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the last fandango (2)

What was this life which was destroyed by the Great War, and the circle of consequences spreading out from it? (Or perhaps, more accurately, the war itself was simply the bloody crest of a wave riding upon a much larger, and even more relentless, body of water.)

In the preface to his memoir, Brenan puts it this way:

Here, I should like the lutes and violins to strike up and play a piece which might be called Loores de Espana, Praises of Spain. For I feel quite unequal to putting into a few words the peculiar feeling of acquiescence and delight which, almost from the first, this village and its way of life and, beyond it, the whole yellow, ox-hide land produced on me. I must make this quite clear, because the reader will not find much overt praise in this book. I have simply put down what I can remember having seen, and have taken it for granted that no one is going to find in Spain a model country like Sweden or Switzerland, conditioned by the rhythm of its machines, but on the contrary one which has up to now insisted on preserving a certain modicum of anarchy and non-compliance. How long this is going to continue I cannot say, but it is still true that south of the Pyrenees one finds a society which puts the deeper needs of human nature before the technical organization that is required to provide a higher standard of living. This is a land which nourishes at the same time the sense for poetry and the sense for reality, and neither of these accords with the utilitarian outlook.

There is only one other thing that I should like to put in this preface and that is an observation of a sociological kind. The village where I spent so many years was more fortunately placed than are many Andalusian pueblos, because it had plenty of water for irrigation and property was well divided. Almost everyone got enough to eat, yet the standard of food, dress, and comfort of all except two or three of the leading families was below that of the poorest English agricultural labourer or factory workman. Does that mean that they were miserable? On the contrary I would say that, though there is no way of measuring happiness, these peasants with the quickness of city dwellers got a good deal out of life. The narrow margin on which they had to manage caused them some anxiety in times of bad weather or crop failure, and at certain seasons they had to work very long hours, yet no one ever left the village for the towns unless some trouble in the family had forced him to do so, and when, as happened from time to time, a man emigrated to America, it was nearly always with the intention of returning as soon as he had made enough money to live on. The principal reason for this was that by the fact of belonging to a closed community everyone felt assured of possessing a niche in society which was his by right, and which not even his own bad conduct could take away from him, and that was more than enough to counteract the lure of the large towns with their cinemas, taverns, and higher wages. In other words an increase in the standard of living is a poor substitute for the loss of the primitive community feeling, and Spanish villagers were wise enough to know this. (pp.12-13)

In a later passage, tho, he does return to this theme:

One after another the days, the weeks, the months passed. What with reading, walking,and mixing in village life I was never at a loose end. I attribute this in great part to the gaiety and vitality of the peasant community among whom I had made my home. This small self-sufficing world had something of the zest for life and also of the sense of measure and balance of the ancient Greeks. When I read in Plato how they had regarded their cities and political constitutions as works of art and had attributed to them not so much moral qualities as aesthetic ones, I thought I understood why this village, which was no smaller than many of the self-governing republics of the Aegean, proved so satisfying. It was just the right size, had just the right amount of irrigated land distributed in the most suitable way, just the proper degree of isolation and strength of tradition to draw out the lively and human qualities of its inhabitants as far as they could go. A larger or a less isolated community would have left the peasant orbit, which allowed it to be self-sufficing, and become merged in the life of the modern nation. Yegen kept its idiosyncracies. (p.68)

And this isolation and indifference to the outside world, viewed from this angle, were simply the conditions which allowed Yegen to experience its own affairs as such a vital matter, and one over which people exerted some measure or real control:

…the sense these villagers had of belonging to a closed community — a Greek polis or a primitive tribe — was very strong. Everyone felt his life bound up with that of the pueblo he had been born into — a pueblo which, through its freely elected municipal officers, governed itself. (p.55-56)

Of course, the municipal elections were a modern invention that was not entirely naturalised, and the politics of Yegen were an example of that strange, though not uncommon, hybrid, electoral feudalism. Brenan does not go into much detail in discussing the influence which the caciques had on the lives of their tenants, tho the relationship was clearly both much looser and more complex than any simplistic image of single-minded exploitation.

However this may have been, one senses in these passages the intimate link that must have existed — which exists everywhere, even where it is denied — between this sense of community as something not only tangibly lived, but inevitable, even irreversible, and the attitude of spontaneous appreciation, the zest for life, the simple joy, which communicated itself so powerfully to Brenan. Just as this society in which everyone had their place in the order of things was also a natural reservoir of anarchy and non-compliance, so the very isolation of Yegen in human terms, its almost willful ignorance of any larger ‘world’ than that which could be experienced ‘face to face’, went hand in hand with a tangible sense of the immensity of the space in which it existed:

The general impression that the place gave was of being at a great elevation above the world. There was an isolation, a stillness, broken only by the noises of the village and by the burble of running water — a feeling of air surrounding one, of fields of air washing one that I have never come across anywhere else. (p.69)

This ‘closed’ social order gives immediately onto the limitlessness of the natural world. The patterns which govern life in the village, and each person’s role, are written into and conditioned by the larger continuities and structures of nature, which are themselves at once familiar (the round of the seasons which Brenan describes elsewhere) and utterly strange (fields of air washing one). And this combination of the utterly ordinary with the almost ineffable — of the sense for poetry and the sense for reality – is not just the personal interpretation of a young aspiring writer. It is clearly recognisable as the direct sensory manifestation of a deep sense of psychological security. The beauty of life in Yegen, its ‘aesthetic’ quality (though the word is too weak to really describe what is at stake here), is co-extensive with a life in which solidarity necessarily takes priority over any impulse to judge or blame (a niche in society which was his by right, and which not even his own bad conduct could take away from him).

The life of Yegen held the villagers, and Brenan with them, in the present, and by doing so it set them free. But it could do so only so long as it could keep both their land and their hearts turned towards the air that surrounded them, and thus protect them from the rhythm of the machine.

[Originally published 3.16.07]