The Barricades and Beyond


Fifty years ago, on July 4, 1937, in the city of Valencia, the Second International Congress of Antifascist Writers began its work. The civil war that was rending Spain's cities and countryside had already become a world war of conscience. The Congress attracted writers from the four corners of the earth. Many were famous, and some were truly great; two were masters of mine in the art of poetry, others were friends, and all, in those inflamed days, were my comrades. We shared the same hopes and convictions, the same illusions and disappointments. We were united by a sense of moral outrage, and by solidarity with the oppressed. We were a brotherhood of indignation, but also a brotherhood of violence. Most are now dead. To recall them, I would trace the sign that appears on the statues of Harpocrates, a gesture in which the ancients saw the sign of silence. Silence means not forgetfulness, however, but acknowledgment: a moment of interior contemplation in which, wordlessly, we converse with the dead, and commune with their memories.

The date itself is both dark and luminous. Those summer days of 1937 are etched in our memories by figures at once passionate, intense, and contradictory; by affirmations that have become negations; by heroism and cruelty; clarity and obfuscation; loyalty and betrayal; the quest for liberty and the cult of a new despotism; independence of mind and clericalism. All of which comes down to a single question.

It would be presumptuous to suggest that we could answer it here; it is the very question that men have asked since the beginning of history, without being able to answer it completely. Still, we are obliged to ask it again with clarity, and to attempt to answer it with courage. We do not seek a final, definitive response, merely ideas, glimmers, suggestions. And we will need compassion and irony, the twin supreme forms of understanding. Irony connotes neither approval nor censure: it shares and sympathizes. Compassion suggests neither regret nor commiseration, but fraternity.

The question facing us can be posed in a number of different ways. Have we returned to Valencia to commemorate a victory or a defeat? In other words, who really won the war? Whatever we answer, it will not satisfy all. But we can and should say something. For a start, that the war was not won by the foreign powers who intervened—Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin. Nor was it won by those who stood passively by—the Western democracies that abandoned the Spanish Republic to its fate, and in so doing precipitated the Second World War and their own losses and defeats. What of Franco, then, and his followers? Were they the victors? It is true that they prevailed on the battlefield, seized power, and ruled Spain for many years. But their victory has been transformed into a defeat. The Spain of today would not recognize itself in the Spain that Franco and his followers attempted to build; one could even say that it amounts to its negation. And the Popular Front, for its part, did not merely lose the war; today many of its ideas and plans have little historical relevance.

Then nobody won? The answer is a surprising one. The true victors were others. In 1937 two institutions seemed mortally wounded, annihilated first by ideological violence on both sides, and later by brute force. But the two revived, and today they are the basis of political and social life in Spain. I refer to democracy and constitutional monarchy. Who among us, among the writers gathered in Valencia a half century ago, would have been able to predict the kind of constitutional regime Spain would have in 1987, much less the political complexion of its government? Such blindness should not surprise us; the future is impenetrable to men. But in every age there are farsighted people. I was privileged to know one such.

After World War II, I lived for some time in Paris. There, in 1946, I met the Spanish Socialist leader Indalecio Prieto. Though I had heard him speak many times in Spain, and also in Mexico, only then did I have the opportunity, on two occasions, to speak to him alone. Prieto was in Paris, as were many other exiled Spanish leaders, to seek a shift in their favor in the foreign policy of the democratic powers. I worked at the time at the Mexican Embassy. It occurred to me that the extraordinary concentration in Paris of so many figures of the Spanish opposition to Franco was an ideal opportunity to obtain a clearer idea of their plans and their programs, and also of the various elements battling for supremacy within the opposition. I spoke with various leaders, but in their words, passionate or prudent, to the point or beside the point, I found nothing new; their positions were all familiar.

Prieto was different. For two hours— he was rather long-winded and liked to spin out his ideas in detail—he explained to me that the only viable and civilized regime for Spain was a constitutional monarchy with a Socialist prime minister. The other solutions would issue either in civil chaos or in the prolongation of a reactionary dictatorship. His solution, on the other hand, would not merely assure a transition to a stable democracy, but would also open the doors to national reconciliation.

In those years, “formal democracy,” as people used to say, seemed to me a trap. As for the monarchy, I always regarded it as a relic, or a British eccentricity. Prieto's words opened my eyes. I began to see things that ideology had blinded me to. I wrote up minutes of my conversation with the Socialist leader, adding an imprudent personal suggestion that the government of Mexico might wish to orient its Spanish policies in the direction suggested by Prieto. I presented what I had written to my superiors at the embassy. One of them was an intelligent man, but too secure in his opinions. He read my pages with a combination of amazement and amusement. After a moment of silence, he returned them to me, mumbling: curious, but a useless literary exercise.


HISTORY IS a theater of the fantastic. Defeats become victories, victories defeats. Ghosts win battles. The decrees of crowned philosophers are more despotic and cruel than the caprices of dissolute princes. In the case of the Spanish Civil War, the victory of our enemies turned into ashes, but many of our own ideas and plans did too. Our vision of universal history, that is, our notion of a revolution of the oppressed destined to bring about a worldwide regime of universal harmony among peoples, and of liberty and equality among men, was shattered. The revolutionary idea has suffered mortal blows. The hardest and the most devastating blows have not come from its adversaries, however, but from the revolutionaries themselves: wherever they have won, peoples have been silenced. I need say no more about this; it has become the staple of preachers, ideologues, and necromancers. But I do wish to emphasize that the message of the Congress of 1937 was not essentially different at our reunion in 1987. I would dwell on this theme for a moment or two.

Today, as yesterday, circumstances are transient, ideas are relative, reality is unclear. Still, we cannot close our eyes to what is happening around us: the threat of atomic conflagration, the devastation of the environment, the suicidal gallop of demography, the convulsions of impoverished peoples who dwell at the periphery of the industrialized world, war wandering from one continent to another, the resurrection here and there of despotism, the proliferation of violence from above and below. To which we might also add the corruption of souls, a drying-up of the sources of human solidarity, the degradation of the erotic, the sterility of the imagination. Our consciences are also a theater of conflict, of disaster, as the century nears its end.

The reality that we see is not outside us, but within us. We are in it, and it is in us. We are it. We cannot ignore its summons; and for this reason history is not merely the realm of contingency and coincidence. It is a proving ground, a touchstone. History is nothing other than our daily living with, and among, others. To live is to live with. Despotic powers deform our being when they attempt to destroy our political dimension. For we do not exist fully, except with others, and in history.

But to live only in history, only for history, is not really to live. Apart from our private lives—which are unique and, I would even say, sacred—history must unfold in a domain beyond itself. History is a search for totality, a hunger for what lies beyond. Call that “beyond" what you will; history accepts all the names, but it does not retain any. This is history's greatest paradox: its eternities flicker, and its only absolute is change itself. No matter. Without that beyond, an instant is not an instant, and history is not history.

From the beginning, we live in two orders, parallel and separated by a precipice: the here and the there, contingency and necessity. Or as the scholastics used to say, accident and substance. In the past, the two orders were in constant communication. The decisions demanded by what we now call the “relative” were inspired by the principles and precepts of a beyond that was invulnerable to historical erosion. The river of time reflected heaven's writing, A script of eternal signs, legible for all, despite the turbulence of the current.

The modern age submitted the signs to radical surgery; they bled, and their meaning was dispersed. They ceased to be one, and became many. Ambiguity, ambivalence, a multiplicity of meanings— all valid and contradictory, all temporal, Man discovered that eternity was the mask of nothingness. But the discrediting of the beyond did not annul its necessity. The void was filled by other ideas, in succession; and each new system was transformed temporarily into a sufficient principle, into a foundation. The most disparate doctrines—even those that explicitly declared themselves to be not a “philosophy,” but a “method”— inspired and justified every manner of temporal thought and action, as if they were eternal truths.

The two orders survive, although one of them—the governing principle—is periodically dethroned by a rival principle. The bridges between the two orders can barely be crossed anymore; not only are they too fragile, but all too often they collapse. In the face of this, we might exclaim, with Baudelaire, in “Rêve Parisien,” “Terrible novelty!” The poet was confronted by a geometric landscape from which all living forms, all growing things, had disappeared. For us, the sight is terrible because the historical landscape, the theater of our thoughts and actions, is continually crumbling. It has no foundation, no basis. We are condemned to jump from one order of things to the other, and the jump is always mortal. We are condemned to err.

We wished to be brothers to the victims, and we found ourselves accomplices of their executioners. Our victories have become defeats, and our great defeat, perhaps, is the seed of a victory that we shall not live to see. Our sentence is the mark of modernity. And it is still more: it is the stigmata of the modern intellectual, stigmata in both senses of the term—sanctity and infamy.


WHILE I was reflecting upon this enigma (which would have fascinated Calderón and Tirso de Molina alike, since it is nothing other than the mystery of freedom), I recalled the indignant pages that Schopenhauer dedicated to Dante, specifically to Canto XXXIII of the Inferno. It is the canto in which the poet describes the ninth circle, to which traitors are consigned. It is, as you will recall, the deepest point in Hell, the region of ice. Traitors to the ideal of hospitality suffer an awful fate: the cold freezes their tears, and thus impedes them from giving free reign to their suffering. To weep is a form of relief; not to be able to weep is a double punishment.

One of the condemned begs Dante to wipe his eyes. The poet consents, in exchange for learning his name and his story. When the story is finished, the wretch says to him, “And now give me your hand, and open my eyes," Dante refuses, Morality or, as he says, cortesia— demands that he play the villain to the sinner. And Schopenhauer explodes, “Dante fails to keep his promise," he writes, “because it seems inadmissible for him to relieve, even slightly, a punishment imposed by God....I do not know if such actions are frequent in Heaven, and if there they are considered worthy of praise. Here on earth, anyone who conducted himself in such a fashion would be regarded as a scoundrel.” And he adds, “This shows how difficult it is to base an ethical system on God's will: good becomes evil, and evil good simply in the closing of eyes.” Schopenhauer was not wrong. But an ethical system founded on other principles—say, Schopenhauer's— is subject to similar difficulties. This incongruence accompanies us always, as the worm accompanies the apple.

Again and again the philosophers have tried to discover some principle immune to change. None, I believe, has succeeded. Otherwise, we would know of it; it would be inconceivable for a discovery of such importance to remain secret for long. If the constructions of metaphysics have proven to be not more solid, but less solid, than religious revelation, what remains for us? Perhaps that principle with which the modem age began: doubt, criticism, inquiry.

I do not pretend to promote criticism into an immutable and self-sufficient principle. Quite the contrary, the first object of criticism must always be criticism itself. I add besides that the exercise of criticism includes ourselves. Criticism is not a self-sufficient principle, as the principles of traditional metaphysics pretended to be, but it has two advantages. First, it re-establishes the circulation between the two orders, since it examines each one of our acts and purges them of their fatal propensity to convert themselves into absolutes, or into deductions from some absolute principle. This is a propensity that almost always goes unnoticed by us, and it is the major source of evil.

Second, criticism creates a distance between us and our individual acts, which is to say, it compels us to see ourselves, and thus convert ourselves into others— into the others. And to insert the others into our own perspective is to alter radically the traditional relationship. What counts now is not God's will, just or unjust, but the pleading of the condemned who begs us to open his eyes. We cease to be servants of an absolute principle, without transforming ourselves into accomplices of a cynical relativism.

The Congress of 1937 was an act of solidarity with men locked in mortal struggle against an enemy better armed and sustained by unjust and evil forces. Men who were abandoned by the very people who should have been their allies and defenders, the Western democracies. The Congress was moved by an immense wave of generosity and authentic fraternity: among the participating writers, many were combatants, some had been wounded, some would die in the field of battle. All of these things—love, loyalty, courage, sacrifice—remain unforgettable. In them resides the moral grandeur of that meeting 50 years ago.

And its weakness? A perversion of the revolutionary spirit. We forgot that the revolution had been born in an act of critical thought. We did not see, or we did not wish to see, that that thought had been degraded into dogma, and that, in a moral and political transposition that was also a historic regression, in the name of revolutionary ideas opponents were silenced, revolutionaries and dissidents were murdered, the cult of doctrine was restored, and extravagant homage was made to an autocrat.

We forgot our teachers and ignored our predecessors. Other generations and other men had held that the right to criticism was the very foundation of the revolutionary spirit. In 1865, defending himself from attacks on his history of the French Revolution, Edgar Quinet wrote these words, which are equally applicable to our attitude in 1937:

The criticism of reason has been made. Will you call those who made it enemies of reason? In the same way, if I criticize the Revolution, pointing out its errors and its limitations, will you accuse me of being an enemy of the Revolution? If the critical spirit can fearlessly submit to examination the most sacred religious dogmas and even the Gospels, isn't it surprising that some would exempt revolutionary doctrine, and the great gospel of terror, from the same examination? In the name of the Revolution, some would extirpate the critical spirit. Take care: in the same way you will destroy the Revolution itself.

A few days before the opening of our Congress, a little book by Andre Gide appeared. It was a reiteration, and a justification, of a previous book in which he expressed his surprise at what he had seen and heard in Russia. Gide's criticisms of the Soviet Union were moderate, more like friendly chiding. Still, he was badly treated and vilified by the Congress; some even called him “an enemy of the Spanish people." Although many of us were convinced of the injustice of the attacks, although we admired Gide, we kept our silence. We justified our silence with the same specious arguments that Quinet denounced in 1865. In that way we contributed to the petrification of the revolution.


THE CASE OF Guide was not unique. There were other examples of moral independence. Everyone surely remembers George Orwell and Simone Weil, who dared to denounce the horrors and the crimes committed in the Republican zone without any disloyalty. On the other side there was also the admirable response of the Catholic writer Georges Bemanos, in his horrifying book, Les grandes cimitières sous la tune, and later, a similar account by Falangist poet Dionisio Ridruejo.

At Valencia, literary themes were hardly discussed at all. That was natural; the war was everywhere. But there were exceptions. Some of us believed in the freedom of art and the freedom of opinion, and confronted the partisans of “social realism." A few days ago, leafing through the issue of Hora de España dedicated to the Congress, I reread Arturo Serrano Plaja's contribution, which he made in the name of a group of young Spanish writers. For us, that text was the point of departure for a long campaign in defense of the free imagination. I recall it now, because freedom of expression is always in danger. It is threatened not merely by totalitarian regimes or military dictatorships, but also in capitalist democracies, by the impersonal forces of advertising and the marketplace. To submit art and literature to the same laws that govern the exchange of goods and services is a form of censorship no less pernicious, no less barbarous, than ideological censorship.

Since the 18th century, the tradition of Western literature has been a tradition of criticism, dissidence, rupture; I need not enumerate the successive artistic, philosophical, and moral rebellions of poets and writers, from Romanticism to the present day. The art that has suffered most at the hands of present-day mercantilism has been poetry, which has been driven to take refuge in the catacombs of consumer society. But other literary forms have been wounded as well, particularly the novel, which has become an object of debasing commercial speculation. In such a situation, it is useful to remember that our literature began with a nay to the powers that be. Negation and criticism founded the modern age.

But my most profound and lasting impressions of the summer of 1937 are not of meetings with writers, nor of arguments about politics and literature. I was moved, rather, by my first encounter with Spain and its people: to see with my eyes and to touch with my hands the landscapes, the monuments, the stones that I had known since childhood from my reading, and from the stories my grandparents told me. To strike up a

friendship with Spanish poets, those who were close to the review Hora de España (a friendship that has endured, except when it has been broken, more than once, by death). To mix with soldiers, peasants, workers, schoolteachers, journalists, young and old, men and women. With them, through them, I learned that the word “fraternity" is no less precious than the word “liberty." It is the bread of men, the common bread.

That is no mere figure of speech. One night I was forced to take refuge with some friends in a village near Valencia while the enemy's air force, cornered by Republican air defenses, emptied its load of bombs on the highway. A peasant gave us shelter in his hut. When he discovered that I was from Mexico, one of the few countries that aided the Republic, he stole out to his orchard, braving the enemy bombs, and cut a melon. And there, with a heel of bread and a jar of wine, he shared it with us.

I could relate many other such episodes. But I prefer to end with an incident that affected me deeply. On one occasion I went with a small group—Stephen Spender will recall the event, he was with us—to visit the university in Madrid, which was on the front. Led by an officer, we toured the buildings and the rooms that had once been lecture halls and libraries. They were now transformed into trenches, into strongholds.

We came to a huge hall full of sandbags. The official signaled us to keep silent. On the other side of the wall we could hear, clearly and distinctly, voices and laughter. Who are they? I asked in a whisper. They are the others, he replied. His words shocked me, and then left me with a great pain. I had discovered, suddenly and for always, that the enemy, too, has a human voice.




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This article appeared in the November 9, 1987, issue of the magazine.

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