In English Voices From Spain

Spain as a pain in the neck

Photo: Hans Eiskonen | Unsplash

Originally published in Spanish: «España como tabarra». Félix Ovejero. El País.

20th April 2018

I’ll confess I’ve never managed to finish an article by Laín Entralgo. Especially when he kept circling Spain as a problem. It was not the author I was allergic to, but the subject matter. That is why Calvo Serer and his Spain without a problem were no better. Discussions on the essences of peoples overwhelm me. They also overwhelm any sense of scientific inquiry. They presume there is a quintessence of sorts (‘Spanishness’) lying intact behind the surface of our cuisine, our sports, our art or our thought. Behind Iniesta’s goal and Tejero’s moustache.


I get a similar feeling from the associated habit of turning to works of art in order to unearth souls of nations. You know: Cervantes and Spain; Goethe and Germany; Dostoievski and Russia. Naturally, everyone finds what they are looking for, since they know exactly where they want to go, just like when we were kids and solved maze puzzles by starting backwards from the end. The trick is well-known: start from the vast repertoire of available events, select those which are most convenient, tie them up into a neat narrative and, naturally, in the end all the pieces will fit. Somewhere between the data and the essences are the geniuses, graced with an exceptional talent for capturing the intangible, ‘Spanishess’ or ‘Catalonianness’.


This saccharine genre includes very few academically civilized authors. We are not acquainted with things, not to mention with essences, but rather with properties and relationships between things. We are not acquainted with ‘the moon’, but rather with its position, trajectory and atmosphere. We are not acquainted with ‘Spain’, but with its political system, demographic pyramid or hydrographic regime. Research advances through limited abstractions which can be subjected to reasonable empirical scrutiny. Capturing the spirits of peoples is, if anything, better left to singularly gifted visionaries, indistinguishable from necromancers, mediums and spiritualists.


Yet stupidity never rests and so there are always new fans of the genre. It rears its head among nationalists, devoted to forging not just their own mythology (what exactly is meant by ‘Catalanism’?) but, especially, the one necessary to conjure up their bogeyman: eternally National-Catholic Spain. This makes sense. It is what they do. What makes slightly less sense is to see academics devoted to disentangling ‘Spanishness’ with the same ease with which they might discuss ‘nature’ or ‘evil’ (in just those sweeping terms), or foreign correspondents expanding on their cab-driver anthropology not just in columns but in the type of books one might have expected from a nineteenth-century British traveller. Always, mind you, without the slightest trace of empirical data.

The issue would be less serious if the disorder affected only their readers. Unfortunately, these clichés that serve as intellectual anchors are slowly getting stronger, benefitting from a well-known cognitive bias that deals with new facts by allowing only small adjustments to prior, highly defective information. Indeed, it should come as no surprise if our fellow European citizens consider Spain more similar to Francoist Spain than to France even though we perform better than most European countries on measures of civil liberties, quality of democracy or human rights. In the end, all that remains are the essences–always misleading, always reactionary. And the immortal Laíns of the world.  

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