Letters from Spain #10: A Very Spanish Christmas

Letters from Spain #10: A Very Spanish Christmas

Here is the next installment of my podcast about life in Spain. This one, about Christmas, is the final one for 2019. I hope you enjoy it!

https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/letters-from-spain-10-a-very-spanish-christmas/id1469809686?i=1000460225839

For the transcript, see below:


Hello.

It’s the most wonderful time of year here in Spain: Christmas. And the Spanish love Christmas, just as much as we Americans do. In fact, as I mentioned in another podcast, since there aren’t any major holidays in November, the Christmas season in Spain starts very early. Now we are in full Christmas swing, as can be seen by taking a short walk through any Spanish city. On the first of December the lights, decorations, and trees go up.

Now, Spain does not have such a strong tradition of festive house decoration as we have in the United States. This is largely because, as I’ve said before, the private houses in Spain are not open to the street, but instead normally have tall walls wrapping around the property (so there’s not much to decorate). But the Spanish do love their Christmas lights. People, old and young, flock to the center of Madrid to enjoy the street decorations. It gets so crowded in the city center that you can hardly walk. This year there is a new star attraction: a massive illuminated globe that stands at the end of Gran Vía. Once in a while the ball plays Christmas songs on big speakers, and all the Spaniards within eyesight pull out their phones to record the bright singing ball. Yeah, it’s charming.

A Christmas tradition that may be a bit surprising for Americans is the Christmas Lottery, called El Gordo (the fat one). Everyone buys a ticket, and you can buy them everywhere. In my case, I bought a ticket through the school where I work, and this is fairly common for employees. You can also buy tickets at cafés or restaurants or other types of shops, or at specific lottery stands. There is one particular shop near the Puerta de Sol, right in the center of Madrid, which has somehow become famous for being especially lucky. Thus, every year people line up for hours in order to buy a lottery ticket there (a ticket that is no different from a lottery ticket bought anyywhere else).

A big part of the lottery tradition are the commercials. They have quite a good marketing team, and every year there’s a new concept for the lottery commercial. Last year, for example, it was kind of a spoof on Groundhog Day, with a guy winning the lottery every day over and over until he got sick of it, and then somehow becoming a better person. This year, it’s a bit more sentimental, and it’s about how lottery tickets bring people together. Of course it is ridiculous to connect the idea of a lottery ticket with generosity and family, but the commercials somehow accomplish this paradox. In any case, if I win you can be sure the production values of this podcast will be going up.

Well, Spain has more wholesome Christmas traditions, too. A big part of the Christmas season is the food. There are many types of seasonal sweets. Most famous, perhaps, is turrón, which is like marzipan (which the Spanish also eat) but made with added honey. It comes in many different forms, from a barely solid paste to toothbreakingly hard bars, but in general it’s very very sweet. There are also polvorones, which are balls made with flour and sugar. They have very little water or fat in them, which makes them sort of dry and dusty to eat. (Polvo is Spanish for “powder.”)

My favorite is a type of sweet cake called Roscón de Reyes. This is a type of sweet bread that is delicious when you dip it in coffee. It reminds me a lot of something my dad makes around Christmas, which he calls Swedish Cardamom Coffee Braid. Traditionally, a small toy is baked into the cake, and if you get this piece it’s considered good luck.

Possibly the biggest difference between Spanish and American Christmas is the celebration of the Three Wise Men. In Spanish, they are called the tres reyes magos, which translated to something like the three magic kings, or perhaps the three magi kings. In Spain the day of the magic kings (January 6, which we call Epiphany in English) is almost as important as Christmas itself. And the magic kings also deliver presents! So Christmas season in Spain is long indeed, since the holidays extends from before Christmas all the way to the sixth of January, and the children get presents twice. I should also mention the Cabalgata de los Reyes, a massive parade held on January 5th, with giant floats and people dressed up as the wise kings themselves. Unfortunately for me, I’ve never seen it. Normally I’m home for Christmas break. 

Connected with the importance of the Three Wise Men is the popularity of Nativity Scenes. In Spanish these are called belén, which is the translation of Bethlehem. Nativity figurines are sold everywhere, and it’s very common for Spaniards to have little nativity scenes in their houses. In Spain there is a special twist to their nativity scenes, which comes from Catalonia. This is to include a little person defecating in the corner of the scene, called the Caganer (which is Catalan for “the pooper”). The tradition of nativity scenes is just another example of how Spain can be intensely Catholic in its culture, while at the same time divorcing Catholicism from actual religiosity. There are many people who would call themselves atheists who still have nativity scenes in their houses.

The Spanish also like to perform nativity plays, or Christmas pageants. And this brings me to something that is a source of controversy every Christmas season. As you may know, one of the three wise men, Balthasar, is traditionally portrayed as being black. As a result, every year, all around Spain, a white Spanish person—sometimes a celebritiy—will dress up in blackface to play the role of Balthasar (noy only in schools, but also during the big parade). This inevitably makes any visiting Americans extremely uncomfortable, since blackface is a deeply racist symbol in the United States. Spaniards typically react with puzzlement when told by Americans that the practice is racist, and that is normally where the matter ends.

I have never personally seen a nativity play, nor have I seen any Spanish person wearing blackface. I’m sure I would find it upsetting. But, to be honest, this is an area where I hesitate to venture an opinion. Blackface is undeniably racist in an American context, since it is connected with the tradition of minstrel shows, which were based on explicit mockery of black people and black culture. All the same, Spain does not have this history, with all its baggage, and so applying our American sensibilities to a Spanish context is probably not valid. A symbol has no inherent meaning, after all, but is given a meaning by its culture. As a comparison, consider the costumes that Spanish people wear during their Easter processions, which look to Americans like the Klu Klux Klan outfits, but which of course are completely different. 

Of course, you could make a strong argument that dressing up as someone from a different race is inherently racist. But considering the different cultural contexts, my inclination is to think that this is just something Spanish people need to work out among themselves, without Americans telling them what is right or wrong. Judging from the petitions on change.org to have a Balthasar played by a black person, the country is slowly moving in the right direction. 

Well, let’s leave these troubled waters and move on to New Year’s Eve. For the most part this is celebrated just like it is everywhere: with parties, champaign, and fireworks. But in Spain they have a special tradition. As they count down from 12 to 0, they try to eat one grape every second. That’s twelve grapes total. It’s not easy—I’ve tried. The idea is that it’s supposed to bring you good luck. (My girlfriend doesn’t like grapes, so she eats little pieces of chocolate.)

There are just a couple more differences I shall mention between the Christmas season in Spain and in the United States. I forgot to mention that, since most Spanish homes don’t have fireplaces, they hang their stockings somewhere else. Another is that, since Spain does not have big forests, virtually everyone in the country uses plastic trees. Probably this is a lot better for the environment, since they don’t need to cut down millions of trees every year, like we do in the United States. But I have to admit a real Christmas tree has a lot more romance (besides having a better smell). You are also pretty unlikely to get a beautiful snowy Christmas anywhere in Spain, unless you live up on the mountains.

As for me, I’ll be heading home. Christmas is a time to spend with family and old friends. It is also not a time for making podcasts, so this will be my last episode of 2019. It has been a good run. In a week I will be sitting in my house, wrapped in a blanket, and eating some of my mom’s delicious cooking. But I’ll be sure to bring some Spanish turrón home, too. 

Happy holidays!

Letters from Spain #6: Spanish Time and Spanish Space

Letters from Spain #6: Spanish Time and Spanish Space

Here is the sixth episode of my podcast about life in Spain:

https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/letters-from-spain-6-spanish-time-and-spanish-space/id1469809686?i=1000457406871

For the transcript, see below:


Well, this past week has been fairly unremarkable. Really, the only podcast-worthy thing that happened was yet another bad experience with Spanish banks. Basically, I went to a bank during my lunch break to try to pay some government fees for my visa. But I was turned away by no fewer than three banks. You see, it is common, not only for banks to be open during quite restricted hours (which is why I had to go during my lunch break), but also to have even more ludicrously restricted hours when they allow you to actually do things, like pay a government fee. It all reminds me of a book I am reading about useless employment.

But I cannot let myself get sucked into another rant about Spanish banks, as gratifying as it would be. Today, I want to talk about something different: the Spanish sense of time and space.

The phrase “Spanish time” is familiar to every American who lives in Spain. The idea is basically that everything is always late: people arrive late, nothing starts on time, and so on. Now, I actually think that this is an unfair stereotype. The vast majority of the people I’ve worked with have been very punctual. In fact, I catch myself being late more often than my Spanish coworkers. Obviously these things vary a lot from person to person. But I’d be willing to bet that, if some kind of study were performed, it would be found that Spaniards are, on the whole, just as likely to show up on time for an engagement as an American.

But I am not suggesting that there is no such thing as “Spanish time.” Punctuality is only a tiny aspect of a culture’s sense of time. In some ways Spain is indeed extremely anomalous. This is most notable when it comes to meal times. Spaniards eat lunch and dinner quite late, even compared to their Mediterranean counterparts. Lunch at three is not unusual, and neither is dinner at ten. In fact, many tourists are annoyed to find that they cannot even keep to their American schedules, since it is common for the kitchens in Spanish restaurants not to open until around 1:00, and to close between, say, 4:30 and 8:00. So no lunches at noon or six-o’-clock dinners in Spain.

Spanish time is strange in another respect. Though Spain occupies around the same latitude as England, it is one hour later in Spain than in England. This means that the sun rises and sets quite late in Spain. Right now, for example, the sun rises at about 8 and sets at about six. (In the west of Spain it’s obviously a bit later.) Meanwhile, the sun rises at around 6:45 in New York, and sets at around 4:30. Now, the reason for this difference dates back to the Franco era, when he apparently switched his time zone to coincide with Germany’s, apparently in a gesture of goodwill towards Hitler. England, apparently, switched its timezone to central European time, too, right before the Second World War. But after the war, England switched back, but Spain stayed.

Maybe it’s partly as a consequence of this off-kilter time zone that things tend to happen a bit later in Spain. For example, even though Spaniards have a reputation for laziness, it is common for Spanish people to work until eight o’clock at night! Even workaholic Americans would not accept such hours as normal. Granted, Spaniards do often have a significant break in the middle of the day for lunch, at least an hour. This, of course, is the famous Spanish “siesta.” Now, there’s a lot to say about the siesta. For one, sleeping in the middle of the day makes a lot of sense if you live in the south of the country, where afternoon temperatures can make any activity impossible.

But the more important point is that, for the vast majority of Spaniards, the siesta does not exist. Honestly I wish it did. If I was given time to go home and nap for a bit every day, I am sure I would feel a lot better in general. But the midday break is simply not long enough for most Spanish people to leave the office, go home, eat lunch, sleep, and then make it back to the office. I salute the lucky few who can, since I think it is a healthier and saner way to live. But the siesta is an important cultural institution nonetheless, even if it doesn’t usually involve sleeping. This is because lots of things in Spain—shops, offices, and even churches—close around lunch time. It takes a lot of getting used to, really, since this is normally the perfect time to do things.

On the subject of Spanish time, we also must mention the schedule of Spanish partying. Just as Spaniards eat lunch and dinner late, they go out late. Just the other day, I happened to be chatting with a bunch of Spaniards are they prepared to hit the town for Halloween. The clock had struck midnight before they left the apartment. As you can imagine, if they only start at midnight, they don’t stop until the wee hours of the morning. Partying all night in Spain is not only common, but the norm. I really have no idea how they do it, or why they want to. But if you want to have a good time with a group of Spanish people, make sure you don’t have anything important to do the next morning.

As you can see, Spanish time is in some ways quite different from American time. But I think that the Spanish version of space is, if anything, even more different than how we Americans think of space.

The most obvious example of this is in the realm of personal space. Americans typically want a lot more of it than Spaniards do. It is a common experience for Americans to find themselves backing away while speaking to Spaniards, since for us Americans it can feel like Spanish people get way too close. I still have trouble with it, sometimes. I just can’t get used to talking with someone when their face is only a few centimeters from mine. But, you do slowly adapt. I remember one time, when I went back to America for the summer, I was told by the person in the post office than I should back away. When you’re talking to someone behind a desk in Spain, you typically lean in.

Related to personal space is the issue of touching. In Spain it is far more acceptable to casually touch somebody. This can take a thousand forms, but it can really make Americans uncomfortable. In America, if a stranger is touching you, you are either very happy or in immediate danger. In other words, touching between strangers in America is rarely casual. For whatever reason, people in Spain have much less fear of sexual harassment—either being the victim of it, or being accused of it—which is such a huge cloud hanging over American interpersonal relations. When I first came to Spain, I thought that every man was dating every woman, since they all touched each other in ways that struck me as extremely flirtatious. But I was wrong. To pick another example, primary school teachers in Spain have no issues hugging, kissing, or pinching the cheeks of their students, while in America this is a fearful taboo. 

So personal space can be very different in Spain. But there is another difference, which I think is quite a bit more interesting. This has to do with the difference between public and private space. In Spain, I think this contrast is far more sharp than in America, and I say this for a few reasons. For one, it is very common—even the norm—in the United States to invite friends over or to be invited over. In my case, I spend the vast majority of my time with American friends in someone’s house. We go to a bar or a restaurant maybe a few times a month.

But in Spain this is a totally different story. Most friends, even good friends, meet outside the home, in a neutral space. Whenever I ask my high school kids what they did over the weekend, they always say they “went to the street,” meaning they walked around or hung out in a park, doing God knows what. Likewise, adult friends are more likely to meet in a bar or a restaurant than in someone’s living room.

Part of this is a simple preference. Compared to Americans—who are lovers of their own property—Spanish people love to be in public, surrounded by people. Again, while an American might feel overwhelmed by an intensely crowded bar, many Spaniards seem to think this is a good thing. The street, the bar, the café, the square—this is where life happens in Spain. And for this reason Spain can be such a vibrant, energetic place to be. The people aren’t in their homes, but outside, socializing in large numbers. You can even see this preference reflected if you see portions of the Spanish countryside from the air. Rather than a bunch of isolated farms scattered about, the people live all bunched together, with miles and miles of uninhabited land all around them. 

I also think, as I said, that Spanish people also have a stronger sense of the divide between public and private than Americans do. For Spanish people, the home is just not a place to have a party. That’s for a public space. To illustrate this point, I think it is enlightening to think about Spanish and American homes. My home back in NY, for example, has a front lawn entirely open to the street. Most of the front windows can be easily seen from the outside. By contrast, most of the houses I see in Spain have a wall entirely encircling the property, making it difficult to see anything going on within. To me, this has much more to do with the Spanish idea of a home as an isolated space, than any functional purpose associated with the wall. 

To sum up, for a European country, Spain presents some striking contrasts to the United States. Why these differences arose is an interesting question, but one which would take serious historical research to answer. For now, I am content with just pointing out the differences.

Thank you.

Letters from Spain #4: Spanish Banks

Letters from Spain #4: Spanish Banks

Here is episode four of my podcast on life in Spain:

https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/letters-from-spain-4-spanish-banks/id1469809686?i=1000456144590

For the transcript, see below:


This week I wanted to concentrate on what I have discovered to be one of the greatest differences between Spain and the United States: Banks. It is a telling contrast, as I hope to show. Most Americans, after opening bank accounts here, are astounded to learn how limited are the hours in which the banks remain open. My local bank back in NY, for example, is open until six o’clock Monday through Friday, and until two in the afternoon on Saturdays. A typical Spanish bank schedule is to be open until two in the afternoon Monday through Friday, and possibly later on Thursdays. Nothing on weekends.

You realize, of course, that this means there is no time that a person with a normal working schedule can visit the bank. Consequently, half the time I visit a bank, most of the clients inside are retired. This is certainly an odd situation. Normally, the limited hours of banks are not really a problem, I admit, since I just need an ATM. But there are times when it is desperately necessary. All government fees, for example, cannot be paid in the government office itself, but must be paid in a bank—don’t ask me why. So if, like me, you need to visit government offices to do the paperwork for your visa, or even if you want to sign up for language classes at the government schools, then you need to figure out when you can visit an open bank.

But the differences between Spanish and American banking cultures goes far deeper. To illustrate this difference, here are two anecdotes.

The first anecdote is about my brother. Upon arriving to Spain and opening a bank account—I won’t say the bank’s name—he transferred money from his American to his Spanish account, in order to withdraw it without fees. Something went wrong with this transfer, though, and he received three times the amount of money he had sent. You can imagine he was very happy. That is, until the bank automatically froze his account.

Now here’s another curious thing about the way banks are set up here. If you have any serious administrative issue to resolve, you can’t just go to any office of your bank. You need to go to the office where you opened your account. So my brother couldn’t go to the bank around the corner. He had to travel half an hour in the metro.

When he arrived, the interaction went something like this.

“There’s a problem with my account,” he said. “Let me see…, no, it’s fine,” the clerk said. “But it’s not working at all.” “There’s no problem with your account.” “My ATM card doesn’t work and there’s too much money in my account.” “Let me see…” At this point the bank clerk got up from his desk and accompanied my brother to the ATM outside, to see for himself that the card didn’t work. Then, after witnessing it, he went back to his chair. “Ah, I see now,” the clerk said. “Your account is frozen.” “Yes,” my brother said. “How do I fix it?” “We’ll take care of it,” the clerk said. “It will be fine in a couple of days.”

This sounds reassuring. But this exact conversation replayed itself four times before the problem could be properly addressed. My brother arrived for several weeks in a row, and each time the clerks would insist that nothing was wrong with his account. Then, they would insist that the problem would be taken care of. The solution, it turned out, was rather complicated. Somehow my brother ended up with money from a Lithuanian bank, and he had to send it back.

What was striking for us Americans was the behavior of the bank staff. How could it be that their computer system did not clearly indicate that there was a problem? Why was it so difficult to figure out how to fix it? And why were the clerks so keen on insisting that there was no problem, or that it would be taken care of very soon? 

As you contemplate these questions, let me tell you an anecdote of my own.

I know that I’ve been in Spain for quite a while, since my debit card, the one that I had gotten during my first weeks in the country, was about to expire. Foreseeing an issue, I went to my local bank a month before its expiration. Trying to avoid any delay, I requested that the card be sent to this office, which is around the corner from my house. That way it would be easy to pick up. The clerk assured me that he had put a notice into the system and it would be there before my old card stopped working. All well and good.

The month rolled around, and I got a text message saying that my new card had been sent. But there was a problem: it had been sent, not to the office near my apartment, but to the original bank where I opened my account. To add to the annoyance, the message sent to me told me the street where the bank was located (I hadn’t been there in years) but not the number. As I learned from Google, there are two of my banks on the same street.

I proceeded to call both banks. After I figured out which was the right one, I asked if they had my card. Two people looked, and told me no. So now I was lost. Was the card sent to my local office after all? The next chance I could, I went to my local office, and I asked the same man if they had my card. “No, it’ll be at the office where you opened your account,” he said. “I called,” I replied, “and it’s not there. Can they send it here?” “It’s better to just go there and get it,” he said. “Well, the problem is that I have a job,” I said, “and I don’t work anywhere near this bank.” “What do you want us to do?” the clerk said, adopting the typical Spanish strategy of throwing the guilt back on you. “You should’ve had the card sent to your apartment.” “Ok,” I said, becoming impatient. “But what should I do now?” “Find a way to go to that bank,” he said.

To emphasize, this bank office closes most days at 2 p.m., and I work until 4:30 p.m. over an horu away. The only chance I had was to go on a Thursday, when the bank closes at 6. If I went straight there from work, I could just barely make it in time. I should also mention that, despite my calling twice and having two separate people check for my card, the office really did have it. The problem was that they filed the card under A, for my middle name Andrew. In Spain people have two last names, you see (one from their father and one from their mother), and no middle names, so the bank staff confused my middle name for one of my last names.

Ok, so my card was going to expire soon. Thursday came around. I had to rush from my job to the office. I left work and walked to the train station. A train was waiting. Perfect. I got on board and began to read. But there was a problem: the train sat for a long time without moving. When it finally did begin to move, it went slowly, and spent a long time parked at each stop. What was going on? It took us fifteen minutes to go three stations, which normally takes less than five minutes. At the next stop the train stopped completely. It was packed with people desperate, like me, to get into Madrid. Nobody knew why the train was stopped, or when the next train would be. Even the security guards in the station had no idea.

Another train pulled up across from us, and then, obeying a herd mentality, everyone switched to the new train. Then the original train began to move. We switched back—hundreds of people rushing across the platform. By this point I gave up and sat down on a bench. The train was too packed to get on, anyway. As I contemplated my next move, the other train, the one without anyone on it, closed its doors and left the station. The crowd erupted in anger. A man began to shriek in a falsetto at the security guards, blaming them for telling everyone to switch trains.

Eventually the security guard began to shout back, and a hilarious screeching contest ensued. I was too amused to feel very worried. Then, without any warning, the doors of the original train—the one with people one it—closed, and the train left the station. Now, this has nothing to do with banks, but I was dumbstruck that the people driving the trains did not simply announce over their PA systems which train was going to leave. Such an absurd situation would never have occurred on the Metro North, where I live in New York. Then again, I later learned that the delay was caused by a strike, which is another thing that seldom happens in my country.

Anyways, I wait for the next train, which slowly makes its way to Madrid. By the time it arrived in Atocha, I only had about twenty minutes. I ran into a cab and told the driver to take me to the bank on X street. In the few minutes of the ride, I asked the driver about her job. She works over twelve hours a day, with hardly a break for meals. And they say Spanish people are lazy! Undoubtedly this gruelling schedule is partly a result of the new competition from other services like Uber. But that’s another story.

The cab pulled up to the bank, I paid and got out. Here at last! I marched into the bank and asked for my card. The man searched for my name in the computer. “Hmmm,” he says. “Your card isn’t here. It’s at the other bank on X street, about eight minutes away.” Of course! I had forgotten that there are two of these banks on the same street! I rushed out of the office, running like mad to the other bank. I got there about seven minutes before they close.

The only clerk at the desk was occupied with somebody. It looked like a rather complicated issue they were resolving. I began to panic. All this for nothing! Yet just when I was on the point of giving in to self-pity, a woman came walking in, talking on her phone. “Ah, sorry,” she said, seeing me. “Ok dad, I’ll call you back.” This, by the way, was another perfect little moment of Spanish culture: a bank clerk happily strolling in after going outside to chat with her dad. To add to this absurd impression, the clerk actually took a call from a friend in the middle of giving me my card. They are a social people, the Spanish.

Well, after going on for such a long, long time about the inconvenience of Spanish banking, I ought to add that I managed to lose this debit card within two weeks of this ordeal. Thus the circle of incompetence is completed. This time, I asked for my replacement card to be sent to me in the mail. It arrived in three days. The banks, as usual, have the last laugh.

Review: The Decline of the West

Review: The Decline of the West

The Decline of the WestThe Decline of the West by Oswald Spengler

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

All genuine historical work is philosophy, unless it is mere ant-industry.

Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is one of my favorite books, not only because it is written so beautifully, but because of the spectacle of decline—of a great empire slowly and inevitably crumbling. The scene is irresistibly tragic. Like a Macbeth or an Oedipus, the Empire succumbs to itself, brought down by its own efforts at self-expansion. Or perhaps the scene can be better compared to the Fall of Man in Milton’s poem, a grand cosmic undoing, followed by the heroic struggle against the inevitable.

Besides the sublime tragedy of Rome’s decline, it fascinates because it gives us a foreboding of what might happen to us. Indeed, maybe it is already? This would explain all the banality we see on television every day, all the terrible music on the radio. More than decline—a loss of political and economic power—this is decadence: a decay of taste, morals, artistic skill. Decadence seems observable in many historical instances: the Egyptians, the Babylonians, the Greeks, the Romans, the Byzantines: they all petered out, losing cultural vitality until they disappeared completely. Couldn’t the same thing be happening to us?

Oswald Spengler thought so, and he turned this thought into the basis for an entire philosophy of history. He was not a professional historian, nor an academic of any kind. He worked as a school teacher until his mother’s inheritance allowed him quit his job and to devote all of his time to scholarship. This scholarship was mustered to write an enormous book, whose publication was delayed by World War I. Probably this was very lucky for Spengler, since the pessimism and anguish caused by that war set the mood for his grand theory of cultural decline.

The Decline of the West puts forward a radically unconventional view of history. Spengler divides up world history, not into countries or epochs, but into “Cultures.” There have been only eight: the Egyptian, the Babylonian, the Meso-American, the Chinese, the Indian, the Classical (Greco-Roman), the Arabian (includes the Byzantine), and the Western (European Culture, beginning around the year 1000). Each of these Cultures he conceives as a super-organism, with its own birth, middle-age, and dotage. These Cultures all age at a similar rate, and go through analogical stages in the process (Napoleon is the Western equivalent to Alexander the Great, for example). Spengler believed that he had delineated these Cultures and traced their basic growth and aging process, thus providing a valid scheme for all future history as well, if any new Culture should arise.

Spengler is a cultural determinist and a cultural relativist. This means that he does not see these Cultures as dependent on the talent of individuals to grow; the individual is a product of the Culture and not the reverse. He also thinks that each of these Cultures creates its own self-contained world of significance, based on its own fundamental ideas. There is no such thing as inter-cultural influence, he thinks, at least not on any deep level. Each of these Cultures conceives the world so differently that they can hardly understand one another, let alone determine one another, even if one Culture can overpower another one in a contest of arms. Their art, their mathematics, their architecture, their experience of nature, their whole mental world is grounded in one specific cultural worldview.

Because Spengler is a determinist, he does not present us with a Gibbonian spectacle of a civilization succumbing to its own faults, struggling against its own decline. For Spengler, everything that happens in history is destiny. People don’t make history; history makes people. Thus, while often classed as a political conservative, it is hard to put any political label on Spengler, or to co-opt his views for any political purpose, since he didn’t think we directed our own history. To be a true Spenglerian is to believe that decline is inevitable: decadence wasn’t anyone’s “fault,” and it can’t be averted.

Much of this book consists of a contrast between what he calls the Apollonian (Greco-Roman) worldview, and the Faustian (Western) worldview. The Apollonian world-picture is based on the idea of definite form and definable shape; the nude statue is its most characteristic art, the delineated human body; its mathematics is all based on geometry, concrete shapes and visible lines. The Faustian picture, by contrast, is possessed by the idea of infinity; we make fugues, roving explorations of musical space; our mathematics is based on the idea of a function, an operation that can create an endless series of numbers. Spengler dwells on this contrast in chapter after chapter, trying to prove his point that Western Culture, far from being a development of Classical Culture, is entirely incompatible with it.

His own Culture, the Western, he traces to around the year 1000, at the commencement of the Romanesque. How or why new a Culture begins, Spengler doesn’t venture to say; but once they do begin, they follow the same definite steps. It was inevitable, he thinks, that the Romanesque transformed into the Gothic, and then eventually flourished into the Baroque, the high point of our Culture, wherein we expressed our deep longing for the infinite in Bach’s fugues and Descartes’s mathematics.

Sometime around the year 1800, the Western Culture entered its late, senescent phase, which Spengler terms ‘Civilization.’ This is the phase that follows cultural growth and flourishing; its onset begins when a Culture has exhausted its fundamental idea and explored its inherent forms. A Civilization is what remains of Culture when it has spent its creative forces: “The aim once attained—the idea, the entire content of inner possibilities, fulfilled and made externally actual—the Culture suddenly hardens, it mortifies, its blood congeals, its force breaks down, and it becomes Civilization.”

The ‘decline’ that forms the title of this book is just this transition from Culture to Civilization, wherein major creative work is at an end. Civilization is, rather, the age of Caesarism, the consolidation of political power. It is the age of world cities, major metropolises filled with cosmopolitan urban intellectuals. It is the age of academics rather than geniuses, the Alexandrine Greeks instead of the Golden-Age of Athens. It is, in other words, the period that corresponds with the onset of the Roman Empire, a period of no substantial innovation, but of magnificent stability. The Western Culture, Spengler thought, was entering just this period.

Whereas those who are actuated by a Culture during its creative period feel themselves driven by inevitable impulses, which allow even mediocre artists to create great works, people within a Civilization are creatures of the intellect, not the instinct; and instead of being given creative power and direction by their Culture, they are left to substitute their own subjective tastes and whims for cultural destiny. Instead of, for example, having one overriding epoch in our artistic productions—such as the Gothic, the Baroque, or what have you—we have artistic ‘movements’ or trends—Futurism, Dadaism, Cubism—which, far from being necessary phases in a Culture’s self-expression, are merely intellectual fads with no force behind them.

Spengler’s theory does have the considerable merit of being testable, because he made very specific predictions about what the immediate future held. We had gone through the period of ‘Warring States,’ he thought, in which country fought country and money ruled everything, and were about to enter a period of Caesarism, wherein people would lose faith in the power of self-interested capitalism and follow a charismatic leader. This would also be a period of ‘Second Religiousness,’ a period of faith rather than reason—a period of patriotism, zeal, and peaceful capitulation to the status quo.

Nowadays, one-hundred years later, it seems these predictions were certainly false. For one, he did not foresee the Second World War, but thought the period of internecine warfare was coming to a close. What is more, economic power has grown even more important—far more important than political power, in many ways—and no Caesar has arisen, despite many contenders (including Hitler, during Spengler’s lifetime, of whom Spengler didn’t think highly).

Aside from its breadth, one thing that sets this book apart is its style. Spengler is a remarkable writer. He can be poetic, describing the “flowers at eventide as, one after the other, they close in the setting sun. Strange is the feeling that then presses in upon you—a feeling of enigmatic fear in the presence of this blind dreamlike earth-bound existence.” He can be bitter, biting, and caustic, castigating the blind scholars who couldn’t see the obvious, satirizing the pseudo-sauve intellectuals who populated the cities of his time. He can be lyrical or epigrammatic, and can write ably about art, music, and mathematics.

His most characteristic mode, however, is the oracular: Spengler proclaims, predicts, pronounces. His voice, resonating through the written word, booms as if from a mountaintop. He sweeps the reader up in his swelling prose, an inundation of erudition, a flood that covers the world and brings us, like Noah in his ark, even higher than mountaintops. Perhaps a flood is the most apt metaphor, since Spengler is not only overwhelming in his rhetorical force, but all-encompassing in his world-view. He seems to have thought of everything, considered every subject, drawn his own conclusions about every fact; no detail escapes him, no conventionality remains to be overturned by his roving mind. The experience can be intoxicating as he draws you into his own perspective, with everything you thought you knew now blurry and swirling.

Spengler is so knowledgeable that, at times, he can sound like some higher power declaiming from above. But he was a man, after all, and his erudition was limited. He was most certainly an expert on music, mathematics, and the arts, and writes with keen insight in each of these subjects. But in politics, economics, religion, and especially science, he is less impressive. He completely fails to understand Darwin’s theory, for example, and he thought that physics was already complete and there would be no more great geniuses (and this, in one of the greatest epochs of physics!). He doesn’t even mention Einstein. Spengler also thought that our scientific theories were culturally determined and culturally bound; the Western conception of nature, for example, would have no validity for the Chinese (which doesn’t seem to stop the Chinese from learning Newton’s theories).

His grand theory, though undeniably fascinating, is also impossible to accept. What is the nature of a Culture? Why do they arise, why are they self-contained, why do they follow the same life-course? Why would one single idea determine every single cultural production—from mathematics to music, from architecture to physics—in a Culture from birth to death? All these seem like fundamental questions, and yet they are not satisfactorily addressed—nor do I see how they could be.

By insisting on the Culture as the unit of history, Spengler seems to be at once too narrow and too broad. Too narrow, because he does not allow for the possibility that these Cultures can influence one another; while it seems obvious to me that, yes, there was influence from the Classical to the Western, as well as from the Classical to the so-called ‘Magian’ (his term for the Arabian Culture), and from the Magian to the Western, and so on. And too broad, because within any given Culture there are not only different ages but different areas. Is the cultural difference between Spain and England ultimately superficial, but between the Renaissance and Classical Greece unbridgeable? Really, the more you think about Spengler’s claims, the less credible they seem. After all, if Spengler were right, how could he, a Western intellectual living in the Civilization phase of Western Culture, delineate the fundamental ideas of other Cultures and produce what he regarded as a major intellectual achievement?

I am certainly not saying that this book is intellectually valueless. By comparison, Walter Pater had this to say about aesthetic theories: “Many attempts have been made by writers on art and poetry to define beauty in the abstract, and express it in the most general terms, to find a universal formula for it. The value of these attempts has most often been in the suggestive and penetrating things said by the way.”

This seems equally true with regard to Spengler’s universal formula for history. Although I think his theory is untenable, this book is nevertheless filled to the brim with suggestive and penetrating observations, especially about art, architecture, music, and mathematics. Spengler may be a failed prophet, but he was an excellent critic, capable of making the most astonishing comparisons between arts of different eras and epochs.

Even if we reject Spengler’s proposed theory, we may still savor the grand vision required to see all of human history as a whole, to scan one’s eye over the past and present of humankind, in all its forms and phases, and to form conjectures as to its destiny. And Spengler was undeniably original in his inclusion of Babylonian, Egyptian, Indian, Chinese, and Meso-American Cultures as of equal importance as Western history; indeed, it is at least in part to Spengler that we owe our notion of world-history. Rich in ideas, set forth in ringing prose, invigorating in its novelty, breathtaking in its scope—here we have a true classic, yet another example of a book whose enormous originality outweighs every conventional defect we can detect in it.

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Quotes & Commentary #38: Emerson

Quotes & Commentary #38: Emerson

The good writer seems to be writing about himself, but has his eye always on that thread of the universe which runs through himself, and all things.

—Ralph Waldo Emerson

While there have been many great writers who never wrote of themselves—Shakespeare comes to mind, of whom we know very little—it is certainly true that Emerson wrote reams about his cosmic self. His greatest book is his diary, an exploration of self that rivals Montaigne’s essays in depth and eloquence.

Writing about oneself, even modestly—and Emerson was not modest—inevitably involves self-mythologization. Emerson was the Homer of himself. He looked ever inward, and in his soul he found deities more alluring than Athena and battles more violent than the Trojan War. From this tumultuous inner life he created for himself a persona, a literary character, who both incorporated and transcended Emerson the man.

Everyone does this, to a certain extent. Identity is slippery, and the self is a vanishing figment of thought. As Hume pointed out, we are really just a floating observer embroiled in bundles of sensations. Each moment we become a new person.

Our past only exists in our memory, which is just an internal rumor that we choose to believe. And our feeble sense of history, itself always in flux, is the only thing that ties together the confused mass of colors, sounds, and textures, the swirling indistinct thoughts, the shadowy images and daydreams, that make up our mental life.

Your identity, then, is more like the water flowing down a stream than anything solid. The self is a process.

This groundlessness, this ceaseless change, makes people uncomfortable. So much of our lives consists of building solid foundations for our insubstantial selves. Culture can be thought of as a response to this existential uncertainty; we constantly try to banish the ambiguity of identity by giving ourselves social roles, roles that tell us who were are in relation to everyone else, and who everyone else is in relation to us.

Each moment of the day carries its own ritual performance with its concomitant roles. In trains we become passengers, in cars we become commuters on our way to work, at work we become a job title, and at home we become a husband or wife.

The ritual of marriage, for example, is performed to impose an identity on you. But in order for this imposed identity to persist, the community must, in a million big ways and small, act out this new social role. Being married is a habit: a habit of acting, of thinking about yourself, and a habitual way of treating you that friends, family, acquaintances, and even the federal government pick up.

A common way of reinforcing one’s identity is to attach it to something apparently solid, objective, and permanent. Thus people learn to equate their self-esteem with success, love, money, with their marriage or their job title. But these strategies can backfire. Marriages fail and jobs end, leaving people feeling lost. And if you identify your worth with your fame, skill, or with the size of your wallet, you doom yourself to perpetual envy, since there will always be those above you.

People also position themselves demographically; they identify themselves with their age, nationality, ethnicity, race, or gender. These strategies have the merit of at least pointing to something substantial. I know, for example, that my behavior is influenced by the fact that I am an American; and by being cognizant this identity, I understand certain behaviors of mine.

Nevertheless this too can be taken too far, specifically when people reduce themselves to members of a group, and attribute all their behaviors to the groups to which they belong. Your demographic identity influences your behavior, by shaping the pattern of your actions and thoughts, but it does not comprise your identity, since identity can never be pinned down.

Those with strong wills and forceful personalities, like Emerson, wrestle with this problem somewhat differently: they create a personal mythology. This is a process by which they select moments from their past, and omit others, and by this selection create for themselves a story with a definite arc.

At the end of this arc is their persona, which is a kind of personal role, a character they invented themselves rather than adopted from society, formed by exaggerating certain qualities and downplaying others. This persona, unlike their actual, shifting identity, is stable and fixed; and by mentally identifying with this persona of theirs, they manage to push aside, for a time, the groundlessness of self.

I can’t help admiring these self-mythologizers, these artists of the literary self, the Emersons, Montaignes, and Nietzsches, who put themselves together through force of will. This procedure does carry with it some dangers, however, the most notable being the risk that you may outgrow or tire of your persona.

I can only speak from my own experience. Many times in my life I have acted out a sort of character in social situations, either from shyness of showing my real self, or an attempt to impress others; and although this strategy worked for a time, it ended by being highly unsatisfying.

In effect I trained those around me to respond to me in certain ways, to consider me in a certain light, and when I got tired of this character I was left with friends who didn’t know me. They knew a part of me, to be sure, since any character I can invent for myself will always have some of my qualities, but they didn’t know the full range of my traits.

Emerson was well aware of this danger, which is why he made it a point to be changeful and inconsistent. As he repeatedly said, he had no system. He considered himself an experimenter who played continually with new ideas. This itself was a sort of persona—the mercurial prophet, the spontaneous me—but it gave him the flexibility to expand and shift.

To me, there is nothing wrong with mythologizing yourself. The important thing is to recognize that your persona is not your self, and not to let a fixed conception of your own character constrain your actions. A personality is nothing but a pattern of behavior, and this pattern only exists in retrospect. You as you exist now are a bubble of awareness floating down a stream of sensation, a bubble that forms and reforms every passing moment.

Quotes & Commentary #9: H.G. Wells

Quotes & Commentary #9: H.G. Wells

Men are not born equal, they are not born free; they are born a most various multitude enmeshed in an ancient and complex social net.

The Outline of History, H.G. Wells

This is one of the most powerful quotes in H.G. Wells’s wonderful popular history book. To me it encapsulates an inescapable fact. In any complex society, however egalitarian, resources are not distributed equally. Power, money, influence, and cultural capital are usually distributed hierarchically; and having powerful parents, a rich family, or being the “right” race, sexual orientation, gender, or whatever—these things you are born into.

Karl Marx makes a similar point in this famous passage:

Man makes his own history, but he does not make it out of whole cloth: he does not make it out of conditions chosen by himself, but out of such as he finds close as hand. The tradition of all past generations weighs like an alp upon the brain of the living.

“Equality of opportunity” is a phrase we like very much in the United States. It is an ideal, and like any ideal is something we strive for but can never achieve. Yet what does it mean? People born into wealth are at an obvious advantage to people born into poverty. They have better schools, they can afford to go to elite colleges (and elite colleges often can’t afford to turn them away), and thus they are many times more likely to get high paying jobs (besides being able to inherit money). This is an obvious case of inequality.

But what could we do about it? It’s a difficult problem. Should we prevent people from bequeathing money to their children? Should we make private schools illegal? Should we make laws preventing elite universities from accepting more than a certain percentage of people from wealthy families?

Perhaps it’s better to focus on improving the opportunities of the poor rather than restricting those of the rich? We can improve the schools, legislate affirmative action for disadvantaged groups, and make higher education more affordable (and less dependent on rich donors and students for their survival). These are all good things, for sure, and to a certain extent we are already striving to accomplish them.

A work in progress is all we will ever achieve. Like everything perfect, perfect equality of opportunity is an unrealizable dream. And yet, even if the dream were realized, would we be living in a perfect society? This is a question worth asking.

Even if we managed to equalize the starting point of every child, there would still be the question of how they would be measured. The idea behind having equality of opportunity is that, if some people are more successful than others, we can consider the outcome fair. This is an ideal meritocracy, where everyone gets their just desserts.

In a perfect meritocracy—where opportunity is equal—we advance or fail to advance because we possess certain qualities. But these qualities are arbitrary. In the United States, for example, we tend to value certain types of intelligence, certain personality traits, and certain goals. In other cultures, they have other values.

Every culture arbitrarily chooses some characteristics to value and others to ignore. Yet even when you subtract all the environmental influence, we are still left with our genetic endowment: each of us is born with different abilities, propensities, and weaknesses. Is it really fair that these inborn qualities should determine our success? It seems not—especially when you consider that these native qualities are being measured against an arbitrary standard.

Because of this arbitrariness, I think any fair system needs a kind of social safety net. Even with perfect equality of opportunity—which does not exist—some people will always have more trouble succeeding than others. Providing a basic minimum standard of living is an acknowledgment of this fact.