A list of Spanish things
This man had somehow lost his wife in the intricacies of the Alcazar of Segovia. I got caught by his worry and so joined the search for her. Up and down the spiral stone staircase of the fortress tower I went, looking for the lost woman. Atop the tower, glancing out between the castellations to the west, out on to a vast, rolling, and golden plain, in that emptiness, I saw Quixote astride poor, broken down Rocinante. The great crazy Don in ancient, rusty plate, his beaver up, his lance held forward at that perfect 15 degrees off vertical. Bringing up the rear was Sancho on his beloved Dapple, faithful to the end, wondering what madness lay next ahead.
I forgot the lost wife and thought of that most enchanting, exquisite, immaterial Dulcinea, she who does or does not exist, Quixote’s lady. I poked my camera at that vista between the crenellations, out onto that gorgeous plain with Don Quixote, in his every splendor, riding by. That photograph hangs where I can see him now, The Knight of the Woeful Countenance, who so powerfully recommends to me his books, his madness, his enchantment, and his broken heart.
Dulcinea, Oh, Dulcinea! Might she be held somewhere in this tower?
A couple centuries later, another Spanish Don rode by ravishing women, any woman he could get his hands on, of whatever description, anywhere he could. Riding along was his man-servant, Leporello, who might as well have been Sancho Panza’s citified cousin. Leporello kept careful book on his master’s seductions, his “catalog”, he called it: women classified by the hundreds as to the countries where they fell prey to this ravishing Don Juan. Ah, but in Spain, “In Ispagna,” Mozart has him sing, “in ispagna, mille e tre.” In Spain he seduced one thousand and three.
Well, I want to turn Giovanni’s erotic violence around and say that Spain has ravished me by the count of at least 1003. And, like Leporello, on location with his master, in Seville, his catalog under his arm, I want to sing my own incoherent catalog of the dark joys of Spain-- of all that which ravished me.
I would like to imagine myself, a proper pilgrim, with an eye on the heavens, to follow the Milky Way, The Way of Saint James, to Campostela, there to worship what I do not believe. But I shall have made that long walk out of the everyday conventions of secular Europe-major into the black Catholic mystery of Spain. I’m silly enough to imagine that a saint as powerful as James may look after me and help me to get even older and sillier, doing this sort of thing.
I feel under assault from every quarter of Spain’s (I dislike the word) magic, dark, violent, morbidly and sexually estranged-- all that a cold-blooded Swede like me cannot fathom.
There’s the great Quixote, the madman, riding past Segovia to God knows where in his search for the sublimities of adventure to lay at the feet of his beloved Dulcinea-- to honor and love her perfectly-- if only he can find her-- perhaps in that tower, anywhere.
I finished reading Cervantes for the first time within the shadows of the Alhambra, the exact locus-- that 1492-- of those immense shifts between Muslim, Christian Goth, and Jew. You hear that gypsy music full of Islamic yearning and you want to sit and cry. I think of the most admirable Washington Irving on embassy to Spain and living in the Alhambra, studying and loving it, He must have got that Moorish music of love pure and raw.
Good God, just outside that small presence chamber where Columbus made his proposition of immense treasure to Isabella, amid all that exquisite stone, I thought I was a goner. Stone and plaster and water, so beautiful as to steal all breath away toward a metabolism of fluid joy. There I came to understand the meaning of streams of cool, pure water purling down out of the mountains to these exquisite palace fountains. I think, as for the first time, what these waters meant to a desert people, these lovely waters. No wonder their paradise promised to be full of them. I love the resident golden fish, and catch myself imagining a trout living there, suspended in such a watery heaven of the spirit.
Just to be there at midnight! Listening to Taregga’s guitar in the near distance. So close to where Lorca-- here in his Granada-- was born and murdered-- he who taught me, my first lessons of Spain in his plays and poems, and his tragic death “at five in the afternoon.“ He sang that refrain for the death of the toreador Mejias. Beautiful, tragic Lorca, singing, acting, loving, dying. At five, maybe, in the afternoon. Daring and fearing the regime. Who could measure how Franco’s gang hated him! “Degenerate”, they cried, when what they most feared was that this poet carried the Spanish people in his poems. He was too dangerous to live. Think of that: the honor of having his poems making him too dangerous to live.
Much about Spain is too dangerous to live,
Maybe it’s this afternoon as I try to find a voice for, a rhythm, and an authority in all this-- like Bernard Shaw’s John Tanner, motoring along the Way of Saint James, through the Pyrenees to Spain, beset by bandits, near where Roland blew his horn to tell his Uncle Charlemagne that he had been faithful to the end and died.
In that numinous mountain place, Shaw’s John, “Jack” Tanner dreams away the night. He becomes the original, Spanish Don Juan Tenorio gone to hell to debate the Devil. This Shavian Juan must foreclose on Mozart’s Giovanni and his idea of a good “sex story”-- in Italian! Juan-Tanner sets out to demystify the mystic nonsense of the Devil, all that romantic tosh about sinful man in the everlasting fires of his sensual fun-- or perhaps all-consuming Spanish love and hate. Shaw’s Juan has no interest in sex qua sex, but rather he imagines the Superman who with pure intellect hitched to a newReality can fathom and regulate himself, and the world. It is a passion far greater and more sustainable than the Devil’s ordinary, prurient sex. Shaw’s-Juan’s passion is for the free, working, visionary, super-conscious intellect. It may be another as yet untried way of being Spanish… all that passion, I don’t know.
All these Dons, these wild caballeros. Only Quixote can hold my heart forever. There’s little sign of him in Seville where all the operas are set. Why is that so, in this beautiful city on the Guadalquivir? Was life imagined to be more dramatic in Seville during the great age of both classical and romantic opera. Is it because Giovanni could prey upon all the cigarette girls who with Carmen made “smokes” in their famous factory? So many operas are set in Seville, where “at five in the afternoon” we watch the bulls being killed so precisely and beautifully. Those bulls, in the sun-drenched arena, too dangerous to live. I thank my lucky stars that it was given to me to see this great ceremony of death.
I kissed the hem of the Virgin of Guadalupe at her church in her remote monastery, but nothing happened-- other than that I am still safely here. She was strange: I had no idea what the hell I was doing. Me and the Virgin-- kissing the one, true, and real Her!
The olives at the bar in the monastery garden and the dryness of the sherry were exquisite, perhaps a blessing from the world-renowned Virgin…. I wanted that afternoon to last forever.
Here you can rent an medieval monastery room for the night. I should liked to have rented a dozen and then hiked out to hug a cork oak tree, get its feeling into me, in honor of the fine cork grips on my fishing rods. Cork, like bamboo, is heaven-sent stuff.
And silk! Cork, bamboo-- and gut from the silk worm, Bombyx mori, worked by the ladies of Murcia, cutting out, pulling to length that gland of fluid silk, cut from the giant larva’s belly so that fishermen can fish and bulls die.
Beloved Cork! I wanted to run loose and crazy and see it all, and hear that Moorish music and feel the pounding drums of Islam. All this Andalusian other-worldliness. It permeates everything, everywhere.
Up in Madrid, things are harder, crisper, clearer, more sullen, and impersonal. But I had my revenge. I picked up three or four dozen molted flight quills from the wings of the famous white doves, La Paloma, of the gardens of the Prado where the Goyas hang ! The presence, the presence, of those dangerous pictures!
I smuggled the feathers home, past the Goyas, past customs and immigration in my inner coat pocket, to use them here at home on Rio Grande Kings and Royal Coachmen. And I got a lot of fourOclock seed by scrambling on my knees in the gardens of the Alhambra--to the dismay of honest tourists. Rare and moon-driven white fourOclocks.
Finally! A statue of Cervantes at a busy Madrid intersection. How had he managed to escape from slavery to the Moors to write this best of all stories while Shakespeare was making our theatre in London and Montaigne, inventing essays and dying of “the stone” in Bordeaux ? What kept the earth from spinning out of control given that triangulation of genius?
Cordoba boiled me in oil, whatever that means. But I saw where Maimonidies lived and thought-- and I wondered what, but for him, I might I be thinking today? It is said of Maimonidies that he may have had the most powerful intelligence in all the history of the species.
Toledo, Holy Jesus Christ! He was everywhere-- shot through the agonizing glories of El Greco. The view of the city from across the great river ravine, from where, as though to “memorize another Golgotha,” he painted it into our unconscious. To think that I could be allowed to see this as item in my mille e tre!
But I forget. Back in Granada, in the Chapel Royal, in huge majesty, there lay their majesties Ferdinand and Isabella themselves. It seemed too much to hold on to. And for that matter in the cathedral at Seville, in the south transept, is the quite overwhelming tomb of Columbus. I never would have believed that I could have cared that much about him-- or his bones. But I did, and his spectacular tomb haunts me still.
It is the fashion of the day to think of Columbus as a most dangerous man, which he was, no doubt. But for dangerous men of Spain, I am most deeply shaken, first, by the dictator, Generalissimo Franco and his fascist suppression of Spain in our last terrible century. On the road out of Madrid to the Escorial, suddenly looms Franco’s monstrous basilica at The Valley of the Fallen, carved from the living rock of the mountain, too huge, like St, Peter’s in Rome, too huge to take in. I glance around, worried, almost in fear of its brutal, sterile grandeur. There, beneath me, Franco lies. He built this place in his own honor and memory-- and to draw people, even like me, too him even yet. I want to get the hell out of there-- clear this place out of my head, and on to that next super-monument, the Escorial Monastery.
Philip II built it, this gigantic square structure, where he lived, worked, and died. Where everything else is huge, this tiny room was his office-study-retreat, like a hidey-hole, just off the chancel of the inner great church. From here the gout-stricken king could slip quite privately into the sanctuary for consolation and the sacraments. This little office-study, for a king of that magnitude, from which he managed all of Catholic Spain and its dominions! He made all of Spain into an auto de fe.
Then down the difficult stairs into the “Pantheon” room below the chancel where the Hapsburg kings and who knows who else, lie racked and stacked up on the side walls. Among all that royalty, who got dead for their pains, is Philip II, King of Spain, and much of Europe, by right of his father, the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V. Down in this chamber of the dead, Philip is nothing special. He must have been a tiny little man to require so small a coffin. I imagine that I hear Verdi’s Don Carlo, that music of death shrouded in Spanish black and gold.
Again, I thank my lucky anglophiliac stars that our Elizabeth would have nothing to do with this most dangerous Spaniard-- beyond sinking his invincible Armada, in that great storm of 1588. He was given the terrible news while at prayer in his church right here. I was shown the exact spot and trembled with the terrors of history. To think that someday, some nobody like me would trample the spot that his suffering had sanctified!
What’s at the root of it all? How should I know! It’s too much for me, and I’ve lost count of my 1003. It may have to do with Quixote’s invention of Dulcinea and our search for her, our Virgin. It may have to do with cork, and olives, and sherry, songs, and that unhappy dancing. Maybe it’s silkworms and Seville oranges. Or perhaps it’s the searing pain at Philip’s heart, the heart of Spain, all morbid black and gold and Catholic, that can approach the mystery? In any case, it’s ravishing, in one thousand and three ways.