A Nihilist’s Impressions of Spain

The very first thing I noticed upon leaving the airport in Madrid was how much graffiti there is in Spain. It is everywhere. It is on walls, windows and cars. It is in bad neighborhoods as well as in good neighborhoods. It is on government buildings, businesses and personal residences. It is in the cities and in the country. It is ubiquitous. Our friend Anselmo told me the reason why there is so much graffiti here is because the Spanish people are not afraid to express themselves. “In America,” he said, “I have seen students led out of high school classrooms in handcuffs for no good reason. This would never happen in Spain. We are not afraid of the police. We say and do what we feel.”

The idea that the Spanish people are unafraid to express themselves helps me tie together my experiences of this country during a 3 week visit this summer. This was my first time traveling to Spain, and during our vacation my wife and I stayed in Madrid, Granada, Valencia and Barcelona, so we had a chance to briefly sample a few differing regions of the country.  The impression I came away with in general is of a culture exceedingly enthusiastic about forms of expression that are bodily, kinetic and bordering on primal. Though the cities and towns we visited are all very old, the place feels like it is pulsating with youth, activity, vitality and movement.  Graffiti is one especially permanent and visible manifestation of this ethos, however it does not end there.

My wife had visited Spain about 8 years previous, and one of the things that she found shocking was that hardcore pornography appears on regular television. When we stayed at a hotel in Valencia, I saw this with my own eyes while flipping through the channels in our room. I came across a number of stations broadcasting not only male and female nudity, but close up images of sexual penetration. One program I stumbled across focused only on the torsos of a man and a woman. There were no faces; only bodies grinding away in embarrassing (and quite frankly hilarious) detail. Keep in mind that this was not cable, but regular broadcast TV. It was one click away from another channel airing children’s cartoons.

Nudity is also at home on Spanish beaches. I must have a bit of a prudish streak, since I found it unnerving to see so many women, both young and old, going topless while at the seashore and at public swimming pools. Young female flesh appears side by side with old female flesh without any indication of self-consciousness or concern,  just as male flesh, both old and young, does the same. The rational part of me affirms this sort of display as an indication of a healthy and natural comfort with the body and with aging. My discomfort with this behavior is, I recognize, just an irrational expression of my own cultural upbringing. After all, everyone is born naked.

Bullfighting is as traditionally Spanish as baseball is American, and yet it appears that this is one form of cultural expression now quite controversial in Spain. Emotions run high about this activity among Spaniards, with some defending bullfighting as an art while others condemn it as animal cruelty. Apparently, the city of Barcelona has made the practice illegal, while in most other cities bullfights take place as part of local festivals. We were unable to make it to a bullfight during our visit, but I really was interested in seeing one. The idea of a person doing ritualized battle with a bull in an arena while being cheered on by crowds is as strange and foreign to me as porn on broadcast TV or public nudity. It is something with which I am not comfortable, but which also has an exotic feel that exudes the Spanish preoccupation with corporeality, movement and bodily expression. Human beings and bulls are placed in a ring, paired together as beasts who exercise the brute force of their bodies for the entertainment of the audience. It is almost as if this highly ritualized performance is an attempt to, ironically, strip away all civilization and return participants to a primal state of animality.

Now, if free expression in Spain consisted only of graffiti, pornography, public nudity and killing bulls in a ring you might question the worthiness of Spanish culture. However, food, art, religion, dance and music are also forms of expression that Spanish people are extremely passionate about, and which are accompanied by a pronounced emphasis on bodily engagement.

While in Spain, I ate more squid, “pulpo” (octopus) and other forms of seafood than I have ever previously consumed in my life. I ate seafood paella, pulpo on potatoes, and calamari both in sandwiches and on its own. The flavor, the texture and the odor of spanish food are among the most wonderfully appealing of Spain’s offerings.I did not care to sample the roasted suckling pig that the city of Segovia is famous for, however, nor did I eat much of the ham that, like graffiti, is to be found everywhere in Spain. Tying in with the bodily, primal nature of Spanish culture, it was interesting to observe that in supermarkets, ham is carved directly off of the intact legs of pigs, which are prominently displayed with their hoofs still attached. Like public nudity, I found this to be unnerving, but perhaps also a healthy sign that the Spanish people are comfortable with, and aware of, where their meat products come from. There is no denying that the tasty “jamon” you are eating is made possible by the death of an animal when you see its fur and hoofs hanging there right in front of you.

The art galleries and cathedrals of Spain are filled with paintings that give creative expression to the bodily and fleshy nature of the Spanish view of life. I found that the more churches and art galleries we visited, the more blurry my memories of particular paintings and pieces of architecture became. There is just so much extraordinary, awe-inspiring art and architecture here that my feeble mind became overwhelmed. What I was left with, however, was a sense of the fragility of the human body, a feeling for its passions, its sufferings and its finitude. Paintings by Goya, such as Saturn Devouring His Son, are vivid in my memory, as well as the creepy, fleshy and hellish paintings of Hieronymus Bosch, such as The Garden of Earthly Delights, which we saw hanging in the Prado. We viewed countless paintings of Christ on the Cross as well as countless tombs of artists, political figures and religious luminaries. We saw paintings by Velazquez, El Greco, Picasso, Dali, among many, many others. Death, bodily suffering, tragedy and the absurdity of life were constant themes in the artwork that we viewed at various places throughout our visit.

Tragic themes and bodily engagement were also key to the flamenco performance that we attended at a place in Madrid called Casa Patas. I was not all that enthusiastic about going to see a dancing show, but my wife was insistent that this would be a memorable and moving event. She was right. As the show progressed, I felt myself being swept up into the passionate intensity of the performers. A woman and man did the dancing, but just as integral to the show were the musicians: one on percussion, two on guitar and two singing and clapping. All of the performers were attuned to one another, shouting, yelping and encouraging each other as their intensity built to a crescendo. The dancers danced alone, but as they did so they watched the other members of their troop with intense scrutiny. As they stomped out rhythms with their feet, they danced faster and more passionately, sweating and contorting their faces into expressions that became looks of ecstasy as the show came to its culmination. The musicians as well became progressively more and more ecstatic, seemingly lost in the music, the movements and the overwhelming intensity of the performance. At points I felt like I was watching something that I shouldn’t be seeing. It seemed as if the performers were oblivious to the audience, and that they had been transported into some other intimate, private world. As the show came to an end, I wondered how they could go on for so long in this manner. I myself felt wrung out and exhausted just being an observer!

Bodily expression, movement and an awareness of finitude are the themes that kept coming back to me again and again as we made our way around Spain. This truly felt, to me, like a culture struggling with the “truth” of nihilism. The historical significance of this preoccupation became more clear to me when I told our Spanish friends that I wanted to make a visit to Valle De Los Caidos (The Valley of the Fallen), otherwise known as the Franco Monument. This, it turns out, is one of the few things that raises the hackles of Spanish people and provokes a reaction of embarrassment and disgust. Commissioned by the dictator Francisco Franco, who ruled Spain from 1936 until his death in 1975, this monument is an awe-inspiring piece of fascist architecture. It is located about 30 miles north of Madrid in the mountains, and serves as a functioning Catholic Basilica and Benedictine Monastery, as well as Franco’s tomb. A stone cross, the tallest in the world, sits on the mountain top. At the base of the mountain, a Roman-style facade acts as an entry way to the interior of the structure, which burrows deep into the mountain, opening into a space that is more vast in square footage than St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. As you enter, you are greeted by fascist styled statues of the Angel Gabriel wielding his sword, tapestries of the Apocalypse, statues depicting the “allegory of the armed forces,” and murals of military battles. On one side of the church’s altar Francisco Franco is buried and on the other side lies Jose Antonio Primo de Rivera, the founder of the Spanish fascist party. Our friend Anselmo tells me that Franco is buried face down so that if it turns out he is not in fact dead, he will start digging his way to the center of the earth!

Franco claimed that this was intended as a monument to peace, but to my eyes it looks more like a glorification of might and warfare. When I told our friends that I wanted to see this monument, they said, “That is like wanting to visit Hitler’s grave!” They did drive us up there, but they themselves refused to go inside. I also noticed that they avoided telling anyone afterwards where we had been. This is a place that opens up some very uncomfortable memories for Spaniards. It is a place that many Spaniards would like to see obliterated and forgotten.

In his book Ghosts of Spain, Giles Tremlett reports on how Valle De Los Caidos still serves as a beacon for fascists from around Europe, and it is just this legacy that explains why progressive, modern, left-leaning Spaniards are incapable of looking at the Franco Monument as fascinating, awe-inspiring or beautiful. It just seems too painful for them to recall that this was a country that until 1975 was fascist. The Franco Monument, with all of its Apollonian structure, control, and ponderous gravity, is a symbol of everything that Spanish culture today seems to be reacting against. As a t-shirt I saw in a Madrid street market suggests, the Spanish people now want to “drink, eat and fuck.” They want to be free of the oppression that came from almost 4 decades of fascist rule. The Dionysian energy that was bottled up for so long now wants to come to the surface and find its expression freely and without hinderance. Of course this energy was never absent, even under Franco. It was always there. It can be detected in the kinetic movements of flamenco and bull fighting. It can be experienced in the paintings of Goya and El Greco. You can taste it in Spanish food. The difference is that now it is also apparent in the liberated nature of everyday life where graffiti, pornography and public nudity are ubiquitous.