My friend Hui Liang interviewed me for her blog about my experience living and traveling in Europe. She has a great travel blog herself, which you might want to check out.
Here’s the link!
My friend Hui Liang interviewed me for her blog about my experience living and traveling in Europe. She has a great travel blog herself, which you might want to check out.
Here’s the link!
I was fortunate enough to be featured in the lastest episode of the podcast, Thought Stack. Jon Stenstrom, its host, interviewed me about reading—how to read, what to read, why to read, when to read—and also asked me for a few writing tips. Here’s your chance to hear my sonorous voice!
Click here to listen.
There is really no way for a man to put his arms around a big house plant and still remain a gentleman.
E.B. White’s name, along with Will Strunk’s, is now synonymous with good style. If that isn’t a compliment to a writer, I don’t know what is.
My first encounter with the duo was in my high school English class of junior year. My teacher was old-fashioned enough to believe that we should learn how to use punctuation. This came as a shock, since none of her predecessors had spared so much as a moment on a semicolon. It was with bewilderment and wonder, then, that I opened up The Elements of Style and encountered this sentence: “The colon has more effect than the comma, less power to separate than the semicolon, and more formality than the dash.” How often is so much instruction packed into so few words?
In college I picked up the habit of rereading Strunk and White at least once a year. Probably I should do so more often, since verbal profligacy—Strunk’s sworn enemy, the capital sin of writing—is something that I can’t seem to shake, no matter how often I try. One of the reasons I picked up this book was the hope that, by observing White at work, his example might serve where his precepts failed.
With White, the style is the man; and any discussion of his works inevitably becomes an analysis of his prose. To begin with, White is not what I’d call a vocal writer. A vocal writer is one whose writing seems to come alive and speak, whose writing cannot be read in your own voice, only in the author’s own accent. White’s writing, while personable, charming, and full of feeling, does not leap from the page into your living room. It is writerly writing.
His style is conversational, not aphoristic. His sentences are not pointed, his wit is not barbed, his lines are not militantly memorable. His writing is loose; it breathes like a cotton shirt; it is drafty like an old wooden cabin. You might say that his essays are a controlled ramble, a balancing act that looks like a casual stroll. They take their time. Like a scatterbrained errand boy, they pause in a thousand places for momentary rendezvous and covert dalliances before reaching their destinations.
White seldom speaks in abstractions, and hardly makes an argument. His writing is held together not by the logic of ideas but by the tissue of memory. This is partly why the style is unfilterable from the content. There is no thesis to take away. He is not trying to make a point, but to communicate his perspective, to encapsulate a piece of his personality.
White’s personality is delightful. Modest and gently humorous, he is animated by a curiosity for the little things that comprise his world. He can study a train schedule with avidity, he can spend hours gazing at a spider’s web, he can write poetry on the life-cycle of a pig. This is what makes him such a consummate essayist. In the humdrum facts and quotidian occurrences of life he hears music and meaning, and spiderlike weaves his own web to stitch them into a delicate structure:
As I sat at table, gnawing away at a piece of pie, snow began falling. At first it was an almost imperceptible spitting from the gray sky, but it soon thickened and came driving in from the northeast. I watched it catch along the edge of the drive, powder the stone wall, and whiten the surface of the dark frozen pond, and I knew that all along the coast from Kittery on, the worst mistakes of men were being quietly erased, the lines of their industrial temples softened, and U.S. 1 crowned with a cold, inexpensive glory
There is not much to be said against these essays, except what can be said against all stylists. Since what White says is less important than the way he says it, upon finishing the reader is left with nothing but echoes and aftertastes. Yet it is a delicious aftertaste, tart and tangy with a touch of smoke, and it whets my appetite for more.
Revenge is a kind of wild justice; which the more man’s nature runs to, the more ought law to weed it out.
The thirst for revenge is one of our ugliest, most satisfying, and most basic tendencies. It isn’t hard to see why.
The urge to revenge ourselves is a straightforward consequence of the urge to preserve ourselves. If somebody has hurt us in some way—by stealing a mate, by physical violence, or merely by a rude remark—then they have clearly shown themselves to be a threat, a dangerous person who can’t be trusted. The logical thing to do then becomes to neutralize this threat, to diminish or destroy his capacity to further hinder us.
This counter-attack will serve two purposes: first, it will harm the enemy, reducing his capacity to harm you in the future; second, by publically revenging yourself on an enemy, it will signal to others that you are not one to be trifled with, and that you will retaliate if anybody tries something funny. The practical benefits of revenge are thus preventative.
It is paradoxical, therefore, that revenge is not often thought of as oriented towards future security, but instead toward bygone injuries. The purpose of revenge, we feel in our bones, is to right the wrongs of the universe, to put the cosmic scale of justice back to zero, balancing a good action for a bad one.
When revenge is conceived this way, as retaliatory and not as preventative, then it can lead to absurdly unproductive actions, notable only for the resources they waste. In this connection, I can’t help thinking of Iñigo Montoya from The Princess Bride, whose obsessive quest to kill the murderer of his father consumed decades of his life.
Ask anyone to tell you about their ex, and there’s a good chance you will be met with the same vengeful fixation. The revenge intoxicated man is something of a narrative cliche, repeated ten thousand times in novels and television and movies. I would guess that revenge is second only to romantic love as the emotional engine of drama.
The folly of orienting your life around getting back at an enemy is clear to anyone with healthy sense of perspective. The best form of revenge, after all, is being happy, and all-consuming quests for personal justice are not conducive to happiness.
Even as a preventative measure—to incapacitate an enemy and prevent others from springing up—revenge often backfires. This is for two reasons.
First, if you attempt to render an enemy incapable of harming you in the future, there is always a risk you will fall short of full incapacitation. This is dangerous because, if you don’t succeed in fully disabling your enemy—whether psychologically, politically, logistically, socially, or physically—then there is a good chance that you will only embitter him, who will then counter-attack after he recovers his strength.
The second risk, related to the first, is the question of third-parties. If you succeed in fully disabling your enemy, there is still the possibility that he may have powerful friends. The friend of every enemy is another potential enemy, and can be mobilized against you. After successful revenge, you may yourself be the victim of a vengeful act by one of the enemy’s allies. If this revenge against you is successful, then one of your friends might retaliate against this new foe.
This logic of attack and counterattack is how feuds start. Every act of vengeance can breed another, until half the world is embroiled in a bitter, pointless war against the other half. The most emblematic of these vindictive conflicts was the feud between the Hartfields and the McCoys, but you see this sort of thing in every section and at every scale of human life.
Revenge, as you can see, is a strategy of limited utility. It would, however, be untrue to say that revenge is always futile. In a situation similar to Hobbes’s “State of Nature,” vengeful acts are hardly avoidable. If there is no structure in place to resolve disputes, no laws and thus no method to punish law-breakers, then each party must enforce their own version of right and wrong.
Remember that, for each individual, taken separately, right and wrong are products of self-interest. In other words, in the absence of law, “right” is simply what helps you, “wrong” what hurts you; and without any legal system, you must enforce your own version of right and wrong, since no one else will.
In order to survive in an anarchic world, you must retaliate against those who interfere with your self-interest. If not, it will send the message to those around you that you are a pushover, and that they can take advantage of you without any risk; and you can only expect more enemies to interfere with you in the future. (I teach adolescents, so I know something about an anarchic world.) Some retaliation is therefore necessary. But care must be taken not to take vengeance too readily or too forcefully, or you may be the victim of revenge yourself.
Humans were born into anarchy and we still have the instincts that helped us get through it. This is why revenge comes to naturally to us, and why it tastes so sweet. But this emotional armory does not help us when we live in a society governed by law.
Law is a substitute for revenge, with all of its advantages and none of its defects. With recourse to the legal prosecution—organized retaliation, approved by the community—then we can neutralize threats and protect ourselves from future harm, with only a minimal chance that our enemies’ friends will try to get back at us. Law replaces private desire with public safety; and because the will of the community sanctions the law’s consequences, the law is joined with overwhelming force, to protect its adherents and attack its antagonists.
Living, as we all do, in states governed by law, the emotional urge to take revenge becomes a hindrance rather than an asset. If you are wronged, you can seek legal retribution. But if that is not available, then it is usually unwise to take matters into your own hands, since this makes it possible that legal retribution can be used against you.
True, there are many things that fall outside the confines of the law, the most notable of these being romance. And as expected, vindictiveness is alive and well in matters of the heart. You still find people revenging themselves on their exes and their rivals, waxing indignant at perceived wrongs and organizing their friends in concerted actions of revenge. Having no social structure to resolve disputes, people fall into anarchy.
Yet I would argue that, even in these cases, revenge is a poor strategy. The revenge mentality is only justified, I think, in anarchic situations, specifically when the consequences for not retaliating are potentially severe. But in the case of romance, there is no chance that you will be seriously damaged. Heartbreak hurts, but it is seldom fatal.
In cases like these—where you can be sure of surviving any enemy attack—then I think another strategy is called for: returning love for hate. This sounds Biblical, but its justification is logical.
Keep in mind that I am talking of a situations like romance, in which harm cannot incapacitate either you or your enemies. (By “incapacitate” I mean render them unable to do future harm.) Since harming your enemies cannot disable them, it can only embitter them and potentially create new enemies; and since you cannot be disabled by being harmed, you have nothing to fear by not retaliating.
Returning harm for harm is thus clearly a poor long-term strategy, even if it might be satisfying in the short-term. You are left with two options: do nothing, or return help for harm. The first option seems superficially like the more logical one. By doing nothing, you don’t risk creating new enemies, and you don’t use resources to benefit your enemy that could be used elsewhere.
The second strategy, returning help for harm, is quite obviously more expensive, not to mention less satisfying. (Who likes to see their enemies happy?) Yet I think it is wiser as a long-term strategy, since it is by returning help for harm that enemies are converted into friends. A friend, after all, is somebody who acts in our interest; and it would be a stubborn enemy indeed who could persist in hating somebody who showed them only love and kindness.
Revenge, born of anarchy, is both a social and a personal ill. It is rendered obsolete as soon as people begin living in a society governed by law. It is a waste of resources and a poor survival strategy, and has no place in a just legal system or in the conduct of a wise individual.
This at least of flamelike our life has, that it is but the concurrence, renewed from moment to moment, of forces parting sooner or later on their ways.
So ends 2016, already a proverbially bad year. Both in the world at large and in my private life, this year has been one of disappointment and disruption. Things previously taken for granted have crumbled and collapsed; the inconceivable has happened, the impossible is already normal. History, instead of ending, has been frustratingly persistent.
Yet this year has easily been one of the best of my life. And this, not in spite of the disappointment and disruption, but because of it. Now I feel immunized against life’s bitter flavor, or at least toughened against it, since I have come to terms with impermanence. By this I do not mean that I have become embittered and fatalistic; rather, I have learned to enjoy myself more, to drink life’s pleasures to the dregs, to take the cash and let the credit go. Endings will do that; and what has this year been but a series of endings?
The basic theme of this year’s reading has been practice. I have endeavored, as far as I could, to read things that applied directly to my day-to-day life. This endeavor has taken many forms. One has been to read about Spain, her history, her people, and her culture, and this has been one of my most intellectually rewarding projects. Another was a flirtation with spiritual practices, during which I sampled Christian prayer and Hindu meditation, and became a daily meditator. This emphasis on practice even influenced my reading of fiction, leading me to focus on the moral lessons that could be learned from novels.
The mirror-image of this focus on finding the practical in my reading was finding the stories in my actions. This took the form of travel writing. I traveled like mad this year, dragging myself through dozens of cities, climbing walls, ransacking castles, profaning cathedrals with my presence, sampling strange dishes, trying to find a wink of sleep on buses, trains, and planes, and walking, walking, always walking, through fields and meadows, down dark alleys and cobblestone streets, and after each trip I tried to write something about what I did. I am not especially proud of this writing. But the very act of writing was a form of meditation, when I put my memories into order and reflected on what I saw. And just as in book reviewing, this retrospective travel writing allowed me to appreciate my travels more keenly. Indeed, I think travel writing is much like book reviewing, each city a different volume in the world’s library.
The biggest event in my reading and writing life, however, has been learning Spanish. Although very far from fluent, and still bumbling and confused much of the time, I have managed to learn enough Spanish to read at a high level. True, this reading is painful, slow, and difficult, but every day it gets easier, and some of the best books I’ve read this year have been in my new language.
There has been another result of living in Spain. Because of the abundance of beautiful monuments and museums, and perhaps the clearer sunlight and unclouded skies of Madrid, I have belatedly developed an appreciation of visual art. Before this year, I derived very little pleasure from paintings, sculptures, and architecture; but this year I have been moved and shaken to the core by what I have seen.
In that spirit, I will leave you with an image with which I began 2016. Last January I visited Granada to see the Alhambra. On a sunny but chilly day, I stood in the gardens of the Generalife and looked out across the hill at the Moorish palace. The Alhambra is the flower of an entire civilization, the product of a people who built up their knowledge year by year, slowly accumulating sophistication and resources until, in their hour of decadence, they could leave that enchanted place as a monument. Those people are now gone, their civilization vanished; and one day, hopefully far in the future, the Alhambra will crumble too.
I thought about this as I looked at the decaying walls, crowded on the hillside, slowly succumbing to the tooth of time, and felt melancholy in the winter breeze. How tragic, I thought, that nothing lasts. But now I don’t think of this as tragic. I think it is the very principle of beauty.
Thanks to all of you for being a part of this terrible and wonderful year. I look forward to the next one.
In fact, I believe the best definition of man is the ungrateful biped.
As part of my job as a professional American (being an English teacher in Spain is little more than being a professional American), I had to give a presentation on thanksgiving for my class.
Thanksgiving is really the quintessential American holiday. We watch American football—our defining sport, which involves taking land by force. We watch the Macy’s Parade—which consists of giant cartoons floating above our heads, a combination of our love of pop culture and excessive size. And finally we eat, and eat and eat. And then, the next day, we shop. No series of activities could more perfectly encapsulate the American identity.
The most conspicuous absence from this list of activities is being thankful. Theoretically, at least, we all know we’re supposed to be thankful; but we have no specific ritual of thanksgiving. In my classes, I tried to get my students to say one thing they’re thankful for. Some were very forthcoming, but most were extremely shy.
Why are people shy about thanking others? Being thankful is difficult because it requires vulnerability. To thank someone sincerely is to acknowledge a debt—not just a material but an emotional debt—a debt that perhaps cannot be repaid. To seriously communicate this gratitude requires that you let down your guard, something easier said than done.
For whatever reason, most of us go through life pretending that we are self-sufficient. We don’t like to think we owe anything to anybody. Instead, like Satan in Paradise Lost, we like to pretend that we are self-generated, self-sufficient, self-caused:
“I disdained subjection, and thought one step higher / Would set me highest, and in a moment quit / The debt immense of endless gratitude, / So burdensome still paying, still to owe; / Forgetful what from him I still received.”
Ingratitude is Satan’s principal sin. He does not want to live a life of gratitude, constantly and eternally singing a hosanna to God. He doesn’t want to acknowledge that he owes anything to anybody, not even the creator of the universe.
It must be admitted that owing a debt can be humiliating and crushing. Here I am reminded of the potlatch, a ritualized form of combat practiced by the natives of the Northwest Coast of Canada. During a potlatch, the headmen from competing groups would do symbolic battle by giving each other ostentatious gifts. The loser would be the man who received more than he could reciprocate.
This sounds bizarre, but consider: have you ever received a gift from somebody you’re not very fond of? I have, and I know that receiving gifts can engender bitterness as well as gratefulness. Being the recipient of a gift puts you under the giver’s power; and few people are grateful to be under somebody else’s power.
But is this necessarily true? Is gift giving necessarily aggressive? John Milton’s Satan goes on to say “And [I] understood not that a grateful mind / By owing owes not, but still pays, at once / Indebted and discharged.”
Here Satan realizes what many people forget. Being thankful is not a sign of weakness—although often appears so to the egotistical mind—but a sign of strength. It is a sign of strength because it requires sincerity, and being sincere always involved being vulnerable, letting your guard down. Being grateful means dispensing with the illusion that you’re self-caused and self-sufficient, and revealing your weaknesses to the world. Nothing requires more strength than showing weakness.
So I’d like to take this opportunity to personally thank the universe and everyone in it. I’m luckier than I could ever put into words.
Let us then suppose the mind to be, as we say, white paper, void of all characters, without any ideas; how comes it to be furnished? Whence comes it by that vast store, which the busy and boundless fancy of man has painted on it, with an almost endless variety? Whence has it all the materials of reason and knowledge? To this I answer, in one word, from experience: in that, all our knowledge is founded; and from that it ultimately derives itself.
This passage is one of the most famous formulation of the tabula rasa account of the human mind. Tabula rasa is Latin for “blank slate,” which is the traditional metaphor used to explain the theory. At birth, the mind is like a blank chalk board, devoid of writing; our experience is the hand that writes upon us; and our knowledge is the end result.
John Locke held that there was nothing in the mind that did not originate in the senses. Yes, we could have abstract ideas, like our notion of a triangle; but these ideas were simply generalizations from individual triangles that we have experienced through our eyes. Thus all knowledge, however general, abstract, or theoretical, was just a summary of our experience.
In Locke’s own lifetime, this idea was contested by Leibniz, who wrote an entire book-length response to Locke’s Essay, arguing that the mind needed certain innate principles in order to acquire knowledge. And this puzzle—the respective roles of experience, sense data, induction, deduction, and abstraction in our knowledge of the world—forms the basis of Kant’s magnificent Critique of Pure Reason.
Locke was a philosopher, and thus his Essay is largely concerned with epistemology—the nature, limit, and acquisition of knowledge. Yet this debate—empiricism versus rationalism, the “blank slate” versus “innate ideas”—is often reframed, in today’s world, as a scientific controversy.
The most famous example of this that I’m aware of is the controversy in linguistics. How much structure must we posit in the human brain in order to account for language acquisition? These classic answer to this question was given by Chomsky. He argued that, contrary to Locke, we can’t imagine the brain at birth as a blank slate, but must assume an enormous amount of complex machinery.
Several arguments led him to this conclusion, the most famous of which was the “poverty of input.” This is the observation that, without some kinds of basic assumptions guiding their derivation, children are not exposed to nearly enough examples of language in order to derive the correct grammatical form. For the human infant trying to guess the meaning of an unknown sentence, there are an enormous number of logical possibilities. If the language learner had to eliminate each one of these possibilities one by one, then it would take far too much time. Thus some in-built, innate schema must allow them to guess intelligently.
Not only that, but for the learner attempting to divine the deep structure from the surface structure, they must contend with the fact that the surface structure of a language is often misleading. Consider these two sentences: (A) “I expected the doctor to examine John,” and (B) “I persuaded the doctor to examine John.” Now let’s say we transform the first sentence into the passive voice: “I expected John to be examined by the doctor.” Notice that the meaning of this sentence is identical with the earlier sentence.
Suppose the learner, reasoning by analogy, transformed sentence (B) the same way, resulting in “I persuaded John to be examined by the doctor.” Now notice that the meaning of this new sentence is different from the first one. In the active voice the doctor is being persuaded, and in the passive voice John is. And this, despite undergoing what, superficially at least, appears to be the same transformation as sentence (A). Clearly, there is more to the grammar than meets the eye.
From all this, Chomsky concludes that there must be a “Universal Grammar,” which is a schema in the brain that determines which types of grammatical rules are permissible. Put more simply, Universal Grammar is something that allows learners to guess intelligently, rather than randomly, about the structure of language. Clearly such a schema would be a lot of information to be born with. In this, Chomsky resembles Leibniz and Kant far more than Locke and Hume.
But you don’t really need any of Chomsky’s arguments to realize that there must be some innate organization in our brains that allow us to learn language. After all, almost every person learns a language, while dogs and cats, who also have brains, and who are exposed to about as much language, never pull it off. Computers are better at many cognitive tasks than humans; and yet a few minutes with Google Translate is enough to convince anyone that computers haven’t quite gotten the hang of language. Clearly there is something special about the human brain that allows us to acquire language, while cats and computers struggle.
Thus we are left with several interesting questions. First, how much information and organization does the human brain possess at birth? How much of this information consists of general learning strategies, and how much is specific to language acquisition? And what exactly does this information consist of? Chomsky’s model of Universal Grammar, for example, was an attempt to answer this last question, by proposing a set of conditions that all languages must abide by. But his model has of late been criticized, first, for positing too much organization, and second, for failing to account for the structure of certain rare languages.
I am not a linguist, and thus I cannot hope to solve this controversy, or even make an interesting contribution to it. I only want to point out that this debate, although new in form, harks all the way back to Plato and Aristotle. Plato thought all knowledge was buried in the mind, and all philosophers had to do was uncover it; and Aristotle, like Locke, thought that knowledge derived from the senses. It is obvious to everyone by now that either extreme must be wrong. But apparently 2,500 years hasn’t been enough time for us to come to a conclusion.
The first thing we see as we travel around the world is our own filth, thrown into the face of mankind.
Lévi-Strauss made this exclamation while he was describing the increasingly pervasive influence of Western culture on the rest of the world. It is worth quoting the preceding sentences:
Our great Western civilization, which has created the marvels we now enjoy, has only succeeded in producing them at the cost of corresponding ills. The order and harmony of the Western world, its most famous achievement, and a laboratory in which structures of a complexity as yet unknown are being fashioned, demand the elimination of a prodigious mass of noxious by-products which now contaminate the globe.
Lévi-Strauss wrote this in 1955, and it has only gotten more true. Of increasing concern is the damage we have done to the natural world. We have polluted the air, changed the climate, and succeeded in imperiling our own survival with our machines. We have hunted species to extinction, we have introduced other invasive species to wreak havoc, and we have disrupted whole ecosystems. Truly, it is impossible to exaggerate the extent to which we have altered the globe—all too often causing problems for other species.
When is the last time you went somewhere truly natural? Have you ever? I don’t mean a park, a nature reserve, or a forest. I mean places where you can’t see any signs of human tampering. The closest I have ever come to this has been in Canada, when I have paddled a row-boat to the side of a lake, and walked into the pine forest. But even there, without any humans around for miles, I could still hear jet skis and speed boats humming in the distance. And even if I couldn’t hear or see any signs of human activity, the very forest has been altered already by human activity. Both moose and bear are hunted in those parts.
Ironically enough, this environmental damage—damage that now poses a grave danger to us—has been caused by our miraculous technology, the same technology that allows us to lead such comfortable lives. Our addiction to convenience will someday cause us a very great inconvenience.
But Lévi-Strauss was not primarily interested in the environment. Rather, he was thinking about culture. He was bemoaning the emergence of a global culture, primarily Western in origin: a culture that would soon swallow up all the traditional cultures that anthropologists like Lévi-Strauss were interested in studying. To quote Lévi-Strauss once more: “Mankind has opted for monoculture; it is in the process of creating a mass civilization, as beetroot is grown in the mass.”
To an enormous extent, this has already happened. I know this very well. Once, while I was studying in Turkana, a remote part of Kenya, I walked into a store. On the radio was Rihanna; on the shelves were products I recognized: Oreos, Pringles, Coca Cola.
Here in Spain, English is slowly taking over. There are English slogans in advertisements, there are hundreds and hundreds of English language academies, and more and more public schools are bilingual. And Spain is comparatively behind in this regard, partly because Spaniards already speak an international language. If you go to Portugal or Germany, for example, where American movies and shows are consumed in the original language, seemingly everyone can speak English, or at least understand it. Western culture is taking over the globe, and American culture is taking over the West.
It would be unreasonable to regard this is an unambiguously bad thing. At the very least, it has the potential to make the world more peaceful. When we become more similar; when we eat the same foods, watch the same shows, and wear the same clothes; when we speak the same language and have the same values; when, in short, we are all part of the same culture, it will be more difficult to persuade people to dress up in uniforms and kill each other. Well, I hope so at least. And besides, there’s nothing necessarily nefarious about this process. People have voted with their wallets, and voluntarily opted into this mass culture. Every time somebody watches an American show or wear Western clothes, they are reinforcing this process, regardless of their ideological beliefs.
Even so, I find something terribly sad about this growing uniformity of the world. There are no wild places anymore, and even foreign cultures are less foreign. Many people, myself included, are still afflicted with Wanderlust; but where can we wander to? Travel is cheaper than ever; for that reason, more people than ever are traveling; for that reason, traveling is no longer an escape. This is why I loved studying anthropology, and why I loved reading Lévi-Strauss, with his tales of adventure and hunter-gatherers in the rainforest. Such things promised a more substantial escape, at least in imagination.
To quote Lévi-Strauss once again, “I can understand the mad passion for travel books and their deceptiveness. They create the illusion of something which no longer exists but still should exist, if we were to have any hope of avoiding the overwhelming conclusion that the history of the last twenty thousand years is irrevocable.”
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.”
This April, I managed to visit Toledo twice, first with my family and second with some of GF’s friends. In the process I realized that my first post about Toledo was hopelessly inadequate. Now, with more experience, I think I can write something more worthy.
By now I have traveled enough in Spain to be able to say that Toledo is one of the most beautiful cities in the country. It has everything: picturesque views, beautiful art, engrossing history, and impressive architecture. The only serious problem with Toledo is that it is so close to Madrid, which makes it a haven for tourists. Now of course every city has tourists; but no other city in Spain, not even Barcelona, is so entirely oriented toward foreign visitors.
Toledo is not a city anymore, but a giant museum. Every restaurant and shop exists exclusively for visitors, not locals. Tour groups crowd the streets; tour buses surround the city. There is even a zip-line so that runs over the Tajo River, so that people can experience the same cheap thrill as provided in any good amusement park. I saw a young girl zip across, screaming her head off, staring into her phone the whole ride as she recorded herself. Maybe I am quaint, but I can’t see the point of zip-lining across a marvelous river if you are not even going to look at the view. This modern obsession with photographing ourselves does not strike me as healthy. In any case, the sound of zipping and screaming effectively ruins the pleasure of standing on the medieval San Martín bridge, with its impressive battlements on either side. It is difficult even to enjoy a peaceful walk in the city, since chances are you will be asked by some passersby to take a photo of them. The first time isn’t a problem, but by the fifth time it gets irritating.
But the tourists must be tolerated. The city is worth it. So, without further ado, here are my favorite sites to visit in Toledo.
We have to start with the city itself. Seen from a distance, it is a sight worthy of a painting (which, of course, it was, by none other than El Greco). The old city stands majestically on a hill, overlooking the whole surrounding area. Houses with beige walls and red roofs are jammed into a chaotic jumble, squeezed into the limited space of the hillside. No green parks can be seen in the city; just stone and tile. Below runs the Tajo River, with trees growing along its banks. (We used a taxi to get up to the hill for pictures; I think it would be a long walk.)
The two most prominent buildings of the skyline are the Alcázar and the cathedral. The first is an old fortress, built during the reign of Charles V. It is a massive, severe, and merciless building, with four large spires and a cheerless grey façade. The cathedral is slightly more graceful; but the spiky, gothic tower hardly lifts the mood. In short, Toledo looks medieval.
From any direction, the approach to Toledo is impressive. You can see the old city walls, clinging to the hillside; the Puerta de Bisagra, a massive fortified gate; the Puente de Alcántra, an old Roman bridge; or the Puente de San Martín, a medieval bridge. Even today, the old fortifications are impressive and perfectly preserved. Toledo was a well protected city.
Before entering, it is worth a walk around the perimeter of the town. A wonderful park runs alongside the Tajo River, underneath both of the old bridges. There you can walk beside the rushing water, with the impressive cliffs for scenery. In some places there are old ruins—stone structures built alongside the river—that add a certain romantic charm to the walk. I kept going until I saw a stairwell leading up to the Puente de San Martín, which has a fantastic view.
Now you can enter the city itself. Toledo boasts the finest city centers in Spain. Cobblestone streets wind up and down the hills, chaotically intersecting with no apparent order or design. The streets twist and turn so much that you can get disoriented very quickly. Once I tried to walk someplace without using a map. I made three attempts, each time taking a different route; and each time I came back to where I left.
Walking up and down the hills can also be a bit exhausting, as your ankles bend on the uneven stone streets. This is unavoidable, for there is really no option but to walk; the streets are so narrow, so crowded, and so closely packed that driving a car would be impracticable (plus it would ruin the experience). But all this is worth it for the feeling that you have been transported in time to medieval Europe.
After a stroll about town, you can begin to visit some of the fine monuments of Toledo. Here are my favorites, in no particular order.
Santa María la Blanca is one of the two medieval synagogues in Toledo. As its name indicates, the building was later turned into a church after Ferdinand and Isabella expelled the Jews from Spain. Built in 1190, it is one of the oldest surviving synagogues in Europe, and surely one of the most beautiful.
As in many buildings in Toledo, the synagogue has a marked Moorish influence. A wooden roof sits atop rows of crescent arches, just like in a mosque; and ornamenting these arches are unmistakably Moorish decorations, carved in stucco. The place is called “la blanca” (the white) because almost everything inside has been whitewashed. This gives the place an angelic, otherworldly aura, emphasized by the LED lights that have been installed in the floor.
The synagogue does not take very long to visit. I highly recommend it, not only because it is quick and cheap, but because the room still has a certain spiritual power. If you’re like me, you will feel calm and meditative when you stand inside.
Just nearby, in the old Judería (Jewish quarters), is Toledo’s other synagogue, El Tránsito, built in 1356. At first glance this synagogue is less impressive, consisting of a large rectangular room. But the wooden ceiling is lovely, and when you look at the walls you will quickly see what the fuss is about. There you can find exquisite Moorish-style stucco ornamentation, perhaps the finest outside of Andalucia; indeed, if you were simply shown a photo, the synagogue could be mistaken for a room in the Alhambra. It’s amazing how much Islam, Judaism, and Christianity borrowed from each other during this time. We will be seeing more of this.
Attached the monastery is a museum of Sephardic culture, which is worth visiting. “Sephardic” is the name given to the distinctive Jewish culture of Medieval Spain, formed from living a long time alongside Christians and Muslims. For many years, Jews had prominent places in the universities as well as the governments of Muslim and Christian rulers. Isabella and Ferdinand even had Jewish advisers; and the El Tránsito synagogue itself was financed by Samuel ha-Levi Abulafia, treasurer of the Christian king Peter of Castille. But the Sephardic Jews were forced to flee Spain or convert to Christianity in that all-important year of Spanish history, 1492, forming a diasporic community throughout the world.
Nearby both of the synagogues is the Monastery of San Juan de los Reyes. It was built during the reign of the Catholic Monarchs after their victory against Portugal in the Battle of Toro (1476). The battle was significant, since it meant that the most dangerous obstacle to Ferdinand and Isabella’s union had been overcome.
From the outside, it is an impressive gothic structure, studded with spires. If memory serves, the entrance fee is only to gain access to the monastery’s cloisters. This is no problem, since the fee is small and the cloisters are quite lovely. The cloisters have two levels, which enclose a small but attractive garden. The openings of the lower level have fine stone mullions; it always amazed me that stone can be carved into such pretty, delicate shapes. The upper level was even more impressive, mainly because of the Mudéjar style wooden roof, which used royal insignias within a Moorish pattern of crisscrossing lines and stars—another example of cultural intermixture.
The church attached to the cloisters must be entered from another door. It is an impressive space, with tall vaulted ceilings and colorful stained glass. Unfortunately, however, I didn’t get a lot of time to look around, since by the time I went inside mass was about to start.
In another part of town, well outside the Judería, is the impressive Church of San Ildefonso Jesuitas. Construction began on the church in 1629, continuing for over 100 years. I actually only went into the church on a whim, since the façade did not particularly interest me. Indeed now that I look at pictures, I confess that I find the church rather ugly.
The inside, however, is quite a different story. It is a well-lit and open space, with lovely white walls. But the real treat it not inside the church, but above it. You can climb up to the second floor, pause to enjoy that view of the church, and keep ascending up a metal staircase to one of the towers. From there, you can enjoy perhaps the best view from within Toledo.
Perhaps the most impressive example of cultural intermixture, even more than Santa María la Blanca, can be found in the Church of San Román. If you were not told it was a church, you could be mistaken for believing it was a mosque. Horseshoe arches support a typically Moorish wooden ceiling; and all along the walls runs what appears to be Arabic script. But the elongated paintings of people on the walls reveal the true nature of this building, for representational art is not found in any Mosque.
In reality, this church is a church and has always been a church. Built in the 13th century, the architects quite deliberately imitated Moorish styles, to the point of even writing fake Arabic on the walls. (It is just scribbling meant to look like Arabic.) It even has a church tower that looks like a minaret. The only off-note is a Renaissance cupola affixed to the church in the 16th century.
In order to find the church you might have to search for the “Museum of Gothic Culture” (Museo de los concilios y de la cultura visigoda), since nowadays that is what the old church is used for. Some of the information and artifacts on display are no doubt interesting, but the church itself is so much more interesting that it was nearly impossible for me to focus on the Visigoths during my visit.
As befitting the former home of El Greco, two of El Greco’s finest paintings can be seen in Toledo. One of the these is The Disrobing of Christ, which you can see in the Cathedral (more later); the other is The Burial of the Count of Orgaz.
This painting is on display in its own special chapel in the Church of Santo Tomé. Originally I thought it was in the church itself, which led to me blustering in and scouring every corner for the famous painting. Don’t bother. There is a special entrance to see it, which leads into a chapel where the titular Count of Orgaz still rests. More than likely this small room will be jam-packed with people; there must have been five separate tour groups when I visited, their guides chattering away in various languages. Nonetheless, El Greco’s masterpiece is worth it.
The subject of the painting is based on a local legend. Don Gonzalo Ruíz, the erstwhile Count of Orgaz (actually, he wasn’t a count; the distinction was awarded to his family later) was a pious man who donated money for the enlargement of the Church of Santo Tomé. In thanks, when Don Gonzalo Ruíz died, Saint Augustine and Saint Stephen descended from heaven to bury him. El Greco was commissioned to paint this scene in around 1586 by the priest of the church. But the scene was not to be purely historical, for El Greco’s contract stipulated that he must include portraits of many of the well-to-do men in Toledo, for obvious pecuniary reasons.
The painting is magnificent. The shining, golden armor of Count Orgaz, the flowing, finely patterned robes of the saints, the way the dead man’s body lies limply in the arms of his holy companions—all this put to rest any doubts I had about El Greco’s technical mastery. The man could have painted with as much facility as any of the finest artists of the Italian Renaissance.
But this realism is integrated into El Greco’s characteristically unreal style. The mourners gather round the grave in an absent space with no volume or depth. Each of the men wears a frilly collar and a black shirt, and seem remarkably unsurprised by the appearance of the saints. Of course, showing shock would have spoiled the portraits that El Greco integrated into the painting; for here El Greco displays most powerfully his skill as a portrait artists. All the mourner’s faces are wonderfully individual and expressive. El Greco has snuck in an entire gallery of first-class portraits, worthy even of Rembrandt.
Above this earthly scene flies the heavenly host, with Mary, Peter, John the Baptist, and Jesus in the center, surrounded by angels and saints. Every member of this heavenly host gazes up at Jesus—all except Mary, who looks sadly down at the burial below. There is an interesting mix of contrast and continuity between the lower and the upper halves. Although the heavenly host glows with eternal life, while the black funeral scene reeks of human mortality and decay, all the figures seem to occupy the same continuous space. The descent of the two saints, garbed in bright yellow robes, bolsters the impression that the boundary between heaven and earth has been ruptured. And if you look long enough at this painting, you may feel this rupture all the more powerfully, as El Greco’s spiritual beauty shines into our profane world.
By now I have seen enough cathedrals in Spain that I can say with confidence that the Toledo Cathedral is one of the very best. Indeed, the only thing that makes me hesitate to pronounce it the greatest is that I have yet to see the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela. In any case, the Toledo Cathedral is a jewel in the crown of Spain and obligatory if you visit the town.
To buy tickets, you must go to a small building across the street from the cathedral, where you will be herded through the gift shop before you can make your purchase. When you go, I recommend the audioguide; it is well-made and adds a lot to the experience. You will enter through a door in the cathedral’s side—a really ugly portal. It has four tasteless Corinthian columns built into the façade. I don’t know why this was done to the cathedral, but whoever did so should be kept away from all religious structure in the future.
Generally speaking, the Toledo Cathedral is not remarkably attractive from the outside. It has one impressive tower, but on the other side is a stumpy Renaissance cupola that throws the whole structure off balance. Certainly the main façade of Toledo cannot compare with the mountains of spires and sculptures you find in Burgos. Nevertheless, the three doors in the front are truly splendid; and dramatic sculptures of robed figures with cover the building, preaching to eternity with arms outstretched.
It is the interior of Toledo that is so impressive. Every inch of space is covered with decoration, and all of it first-rate, in a dazzling mixture of styles. I wish I could give a full overview of every little piece of the building, but there is simply too much to see. Here are some highlights.
First the main chapel. Like any respectable gothic cathedral, the Toledo Cathedral was built to emphasize height. The vaulted ceiling hangs more than a hundred feet above you, supported by impossibly tall columns of stone. The stained glass windows allow a dull glow to reach the interior, enough to illuminate the top but not the bottom of the building; thus a spooky and somber darkness pervades the whole space.
The cathedral has many portals. From the inside, the most impressive of these is the Portal of the Lions. Over the doorway, a breathtaking series of friezes have been carved in the plateresque style, the distinctive ornamental style of the Spanish Golden Age. We see the genealogy of Mary, a tree that begins with Abraham (I think) and ends with the Coronation of the Virgin in the center. Emerging from the top of this work is the organ, its pipes jutting from the wall.
After you walk around the main chapel, exploring the lovely decorations that cover both the inside and outside of the central choir and the resplendent golden central altarpiece, you will come upon the most striking and original artwork in the cathedral: El Transparente. This is a marvelous altar that incorporates both painting, stucco, and statues in marble and bronze, among other media, and that stretches from the ground all the way up to the ceiling and beyond. Right behind the main altar, between two sets of columns, is a marble sculpture of the Virgin Mary seated, Jesus in her lap, surrounded by white angels with bronze wings. Above her is a heavenly glow, with bronze shafts of lights emanating in all directions; and baby-faced cherubim fly around, basking happily in the sunshine. Really, there are too many figures to describe or identify. It is absolutely stunning.
But the work doesn’t stop there. A hole has been made in the thick ceiling above, allowing sunlight to shine directly onto the altar. And surrounding this opening are colorful paintings and seated statues, all of them holy figures who calmly look down on you from several stories up, as the light of heaven pours in from beyond. I can’t fathom the technical challenges of such a work. The vertical arrangement of the figures, the mastery of so many different artistic media, the engineering problem involved in cutting a hole in the roof—and yet the final effect is not strained at all, but tasteful and magnificent.
All this is just a taste of the beauty you can find in the main chapel; but there is much more to see. One of the most impressive rooms in the cathedral is the Chapterhouse. This room was used for meetings with the Archbishop of Toledo, a position which has long been the most powerful religious title in Spain. The archbishop’s golden chair stands in the center of the room, opposite the door; running along the rest of the walls is a wooden bench, where everyone else would sit. The coffered roof is of gilded wood, divided into geometrical shapes. On the upper half of the wall is a series of frescos, showing scenes from the life of Jesus; above the door is an excellent portrayal of the Last Judgment. Running below this, above the wooden bench, is a series of portraits of the Archbishops of Toledo, going back to the very beginning. It is fascinating to see how the style of portraits changes throughout the many years.
Surpassing even the Chapterhouse is the Sacristy—traditionally, where the archbishop would prepare to give services. Nowadays, the huge room is used as an art museum. An enormous painting covers the entire barrel-vaulted ceiling; it depicts a massive host of angels gathered around a heavenly light, which shines from the word “Yahweh” written in Hebrew. This style of ceiling decoration was common enough in the Spain of the 17th century, but this is the most stunning and successful example I have seen. I once caught myself drooling as I stared up at it, lost in the illusion that I was looking into heaven itself.
Excellent paintings are hung all along the walls, many by El Greco. The most notable of these is his Disrobing of Christ, which stands in the very center of the room. El Greco captures the moment right before Christ is stripped of his clothes. Jesus stands in the center, staring up into heaven, his bright red robe enveloping his body. He is looking into heaven with a serene and sad expression. His eyes seem moist with tears. A noisy, chaotic rabble surrounds him. But what is most striking is that none of them seems to be paying attention to Christ; instead they are absorbed with each other, seemingly consumed with petty argument. Thus the figure of Jesus stands isolated among the crowd, untouchable, unearthly, abandoned by humanity but not abandoning us in return. In short, it is a masterpiece of religious art.
The Toledo Cathedral also has a lovely cloister. On the outside wall is a series of frescos depicting the doings and lives of several saints from the history of Toledo. From this cloister you can access the Chapel of Saint Blaise. This is an octagonal room, built in the 14th century. Originally the walls were covered with a series of medieval frescos. But unfortunately, since the chapel was built below street level, water has destroyed many of these. This is a real shame, because the remains are utterly enchanting. In style, they strongly remind me of images I’ve seen of Giotto’s work, and indeed the artists (their names are unknown) may well have been directly influenced by Giotto, as they were from Florence.
This is just a taste of what you can find in the Toledo Cathedral. Inside you can find superb examples in every medium—friezes, paintings, sculptures, architecture, the decorative arts—of nearly every phase and style of Spanish art: plateresque, Mudéjar, neoclassical, renaissance, baroque, and of course gothic. But what is most miraculous is that all these disparate elements combine to form a perfect whole. It is one of the greatest artistic projects in the world, and something I will always recall with awe.