It’s been a little over a month since moving to Barcelona. While getting accustomed to the time change and daily rhythm which is so vastly different from the of New York hasn’t been difficult per se, but it has exacted from me my ability to write. The amount of bureaucracy here is indeed mind-blowing and probably a reason why the black market is so prevalent throughout the country. However, now that I consider myself mostly adjusted, I wanted to take the time to write in some detail about some of my thoughts since arriving.
First I must admit that since arriving I have found myself consistently gratified for having taken the time to read Robert Hughes book Barcelona, a comprehensive account of the history of my new home cities development from Roman colony to empire to unwilling appendage of Castillian influence to war zone to home of the 1992 summer Olympics. Hughes also introduces the eminent personages that helped construct the city and bring it renown, catalogs many of the distinctly Catalan cultural traditions, traces it’s political and economic developments as well as give detailed examination of the city’s famous architecture. Poets, revolutionaries of the Right and Left, Kings, colonialists all have their place, but it is the artisans which designed the city that he devotes most of his attention. This is unsurprising given Hughes background as an art critic, but his exegesis of wood, marble stone and cement is no mere formalism but informed by the historical contexts and conflicts of the time.
Hughes gives the history behind the Teatro de Liceu, a work of epic beauty constructed during the beginning of the Golden Age of the Catalan bourgeoise which could not cope with the industrialism which helped bring it into being. The strange placement of Monjuic, a castle at the edge rather than the center of the city, is explained, as well as the large statue of Christopher Colombus pointing to the New World close to Barcelona’s docks. The reasoning that so many of the cities street names are of foreign origin are brought to light, as are many other aspects of the city that I have since encountered.
While the two thousand years of history and development that are gone over in this 567 page book have an impressive amount of detail, it is the final chapters on Gaudi which are by far the most in depth. Given Gaudi’s impact on notions of Barcelonans Catalan identity and subsequent use in advertising matrerial this is unsurprising. However, this section is no more paean to genius, the capacity of architects to bring an aesthetic pleasure to the banal and incorporate local craft traditions into work in a time of increasing standardization and deskilling. Additionally, the book ends with a masterful deconstruction of La Sagrada Familia, the building probably associated with Barcelona in the same way that the Eiffel Tower is with Paris.
And speaking of Paris, I must admit that after having read this I have a fervent desire to return to Paris after having read Eric Hazan’s The Invention of Paris: A History in Footsteps. While I visited many of the literary sites made famous by the long history of Parisian intellectuals and writers, the Lost Generation and Henry Miller, this text, I’m sure as Hughes does, presents a type of history shows just how embedded the past is into the present.
Whilst on the subject of the past embedded in the present, and one of the reasons why I wanted to write this blog, was that one of the things which have taken me by surprise since arriving is the living memory apparent within the public places of Barcelona. While visiting the library closest to my house I noticed several Republican political posters from the Spanish Civil War. Whilst walking around the Montjuic park I came across a statue of Fernando Ferrer – a secular educator that was sentanced to death for a falsely attributed role in an assassination plot. In a bookstore by the Liceu metro line, off Passeig de Gracia, I entered a bookstore which contained a large display of books related to the Spanish Civil War at the front of the store, the area which is considered most valuable to attracting customers. There are posters and graffiti, heavily concentrated in the Gracia area, for the CNT, CGT and COO and whilst walking in the Old City there was a large rally composed of these groups protesting cut in social spending.
I see this and in light of the fact that all of these public acknowledgments of previous and still existing social conflict stems from the death of Franco and the relaxation of strictures preventing remberence I find stunning. The various conceptual and historical frameworks offered by G. W. F. Hegel, Friedrich Nietzsche, Reinhart Koselleck, Benedict Andersen sets my mind running in various directions, especially when considering the manner in which such history is deployed amidst the current Spanish economic crisis. This is a topic that I’m sure I will meditate on more as time goes on and I find myself exposed to more experiences – however one such topic that I think worthy of attention is how there are certain historical periods which some regions/countries get stuck in.
For Spain it is clearly the Spanish Civil War which is historical moment that is constantly returned to it as a source of inspiration, reflection and criticism. During the time immediately preceding, during and following the war there was a flourishing of literature which was describing the events. The two books most widely acclaimed about the events, Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls and George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, are truly great but should also be paired with a Spanish work of similar greatness, Lorca’s Three Tragedies. Additionally, it wasn’t just the literary arts that was affected. Perhaps the most famous work related to this was Picasso’s Guernica. While the ideological foment embedded in this period wasn’t atypical and had several echoes in other national literatures and arts – however that this continues to be a guiding source of inspiration is.
Recent films such as Pan’s Labyrinth, Last Circus, There Be Dragons also center on or have these events play a major role in plot and character development. Even Javier Bardem’s recent film Biutiful, set in modern day Barcelona, focuses on a character haunted by his father who died while fleeing Franco’s death squads. Such a history is not surprisingly disavowed in Woody Allen’s omphaloskeptical film Vicky Cristina Barcelona.
This is not so unsurprising as such events allow for dramatic tension that rarely emerges. Inter-natinonal war is one thing, but prolonged civil war with entrenched positions based upon class/ideological differences is. My own interest in the dynamic provided by nationalistic and ideological tension contained within the context stems from a period of convalescence where I devoured The Spanish Anarchists: The Heroic Years 1868-1936, The Battle for Spain: The Spanish Civil War 1936-1939, The Spanish Civil War: Revised Edition, The Spanish Civil War, Free Women of Spain: Anarchism and the Struggle for the Emancipation of Women in a period of a few weeks. I bring this as just as many of the conflicts within the Civil War are still relevant to contemporary issues and not just to Autonomous communities in Spain.
To cite a specific example, last Thursday I unwittingly walked into my first major Spanish demonstration protesting the neo-liberal policies mandated by Germany to support the EU (pictures). Spain still has credibility where Greece and now Italy do not, but this doesn’t mean that there still isn’t rampant unemployment, social unrest and problems that are lying underneath the semi-peaceful veneer. This is, however, unlikely to change. As the moral hazard created by Greece and now Italy spreads it is likely to create increased tension amidst those and other member nation states as incentives to fail become available. While the battles for the future control over resource management and government policy will now be directed by politicians rather than princes or fuhrers, thus taking the heroic element out of politics with bureaucracy, what economists should consider is not the increasing perfectibility of Dynamic Stochastic General Equilibrium models – but how it is that historical traditions inform economic responses.
That said, I’m going out to see more of the city.