A Sense of History

There are paintings, statues, retables, altarpieces, from small, forsaken churches scattered all over the provincial and diocesan museums in Spain. How can something that was originally in a sense utilitarian turn into a work of art? Utilitarian: an image that served to instruct people about their faith. The frescoes recounted the Bible to the faithful who came to the church and who could not read, the statues were there to be adored, to be invoked in prayer. So now they have been pu ton display in art galleries, side by side with comparable specimens. The content of the story told by the paintings has evaporated for most visitors, only the form counts now. Few people, except students of art history, can still distinguish the symbols of the evangelists, still know about the Old Men of the Apocalypse, are still familiar with the attributes of the martyrs. Religion is transmuted into art, because stories become images that signify only themselves. The twentieth-century viewer observes a narrative that he can no longer interpret, to which he has grown blind.

But does history look like history while it is in the making? Isn’t it true that the common names are always expunged? For surely history is about ideas, vested interests and celebrated names (later to become street names), the names listed in indexes and encyclopaedias? Because no matter how much oral history is set down, the victims of world-shattering events are doomed to disappear. Their interchangeable names appear on monuments and memorials that hardly anyone notices any more, not only their bodies but also their identities are relegated to oblivion.

We can travel to the moon nowadays, but the basic shape of a bowl remains unchanged. I remember similar specimens in Africa, but they were not three thousand years old. I make a supreme effort to sense how ancient these are and I succeed becasue I know it’s true: three thousand years of violence, of profound upheaval have left this pottery intact, ready for use. I would gladly steal a piece from the cabinet and take it home, not to sell it on for some exorbitant price but to drink from it behind locked doors just in order to prove the continuity of my species, and to reflect a little on the unknown potter who fashioned it.

The Spanish character has something monastic about it, even in their great monarchs there is a touch of the anchorite: both Philip and Charles built monasteries for themselves and spent much time in seclusion, turning their backs to the world they were required to govern. Anyone who has travelled widely through Spain is accustomed to such surprise encounters, and indeed anticipates them: in the middle of nowhere an enclave, an oasis, a walled , fortress-like, introverted spot, where silence and the absence of others wreak havoc in the souls of men.

Spain is brutish, anarchic, egocentric, cruel. Spain is prepared to face disaster on a whim, she is chaotic, dreamy, irrational. Spain conquered the world and then did not know what to do with it, she harks back to her Medieval, Arab, Jewish and Christian past and sits there impassively like a continent that is appended to Europe and yet is not Europe, with her obdurate towns studding those limitless empty landscapes. Those who know only the beaten track do not know Spain. Those who have not roamed the labyrinthine complexity of her history do not know what they are travelling through.

(Cees Nooteboom: Roads to Santiago)

…siempre la lengua fue compañera del imperio i de tal manera lo siguió que junta mente començaron, crecieron i florecieron i, después, junta fue la caída de entrambos.

(Antonio de Nebrija: Gramática sobre la lengua castellana)

This is what is beneficial and good for you in history, to be able to examine the record of every kind of event set down vividly. Here you can find for yourself and your country examples to follow, and here too ugly enterprises with ugly outcomes to avoid.

(Livy: Ab urbe condita)

Estos campos, inmensa sinfonía en sangre reseca, sin árboles, sin matices de frescura, sin ningún descanso al cerebro, llenos de oraciones supersticiosas, de hierros quebrados, de pueblos enigmáticos, de hombres mustios, productos penosos de la raza colosal y de sombras augustas y crueles… Por todas partes hay angustia, aridez, pobreza y fuerza… y pasar campos y campos, todos rojos, todos amasados con una sangre que tiene de Abel y Caín… En medio de estos campos las ciudades rojas apenas si se ven. Ciudades llenas de encantos melancólicos, de recuerdos de amores trágicos, de vidas de reinas perpetuamente esperando al esposo que lucha con la cruz en el pecho, de recuerdos de cabalgatas funerales en donde al miedo de las antorchas se veía la descompuesta cara del santo mártir que llevaban a enterrar huyendo de la profanación mora, de pisadas de caballos fuertes y de sombras fatídicas de ahorcados, de milagros frailunos, de aparecidos blancos en pena de oraciones que al sonar las doce salieran de los campanarios apartando a las lechuzas para rogar a los vivos misericordia para su alma, de voces de reyes crueles y de angustiantes responsos de la Inquisición al chirriar las carnes quemadas de algún astrólogo hereje. Toda la España pasada y casi la presente se respira en las augustas y solemnísimas ciudades de Castilla…

(Federico García Lorca: Impresiones y paisajes)

Seville harbour – only a few hundred yards of dock set on the banks of a slow river, fifty miles from the sea, yet once the greatest harbour in the world, and still, in the legends of man, the most important. Columbus, Pizarro and Fernando Magellan, the Santa María and the little Vitoria – from here they sailed to find a new world, or to be the first in all history to encircle the globe.

(Laurie Lee: A Rose for the Winter)

Fear in a handful of dust. Stillness and sun-petrified ruins. Here lay the ancient city, running north and south, overlooking the sea and the memory of its ships. Here, then, was all that was left of great Selinus, called rich and powerful by Thucydides, with silver and gold in its temples and a treasury of its own at the shrine in Olympia. One of those sad disputes, with which the Greeks destroyed their promised land of Sicily, destroyed this city. In 409 B.C. Hannibal and the Carthaginian army razed the walls of Selinus to the ground. Selinus, ‘City of the Wild Celery’ (and we had passed wild celery as we climbed the headland), was extinct by Strabo’s time. It had been a monument to the vanity of human wishes even when the Roman galleys swept past that bright bay…
“More final than Pompeii.”

(Ernle Bradford: The Wind Off the Island)

…bañaba todos los días mi vista en la visión eterna de la mar, de la mar eterna, de la mar que vio nacer y verá morir la historia, de la mar que guarda la misma sonrisa con que acogió el alba del linaje humano, la misma sonrisa con que contemplará su ocaso.

Porque Gredos es lo eterno; Gredos vio a los iberos llegar a España, y vio a los romanos, y a los godos, y a los árabes, y verá acaso pasar a otros bárbaros; Gredos vio morir, en uno de sus repliegues, al emperador Carlos V.

…la mar que se ha olvidado de las carabelas de Colón.

(Miguel de Unamuno: ¡Montaña, desierto, mar!)

¡La Reconquista! ¡Cosas tuvieron nuestros Cides que han hecho hablar a las piedras¡ ¡Y cómo nos hablan las piedras sagradas des estos páramos! Reconquistado su suelo, Castilla, que había estado de pie, se acostó a soñar en éxtasis, en arrobo sosegado, cara al Señor eterno.

¡Medinaceli! El arco romano, imperial, mirando con ojos que son pura luz al paisaje planetario de aquellas tierras tan tristes…

(Miguel de Unamuno: Por las tierras del Cid)

Y en brazos estremecidos del Tajo va a pasar este arroyo de Goya [el Manzanares] por la hoz del río de la imperial Toledo, la del Greco, del río que sacaba fuera el pecho en tiempos de Don Rodrigo. Ye se enlazan dos tragedias, pues también el Manzanares, el que oyó los fusilamientos del 2 de mayo de 1808, el que vio brotar en sus orillas los trágicos caprichos goyescos, cuando corría con fuego, sintió la tragedia de la vida. Y el Tajo lo lleva en sus brazos estremecidos a dejarlo al pie de Lisboa, en la mar de los conquistadores de Indias.

(Miguel de Unamuno: Orillas del Manzanares)

Escúrrese el Guadiana al pie de las ruinas romanas de Mérida, y queda lo que se escurre, lo que pasa; queda la historia.

(Miguel de Unamuno: La invasión de los bárbaros)