of Madrid was incredible.


The last time I had seen this view, I was arriving here for the first time. I remember getting off the plane, feeling lost and confused. “What are we doing here?” we said to each other as we walked through the airport, jet-lagged and overwhelmed. Everything was so foreign then, so absolutely new and frightening

Now, far from foreign, the city and the landscape felt comfortingly familiar. It is amazing how fast we get used to things. Only a few months had sufficed to transform a mysterious place into a second home.

I could not get enough of the view. From the air, you get a real sense of how empty most of Spain is. The cities are all crowded together, leaving miles and miles of countryside totally empty, except for a few roads. This is partly why Spain is so picturesque: for a modern, industrialized country, it has retained much of its rural charm.

Another source of Spain’s natural beauty are its mountains. In minutes the plane was passing over the Madrid Sierra. This was the first time in my life that I was able to look down on the snow-covered peaks of a whole mountain range. I’d only ever seen such a thing in movies. I tried to read my book—James Michener’s excellent travelogue of Spain, Iberiabut the view kept pulling me back. I spent nearly the ride glued to the glass.

The flight would have been worth the money only for this experience, had not the constant crackling of the intercom been added to the mix. I suppose Ryanair has to make money somehow. They do it by barraging you with advertisements, for food, perfume, and lottery tickets, clumsily delivered from a script through the low-quality intercom system. The stewards on these flights are not stewards at all, but salespeople. Not five minutes passed without another sales pitch, in Spanish and mediocre English. I tried to block it out, but it was very distracting. Just when I began to feel very annoyed, however, we left the mainland and were flying over the sparkling aquamarine Mediterranean. A few minutes later we had landed in Palma de Mallorca.

Mallorca (or Majorca, in English) is the largest of the four main Balearic Islands, along with Menorca, Ibiza, and Formentera. Its name comes from Latin, meaning “larger island” (Menorca is the smaller one). With a population of 401,270, Palma is both the largest city on the islands and the capital of the whole autonomous region. As its Latin name suggests, these islands were long ago the stomping ground of Romans; and the city of Palma owes its origin to that ancient civilization.

By a lucky coincidence our Airbnb host’s wife was arriving at the airport at almost the same time as us, so he offered to give us a ride back to the apartment. We only had to wait half an hour. We walked through the sleek, commercial airport—one of the biggest in Spain—to sit on the benches in the sun outside.

As we passed through, I noticed that many of the signs were in another language, not Spanish and not French. This was Mallorquín, which is not really its own language but a dialect of Catalan. Or to be more politically correct, Catalan, Valenciana, and Mallorquín are all dialects of one another.

Languages have a political dimension here in Europe that is hard for an American to appreciate. By the time I was born, most of the native languages of North America had been ruthlessly marginalized or crushed. But in Europe the languages stretch back centuries and they are symbols of identity. The results of this are a lot of squabbles about what constitutes a proper language or only a dialect, with serious implications for the cultural autonomy of the area in question. Thus people from Valencia call their language Valenciana, people from Catalonia call it Catalan, and people from Mallorca call it Mallorquín, even though they differe only by few words and an accent.

Another advertisement caught my attention. It said something like: “There are lots of cold Norwegians looking to buy a home. Sell with us!” This was a service specifically geared to helping native Spaniards sell their property to Scandinavians. This is another distinct thing about Mallorca: it is like the Florida of Europe. Legions of northern Europeans—Germans and Brits, mainly—sick of their cold climates, move down here once they get old, in order to soak up some sun in their sunset years.

Palma de Mallorca is simply crawling with Germans—in the airport, on the streets, on the train, in the restaurants. (Germans have a joke that Mallorca is the seventeenth state of Germany. “We should just annex it,” one German said to me. “Well, actually it’s kind of a good deal for us. Spain pays for the infrastructure, and we get to live there.”)

Soon we had dropped off our bags and were out on the street. As is our habit, we wanted to see the cathedral first, but we took a detour to walk along the seaside to get there.

It was a marvelously sunny day. The great ocean was a shimmering pool of light. A solitary sailboat swayed in the distance; and if I squinted the scene could have been a painting by Sorolla. A bike path ran along the sidewalk, and every so often a couple of German cyclists would go by—all with white hair—chatting amongst themselves. I could well understand why the Germans moved here.

We picked an excellent angle from which to approach the cathedral. This one of the classic views of Mallorca. As you walk in from the shore you pass through the Parc de la Mar, a lovely park with large pools of crystalline water and fountains spraying aquamarine jets into the air. The sandy-shaded surface of the cathedral seems to rise out of the water, more like a tropical cliff than a medieval church.


An audioguide was included in our visit to the cathedral, and it was one of the best I’ve used. It had a big screen so that it could display a photo of your next destination. This removes some of the confusion of other audioguides.

The cathedral itself is known, or so I’m told, as the “Cathedral of Light” and the “Cathedral of Space.” These appellations are well-deserved. Unusually, there are rose windows on both sides of the building; and the bigger of these is the largest gothic rose window in the world (13 meters in diameter, and thus about 100 square meters in area). The result is a lot of light.

The cathedral is also voluminous. Among the tallest gothic cathedrals ever built (with the eighth tallest nave in the world, at 44 meters), it stands taller than the massive Cathedral of Seville, and contains 160,000 cubic meters within its walls. And because the cathedral has no central choir (Antoni Gaudí decided to remove it while he was working on the cathedral), the interior feels far more expansive than most gothic cathedrals.


Gaudí was also responsible for the baldachin, which bears the stamp of his originality. A heptagonal ring hangs from the ceiling; on top are wheat and grape plants (I don’t know how they were made), symbolizing the body and blood of Christ. Gaudí may have been planning something more elaborate, but he quit midway through the project (an embarassing fact that I believe the audioguide neglected to mention).

To the right of the main altar is a really daring piece of modern art done by Miquel Barceló. It is a giant clay sculpture that wraps around a semi-circular space. On the surface, molded into the clay, are representations of Jesus, the fish, the loaves, skulls, and other episodes from the Gospels. The style is both gruesome and abstract. It is hard for me to imagine anyone praying at a chapel like this, since the tone is so dark and brooding and the style so idiosyncratic. But judged on its own merits I thought it was an excellent work, if a bit excessive.

Our next stop was far off: the Bellver Castle (in Mallorquín, the Castell de Bellver). The castle sitting on a big hill overlooking the whole city, about a mile from the center. In this respect the castle is like the Gibralfaro Castle in Málaga.


After some mucking about (a friendly British resident of the island helped us out), we arrived in the park that led up to the castle. We were faced with stairs. Lots of stairs. We took it slow, not wanting to tire ourselves out—we are two unfit Americans, you understand—but even so, we had to stop and rest. Every time we turned a corner we were faced with yet another stairwell.

The Bellver Castle was built in the 14th century by James II of Mallorca. It is one of the few circular castles in Europe. Seen from above, the castle looks like four concentric circles: the outer wall, the moat, the inner wall, and the central courtyard. Apparently, the castle successfully withstood two sieges, in 1343 and 1391, but was captured in 1521.

When we arrived the place was swarming with people. There is a road that leads straight up the hill to the castle, which allows travel companies to dump busload after busload of tourists into the castle for guided tours. Nearly all of them were Spaniards over 50, which I found interesting. Where were all the Germans and Brits?

The castle itself was lovely—though, like all defensive structures, it was not especially beautiful. If it were only us two, I don’t think it would have taken more than half an hour to explore everything. But every time we wanted to ascend a stairwell, turn a corner, or enter a room, we inevitably had to wait for a parade of tourists to shuffle out, single-file, their coats hanging from their arms, brochures gripped in their hands, chatting happily amongst themselves.

The castle has two floors and a roof. Every room in the place opens up on the central, circular courtyard. These rooms are crammed with artifacts in display cases. This is the Museum of the City of Palma. Unfortunately, all of the information was written in Mallorquín, so I couldn’t understand anything. I’m sure it was interesting; many of the artifacts looked quite old, indeed ancient.

The best part of the visit was the view from the roof. From here you can see the whole city stretched out before you, and then the ocean beyond; and behind, you can see the green mountains of Tramontana. There is nothing like standing on a castle on a hill, looking out for miles on the surroundings. If you’re imaginative enough, and my imagination is typically overactive, you can easily feel like a king.


We left and found a bus to the city center. By now, we were pooped. After eating in a surprisingly good Chinese restaurant, we went back to the apartment and went to sleep.


We only had one thing planned for the following day: the Ferrocarril de Sóller, or the Sóller Railway. This is an old train line that runs between Palma, the capital of Mallorca, and Sóller, a small tourist town on the other side of the island.

The train between the two places is not only a mode of transportation, but an attraction in itself. The history of the railway goes back to 1911 and the original wooden train cars are still in use. Not only that, but the hour-long ride allows you to see some of Mallorca’s natural beauty.

We got a quick breakfast and walked to the station. Once there we found out that round-trip tickets are €21 and that you have to pay in cash. There was also an option to buy a combined ticket, for €30, that included a round-trip ride on the tram to the port. But we were trying to be as cheap as possible, so we only bought the train tickets. As you will see, this was a big mistake.

Soon  we were on board and the old thing was creaking into motion. The train moved at a leisurely pace out of the city. The tracks underneath made that satisfying double clacking as we slowly accelerated.

We passed buildings covered in graffiti, overgrown fields and broken-down factories. We went under an overpass, the tracks running parallel to a highway. Cars zipped by, going much faster then we were, and two bicyclists in bright colors traveled alongside us. Then we passed a gas station and turned right into a field of olive trees.

Now the ride became really scenic. We were out of the city and away from the roads, surrounded on all sides by green countryside. The squat, twisted forms of olive trees, arranged into neat rows, filled a flat valley. Nearby were the farm houses, with their roofs of red tile. Beyond, the mountains, stony and jagged.

We went through a tunnel, the clack-clacking of the train echoing into a frightful jumble of noise. On other other side we saw a huge valley surrounded by mountains. In the middle of this valley was a little town, its white buildings and tile roofs shinning in the sunlight, its church spire looking tiny in the gaping space. This was Sóller.


By the time we arrived we were ravenous, so we found a place to eat in the main square. The menu was in four languages, English, German, French, and Spanish. It was a sunny day, so we sat outside, which also gave us the chance to enjoy the town. Sóller is quite a pretty place, though most people seem to pass through on their way to the port.

This is what the famous tram is for. The tram is one of the only first-generation trams in Spain still in use. Like the train, it is an cute, old, wooden thing that crawls along at the pace of a leisurely bike-ride. We watched it go by as we ate, and it was so picturesque that both of us regretted not buying tram tickets.


But when we paid for lunch, I asked the man at the bar if it was possible to walk to the coast, and he said yes, it isn’t a bad walk at all. We decided to try. We only had two hours until the last train from Sóller would go back to Palma, and according to our phones the walk to the port was one hour. This meant we would have to turn around as soon as we got there. But we didn’t have anything else to do, so what the heck?

Soon we were outside Sóller walking along a highway. Though it was February, the hot Mediterranean sun made it warm enough for t-shirts. Behind us we could see the craggy cliffs of Mallorca forming giant a semicircle around us. To our right and left were fields of lemon and orange trees. Every color was intensified in the intense sunlight.

We walked and walked, and I felt good to be using my legs on such a lovely day. And just as I began to forget about where we were going or how far we had gone, we arrived.

The whole landscape opened up and revealed a bay full of bright blue water. It was a natural port: two long peninsulas enclosing a circular area of water, with only a narrow opening to the ocean. On either side of the port’s mouth stood a white lighthouse. The place was a German tourist’s dream, filled with restaurant after restaurant, each with outdoor seats that faced the water. It reminded me of Robert Hughe’s comment on Mediterranean tourism, that it has been reduced to “endless kitsch, infinitely prolonged.” Though, to be fair, it was exceedingly delightful kitsch.


With the time we had, there wasn’t anything to do except enjoy the view. We walked along the port, passing restaurant after restaurant, going nowhere in particular.

My mind wandered until I chanced to see a small white cat. It was standing right in the middle of the sidewalk. As I got closer the cat tensed its body and began to climb the railing that separated the sidewalk from the beach. I always forget what amazing acrobats cats are. With nothing but smooth, slippery metal bars to hold onto, the cat climbed to the top of the railing and balanced there like a gymnast on a balance beam. Then, it coiled its body and sprang five feet through the air to a boat that was sitting on the sand nearby. With its claws it gripped the canvas covering, steadied itself, it carefully climbed underneath into the boat. I wonder how many cats make their home this way in boats during the off season.


Shaking myself from this reverie, I checked the time. We had to go. Actually we were already late. We had to get back to Sóller as fast as possible or we would miss the last train back to Palma. Now the slog began.

We turned around and began power walking back to the town. No more enjoying the scenery, no more relaxing; just footsteps on concrete sidewalks and worried conversations about taking wrong turns. I did my best not to think about what would happen if we missed the train; but I couldn’t help it. Would we have to take a cab to Palma? How much would that cost? Would we miss our flight back the next morning?

After a distressingly long stretch of highway we made it back to the town; and from there it was only a few minutes to the train station. We made good time. We still had five minutes to spare. Tired but elated, we got onto the train and slumped into the seats. The train creaked into motion, and once again we were treated to the Mallorcan countryside.

If you take the train to Sóller, do yourself a favor and buy the tram ticket, too.

We were totally wiped out by the time we got back. We only had energy to eat dinner and sleep. Our flight was even earlier this time around: 6:20 in the morning, which meant we had to wake up at 4:00.

The next morning, disoriented, bleary, but full of nervous energy, I was once again sitting in the plastic waiting chars of our flight gate, with GF asleep nearby. Once again, I was reading Michener’s travel book about Spain; and once again, I was thinking about how great this country is. And you know something is great when it gives you warm fuzzy feelings at 5 o’clock in the morning.


Quotes & Commentary #61: Santayana

Quotes & Commentary #61: Santayana

To abolish aristocracy, in the sense of social privilege and sanctified authority, would be to cut off the source from which all culture has hitherto flowed.

—George Santayana

Though I do not share Santayana’s sanguine attitude towards the aristocracy, I think this quote does bring up a vital point: the relationship between art and its patrons.

Nowadays we take it for granted that artists make their money the way that anyone else does, by trading their services on the open market. The buying public—concert-goers, music purchasers, companies that need songs for commercials, and so on—is the ultimate art patron. But this has not historically been the case. Wealthy institutions and affluent individuals have more commonly played this role. So what does this shift from artistic feudalism to capitalism signify?

This question is far more than merely financial. For the artist, however proud and independent, cannot help but be influenced by their audience and supporters.

It is easy to deprecate the vulgarity of popular art in the age of capitalism, but I am not sure aristocracy was much better. Goya’s most profound works are not his portraits of his aristocratic confreres, however excellent these may be; and the same goes—with some extremely notable exceptions—for Velazquez’s many portraits of the royal family. There is no logical reason why an aristocracy of power and wealth should also be an aristocracy of taste.

True, hereditary aristocrats, freed from laborious duty, do have more free time to devote to artistic appreciation. Without the necessity to make their way in the world, they may decide to compete in aesthetic refinement or in sponsoring living artists. This is possible, to be sure, and has happened many times in history. But this method of patronage—private, wealthy individuals—can easily lead to self-aggrandizement; the art it fosters, by being too allied to worldly wealth and earthly power, becomes yet another form of conspicuous consumption.

Perhaps the greatest art patron in western history has been, not royals or nobles, but the church. In music and the visual arts, at least, religious patronage has led to some of the greatest accomplishments in our history: the works of Palestrina, Bach, El Greco, Michelangelo. The advantages of church patronage are clear. An institution of enormous wealth, it can recruit the best artists and all the resources they need. More than that, though also prone to self-aggrandizement, the spiritual aims of religious art free it from the worldliness of the hereditary aristocracy.

Even more important, perhaps, is the continuity of tradition fostered by religions: establishing subjects, tropes, styles, and techniques, that are refined and passed down through the ages. How could Bach have written his Mass in B Minor, or Michelangelo conceived the Sistine Chapel, if they had not been the beneficiaries of hundreds of years of religious tradition?

Granting the church its honorable place in the history of art, we may, however, still admit that religious patronage can lead to a sterile conformity. There are only so many ways, and only so many emotions, that can be portrayed in a Madonna and Child; and, in any case, the church will not prove congenial to nonreligious artists—of which history is full. The Dantes of this world may find in the church all they need; but a Rabelais can never be so satisfied. Inevitably a religious organization will overlook or squelch some aspects of the human experience.

This became clear when a new patron emerged in history, far removed from the grandeur of nobility or the magnificence of the church: namely, the mercantile middle-class. The prime example of this are the paintings of the Dutch Golden Age. All patrons, to an extent, like to see themselves represented in what they patronize; thus the newly powerful Dutch capitalists gravitated towards private portraits and intimate scenes of daily life.

The artistic advantages of this shift in patronage are obvious, opening up unexplored vistas for artists to explore. Neither an aristocrat nor a clergyman, for example, would think of buying a work like Vermeer’s The Milkmaid—a work that has nothing to do with aristocratic virtues or spiritual consolations. Of course there is a downside to this, since the qualities that help merchants succeed have nothing to do with artistic appreciation; and, even if guided by exquisite taste, bourgeois art pays for its wider scope with limited depth. It is an art of prose, not poetry, with a weaker tradition to guide it and quotidian values to embody.

The ideal situation may be a mixture of patronage, such as was the case with Shakespeare. Having every rung of society as his audience, from paupers to princes, he had to strive for universality—and obviously succeeded. But the bard was clearly an exceptional case. Striving to please everyone can easily turn into pleasing nobody in particular, creating something bland and unobjectionable. While the particular taste of patrons may be constraining for some artists, it may help many others to focus.

In recent years the university has become a major source of patronage, especially for musical composition. The advantage of this is clear in an age when the general public has little to no interest in art music. But the nature of the university, as an institution, can also have negative artistic repercussions. Unlike a church, guided by spiritual values, a university is above all a place of exploration; and thus academic music tends to be experimental. Experimentation is usually an artistic virtue; but when cut off from any common set of aesthetic ideals, art degenerates into intellectual exercise.

The economy of the visual arts has diverged quite radically from either literature or music. In the age of mechanical and digital reproduction, the physical uniqueness of a painting has made it an ideal collectors item. Thus paintings are once more a form of conspicuous consumptions, with wealthy patrons spending millions on single works. And unlike in former times, when the aristocrats were the only ones able to afford art, the easy access to reams of high-quality art puts pressure on them to distinguish themselves through extreme taste as well as extreme expenditure. Given that the prize can be so huge, this is an irresistible incentive to inaccessibility—the competition to appreciate the unappreciatable.

The book and music industries are, by contrast, dominated by a relatively small number of giant publishing houses and record companies. Being companies, their fundamental motivation is profit. This makes them naturally risk-averse, since it is always safer to reproduce success than to bet on something different; and this encourages a conformity to commercially successful styles and topics. Acting as gatekeepers to fame, these companies can therefore exert a standardizing influence. And for obvious reasons these companies favor simple, popular styles in order to maximize their clientele.

But does an artist even need a patron? What about the Dickinsons, the van Goghs, and the Kafkas of the world, toiling away, unknown and unsuccessful, in some remote corner? It is true that many great artists never managed to make a living off their art during their lifetimes, relying on extraneous work or their families for support. And this arrangement does have the key advantage of allowing the artist to pursue her individual vision, without having to adapt her work to any foreign tastes, preserving her originality whole and entire.

Yet even this blessing is not unmixed. For patronage, if it subjects artists to sometimes undesirable pressure, can also give artists the direction and external challenge they need. Not every artist is self-sufficient enough to work in silent obscurity, following the bent of their own genius. The structure imposed by patronage can turn a vague or self-involved aesthetic impulse into a focused piece.

It may seem sordid to think of art in these monetary terms; but, as I hope I have shown, this is not a purely aesthetic question. Part of what gives any age is characteristic art is the way that artists make their living. The internet is now opening new possibilities for artistic entrepreneurs. The ultimate aesthetic effects of this new medium are only just beginning to appear.

Escape to Valencia

Escape to Valencia

Our long delicious winter vacation was coming to a close, but we still had one weekend left. Originally, we planned to stay home and relax; but traveling so much had gotten us addicted. After returning from Ávila, we hastily arranged and booked a trip to Valencia to savor the last gasp of our holiday.

Valencia is the third largest city in Spain after Madrid and Barcelona. It is situated on the Eastern coast of the Iberian Peninsula (a three hour drive from Madrid); and its port has long been, and remains, one of the busiest on the Mediterranean. The city has a deep history; Romans have been mucking around here since well before Christ. The city, as well as the surrounding province, even has its variant of the Catalan language: Valenciano. This language is not just spoken by the people, but it’s officially used; streets are called carrer and not calle here, which confused as we tried to look up the address of our Airbnb.

Our Blablacar driver was a native of that city, and spoke with their characteristic accent. Our fellow passenger was a gato, literally a “cat,” which is the slang term for people whose parents are both from Madrid. This is a lot less common than you might think; most people, if they didn’t themselves move into the city, have at least one parent who did.

Both of them were swell fellows. I tried keeping up with their conversation, but a question I asked inadvertently led them into a deep, energetic political discussion. This was just after the election in Spain, and obviously both of them had a lot to say on the subject. It’s interesting to me how much Spaniards enjoy talking about politics, even among people they hardly know. Americans usually avoid political discussions at all cost, even (or perhaps especially) among family. But these two guys, who had just met, seemed to be having a very deep conversation on the subject.

I wish I understood them. The political situation now in Spain (this was back in early 2016) strikes me as similar in certain respects to that in the States. Particularly, there seems to be a widespread dissatisfaction with the establishment, and this dissatisfaction expressed itself in the formation of two new parties, Podemos and Ciudadanos—something that is unsual for Spain, which has been a two-state country since the establishment of democracy. In the States, this anti-establishment ethos is expressing itself as new candidates rather than new parties, which I think is a consequence of our political system, but I believe the dissatisfaction is the same.


We got to Valencia at around dinner time (for Americans), checked in to our Airbnb—with another welcoming host and another comfortable apartment—and went out to eat. Although we’d only been in the car for three hours, it was about thirty degrees (Fahrenheit) warmer here. We went from winter jackets, scarves, and hats to light sweaters. It was even warm enough to eat outside, underneath a fruit tree laden with the famous Valencian oranges. Partially because of its mountainous terrain, Spain is a land of striking climatic contrasts. Still, it’s hard for me to get used to it. All these climatic zones seem jammed next to one another. In the States, we keep our hot and cold zones far apart.


We woke up the next day ready to experience Valencia. As per our usual routine, we visited the cathedral first. But on the walk there, we couldn’t help noticing the graffiti on the walls. Much of it was the usual stuff, but some of it was really excellent. There were abstract pictures of colored squares, detailed images of batman, and several grotesqueries I can’t adequately describe. Most interesting, though, was the image of a ninja that was painted all over the city, on walls, parking machines, in entrances to stores. I couldn’t help thinking that this ninja had some mysterious significance, that it had been drawn by some shadowy organization as a sign, or perhaps as a clue—but to what?


But perhaps the conspiratorial part of my brain was overactive from seeing the spray-painted slogans of anarchists all over the city. “No king, No God, No Owner. Revolution,” they said, under the symbol of anarchy: an “A” inscribed in a circle.

We got to the cathedral. I have to admit that my memories of this cathedral are pretty hazy; after a while, all cathedrals start blending into one another. The façade was the most pretty and distinctive part. At one entrance, the door is connected to a round wall with three levels; it looks like a section from a Roman amphitheater was just stuck on the side.


Outside the cathedral, in the surrounding plaza, high school boys were skateboarding, a fact that GF found particularly amusing.

“Can you imagine just skateboarding in front of something like this?” she said. “Europe is crazy, man.”

We went inside. Skipping the descriptions of the usual beautiful stuff—the altar, the stained glass windows, and so on—I’ll only mention that the Valencia Cathedral holds the best candidate for the true Holy Grail. Of course, there are many other chalices in Europe which are claimed to be this blessed object, but the opinion of most Christian thinkers and historians is apparently that this one in Valencia is most likely to be the real deal. It’s displayed in one of the cathedral’s chapels, somewhat external to the main area.

I sat in a pew for some minutes looking at it, without having any idea what it was supposed to be. All I saw was a shining gold object, nothing more. It was only after we left and GF looked up the cathedral on her phone that we found out. As often happens, admission came with audioguides; but lately, to practice Spanish, we have been asking for these to be set in Castellano. A consequence of this is that the majority of the time we have no idea what we’re looking at.

Next was the Torre de Serranos, an old fortified gate at the north end of town. Valencia used to be completely surrounded by walls (as were most major cities), but now only a few gates remain. What surprised me most was its height. Compared to the gates of Ávila, this one was absolutely massive. The visit was quick: Pay the fee, climb some stairs, and enjoy the view of Valencia. Perhaps since we’d just visited the castle walls in Ávila a few days before, standing on this tower wasn’t especially engaging. But the view is certainly nice. Valencia, like Madrid, is an interesting mixture of modernity and history. For the most part, it looks like any city in the twenty-first century, with concrete and glass buildings, except for the odd medieval tower popping up here and there.


We descended. It was lunch time now, and we knew what we had to eat: Valencian paella. That most famous of Spanish dishes, paella, originated in this city. Paella is often made with seafood—prawns and oysters and so forth—but, as I was informed by my Valencian Spanish teacher, “paella” with seafood is not true paella at all. To be traditional, it has to made with chicken, rabbit, and vegetables. So that’s what we would eat.

(The Spanish can be very finicky with their food; indeed, they are more puritanical than the Inquisition when it comes to paella. Thus the British chef, Jamie Oliver, got into trouble when he posted a photo of paella he made with chorizo. For whatever reason, this is blasphemous in Spain, and Oliver is dragged over the coals by Spaniards on social media. Ironically, however, according to this article, historically chorizo was used in paella. Personally I like it that way.)

Lucky for us, we usually get hungry for lunch a whole hour before most Spaniards, so we had no trouble getting a seat at a good restaurant. In fact, we were the only two people sitting outside. (As our Airbnb host explained to us, the Valencians have a different view of hot and cold; what was a beautiful day for us was a bit chilly for them.) The food was prompt, the waiter friendly, and the paella delicious.


Stomachs full, we went back towards the Torre de Serranos, and then to the Jardines del Real. The name (Royal Gardens) comes from the royal palace of the erstwhile kings of Valencia that used to occupy the area. The palace was demolished in 1810 during the Napoleonic wars in order to prevent the French from occupying it—a move that had no military justification whatsoever, and was partly motivated by bourgeois resentment of kingly privilege.

But I didn’t know that at the time. All I remembered from my conversation with our Airbnb host was that he said the word “palacio” when he recommended it, which led me to believe that there was still a palace to visit.

“Where’s this damn palace?” I said to GF.

“What palace?”

“I thought there was supposed to be a palace here.”


We went from one end of the gardens to the other.

“Maybe it’s outside the gardens?” I said. “Think it’s that thing?” I pointed to a tall building.

“Could be.”

We walked over to the building and looked up. It was a bank.

“Where is it?”

“Just forget it,” GF said. “Let’s go back to the gardens.”

At least the gardens were lovely. Most memorable was a big bird cage in the center, filled with a dozen or so different species of bird, including one lonely rooster. I thought it curious that all the birds congregated in their own corner with their own species.

We sat in a bench for a few minutes to enjoy the Valencian sun. The weather was perfect, though I was having some trouble appreciating it owing to my bitterness from failing to find that damned palace.

Next we went to the Museo de Bellas Artes, also recommended by our Airbnb host. In turn, I’d like to recommend this museum to you, for it was excellent. It’s free to enter; and the collection, though small, is tasteful and impressive. The art is arranged chronologically, with the oldest works near the entrance on the first floor and the most recent by the exit on the second. I enjoyed the older paintings the most. There’ is something about Medieval art, a certain simple tenderness, almost naïveté, that I find especially moving. No attempt is made at realism. The often disproportionate figures, with heads and bodies turned at unnatural angles, stand in an flat space with a gold background.


What’s more, the scenes depicted are often bizarre. One typical example is a portrait of Luke the Evangelist seated before the Virgin, writing his Gospel. The only reason you can tell it’s Luke (the faces are hardly individualized) is because there is a little, tiny bull, the symbol of Luke, pointing with his hoof at the page; the bull even has a halo. Apparently, to the Medieval mind this was not at all strange.

Upstairs there was some masterful Renaissance paintings, including one by El Greco and Velazquez. The difference between the gothic and the Renaissance era paintings is stark. Faces are individualized, bodies are solid, shadow is used to create a sense of space, and perspective transforms the two-dimensional flatland into a three-dimensional world. Medieval paintings are symbols, whereas these are representations. What happened to the European mind to create this huge shift?

We had seen nearly everything in an hour or so, and decided to leave. On our walk out, I noticed a painting of Jesus pouring blood out of the wound into a golden bowl, from which two lambs were drinking. Now, I’ve seen morbid Catholic art before, but this gives me goosebumps.

By the time we walked outside, the sun was setting. We decided that we’d walk down the Jardín del Turia. This is a long park that runs through the center of Valencia. It sits built in a riverbed of the river Turia. Like many major cities, such as Zaragoza and Seville, Valencia grew up along the banks of a river. But unlike those cities, Valencia’s river no longer exists. It was diverted from its course after it flooded in 1957, causing major damage to Valencia. Now the riverbed is home to a park, and quite a pretty one.

It winds its riverine way through town, below street-level, filled with trees, gardens, and ponds. Bridges transport cars and pedestrians overhead. The park was beautiful, but quite long—or at least we thought so, having by now been walking all day. We walked and walked, our feet sore, hoping to get to the end of the park so we could see the sunset on the beach. But we didn’t have enough time, or else underestimated the distance, and the sun had almost totally set before we reached the end.

This didn’t matter so much, for the park was nice enough. Garden after garden went by; palm trees swayed gently above. Pedestrians crowded the sidewalk; kids were skateboarding; adults were bicycling. Eventually we walked through a gate and into a gigantic playground. It must be the biggest playground I’ve ever seen. Instead of a jungle-gym, swings, a slide, or any of that, there was a massive plastic statue of Gulliver, tied down to the ground by the Lilliputians. His body was the playground; kids slid down his stomach, climbed up his cheeks, jumped on his belly button.


There’s something almost sacred about playgrounds. It’s a space that the community devotes purely to enjoyment. Kids from all backgrounds, rich and poor, natives or immigrants, are equal (or nearly so) in this plastic wonderland. They are happy just to run around and feel their legs, to shout and hear their voice. Only the severest misanthrope could remain cold at the sight.

Now it was dark; the day was over. Completely exhausted by now, we walked back to our apartment, had dinner at a burger place, and slept. We still had another half-day in Valencia.



Our first and only stop for Sunday was the Oceanographic, the largest aquarium in Europe. (TripAdvisor ranks it as the fourth best aquarium in the world; the best is in Lisbon.) It sits at the end of the Jardín del Turia, one of the buildings in the Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias, the City of Arts and Sciences, a collection of museums, galleries, and other high-minded institutions.


This complex is one of the biggest tourist attractions in Valencia, and for good reason. Here, the Spaniards’ flair for modern architecture is on full display. Every building is given a futuristic design, looking like sea shells, tulip bulbs, shark fins, and other shapes too difficult to describe. The buildings are sleek and shiny, covered in reflective glass and girded with bands of metal. There is a planetarium, a science museum, a theater, and of course the oceanographic—which was designed to have the layout of a water lily.

The only bad part of our visit was paying the entrance fee, which was surprisingly steep. I suppose it costs a lot to maintain all these animals. It hurt to fork over the money, but in retrospect it was well worth it.

Our tickets came with a dolphin show; and the next one was starting almost immediately. We headed to the dolphin theater and found seats, high up so we didn’t get splashed. The show began, and immediately became very cheesy. Dance music started playing, and the announcer’s tone and manner were so exaggerated it felt like a WWE commercial.


The show began. It was exactly what I expected. Dolphins flipped, jumped, did backflips, swam backwards, and then towed around their trainers in the water like little speed boats. Simply for their physical ability, dolphins are impressive animals. Imagine how much force it takes to accelerate a dolphin fast enough to shoot straight out of the water to snatch a fish dangling from a fifteen foot ladder. Their whole body must be one giant muscle.

Two things bothered me as I watched the show. First, I had just re-watched the movie version of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, a pretty mediocre adaptation, but which does start with a musical version of “So Long, and Thanks for all the Fish,” and now I couldn’t get it out of my head. Then, I remembered this quote from the book:

For instance, on the planet earth, man had always assumed that he was more intelligent than dolphins because he had achieved so much—the wheel, New York, wars, and so on—whilst all the dolphins had ever done was to muck about in the water having a good time. But conversely, the dolphins had always believed they were far more intelligent than man—for precisely the same reasons.

Second, I kept thinking that there was something morally questionable about the whole affair. As evinced by the show, dolphins are smart—very smart. Consider this: A dolphin can watch a human spin around on land, and then translate that movement to its own quite different body in the water. Monkey see, monkey do is not a sign of stupidity, but of intelligence. Imitation is a sophisticated cognitive task. And dolphins are not only smart, but highly social; like dogs and humans, they live in groups with their own hierarchies.

What’s the morality of keeping a creature like this in an aquarium? Do they get bored swimming around their pools? Do they get listless and depressed being isolated from the ocean? Does the loud music and the applause of the show bother them? I don’t know. The strongest argument I know in favor of keeping intelligent mammals in zoos is utilitarian: Yes, maybe they’re less happy here, but they’re safe; and besides, the publicity and good-feeling generated from zoos and aquariums makes people more likely to donate to charities and to set up nature reserves. So maybe the benefits outweigh the drawbacks. And perhaps the dolphins enjoy the exercise of performing and the bonds with their trainers? Still, I couldn’t shake the feeling that this show was questionable.

This led me to a deeper question: What is intelligence, anyway? How do you define it? Is it a measure of the complexity of tasks the brain can perform? Yet spider webs are enormously complex, yet we don’t think of spiders as intelligent. A spider does not need to be a chemical genius to synthesize silk. Perhaps intelligence is the ability to learn? This seems like a better definition. Humans, the smartest of animals (we think), are also the most adaptable; we can learn to make new technology, and then use this technology to live in new environments. Chimps can learn to use tools and even to use sign language; dolphins can be trained to perform like this.

The show ended, and we left to see the rest. The aquarium is divided into ten sections, each one a different natural habitat. Here are some of the highlights

One of the tanks was for the seals. They are lovely creatures, so dog-like that you can imagine keeping one in your backyard pool. As I looked at the seals, though, the same pang of unease shot through me as when I saw the dolphin show. They must be bored swimming around that cage all day and all night long. And having people point and gawk can’t be pleasant. Case in point, a little girl next to me began throwing a yellow toy—one of those minions from that Pixar movie—up and down, and a curious seal on the other side of the glass began following it. The seal even tried to snap at the toy, like it was a fish; though of course his teeth just bounced off the glass. The kid’s parents thought this was cute and neat, and I admit it was kind of cute. But it also seemed a bit cruel, adding insult to injury.

Of course, there were lots of fish. I like looking at fish, but not especially. Have you ever looked into the eyes of a fish? Nothing seems to look back at you. The same goes for birds, for the most part. In one section, under a big netted area which I believe was the wetland habitat, were lots of birds standing about. They were very pretty; but if I spend too much time looking at one I get unsettled. I try imagining what’s going on in their brain, and get nothing.

Also in abundance were lots of strange sea creatures. There were sea horses, those surreal beauties that look like fantasy intruding upon reality. Jellyfish also give me this impression, floating in their tank like plastic wrap, lit up like neon signs against the black background. How bizarre is it that something like this—something I can literally see through—can be alive?


In one cage were two spider crabs. I could hardly believe my eyes, they were so big. And according to the audioguide, they weren’t even fully grown. The two crabs leisurely made their way across the bottom, their thin, spindly legs—perhaps three feet long—supporting their armored body. Their shell must be tough; it seems such a slow-moving, easily visible animal would make easy prey. Less mobile animals also occupied the tanks, star fish and anemones. I find anemones particularly fascinating, since they as immobile as plants but are just as animal as you and me.


More impressive than the individual tanks were the tunnels. The Valencia Oceanographic boasts not one but two display tunnels, through which visitors can walk, surrounded on all sides by ocean creatures. The first tunnel was the more modest, consisting mostly of fish. There was, however, a beautiful bright green monstrous eel, swimming about in one corner. It opened and closed its mouth repeatedly, giving me a close up glimpse of its impressive row of teeth. The audioguide explained that the eel did this to breath better, not as a threat; but I still felt intimidated.

The second tunnel was many times more impressive. This was the deep ocean. It was filled with sharks of all kinds, with long, saw-like snouts, with flattened bodies, and of course the classical, recognizable form, an aquatic death machine swimming above your head. I don’t know anything about sharks except that they are terrifying and strangely beautiful. Also present were sting rays, looking angelic as they glided through the water, flapping their wings.

This brings me to a question: Why don’t the sharks in these tanks eat the fish? Why don’t the big fish eat the little ones? Are aquarium keepers just good at grouping animals in the right way? Or do they keep them well-fed, thus suppressing their instinct to hunt? There must be some art or science to it, since I’ve not once seen a shark even attempt a nibble. And I find this impressive, because if I was a big, mean shark floating around a tank all day with a slow, juicy fish, eventually my self-control would fail me.

As great as this shark-tunnel was, the most impressive section of the aquarium was the arctic region. It was there I saw the first living walrus I’ve ever seen—two of them. For such fat, fleshy creatures, they’re astonishingly graceful in the water, like mustachioed ballerinas. Even more astonishing were the belugas. These white whales are midway in size between dolphins and orcas—which means they’re quite large, dwarfing even the walruses. They’re cute, too, seeming to have a constantly inquisitive smile on their faces.

The chubbiness of both animals, walrus and beluga, is visible evidence of the harsh, freezing environment they’ve adapted to. It boggles my mind that these two huge creatures, which doubtless require enormous amounts of food to survive, have managed to arise in such an apparently barren environment. Natural selection works wonders.

Now, we were done. We had a Blablacar to catch. We ate some overpriced food from one of the aquarium cafes, and scrammed.

I can’t end this post without a description of our ride back to Madrid. We traveled with three others—the driver and two of his friends. All of them were Spaniards. The driver spoke excellent English. He had learned English from serving in Eurocorps, where he used English to communicate with his fellow soldiers from Poland. As a consequence, he spoke with an absurd and hilarious Polish accent, even using Eastern European mannerisms.

“Yes, yes, you speak English, very good!” he yelled back at us, as we spoke with one of his friends. “You make friends! A’right!”

This friend of his, who sat in the back with us for the ride, was a professional bodybuilder. The poor guy had to constantly be on a special diet, which I think gave him a food obsession. He couldn’t stop talking about how he wanted to go to Chicago to try the deep dish pizza.

“Oh my God!” he said, showing us a picture of the pizza on his phone. “Can you believe this? We have to go!”

“Oh, you like pizza?”

“Like pizza? I love it!”

“Have you ever been to New York?”

“Yes, it was magical. And there I had the best pizza of my life. It was from Dominoes. Amazing!”

The poor man.

Now our vacation really was over. Next morning, we would have to drag ourselves back to work, after not working for three whole weeks. It was an awful shock. But in the meantime, we had visited nine fantastic Spanish cities. I’ve never had a better break.

Review: Ghosts of Spain

Review: Ghosts of Spain

Ghosts of Spain: Travels Through Spain and Its Silent PastGhosts of Spain: Travels Through Spain and Its Silent Past by Giles Tremlett

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It is still a mystery to me how so many Spaniards can function on so little sleep.

Late one night in Madrid, as my friend and I finished eating our dinner on Spanish time—which means we get home around midnight—we were walking back to our apartment when it suddenly began to rain. First, it sprinkled; then, it drizzled; and soon it was pouring. Without an umbrella (here amusingly named paraguas, “for water”) we were forced to take cover in a bar.

As we stood there, looking out at the rain washing down the tiled streets, I heard somebody behind me say, in accented English, “It’s finally raining in Madrid.” I turned around and saw that it was the Spanish waitress, looking pensively out at the rain. Beside her was a bald patron, with the same thoughtful look on his face. “Oh, Madri’,” he said, in a thick Scottish accent. “It’s a beau’i’ful ci’y. Jus’ beau’i’ful.”

To me, this moment summarized my reaction to this city so far. It’s lovely here in Madrid. I had never planned on moving to Spain; I wasn’t even particularly interested in visiting Spain on vacation. It was a mixture of chance and opportunity that prompted me to pick up and fly over here; and consequently, I had no idea what to expect. The most pleasant surprise, for me, is how easy it has been for a New Yorker to feel at home here. Madrid has many of the positive qualities one finds in New York City: bustle, inclusiveness, diversity, variety, nightlife. Added to this, Madrid is safer, cleaner, cheaper, and, most conspicuously, much more relaxed.

The besuited man (or woman) walking quickly down the street holding a disposable cup of coffee is an omnipresent figure on the streets of NYC. Meals are quick there; people swallow their food and keep moving, often simply eating on the go. The $1 pizza, which you can get by throwing a dollar at the cashier, who then throws you the slice in return so you can eat it without breaking your stride, is perhaps the quintessential New York meal. You can do anything in NYC—anything except slow down.

In this respect, Madrid is quite the opposite. Rarely do you see people running for the trains, for the busses, elbowing their way through crowds. Virtually nobody eats while walking; and disposable coffee cups are a rarity, as coffee is normally drunk sitting down. When Madrileños eat, they like to take their time. They sit and chat, for perhaps hours, sipping their drinks and occasionally snacking on tapas and raciones. Here, the waiters don’t bother you; they serve you your food and disappear. Often, I have to chase them inside in order to get the check; but this is probably because I am an impatient American.

As a consequence of this generally relaxed attitude, I’ve found adapting to life here to be extremely pleasant (despite my ignorance of the language, which is a constant impediment). And I’m glad that, to help me through my own transición, I have Giles Tremlett as a guide, a British journalist who has been living in Madrid for decades.

This book is about the historical imagination in modern Spain. Through thirteen chapters, Tremlett examines some of the political fault-lines that run through the country. He begins with an examination of Franco’s regime and its aftermath. There is, apparently, no safe way to talk about the past in Spain—not even something which, to me, should be as uncontroversial as Franco’s fascism. But different political parties propose competing interpretations of the past, which of course reflect their different interpretations of the present. Hard as it is to believe, but the horrible bombings of commuter trains on March 11, 2004, were also the occasion of political squabbling, as the right-wingers insisted that ETA (the Basque terrorist group) had something to do with it.

To tell the story of modern Spain, Tremlett takes the reader across the country: from Madrid, to Bilbao, to Barcelona, to Galicia, and even to Spanish jails and slums. He examines flamenco, Basque and Catalan separatism, Spanish art and cinema, political corruption, gender relations, prostitution, tourism, and much more, as he attempts to pin down the quickly changing country. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given his background, his method is journalistic. He focuses on the sorts of things that would make the news; and his writing-style bears the hallmarks of his profession—impersonal rather than personal, intended to convey information rather than emotion or analysis.

Like every book, this one isn’t perfect. Although Tremlett packs an impressive amount of information into the book, his analyses are often superficial, or just nonexistent. He has the journalistic habit of letting others do his thinking for him, merely reporting their opinions. Thus, while informative, I didn’t find Tremlett to be a penetrating guide. What’s more, though I generally found his writing quite strong, I sometimes felt that his style, which he obviously honed while writing shorter pieces for newspapers and magazines, did not have enough forward impetus to carry me through a whole chapter. In a longer format such as a book, more organization, more interconnection, more integration is needed than Tremlett is accustomed to; and thus his chapters sometimes seem scatterbrained, disconnected—too much like a list of facts and quotes.

(I’d also like to note, in passing, that Tremlett’s comma-use is the exact opposite of mine, which I found continually irksome. He typically omits commas where I would include them, and includes commas where I would omit them. For example, he writes “He or, normally, she is joined…” whereas I would write “He, or normally she, is joined…” Admittedly, this is surpassingly trivial.)

These are fairly minor complaints, however. Really, all things considered, it is hard for this anglosajón to imagine a better book to read as an introduction to this fantastic country. I still have a great deal to learn—not least Castellano—but at least now I have had a grand tour of the place. And perhaps one of these days, as I wander back from another late dinner, I’ll bump into Tremlett himself, and gratefully shake his hand.

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