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Friday Takeaway: Ilan Stavans on the future of Catalonia

  • Ilan Stavans. GAZETTE STAFF/KEVIN GUTTING



Wednesday, November 08, 2017

In 1922, the Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset published a book called “España Invertebrada.” In it, he argued that Spain, as a result of an irremediable game of push and pull, was fractured at the core — without vertebrae. What he meant is that Spain was less a cohesive unit than a gathering of disparate parts. To many, he became known as a pessimist.

I wouldn’t describe Ortega y Gasset as a pessimist. In my opinion, he was a realist on this issue. One might be tempted to say the same of other modern nations, including the United States, particularly in the age of Trump.

But it is about Spain that I write today. Spain is in the news, and Ortega y Gasset is on my mind. He once described his native country as “una espada cuyo puño estaba en Castilla y la punta en todas partes,” a sword whose grip was in Castile and its tip everywhere. 

Spain is showing signs of dismemberment. Catalonia, the restive region bordering France, is eager for self-determination. It is possible to trace back the dream to 1492, the year the country was symbolically born in its current incarnation. Coincidentally, four major events took place then. 

The first was the consolidation of the effort called La Reconquista, in which Arab influence was crushed in favor of a Catholic view of the world that was embraced by a centralized state. The second was the expulsion of the Jews, another minority considered to be unwelcome in the refurbished project of what Spain wanted to become.

The third event was the sailing of a Genoese admiral called Christopher Columbus in search of a new maritime route to India and the encounter with a vast expanse of land that Spain, for better or for worse, ended up colonizing. And the fourth, equally important, was the publication of the first grammar manual of the Spanish language by philologist Antonio de Nebrija. It was through the Spanish language that Spain established a global monopoly.

All these events made possible the Spain we have today, built through imposition, intolerance and exclusion. I have been there dozens of times. It always pretends to be harmonious, although deep at heart it is a fanatical, narrow-minded and uncomfortable place. The center, Madrid, in Nueva Castilla, exercises its power arrogantly, propagating an illusory sense of cohesiveness. In truth, its various autonomías look at the world differently from one another. Whenever a few of them have dared to imagine themselves through the prism of independence, they have been crushed, as happened with Catalonia after the Civil War under General Franco’s dictatorship. 

It is time to recognize Spain as an artifice. Catalonia should be allowed to decide its own future. If the European Union is truly a union, its members should become cooperative partners and not complicit bullies. 

The recent move by the Spanish government to remove Catalonia’s leaders is nearsighted. (Spain’s gravest handicap has always been its endless parade of ineffectual politicians; in this case, represented by Mariano Rajoy.) It will only exacerbate the drive toward freedom. Occupation fosters dreams of rebellion. Look at the Palestinians. Look at the Kurds. As in those and other cases, it is all about sovereignty. The Catalans want to make their own choices. Why shouldn’t they? 

I frequently encounter the syllogistic argument that, if Catalonia becomes independent, other areas in Spain will follow suit. My answer: Let them. The Basque Country in northern Spain is likely to embrace a similar spirit of liberation. This proves Ortega y Gasset’s point: In a family, ought love be forced among members?

The argument also states that if Catalonia is given its choice, Scotland, Quebec and other distinctly unique eco-systems will want the same for themselves. Again, I say, why not? Modernity is marred by “corporate” nationalism; the drive to build gargantuan nations that are nothing but fragile coalitions. 

Bad geopolitics, some might say. The world order needs to be maintained at all cost. Look at the United States. What if California wanted to secede? How to respond to those New Englanders who, fed up with the Trump camp, believe in smaller-scale democracies? Well, I agree with them. Enough with the conviction that nations are too big to fail. Some of them have been failures from the start.

The spirit of liberty in Catalonia starts with its language. Barcelona is Catalonia’s cultural capital. Like the entire autonomía, it goes about its daily affairs in its own language. A large percentage of Catalan people are bilingual, but make no mistake about it: For a considerable percentage of them Spanish is an alien, imposed tongue. Whenever I speak to them, I’m astonished by their commitment to self-expression. Politics, religion, schools, newspapers, radio and TV— everything is in gorgeous Catalán.

There is also El Barca, arguably the best fútbol team on the planet. And there’s the wine. And there are writers such as Josep Pla and Mercè Rodoreda. Since Barcelona is a seaport, the city is joyfully pluralistic, far more than monochromatic Madrid, which in my view feels bland. Barcelona has one of the most beautiful churches, the baroque Basílica de la Sagrada Família, designed by Antoni Gaudí. Madrid, by contrast, what does it have? Santamaría La Real de la Almudena, an uninspired building that is an expression of the city’s flatness.

To me Catalonia’s fight is another symptom of false globalism. The idea of humanity as a homogenous whole, derived from the Enlightenment, has been driven to its extreme. Yes, we all have the same rights. But each nation is defined by traits that distinguish it from others. And sometimes, within nations, there are sub-nations that strive for a place of their own. Catalonia has its own voice, its own character, its own self.

The emperor has no clothes: Spain is invertebrate.

Ilan Stavans is Lewis Sebring Professor of Humanities, Latin American, and Latino Culture at Amherst College. This essay originally appeared in the Gazette’s Hampshire Life magazine last Friday.