Review: A Time of Gifts

Review: A Time of Gifts

A Time of GiftsA Time of Gifts by Patrick Leigh Fermor
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

When I began this book, I fully expected to join the universal chorus of praise. The premise of this book could hardly be more promising: a naïve, bookish nineteen-year-old decides to walk from Holland all the way to Constantinople. We have here all the makings of a literary adventure: an author sensitive enough to language and art to appreciate the finer points of culture, and impetuous enough to get into scraps and misadventures. The only book I can think of that holds comparable promise is Gerald Brenan’s South From Granada, which begins, similarly enough, with the young, bookish Brenan settling down in the south of Spain to read Spinoza.

Well, to get straight to the point, even by the end of the introduction I found myself disappointed. This was surprising. At first I thought I was misinterpreting my own feelings. The book had everything I expected: fine prose, snippets of culture and history, a few youthful misdeeds here and there. Why the persistent feeling of letdown? Is it me? But in the end, true to form, I have decided that my instincts are not misfiring, and that this book is not quite the masterpiece it has been made out to be.

To me, Leigh Fermor is the epitome of superficial learning. No doubt he is well-educated. His vocabulary is vast; he has a solid grasp of art history and a fine appreciation of architecture; he can speak and read several languages; his knowledge of English poetry borders on encyclopedic. And yet all this learning functions, in him, as the feathers in a peacock’s tail: as a bright, beautiful, and at times intimidating display—but a mere display, nonetheless. Leigh Fermor deploys recondite words, the names of painters and poets, and the weighty facts of history, neither to express deep sentiment nor to communicate insights, but as mere ornament.

George Elliot both anticipated and perfectly summed up Leigh Fermor in Middlemarch, in the character of Will Ladislaw—another young Englishman with vague literary and artistic ambitions who travels to the continent to bask in the culture: “rambling in Italy sketching plans for several dramas, trying prose and finding it too jejune, trying verse and finding it too artificial, beginning to copy ‘bits’ from old pictures, leaving off because they were ‘no good,’ and observing that, after all, self-culture was the principal point.” This description fits Leigh Fermor to a T—the total aimlessness, the nebulous hopes of someday writing a book, the amateurish sketching that Leigh Fermor himself is careful to denigrate.

I admit that I am lobbing these accusations at Leigh Fermor with an uneasy conscience, because in so many ways he is leaps and bounds more learned and eloquent than I am. Yet to misuse one’s gifts seems more culpable than not having gifts in the first place. But let me stop being vague. Consider this passage from the beginning, right when the writer is setting out and saying goodbye to his loved ones:

Haste and the weather cut short our farewells and our embraces and I sped down the gangway clutching my rucksack and my stick while the others dashed back to the steps—four sodden trouser-legs and two high heels skipping across the puddles—and up them to the waiting taxi; and half a minute later there they were, high over head on the balustrade of the bridge, craning and waving from the cast-iron quatrefoils.

While I like certain aspects of this sentence—specifically the bit about soggy trouser legs and puddles—the final effect is unpleasant and false. First is the curiously passive construction in the beginning, giving agency to haste rather than people; and the ending focus on cast-iron quatrefoils is emotionally leaden (he isn’t thinking about his family?), and implausible (is this really what the young Leigh Fermor was focusing on in that moment?), and, in sum, strikes me as a purely pedantic inclusion—a word used because he knew it and not because it fit.

This tendency to use words just because he knows them often spoils Leigh Fermor’s prose for me. I grant that his verbal facility is extraordinary. But to what purpose? He is like a virtuoso jazz pianist who shows off his chops in every solo, even on the ballads, without tact or taste. This comes out most clearly in his architectural passages:

The archway at the top of these shallow steps, avoiding the threatened anticlimax of a flattened ogee, deviated in two round-topped lobes on either side with a right-angeled central cleft slashed deep between the cusps. There had been days, I was told, when horsemen on the way to the indoor lists rode in full armour up these steps: lobster-clad riders slipping and clattering as they stooped their ostriche-plumes under a freak doorway, gingerly carrying their lances at the trail to keep their bright paint that spiraled them unchipped. But in King Vladislav’s vast Hall of Homage the ribs of the vaulting had further to travel, higher to soar. Springing close from the floor from reversed and bisected cones, they sailed aloft curving and spreading across the wide arch of the ceiling: parting, crossing, re-joining, and—once again—enclosing those slim subdivided tulips as they climbed.

Aside from illustrating his penchant for refined obscurity, the bit about the horseman with lances in full armor exemplifies another irksome quality of Leigh Fermor: his romanticism. He seems totally uninterested in actually learning about what he sees. Like Byron, he treats the cathedrals, castles, and local history solely as food for his imagination. The closest thing to a real investigation in these pages is his attempt to explain why, in A Winter’s Tale, Shakespeare speaks of Bohemia, a landlocked country, having a “coast.” This line of questioning is somewhat amusing, sure, but also captures Leigh Fermor’s mentality: there he is, in a foreign land, and the question he occupies himself with is how a dead English playwright made a geographical error—a question of scant literary or historical value, a meaningless curiosity.

His tendency to fetishize learning and his romanticism are, I think, both symptoms of a deeper malady: the habit of looking at only the surface of things. Or, to put this another way, the exclusive preference for the specific at the expense of the general.

To be just, Leigh Fermor is marvelous when it comes to surfaces and particularities. He seems to notice every small, fleeting detail of everything he sees: buildings, cities, people, sunsets, landscapes. His love of strange words and foreign phrases fits equally well with this wont—the verbal flavor of an unusual term more important to him than its ability to communicate meaning. Leigh Fermor’s propensity to drown in an ecstasy of aesthetic observation—rendered in gloriously profuse prose—often reminded me of Walter Pater’s similar flights. But even Pater, an extreme aesthete, is not as wholly superficial as Leigh Fermor—who seems entirely incapable of holding abstract ideas in his mind.

Now, I am being rather unduly harsh towards a book that is generally good-natured and light-hearted. Partly this hostility comes from defensiveness: If I am to accuse someone as highly respected as Leigh Fermor of writing badly, I must make a strong case. As the final exhibit in my prosecution, I include this snippet of a description from a bar in Munich:

The vaults of the great chamber faded into infinity through blue strata of smoke. Hobnails grated, mugs clashed and the combined smell of beer and bodies and old clothes and farmyards sprang at the newcomer. I squeezed in at a table full of peasants, and was soon lifting one of those masskrugs to my lips. It was heavier than a brace of iron dumb-bells, but the blond beer inside was cool and marvelous, a brooding, cylindrical litre of Teutonic myth.

To my ears, this is just painfully overwritten. Including infinity and blue strata and iron dumb-bells in a simple bar scene is too much. And the final touch of calling a glass of beer a “brooding, cylindrical litre of Teutonic myth”—besides being a nonsensical image—is yet another example of his adolescent imagination: he can hardly touch anything German without his fantasy flying off into legendary knights and Germanic sagas. There is something to be said for enlivening a regular scene using colorful language; but there is also something to be said for honest description.

Now, despite all this, was I often astounded by Leigh Fermor’s diction and his fluency? Yes I was. Did I enjoy some parts of this travel book? Undeniably I did—particularly the section where he is taken in by the German girls. Do I think Leigh Fermor is insufferable? Often, yes, but he can also be charming and winsomely jejune. But did I learn something about the places he traveled to? I’m honestly not sure I did; and that, more than anything, is why I felt the necessity to write in opposition to the famous travel-writer.

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Review: Poet in New York

Review: Poet in New York

Poet in New York: A Bilingual EditionPoet in New York: A Bilingual Edition by Federico García Lorca
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I want to cry because I feel like it
as the boys in the back row cry,
because I am not a man nor a poet nor a leaf
but a wounded pulse that probes the things of the other side.

Poetry is an odd thing. You notice this when you encounter poetry in a second language. This happened to me a few weeks ago, when I went to a poetry reading in Madrid. There were four or five poets there, some of them fairly well-known, with a crowd of hushed listeners hanging on their every word. Meanwhile, with my very imperfect Spanish, I was only able to catch bits of phrases and scattered words that added up to nothing.

“Look, I can be a poet,” I said to a friend after the show: “A cow is a moon, / a moon is a balloon.” That’s really how it sounded to me.

In a way, this isn’t surprising, of course; but it got me thinking how strange a thing is poetry. We string phrases together that, interpreted literally, are either false, absurd, meaningless, or banal; and yet somehow, when the poetry works, these phrases open up subtle emotional reactions in their listeners. Why is it that a certain phrase seems just right, inexhaustibly expressive and unutterably perfect, while a similar phrase may be dead on arrival, impotent, sterile, and maybe even unpleasant? Bad poetry, indeed, can be excruciating and embarrassing to witness, perhaps because it is in bad poetry that the essential strangeness of the act of poetry is most acutely manifest. We feel that this whole thing is silly—trying to make portentous sounding phrases that signify close to nothing. And yet the genuine article, once witnessed, is undeniable.

I usually group poetry along with novels and short stories, as literature; but lately I think that poetry may be closer to another art form: dance. Dance is distinct from every other kind of movement—from walking to golf to sign language—in that it is not oriented towards any external goal. That is, the movement itself is the goal; the point is to move, and to move well. In poetry, too, our words—which normally point us towards the world, if only to an imaginary or a hypothetical world—are stripped as much as possible of their normal denoting function; the point becomes, rather, the pure manipulation of diction and grammar, in much the same way that, in dance, the point becomes the pure movement of limb and trunk.

This is a healthy thing, I think, since in life we can get so preoccupied with the attainment of a goal that we become blind to everything that does not advance our progress towards our object. A coach of a football team, for example, is only concerned with how well his players’ actions increase the likelihood of winning; and likewise, normally when we use language, we are using it to accomplish something specific, from ordering pizza to chiding children. Dance and poetry, by stripping away the intentionality of the act, reveal the subtle beauty in the activity itself, allowing us to slow down, to appreciate the rhythm of a word or the gentle flexion of an arm.

I must hasten to add that this description of poetry and dance does not apply equally to all examples. Alexander Pope’s poetry approaches very nearly to prose in its use of denotation; and T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” is on the other side of the spectrum. A similar spectrum applies in the case of dance, I suppose.

Federico García Lorca’s poetry is much closer to Eliot’s in this regard, perhaps even further along in its tendency towards connotation. This makes his poetry doubly hard for a foreigner like me to appreciate, since the specific emotional flavors of his words are bland in my mouth. As a young man Lorca lived in the famous Residencia de Estudiantes, in Madrid, where he became close friends with Dalí. The two exerted a mutual influence on each other, both moving towards the surrealism that was becoming trendy in the art world.

Lorca wrote this book many years later, during and after his visit to New York City in 1929-30, during which he witnessed the Stock Market Crash. Economic depression or not, however, the inhuman vastness of the city, the crowds and concrete, the money-obsessed workers and the poor and the homeless, the racial discrimination and the absence of nature, seems to have made a deep impression on the rural Andalusian poet. These poems are his anguished response to this experience.

Lorca’s poetry is surreal in the textbook sense that he uses a succession of vivid, concrete images that, taken together, add up to something nebulous and unreal. Much like Dalí, Lorca has a talent for creating bizarre images that nevertheless manage to be emotionally compelling. Opening the collection more or less at random I find:

All is broken in the night,
its legs spread wide over the terraces.
All is broken in the warm pipes
of a terrible, silent fountain.

Admittedly it does take some time to find the odd beauty in the apparently random, unconnected pictures. My first instinct was to read them like metaphors; but if Lorca did indeed have something specific in mind that he was trying to allegorize, the allegories are much too complicated and disjointed to be deciphered. Rather, I think these poems must be read simply for the beauty of the language, the striking collisions of words, the flashes of light and the rumblings of sound. The poems seem to capture nothing more nor less than an emotional mood—different shades of desolation—that presents itself to the conscious mind in a kind of personal mythology, as in a dream. Dalí was deeply influenced by Freud during his stay in the student residence, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Lorca was too.

Even if it is difficult to articulate the structure and meaning of Lorca’s image-world, it is certainly not random. Certain words and images come up again and again, as in a dream sequence, being shuffled and re-shuffled throughout the collection. Some of these words are oil, ant, worm, thigh, moon, void, footprint, hollow, glass, night, wounded, agony, sky, cracked, death, coffin, iron… The ultimate effect of these words, recombined again and again, is cumulative; they create echoes of themselves in the reader’s mind, calling up half-remembered associations from other poems, creating an emotional coherence in the literally incoherent text.

Look at concrete shapes seeking their void.
Mistaken dogs and bitten apples.
Look at the longing, the anguish of a sad fossil world
that cannot find the accent of its first sob.

The emotional resonance of the words themselves is also important, something that is unfortunately lost in translation. For example, the word for “oil,” aceite, has an interesting blend of comforting familiarity and a tint of the exotic. I think this is because the word originally comes from Arabic, and maintains a certain foreign flavor, even as it denotes something absolutely integral to the Spanish culture: olive oil, which is used in everything. The word also brings up the rolling olive fields, stumpy trees on sandy soil, that fill Lorca’s Andalucía; and this again calls to mind the age-old farming tradition, the intimate connection with the land, totally absent in New York City. There is also the double association of oil as integral to cooking and as something potentially toxic and polluting. A native Spaniard will likely disagree with this chain of associations, but I think the word is undeniably resonant.

Ultimately, though, I don’t think I can articulate exactly why the text of these poems is gripping, in the same way that I cannot articulate exactly why I find some dancers compelling and others not. You cannot learn anything about New York City from these poems, and arguably you can’t learn very much about Lorca, either. I’m not even sure that the cliché is correct, that these poems can “teach you about yourself.” Maybe they don’t teach anything except how to feel as Lorca felt. I don’t think that’s a problem, though, since the point of reading is not always to learn about something, just as the point of moving isn’t always to get somewhere. Sometimes we read simply for the pleasure of the text.

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Review: The Battle for Spain

Review: The Battle for Spain

La guerra civil españolaLa guerra civil española by Antony Beevor

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As the Spanish Civil War proved, the first casualty of war is not truth, but its source: the conscience and integrity of the individual.

A few months ago, hoping to cure my total ignorance of the Spanish Civil War, I set about trying to find a book. I had heard mixed opinions about Hugh Thomas’s famous history, and in any case its size didn’t seem ideally suited as an introduction. My coworker, a military historian, suggested Angel Viñas; but his works were equally long and, besides, only in Spanish—difficult Spanish. Nevertheless, I did want to practice reading Spanish, and I didn’t want a very short introduction or suchlike. Anthony Beevor’s account seemed to be just the right length; and its difficulty, when translated to Spanish, was ideal: challenging but doable.

Anthony Beevor is a military historian; and his book is mainly a record of armies and battles. The forces that destabilized the government and created so much tension within the country are quickly summarized; and the aftermath of the war—its legacy, its lingering effects in Spanish political life, its wider significance in 20th century political history—all this is hinted at, but not delved into. Like any historian, Beevor needs to set limits to his material. He focuses on the Iberian peninsula in the years between 1936-39.

Beevor is an excellent writer. His paragraphs are mines of information; he summarizes, offers statistics, gives striking examples. He surveys the battlefield like an aerial observer; he reports power struggles like an investigative journalist. He never lets the material run away from him, but compresses complex events into well-turned sentences. His focus is more on large-scale movements than on individual stories. The narration seldom pauses to analyze a person’s character, or to relate a telling anecdote, but instead maintains the perspective of a general examining his troops.

Beevor’s considerable powers of narration notwithstanding, he can’t help the fact that this war is complicated. So many actors are involved, all with different motives—communists, anarchists, republicans, trade unionists, conservatives, falangists, carlists, monarchists, Basques, Catalans, Germans, Italians, Soviets, Americans, British, French—that presenting the war as a clean story is impossible. Beevor breaks the material into 38 short chapters, focusing his gaze on one aspect, in an effort to do justice to the war’s complexity without overwhelming the reader. This is an effective strategy, but it comes at the price of a certain unpleasant fragmentation. The grand sweep of the narrative is obscured.

Nevertheless, this book does what I hoped it would: provide an overview of the conflict, the immediate causes, the principal actors, and the course of the war. Having said this, I must admit that the military history of the conflict—the battles, the strategies, the armaments—is only of passing interest to me.

What I really want to know is—Why? Why did a country decide to tear itself apart? Why did countrymen, neighbors, relatives decide to kill each other in mass numbers? Why did radicalism triumph on both the left and the right? Why did a democracy fail and a repressive regime seize power? These are big questions, which this book admittedly doesn’t address. To understand the historical background and the instability that led up to the war, I plan to read Gerald Brenan’s book, The Spanish Labyrinth.

In the meantime, I am left with little more than a picture of moral collapse. The really dreadful thing about this war is how few heroes there were in high places. Mass murders were committed on both sides. At the outbreak of the military coup, there are spontaneous slaughters of clergymen, monks, bishops, in the hundreds and thousands; and the Spanish Church, for its part, was too often complicit in repression and tyranny. Mass murders and executions were perpetrated on each side. To pick one example, when the republican side was in control of Málaga, 1,005 people were executed or murdered. In the first week after its conquest by the nationalists, over 3,000 people were killed; and by 1944, another 16,000 had been put to death.

On the republican side, important military decisions were made for political reasons; political propaganda was so pervasive that leaders felt blindly sure they would win, and tried to act to justify their boastful predictions. Useless offensives were carried out—in Segovia, Teruel, and the Ebro—costing thousands of lives and wasting the Republic’s resources, to capture targets of no strategic importance. Blindly trusting in high morale, anarchists refused to regulate the economy and discipline their troops, providing an “ideological excuse for inefficiency.” Stalinist factions eventually seized power on the “republican” side, violently suppressing other parties.

Brave volunteers from all over the world poured into Spain, most to fight against the fascists; and yet their zeal was squandered by careless leadership. Meanwhile, France, England, and the United States maintained a policy of “non-intervention,” while Fascist Italy, Nazi Germany, and Soviet Russia poured troops and military equipment into the country, testing out weapons and strategies that they would later use in the Second World War.

Eventually, of course, Franco won. Those on the losing side had few options. Many fled to France, where they were imprisoned in what amounted to concentration camps, in which they were forced to live on insufficient food, in unhygienic housing, and in freezing temperatures. In Saint-Cyprien, there were 50 to 100 deaths daily, and the other camps weren’t much better. After initial outrage, the French press promptly forgot the plight of these Spanish refugees. Those who remained in Franco’s Spain faced a gulag of imprisonment, forced labor, and death. Some escaped to the hills to hide out, and others fought in scattered bands of guerilla fighters; but these usually didn’t last long. And yet if the Stalinists had won the war, it isn’t clear that conditions would have been any better.

One thing that repeatedly struck me as I read through this book was the contrast in efficiency between the nationalists and the republicans. While Franco regulated his wartime economy and made effective military decisions, the republican side was awash in dozens of local currencies, busy worrying about forming syndicates, and preparing for the imminent proletariat “revolution.” On the same day as Málaga fell, when so many were put to death by Franco’s forces, in Barcelona the government was worrying about the collectivization of cows.

This seems to show us a persistent feature of both the left and the right. Equality and authority are two ideals at odds with one another; and most governments concern themselves with finding a balance between these two values. When the right becomes extreme, it gravitates towards extreme authority at the expense of equality; and when the left is radicalized, the reverse happens, and equality is fetishized. Thus we see the nationalist army consolidating itself under Franco, while the republican side devolved into warring factions, more concerned with their utopian schemes than with winning the war.

Equality without authority produces justice without power. Authority without equality, power without justice. The first is morally preferable in its ends and totally inadequate in its means; while the latter uses brutally efficient means to achieve brutally unjust ends. In practice, this means that, in direct contests, the extreme right will most often triumph over the extreme left, at least in the short-term; and yet in the long-term their emphasis on authority, obedience, and discipline produces unfair societies and unhappy populaces. The extreme left, for its part, after collapsing into mutually squabbling factions, sometimes devolves into the authoritarian pattern as one party emerges as the most powerful and as they lose patience with discussion (which doesn’t take long in a crisis).

Some middle-path is needed to navigate between these two ideals. But what’s the right balance? I suppose this is one of the oldest questions of human societies. In any case, as I put down this book, I am left with a dark picture lightened by very few bright patches.

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Review: People of the Sierra

Review: People of the Sierra

The People of the SierraThe People of the Sierra by Julian Alfred Pitt-Rivers
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Writing is an activity which links a person with the world of formality.

Julian A. Pitt-Rivers was, in the words of his mentor E.E. Evans-Pritchard, “in every sense a son of Oxford and an Oxford anthropologist.” Julian was the descendant of an aristocratic family. His grandfather, Augustus, the pioneering archaeologist, was along with Sir Edward Taylor a founder of the anthropology department at Oxford. (The famous anthropology museum in Oxford is named after him.*) Julian’s father, whose absurdly long name I will not write—alright, fine, it is George Henry Lane-Fox Pitt-Rivers—was enormously wealthy. A vigorous anti-Semite and Eugenics proponent, George was jailed during the Second World War. Julian himself, among his other accomplishments, was tutor to the King of Iraq.

With a pedigree like that, it’s easy to see how his book became a classic in the field.

My interest in The People of the Sierra was sparked, naturally, by it being about a village in Spain. But for those with an interest in anthropology, such as myself, the book is significant independent of your specialty. This is because this book was one of the first ethnographies published about a community in Europe. True, it was a small, poor, agricultural community, and it was in a region of Europe commonly regarded as exotic, but it is Europe nonetheless. As such, the book is a landmark in the field.

The book’s classic status is due not only to its groundbreaking subject matter, however, but also to its high quality. Julian Pitt-Rivers was a true disciple of his advisor, E.E. Evans-Pritchard. Everything from the writing style to the analysis bears the traces of EP’s influence. And this is a good thing, for EP was one of the great masters of ethnography.

The central theme of Pitt-Rivers’s analysis is the contrast between the local and the national forces that shape the pueblo. In nearly every sector of life, there are two social structures at play. The first is that of the pueblo; it is self-contained. Moral rules are enforced by the community; there are certain—unwritten but universally known—appropriate ways of acting, and infractions are punished by loss of respect. The second structure is that of the state. Its authority is derived from somewhere far outside of the pueblo. Its laws are explicit, and infractions are punished with fines or jail time.

This theme is explored from a variety of different angles. One chapter, for example, explains the practice of giving members of the town nicknames. These nicknames are never used to a person’s face, and yet everybody in the village knows them. Indeed, you might know a person’s nickname without knowing their surname. Surnames are important, most of all, in dealings with the state. Thus you can see the contrast between local and national, informal and official, even in people’s names.

Tension exists in this state of affairs, because these two systems are often out of alignment. Many things are regarded as immoral which are not illegal, and vice versa. An important concept, for example, is vergüenza, shame, which is the regard that one pays to the social norms of the pueblo. To call someone a sinvergüenza is a serious insult; to be without shame is to be almost inhuman, since it puts you beyond the realm of society; it is to be a pariah. By contrast, it’s obviously not illegal to be without shame, and many of these pariahs are employed by the state as informers.

This is the book’s theme in a nutshell. For me, however, the book’s lasting value has far more to do with its style than its substance. Pitt-Rivers’s writing is remarkable more for what it excludes than for what it includes. There is not a word of jargon in these pages; a polysyllabic word is never used when a shorter one will do; sentences are crisp and short; there is no pretentious name-dropping, no unnecessary citations.

The book itself is brief, and yet Pitt-Rivers’s writing is so economical that he manages to give a full-blooded picture of the community. The first two sentences give an adequate taste of what follows: “This book is about a Spanish town. More precisely, it examines the social structure of a rural community in the mountains of southern Spain.”

Why social scientists no longer write like this, I cannot say. So read this, if only to remember a time when clear, strong English was used in anthropology.

*Thanks to Wastrel for bringing this to my attention.

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Review: People of the Plain

Review: People of the Plain

The People of the PlainThe People of the Plain by David D. Gilmore

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Since the day of this altercation they have not communicated; however, each serves as an excellent source of gossip about the other.

What drew me to this book was not only its subject—a village in Spain—but its author.

David D. Gilmore was my first anthropology professor. His classes were unforgettable. Standing over six feet tall, solidly built, he towered over the lecture hall. Professor Gilmore was the very picture of a professor. He had a preference for tweed jackets, complete with elbow patches; and his hair was equally professorial, an electrified shock of snowy white. His voice needed no amplification; it boomed throughout the space, keeping even the most sleep-deprived students semi-conscious.

What I remember most, however, was not his appearance, but his attitude. He had an understated ironic humor, and couldn’t help punctuating his classes with sardonic comments. After one of these comments, he would pause and grin very slightly. A few of the students, myself included, snickered; the majority scrunched up their brows, unsure if it was a joke. Unperturbed, Professor Gilmore then continued the class.

To my youthful eyes, this ironic sensibility seemed to pervade his entire attitude towards life. It was not only a sense of humor, but a philosophy, allowing him to maintain a sense of perspective and take nothing too seriously. I could not help concluding that studying anthropology—living abroad, in another culture, away from his native prejudices—engendered this witty sort of wisdom. By the end of the semester I had switched my major to anthropology, and Professor Gilmore was my advisor.*

I am delighted, therefore, upon reading his first book, to find that Professor Gilmore was an excellent anthropologist in addition to a striking professor.

As the title page indicates, and the rest of the pages make clear, this book is largely a response to Pitt-Rivers’s classic ethnography, The People of the Sierra. In that book, Pitt-Rivers maintained that the pueblos of Andalusia are governed by a powerful egalitarian ethos. Class is not acknowledged to exist, and friendships crosscut differences of wealth and power. Indeed, Pitt-Rivers considered all recognized forms of authority to be imposed from outside the pueblo, not arising within it.

The pueblo that Gilmore studied was quite different. Significantly larger, and situated on the plains rather than in the mountains, Gilmore’s village—he calls it Fuenmayor but it’s a pseudonym—is remarkably stratified. Three distinct social classes exist: the señoritos, the rich, landowning gentry; the mayetes, the middle class; and the jornaleros, the landless, working, migrant poor. These classes had existed for at least a hundred years, and their contours were engrained into the culture of the village.

The mutual isolation of the classes borders on absurdity. Friendships and marriages between members of different classes are nonexistent. Brother will shun brother if he “loses class.” There are three different seating sections in the movie theater, three different sections of pews in the church, and three different sections in the town cemetery. Señoritos are patriarchal, whereas jornalero women have far more power than men in the home. Señoritos are piously Catholic, while jornaleros rarely attend mass and openly scorn the church. The rich view the poor with contempt, and the poor view the rich as hateful oppressors. The mayetes, for their part, focus on keeping themselves afloat.

The picture that emerges is of a society strongly divided, almost bursting at the seams with social tensions, kept together only by the oppressive force of Franco’s regime. (The fieldwork was done in 1973.)

The book, although short, is stuffed with information and anecdotes. Gilmore is always careful to compare the opinions of his informants with objective data, including statistics of land ownership, crop growth, and church attendance. Thankfully these data are usually illustrated with field anecdotes (which are half the fun of any ethnography). I especially appreciated these, because his ironic sensibility shone through:

The mayete is also known occasionally to affect a broad-brimmed fedora hat, which for some reason the workers find indescribably hilarious. One day I appeared in a working-class tavern sporting a new straw fedora, purchased earlier in the city. After a moment of amused silence, one of the laborers shouted, ‘Hey, look at this new mayete we have here!’ Loud, prolonged laughter followed; yet my friends could not explain their merriment.

As an academic work about the anthropology of Andalusia, this book is therefore excellent: well-written, thoroughly researched, and original. But as a piece of personal nostalgia, it is priceless.


*This is how I introduced myself to Professor Gilmore. In this first class, we did a unit on monsters. One of these monsters was the Windigo, a cannibalistic beast from Algonquian folklore. I found this monster fascinating and wrote a silly poem about him. I believe these were the first two lines: “Oh, Windigo, Windigo / Beast of blue and indigo.” It was certainly not a masterpiece. Nevertheless, one day after class I showed Professor Gilmore a copy of the poem. He seemed genuinely amused. It was an auspicious beginning.

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Review: The Bible in Spain

Review: The Bible in Spain

The Bible in Spain; or, the journeys, adventures, and imprisonments of an Englishman, in an attempt to circulate the Scriptures in the PeninsulaThe Bible in Spain; or, the journeys, adventures, and imprisonments of an Englishman, in an attempt to circulate the Scriptures in the Peninsula by George Borrow

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Those who wish to make themselves understood by a foreigner in his own language, should speak with much noise and vociferation, opening their mouths wide.

In the year 1835, George Henry Borrow, British traveler and noted eccentric, embarked upon a voyage to Spain with the purpose of making the Holy Bible available to the populace of that hoary nation, and in their native language; freeing that sacred volume from the clutches of friars and priests, who, being papists, jealously guard and keep the scriptures in a language unintelligible to the majority of men and women,—or so opined the author, a proud and uncompromising Protestant.

Mr. Borrow undertook this journey under the direction of the Bible Society, and was chosen for this work due to his previous success, persistence, and tenacity, in propagating the Bible in the vast plains of Russia, where he laboured many long years among poor peasants; and this previous experience was bolstered by Borrow’s prodigious facility in acquiring languages, being possessed, if we are to believe his report of himself, of the Latin, French, Italian, Gaelic, Russian, Arabic, Romani, German, and both the modern and ancient Greek languages,—this list may not be complete,—in addition to his fluency in Portuguese and Spanish, the two dialects on which he was to rely during his time in the Iberian Peninsula.

This book, the record of this noble errand, was pieced together from journal entries, letters, and Mr. Borrow’s apparently remarkable faculty of memory; and narrates his misadventures suffered, voyages undertaken, obstacles overcome, and successes gained, in a style verbose and tending towards the periodic sentence, with hypotaxis being his most habitual mode of expression; a style, nonetheless, of vigour and charm; its only fault, being a tendency to unfurl itself in a monotonous, seemingly endless, series, built of commas and semicolons, that, if imbibed to excess, can have the same soporific effects of opium upon the senses of the reader.

Being a book of travels, much of Mr. Borrow’s narrative, if not the majority, consists of descriptions of noble edifices, foreign cities, strange landscapes, and other vistas of entrancing beauty; as well as many stories of incompetent footmen, derelict guides, incommodious accommodations, unscrupulous innkeepers, and all of the diverse and profuse inconveniences suffered by any traveler in a foreign land; these being supplemented by several vignettes, or sketches, of striking personalities encountered by Mr. Borrow, these personages being from many different classes, creeds, and nations; all of this detail and description serving as the backdrop to Mr. Borrow’s laborious task, selling the Bible in a land generally hostile and suspicious of the Protestant religion, the opposition of the authorities more than once thwarting Mr. Borrow in his noble errand; and this is not to mention the continual fighting, and concomitant destruction of land and property, and the resultant poverty experienced by the people, putting aside the brigandage and banditry rampant across the land, occasioned by the Carlist Civil War.

For all of its merits, and these are many and conspicuous, this book, however, cannot be recommended as providing any significant insight into the culture and history of the Spanish nation, being too absorbed in Mr. Borrow’s own private worries and concerns, and too involved in the slight and superficial impressions gained by the traveler; and seeing as this, namely, gaining knowledge of the Spanish nation, was my primary object in picking up the book, I must admit that I was somewhat disappointed; this disappointment being, I should hastily add, partly counterweighted by the eccentricity and peculiarity of this book, whose style, and whose narrator, while perhaps not brilliant, nor profound, nor even greatly compelling, are, at least, so distinct, that they are impressed upon the soul of the reader, not to be erased by any subsequent experience.

(The above picture is the commemorative plaque, which is posted on Calle de Santiago, 14, in Madrid, where George Borrow stayed.)

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Review: Spiritual Exercises

Review: Spiritual Exercises

The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius: Based on Studies in the Language of the AutographThe Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius: Based on Studies in the Language of the Autograph by Ignatius of Loyola
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Just as taking a walk, journeying on foot, and running are bodily exercises, so we call Spiritual Exercises every way of preparing and disposing the soul to rid itself of all inordinate attachments, and, after their removal, of seeking and finding the will of God in the disposition of our life for the salvation of our soul.

Saint Ignatius of Loyola (1491 – 1556), the founder of the Society of Jesus, has a claim to being among the most influential Spaniards in history.

His beginning was quixotic. The son of a Basque nobleman, his imagination was fed, like the Don’s, on tales of knight errantry and romance. This led to a career in the army, cut short by a canon ball that struck and permanently crippled his leg. His shattered bone had to be set, and then re-set twice, in order to heal properly; and by then his injured leg was too short, and he had to endure months of painful stretching. He walked with a limp the rest of his life.

During his convalescence, deprived of his usual adventure stories, he read about the lives of the saints. This, combined with the pain and immobility, worked a religious conversion in him. When he healed, he resolved to devote his life, no longer to earthly glory and the favors of young Doñas, but to God and the Catholic Church. Thus, eventually, the Society of Jesus was formed, which bears the military stamp of its founder in its dedication, organization, and devotion.

The Jesuits soon acquired a reputation for being excellent educators. Voltaire himself, no friend of anyone in a robe or a hood, received his early education from Jesuits, and always had a good word to say about his instructors and his tutelage. The success of the Jesuits in education is somewhat ironic, considering its founder’s lack of interest in formal schooling. In the words of this edition’s translator, St. Ignatius wrote in “limping Spanish,” since he had “only the elements of an education” and used the Spanish language “with little knowledge of its literary form.”

I should pause to note that this translation, by Louis J. Puhl, a Jesuit himself, is excellent. The language is clear, simple, and idiomatic. To achieve this, he had to depart somewhat radically from the original sentence structure, as well as abandon the sixteenth-century Spanish idioms used by St. Ignatius. He justifies this by noting that the book is meant to be a practical manual, not a work of literature, and I think he is right.

The Spiritual Exercises is meant for a month-long retreat. To that end, the exercises are divided into four weeks. We begin with an examination of our conscience. What sins are we committing? We are invited to compare our many sins with the fallen angels, now demons in hell, who committed only one sin. Then we are instructed to contemplate the sin of the rebellious angels and the first sin of Adam and Even in the Garden. What is the nature of those sins? What makes them tempting? What makes them abhorrent in the eyes of God? After that, we shall vividly imagine the tortures of the damned: the smell of burnt bodies, the screams and cries of the hopelessly sinful, the burning flames and the sea of writhing flesh. (The epic of Dante or the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch are helpful.) This is the first week.

The schedule is demanding: “The First Exercise will be made at midnight; the Second, immediately on rising in the morning; the Third, before or after Mass, at all events before dinner; the Fourth, about the time of Vespers; the Fifth, an hour before supper.” I don’t know how many hours that would be in total. Elsewhere, he says: “One who is educated or talented, but engaged in public affairs or necessary business, should take an hour and a half daily for the Spiritual Exercises.” I imagine this total number of hours would increase for somebody on a spiritual retreat.

Before I mention what I liked, I will state my reservations. For me, the fixation of sinfulness and the terrors of hell have always been the most disagreeable aspects of Christianity. I don’t think it is healthy to despise one’s own body, to focus relentlessly on one’s faults, or to act in accordance with a moral code for fear of eternal torment. For somebody, such as myself, who has grown up in the post sexual liberation era, quotes like the following are hard to swallow: “I will consider all the corruption and loathsomeness of my body. I will consider myself as a source of corruption and contagion from which has issued countless sins and evils and the most offensive poison.”

In one section, St. Ignatius even recommends hurting oneself for penance: “The third kind of penance is to chastise the body, that is, to inflict sensible pain on it. This is done by wearing hairshirts, cords, or iron chains on the body, or by scourging or wounding oneself, and by other kinds of austerities.” And in another section, he states that all believers must submit unhesitatingly and completely to the church: “If we wish to proceed securely in all things, we must hold fast to the following principle: What seems to me white, I will believe black if the hierarchical Church so defines.” Neither of these strike me as a good idea.

All these reservations aside—and if a pagan such as myself can judge—I think that this book can be profitably used by contemporary Christians seeking to have a deeper spiritual experience.

I myself tried to do some of the exercises in this book. This was a challenge. I am not a Christian and my knowledge of the Bible is not as intimate as could be desired. What is more, I did not have an hour and a half every day; the most I was willing to spend was half an hour. In any case, even if I was a practicing Catholic, these exercises are not meant to be used by oneself. My attempt to do the exercise was an experiment to see if I could interpret the mythology of Catholicism in a way that had meaning for my own life. And I am happy to report that, despite some struggles, I made considerable progress in experiencing this grand faith, which I have long admired as an outsider.

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Review: Moorish Spain

Review: Moorish Spain

Moorish SpainMoorish Spain by Richard Fletcher
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Nostalgia is the enemy of historical understanding.

After reading and being disappointed with Menocal’s famous book on Moorish Spain, The Ornament of the World, I decided to take another crack with this book. And I am happy to report that Fletcher’s book is much better.

While Menocal is wistful and romantic, Fletcher is more detached and occasionally wry. While Menocal hardly acknowledges her sources, Fletcher is usually careful to note where he is getting his information from, even if this book lacks a scholarly bibliography. I found this a great relief, as I have been discovering that Moorish Spain is one of the most persistently mythologized periods in history. Washington Irving set the tone for this in his Tales of the Alhambra, but other writers have been following in his romantic footsteps ever since. Thus Fletcher’s dispassionate treatment was refreshing.

The main drawbacks of this book is that it is too short, and too scholarly. Fletcher was explicitly aiming for a popular audience, but the book he wrote would be better suited for an undergraduate class than a tourist. You cannot, for example, find many good vacation ideas in these pages; indeed, if this was your introduction to Moorish Spain, you might not even want to travel there at all.

Instead of focusing on intellectual and cultural history, the majority of this text deals with political and military history—the invasions, battles, territorial expansions, and so on. Admittedly, Fletcher also quotes poems, autobiographies, and includes pictures of famous buildings; he even has a whole chapter on the relations between Christians and Muslims during this time. But this information jostles for space among dozens of unfamiliar names of rulers who I do not much care to remember. Probably, if he wanted a better-selling book, he could have bot expanded it and included more of a personal touch. He is a fine writer and rather opinionated, so it would have served him well, I think, to have written something less formal.

In any case, I doubt there are any better books on the market for the history hungry tourist visiting Andalusia. This book will give you an overview of the period, and in the process inoculate you against much of the nonsense that gets thrown around about al-Andalus. It was not a paradise of tolerance, nor was it a perpetual war of faith against faith. As Fletcher said: “The past, like the present, is for most of the time rather flavourless.”

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Review: Interior Castle

Review: Interior Castle

The Interior CastleThe Interior Castle by Teresa of Ávila

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It is absurd to think that we can enter Heaven without first entering our own souls

Last week I spend five days walking on the Camino de Santiago. I know, probably that doesn’t sound terribly impressive to anyone who walked all the way from France, but I still had a great time. Every morning we set out before sunrise, when the lush landscape of Galicia was still shrouded in mist and twilight. We walked on and on, guided by the conch shell signs that point the way. We reached our destination just as the heat of the day began to take hold. My back sore, my feet blistered, I dropped my backpack in the hostel and stretched out in my bunkbed. Besides walking, sleeping, and eating, the only thing I did was to read this book: St. Teresa’s book on prayer.

It seemed like an appropriate choice. Both Santiago (St. James) and St. Teresa are patron saints of Spain; and yet they represent two very different periods in Spain’s history. The cult of Santiago dates from the time of the Moors, when Christians needed a figure to rally around during the Reconquista. St. Teresa, on the other hand, lived during the Counter-Reformation. As the Catholic world was coming apart, Catholic officials were understandably skittish at even a hint of heterodoxy. Thus St. Teresa’s mysticism was first viewed with suspicion, and she was even picked up by the Inquisition. But after some investigation, it was decided that St. Teresa posed no threat to orthodoxy; to the contrary, she helped to reinvigorate the faith.

This context is necessary to understand this book, or at least half of it. This is because, although ostensibly guide for prayer, it is also a handbook for avoiding the suspicions of unorthodoxy. It is full of advice for those having mystical experiences on which visions to discount, because they are products of Satan or the imagination, and which visions to accept. Teresa also explains when you should yield to one’s prioress or confessor, and when you should stand your ground. St. Teresa was obviously acutely aware of the paranoid climate, and thus this book is as full of pragmatic counsel as religious guidance. St. Teresa even explains in the beginning that the only reason she wrote the book was because she was commanded to.

As James Michener pointed out, the most striking thing about St. Teresa is this seamless mixture of pragmatism and mysticism. For somebody who reported feeling her soul leave her body, she comes across as remarkably down to earth. Several times, she quotes or references a Biblical passage and then adds parenthetically “Well, at least I think that’s what it says,” as if she couldn’t be bothered to go look it up. She also frequently comments on how inadequate she feels to the task at hand; and a few times she says that she’s unsure whether she is repeating herself, because she wrote the last bit a while ago and she doesn’t have time to reread it. The final effect is really charming, as if she just sat down and dashed off the whole thing between breakfast and lunch.

These interior matters are so obscure to the mind that anyone with as little learning as I will be sure to have to say many superfluous and even irrelevant things in order to say a single one that is to the point. The reader must have patience with me, as I have with myself when writing about things of which I know nothing; for really I sometimes take up my paper, like a perfect fool, with no idea of what to say or of how to begin.

Ironically, but perhaps unsurprisingly, the religious content was what least impressed me. The book is divided into seven mansions within the crystalline castle that represents the soul. Each progressive mansion is one step closer to God. Despite this organization, however, I found the chapters quiet repetitive; the divisions from one stage to another didn’t strike me as very clear. The general tendency is for the mystical experiences to keep growing in intensity, which culminates in the experience of a burning mixture of pleasure and pain that seems to come from nowhere. This is the inspiration for Bernini’s famous, and famously erotic, portrayal of the Saint.

What most bothered me was that the mystical and orthodox strains in Teresa’s thought did not go easily together. Perhaps this is only my taste. One thing I enjoy about mystic writings is their grand conception of the cosmos, the notion that everything apparently opposite and contradictory is one. Thus mystic writers, in my experience, tend not to be especially preoccupied with moral injunctions, since they regard good and evil as a kind of illusion.

But in Teresa, the emphasis on wickedness, on personal shortcomings, on temptation, and in general the whole moral framework of Catholicism made her system as much about avoiding sinfulness and unorthodoxy as achieving a mystical experience. For example, I’ve heard mystics say that each person is a part of God, but Teresa councils that we should contemplate God to realize our own foulness and lowliness. This is just a matter of taste, but I don’t find that appealing.

On the fifth day after we began, at about noon, I found myself standing in front of the two towers of Santiago Cathedral. Later that day, I finished the final pages of this book. I had taken a pilgrimage of the body and soul, and hopefully I’m better for it. In any case, I enjoyed myself and learned something.

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Review: Imperial Spain, by J.H. Elliott

Review: Imperial Spain, by J.H. Elliott

Imperial Spain, 1469-1716Imperial Spain, 1469-1716 by J.H. Elliott

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Already by the end of the sixteenth century many Spaniards seem to have been gripped by that sense of fatalism which would prompt the famous pronouncement of a Junta of theologians in the reign of Philip IV. Summoned to consider a project for the construction of a canal linking the Manzanares and the Tagus, it flatly declared that if God had intended the rivers to be navigable, He would have made them so.

For Anglophone readers interested in the history of Spain, this book is invaluable. Elliott has here accomplished a real feat, of research, of writing, and of analysis. The book ably navigates that forbidding passage between simplifying popular accounts and unreadable scholarly monographs, managing to be both a work of serious intellectual synthesis and an absorbing account of Spain’s history.

Elliott has an astounding ability to seamlessly combine many disparate threads into the same narrative. He pays close attention to economic history: crop yields, interest rates, inflation and deflation, the debasement of currency, the balance of trade, tariffs and regulations. He incorporates social and cultural shifts: changing religious attitudes, demographic trends, class tensions, intellectual movements. And yet he also does not neglect the superlative individuals: Ferdinand and Isabella, Charles V, Philip II, the Conde Duque, among others. The only thing conspicuously absent was military history, which suited me just fine.

Although the story of Spain during this time was heavily interwoven with both the New World and the rest of Europe, Elliott’s focus doesn’t stray from the Iberian peninsula. He gives only the most cursory account of the Spanish conquest of the Americas, and only mentions the struggles of Charles V against the Protestant Reformation. For those looking for a history of Spanish colonization, this book will therefore be disappointing. I must also add that Elliott’s judgment is at its worst in his brief section on the conquistadores. He describes them as glorious conquering heroes of a barren civilization, which I cannot abide in the light of the destruction and exploitation that followed in their wake.

Keeping those exceptions in mind, this book is a superlative account of this period of Spanish history. The competing centrifugal and centralizing forces at play, the conflicting traditions of Castilian and Aragonese governments, the infinitely subtle machinations of power, the gradual emergence of a national identity, the meteoric rise of the Spanish Empire, the cruel, grinding decline that followed, the heroic and hapless individuals struggling with forces beyond their control—all this is related with brevity, insight, and power.

It is difficult not to see the whole story as a morality play writ large. What with the ruthless exploitation of the treasure mines of the New World, the expulsion of the Jews and the Moors, the obsession with purity of blood, and the alignment of religious orthodoxy with central power, it seems as if the collapse of the grand but hollow edifice was the inevitable result of intolerance and folly. But even if we can learn some valuable lessons from this history, it is important to remember that the story is not so simple, and many decisions which in retrospect seem obviously foolish were at the time fairly reasonable (though of course many weren’t).

In short, I heartily recommend this book to anyone interested in this fascinating time and place. It could hardly be better.

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