So far, almost nothing had happened in Catalonia; now, it seems as though anything could happen. The multitude replacing the citizen and an unlawful secession happening as an accomplished fact: no more, no less. It is a constitutional crisis never seen within the European Union -sometimes it seems as if we are dreaming up what we are witnessing. After years of gardening, the seed of civil confrontation has germinated and we suddenly face the dangerousness of the political, the most extreme forms of which had seemed to be buried in the darkest corners of our history. All at once, those of us who do not carry any flag feel as other citizens felt in similar circumstances. And we understand what we did not quite understand.
Namely, how the apparently sophisticated European societies of the early twentieth century could go wrong the way they did. That period fascinates us -we have read tirelessly about it during the years of the Long Welfarist Boredom. How come that they went crazy? But now it is ourselves that have gone crazy. We have to leave the History book on the couch and turn on the news. Again we see riots, charismatic leaders, broken glasses. All that we took for granted shows a disturbing fragility -reality turns out to be that “stage set” J. G. Ballard described. And the literature on the European collapse -from Zweig to Broch, from Clark to Hobsbawn- appears in a different light.
As a result, these days are a socialization process into the past, an exercise through which we acquire a visceral understanding of the political phenomena experienced by those who lived the interwar period. Back to the 30s: the streets are full of symbols that represent a non-existent order, together with threats and fingerpoints and bullseyes. The signs are clear for those who are willing to see them -this is a society intoxicated by national-populism. But similarities do not end up there. There is also an extreme left that talks of political prisoners, that proposes to create an assembly outside Parliament or supports street mobilization. And there is also the unnerving inability of mainstream parties and even citizens themselves to remain united in defence of the constitucional order.
This is happening: right here right now. Books have turned into mirrors that show a tragic reflection. It was too easy to despise Vichy, to make judgments on the Spanish Civil War, to suggest that the unruly Balkan character was to blame for the Yugoslavian War. That happened in the foreign country of the past -we, the contemporary ones, were different. Yet we are not. It looks like a tale from Borges: a bigot traverses history carrying a flag and leaves it at our door. Twilight of reason! But not in yesterday’s world -in today’s.
Do books acquire a new pedagogical quality, then? So it should be. However, Zewig is a best-seller author and one wonders how many of his readers are not putting themselves these days on the wrong side of History. From the educated conversation to the infuriated mass -a disquieting trajectory of which we, after all, had read on those same books.