THE SPINE JULY 14, 2010
The first time I saw Antoni Gaudi’s phantasmagoric Church of the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona it was unfinished. That was 1965. On another visit, perhaps two decades later, it was still unfinished. And when I returned there on Monday it was not yet completed, although I heard from the conversational buzz around me the years 2012 and 2013. One dour looking pessimist uttered “2017” as the first possible date that the cathedral would really match its dreamer’s vision. I have not the slightest idea which of these deadlines will turn out to be correct.
But a finished Sacred Family will not be like the architectural mystery with which Spain and its tourists have lived for all these decades. For years and years, after all, its aspiring towers reached literally for the skies—that is, without protection from the rains or storms, open to the elements. At least, that’s how I remember it. Simply not closed.
It’s actually easy now to imagine the last work being done. And, therefore, imagine the church in all its glorious visual adventure. But even from what was already there, I had forgotten the modern aesthetic that lurked in what we had not yet been taught to think of as post-modern. Still, looking closely, you see the same vaunting inspiration that stirred Picasso—after all, the two were both Spaniards- and, then, other artists of delicate symmetry. Especially from the inside one is reminded of the vast reach to the skies of contemporary architecture. Faith and no faith.
In 1965, lefty souls would not visit what they called, with a tight venomous curl of the lips, “Franco Spain.” I don’t recall what kind of crisis of conscience this put us through. Maybe none. I knew that the trip was not a political pilgrimage which, unlike their trips, were: to Russia, to East Germany (can you imagine?), to Czechoslovakia and, already then, People’s China. But we did meet pleasant and maybe brave “heroes” of the Spanish Republic who, for some reason, hated George Orwell and his Homage to Catalonia.
Catalonia was the destination then and the very same house was my destination this time (and on many, many visits in between.) A small village on the Costa Brava with vistas the same whether it be the Catholic kings or red commissars or the four insurgent generals and their handpicked Fascist generalissimo Franco ruling from Madrid.
Catalonia is economically (very) developed now. There are no remnants of old-women-at-the-curbside food markets. It’s not only that all the roads are paved and horse-and-wagon no longer delay the movement of trucks and cars. Modernity and modern capitalism are triumphant, in so far as any capitalism is really triumphant today. But, of course, the rating agencies (which never recognize a disaster in the making) have marked down the credit of Spain itself and of its banks just in time to be far behind Europe and its morning-after contraceptive institutions.
The subject when I arrived was Catalunya. An enormous demonstration of one million (maybe more) had assembled in the streets of Barcelona. The provocation was a ruling by the Constitutional Court cutting down with thirteen piss-ant reasons, as I saw them, (and innumerable rhetorical insults) on the statehood of the province. Just one instance: Catalan citizens were termed by the court “a species of the ‘Spanish citizen’ genus.” This is what the Catalan prime minister called “a gratuitous offense.”
Catalonia is on its road to statehood even though, as the Jews used to say, “long is the road.” In fact, Catalonia is a functioning independent political culture with its own in-use language, customs, modernisms and economic practices.
You would think that the financially and symbolically stupid socialist government in Madrid would be a bit wary in being so activist-eager in pushing Israel around and about would-be Palestine when it has forcibly absorbed a real Catalonian society that is yearning to be let out and free. You may also think that the Basque-land is the only province so yearning. If so, you are wrong. Only the Basques (like the Palestinians) indulge in terrorism, which the Catalans do not.
On Sunday, the subject was soccer, and almost everyone thought that Catalunya would be forgotten or, at least, ignored. Yes, Spain did win, a lack-luster game against boring old Holland. But the sheer sports-minded enthusiasm of the Spaniards (including the Catalans) could not be contained. Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero tried to exploit the enthusiasm for Spain, Spain, Spain. His words went nowhere.
Or as El País wrote this morning:
Besides the expected difficulties of explaining away the economic crisis, the embattled leader now faces added hardship from Catalan parties following a Constitutional Court decision that scales back part of the region’s autonomy statute, in a move that caused widespread protest in the northeastern region.
One more point. The Spanish World Cup soccer team was so Catalan that it was almost Catalonia that won the championship. In contrast, for example, with France but with a radically different spin. Les Bleus did miserably in play. They are also not a team but more like a racial and ethnic conflagration. It did not even sing La Marseillaise as expected. For a comparison desolating to France, read Robert Marquand in the Christian Science Monitor and Steven Erlanger in the New York Times and see what they saw.
Both articles quote philosopher Alain Finkielkraut:
“We now have proof that the French team is not a team at all, but a gang of hooligans that knows only the morals of the mafia,” he said