In English Voices From Spain

Catalonia, after St Crispin’s Day: the heroes of the blunder

Published originally in Spanish. Ramón González Férriz. El Confidencial.

In the world, foolishness and blunder are far more common than coldly calculated evil, not to mention heroism.

Life has more to do with that what happens in a comic of “Mortadelo and Filemón” than with the great feats which take place on the movie “Braveheart”. In the world, foolishness and blunder are far more common than coldly calculated evil, not to mention heroism. But this is a fact which we are, apparently, deeply reluctant to accept; politics and culture seem to be conceived to make us believe that everything is more stylized, decent and sophisticated than it really is.

One could think that democracy was designed to prevent the temptation of magnifying everything. In this way, democracy could be simply seen as a system that allows a group of adult citizens who hold the same rights to exercise their political power in a delegated and administrative way, with a mixture of bureaucratic coldness and pluralism which, despite being relatively hard to manage, can’t be questioned. But this is not the case: there is something in us that constantly leads us to cockiness and a desire for grandeur, to an exaltation that is only plausible in epic movies. To many people, democracy as it is falls short.

It is the speech of Henry V in Shakespeare’s play, when the king rallies the troops before the battle: “He that shall live this day, and see old age/ Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours/ And say ‘To-morrow is Saint Crispian’/ Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars/ And say ‘These wounds I had on Crispin’s day’/ Old men forget: yet all shall be forgot, / But he’ll remember with advantages / What feats he did that day: then shall our names”. Or the line by Yoda in Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back: “Do. Or do not. There is no try”. It is also most of the history of painting, war movies or chivalric romance: in the same way that Don Quixote was moved by these novels, epic tends to enrapture us, and we are inclined to act with excessive solemnity, which can easily lead to embarrassment (especially if your are not Henry V or Yoda) or, in the worst case, to something more devastating. Most of those who dreamt to show their wounds with pride after St. Crispin’s Day died on the battlefield.

The cheating hero

Interestingly, one of the first epic poems of our culture, The Odyssey, presents a particular hero, very different to the type of hero we conceive now. The Trojan War is over and Ulysses, after being captive for years, wants to go back home, Ithaca, to meet his wife and son. He has to cross the Aegean Sea and the Greek islands, and the dangers he faces are countless. But he does not face these dangers in the way that the heroes presented by most subsequent culture and politics would have faced: he is not decent nor honest; he is not even fair or merciful. One of the main heroes of our civilization is basically a cheater who generally achieves his goals by lying and pretending; he is an arrogant guy who’s driven by pride. In fact, he is far more similar to real heroes than to those in the majority of nationalist or cultural representations. Ulysses does not want to set an example, he just wants to get away with it.

History has embellished the character of Ulysses. In a poem of 1911, the great poet C.P. Cavafis converted the hero into a sort of traveler in search of pleasure and wisdom (and said that every one of us could be like him). “When you start your trip to Ithaca / ask for the road to be long/ full of adventures, full of experiences.” The point was to make a long journey, to discover unknown harbors, and to have all sort of sensual experiences. The least important thing was to arrive to Ithaca: what was really worthy was to enjoy the idea of having a purpose and acquiring wisdom while pursuing it.

When I was a child, many people in Catalonia thought that independence was a treacherous but pleasant journey to be enjoyed. This poem became a reference in Catalonia when I was a child. At that time, many people thought that independence was a desirable but distant objective; they thought that approaching it –slowly, step by step, and subtly- needed to be enjoyed as a treacherous but pleasant journey. Lluís Llach had done a musical version of the poem in 1975 and Ithaca was a myth that circulated among Catalan nationalism as a secret code: it will take time, but we’ll get there.

I do not think we will see independence in Catalonia soon, but who knows. What I know is that we are witnessing a series of blunders, cheatings and tricks of those who want to feel like heroes. It has to be a vertiginous but pleasant feeling: having a special legitimacy, not needing the boring bureaucracy to interpret your mandate, making a story that puts you on a suddenly superior place than everybody else. You will be able to show the scars of the wounds after the battle of St Cripin’s Day.

Those of us who do not share a hero vocation prefer that no wounds are inflicted; even if that means that we will not be able to show our scars or exhibit any special pride. One of the biggest lies circulating as popular wisdom is that those who do not know the history are condemned to repeat it. But those who know history repeat it as well, with the hope that this time a new trick will grant them victory. All we learn from history is that we never learn from it. And that a bunch of memorable and admirable facts have emerged from heroic vocation, but far more tragedies and scars that nobody chose to experience. It is not necessarily “Mortadelo and Filemón”, but for sure it is not “Braveheart” either.


Image: Wikimedia Commons.

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