I came with camera clutched in hand.
My entry fee was my demand:
Another tourist out to claim
Another piece of culture to their name;
A stroke of depth upon a stoneless wall
For looks and likes and thoughts from friends and all.
And then I looked,
Looked up into the heavens’ store,
Looked up and thought of likes no more,
Looked up and felt this groaning body soar
Into a space of light
We burn to share the moments that we feel
Have weaved in us another realm of real.
Yet surely not to show them who we are,
But ask if this is only just the start.
Such light as falls and fills and breathes
Could change the heart of what a man believes.
Santa Eulàlia is Barcelona’s Cathedral, tucked into the heart of the city in the beautifully dark Barri Gotic. Here are some more pics (No, I didn’t completely let go of my camera!)
The Avant-Garde of Catalonia is unthinkable without one Joan Salvat-Papasseit (what a name, by the way). In his tragically short life Salvat-Papasseit took an obscure, abstract idea and made it into personal, lived reality, spearheading a movement that sent cultural shockwaves through Catalonia and into Europe beyond.
Born in Barcelona in 1894 and raised within a working class background (greengrocer’s apprentice and seafront nightwatchman are a couple of his early jobs) the desire to see social reform was present in Salvat-Papasseit from a very early age. His membership to the Catalan Socialist Youth and his leaning towards Anarchism testify to this. This desire led him to the Avant-Garde movement.
While today Avant-Garde has come to be almost uniquely seen as a cultural movement, pushing at the accepted boundaries of art, it originally also encompassed a strong desire for socialreform. The Avant-Garde saw themselves as the cultural vanguard, using their cultural non-conformity not simply to raise stiff eyebrows, but to push and break-up the social status-quo, thereby freeing the working class masses to march up behind them and secure better lives.
Salvat-Papasseit founded the Llibreria Nacional Catalana – a grand bookstore – which became a focal point for the Catalan Avant-Garde, and in the process formed important friendships with other artists encompassed under the Avant-Garde umbrella such as the surrealist painter, Joan Miró and the Constructivist painter, Joaquín Torres Garcia. These influential artists would, along with others, contribute to the various Avant-Garde publications Salvat-Papasseit produced, thereby raising its (and his) prestige and spreading awareness among Catalan society.
Careering down the path of socio-political activist, Salvat-Papasseit continually met with road blockages along the way caused by his fragile health, which resulted in frequent stays in sanatoriums throughout the Pyrenees. His times in these solemn yet tranquil settings, coupled with the obvious deterioration of his health, had a deep impact on his writing, none more so than in turning his focus towards poetry, a focus he never lost, right up to his death.
Salvat-Papasseit very much took the Avant-Garde ethos into his poetry, which was consistently concerned with themes such as freedom, youth, sincerity, heroism and struggle. He advocated a poetry in line with the fledgling Futurist movement in Italy, which admired technology and the triumph of man over nature, praising originality and newness over traditional ‘good taste’ (while still managing to express strong nationalist tendencies). This was tempered with the simplicity of Le Corbusier’s L’esprit Nouveau – an art ideal that sought newness in ‘pure’ geometric forms, rather than the complexity of Cubism – and ‘Nunism’, a movement that celebrated the here and now, placing the present, earthly moment above any transcendent realm or heavenly future.
Salvat-Papasseit’s focus on humanity’s mastery of nature, his need to be in the present, and his urge to bring the future into that present are perhaps best understood when taking his physical state into account. Throughout his life, his health was of such delicacy that the spectre of death could not but help hover over his imagination. Encased in his fragile, frustrated frame and forever having the eternal unknown held before his face, it is unsurprising that Salvat-Papasseit reveled in Human triumph over Nature, and looked to bring the bright, hopeful future into his present reality.
It’s perhaps the biggest truism there is, but death comes to us all, and when it does, it seems that a person’s real, deep feelings finally come to the fore, no longer obscured by fancy and vain hope. This can be seen in the late poetical works of Salvat-Papasseit – In La gesta dels estels (The epic of the stars – 1922) he set about mythologizing everyday reality, perhaps as a way of reaching out to something more magical he hoped was beyond the reality he lived. Finally in Óssa Menor: fi dels poemes d’avantguarda (Ursa Minor: An End to Avant-garde Poems – 1925) he abandons all that has concerned him in his day to day life, as he prepares for the anguish and nearness of his death.
Joan Salvat-Papasseit died of tuberculosis in 1924 at the age of 30. His influence on early 20th century Catalan culture is all the more remarkable considering the bitterly short time he spent here. We all know how tragedy can raise a profile, but this man’s earnestness and intensity are surely rightly celebrated. At the end of his life, I really hope – as I do for everyone – that he found the future he had been longing for, even if it probably wasn’t as he’d expected.
It’s not without considerable effort that one becomes initiated into royalty of any kind. Impossible, you might say. Perhaps then royalty is inherent in some, ready and waiting to be discovered and gloried in.
Josep Carner i Puig-Oriol, to give the man his full name, must have known from a young age that he was uncovering artistic greatness. He was 12 when he first saw his articles in print. By 18 he had gained a law degree, and by 22 – as if being a law graduate wasn’t enough – he earned an Arts degree too. Throughout the following years he unleashed an incredible amount of poetry, articles and translations (as diverse as writers such as Mark Twain and Charles Dickens) on the Catalan public. Small wonder then that by his mid-30s he had earned the epithet ‘Prince of Catalan Poets’.
Carner’s work – particularly his poetry – is characteristic of a cultural movement that emerged in Catalonia in the 1910s, Noucentisme.
The term ‘noucentist’ – coined by Catalan essayist and philosopher, Eugeni d’Ors – was meant to capture the movement’s desire for newness. It played on the Catalan word ‘nou’ which means both ‘new’ and ‘nine’, signifying the ‘ninth’ century of the millennium, and its potential for new ideas.
It was also a term designed to distance itself from the ‘modernist’ cultural movement, with its radical, individualist perspective, preferring instead the order and objectivity of classicism.
For poetry then, this meant a painstaking attention to word selection and meaning, to verse form, and – of course – to metre and rhyme. While both Carner and Joan Maragall (almost contemporaries in Catalan cultural circles) believed in the power of the word, the modernist Maragall felt that spontaneity was required to draw a true essence of that being represented. In contrast, ‘noucentist’ Carner held that to represent beauty needed full consciousness, and truth was only kept by absolute control of words used and their meanings.
That Carner had significant influence in the institutionalization of the Catalan language will therefore come as no surprise. He was invited to join the ‘Institute of Catalan Studies’ where he collaborated with Pompeu Fabra, a man who is synonymous with standardising the Catalan language, i.e. forming a common language for all of Catalonia, where before local dialects could be quite different.
Noucentisme was strongly allied with Catalan politics, and along with his influence in linguistic matters, Carner also walked in high political circles. This was in particular thanks to his friendship with Enric Prat de la Riba, first Catalan president (1914-1917). Yet his political position meant he and his family faced real dangers as the sociopolitical situation in Spain darkened. In 1921 he left for Genoa, Italy where he was Spanish vice-consul.
In 1939, General Franco’s victory in the Spanish civil war was confirmed. Carner – a Catalan nationalist – became a full exile. He moved to Mexico during the War, then to Belgium afterwards, where he taught at the Open European University of Brussels.
Until his death in 1970, Carner – despite what he had witnessed, and despite his own nationalist sentiments – was a strong pro-claimer of Europeanism, believing in a shared European identity based on common norms and values that transcends those of individual nationalities. What ‘Europe’ is, and whether its people have a ‘European’ identity is hotly debated – anyone living in Europe knows that all too well. This lack of definition is what makes ‘Europe’ so easy to attack by the ‘Euroskeptics’.
Perhaps (and this is only a unthought-through final thought!) Carner’s noucentist approach of truth and beauty through order and objective clarity could be adopted as a framework for European identity? But then what is truth? What is beauty? Can anything be truly objective?
“RAMBLE [ram-buh l] v. – To wander around in a leisurely, aimless manner.”
Being no linguist, I would merely have to hazard a guess that this English word and the Spanish Rambla come from the same source. Even if I am wrong, this definition of ‘ramble’ seems to resonate perfectly with my most recent translation ‘Rambla de Catalunya‘, capturing the essence of M.C. Ferreres’ Catalonia – leisurely, aimless, wandering…
In trying my hand at interpreting this poem, the first image I meet is the broad and bustling avenue, the ‘rambla’. This is the main artery of the city, where you experience the flow of its life-force. I immediately assumed the city in reference was Barcelona, and mention of ‘Tibidabo’ (line 6) – a mountain just on the outskirts of Barcelona – confirms this. Barcelona is undoubtedly the beating heart of Catalonia, and so by extension, we can see Ferreres’ Rambla as an image of Catalonia itself, as the flow of life that sustains it.
Yet this beating heart is not a healthy one, but one whose tubes have become greasy through years of inert indulgence, clogged with the trappings of modern high society (‘lordly decay’ in my translation). ‘Modern’ here refers to the time when Catalan culture was experiencing a glorious and powerful resurgence, be that in the modernist buildings of Antoni Gaudí, the surrealist paintings of Joan Miró or the noucentist poetry of Josep Carner.
So, while from within, Catalonia appears to be at the height of progress – a burgeoning, fashionable city full of art, culture and riches – Ferreres takes a step back and what meets his eye is much less agreeable…
The fashionable hat (I assume!) worn by the well-to-do says “good day” – yes, a good day for you wearing it perhaps. But a ‘good day’ for the workers in your factory, the servants in your house, or the beggars you walk past on your Sunday ramble? Then there are Barcelona’s cultured class, sitting in cafés that line La Rambla. But from their lips comes no stimulating or incisive social comment. Instead, you might hear something more along the lines of ‘Eh Joan, did your hear of young Pere? What a scandal!’ And finally, passing by these gossips sipping their ‘Orxata’ (a creamy drink made from tiger-nuts, milk and water) are the nannies with their master’s children. No longer do families spend their time together; parental duties are delegated – even for something as simple as a Sunday stroll – to the nanny.
To me, Ferreres paints a picture of a society in the thralls of decadence, unaware, unable, perhaps even unwilling to stir itself from its luxurious slumber. The ‘lordly decay’ is emphasised by all these acts taking place on a Sunday, the traditional holy day for Christians (the Catalan word ‘diumengera’ roughly translates as “of or pertaining to Sunday”).
Dismay is not all Ferreres expresses though, for there is undoubtedly a note of threat in the last line of the poem:
Al fons, el Tibidabo t’espia.
This literally translates as: “In the background, Tibidabo watches you.”
This unholy frivolity – Ferreres warns – is not going unnoticed. Tibidabo is a mountain on the outskirts of Barcelona, visible from practically anywhere within the city. Upon its summit stands the Sagrat Cor, the ‘Sacred Heart’ Temple, and upon this stands a sculpture of Christ. This makes me wonder whether Ferreres (continuing with the thought of desecrating the holy day) felt that Catalans were bringing righteous judgement on themselves.
Interestingly (well, I think so anyway!) the name ‘Tibidabo’ means ‘I will give to you’ and comes from the Latin translation of Matthew 4:9: “All this I will give you,” he [the devil] said, “if you will bow down and worship me.” This is where Satan took Jesus, during his period of temptation, to a high mountain and showed him the kingdoms of the earth (Matt 4:8) and promised to give them to Jesus if Jesus would worship the devil. Tibidabo, according to Catalan folklore, is that very mountain. Has Catalonia sold its soul in order to reap earthly reward?
Away from religious imagery, another thought I had is that Tibidabo represents the watchful eye of Spain, jealous of Catalonia’s success, irate at its confident self-expression, and ever-ready to break both. It’s just a tentative thought, but nonetheless interesting to note that by the mid-1920s Catalonia was under a temporary military dictatorship and would soon become a victim to one of the bloodiest conflicts of the 20th century – the Spanish Civil War. The times of Sunday walks along the Rambla would not return for a long, long time…
What do you think? Do you agree, or have a different interpretation? I’d love to hear from you!
Note to Reader:- I chose to keep the title of this poem in the original Catalan spelling just because it seemed appropriate, so ‘Catalunya’ is simply the Catalan spelling of Catalonia, and ‘Rambla’ (which translates literally as ‘avenue’) refers to a wide, tree-lined road that has a pedestrian walkway running down the middle. Most towns and cities in Catalonia – indeed Spain – have a ‘Rambla’, the most famous of which must be Barcelona’s ‘La Rambla’!
‘Rambla de Catalunya’
So the Rambla’s Sunday-spirited joy
has engorged itself with lordly decay.
The proud hat – brand Prats – declares to all a “good day”,
sipping vermouth and orxata, loose tongues have their say
and nannies are out walking another’s girl and boy.
Beyond, Mount Tibidabo espies your way.
– M.C. Ferreres (n.d.)
Original Catalan Text
‘Rambla de Catalunya’ – per M.C. Ferreres
Talment una rambla diumengera, ha crescut amb trast de senyoria. El baret -marca Prats- dóna el “bon dia”, el vermut i l’orxata fan xafarderia i passeja els infants la mainadera. Al fons, el Tibidabo t’espia.
Come December’s icy freeze;
in confusion it retires
from the city it must appease
and from afar admires
where the sky is filled with love;
the mountain shields from above
and the blue waves beside
in sweetest slumber they reside.
Barcelona, city of charm,
December’s chill does you no harm
but smiles on from afar.
‘To you my frost shall not come near,
yet in abundance are roses here,
all over are the bushy bowers
enveloped in the whitest flowers.’
‘Woe to the one who mars your face
and a fool who you forgoes;
your soul of joy and solace
in fullness overflows.’
With dark shadows the wintry wight
comes to this place with all his might
but finds his fright turned clear and pure:
December smiles, and does demur.
There in the most secluded ways
the goldfinch sings his song;
and pollen fresh from earlier days
in dust is borne along;
laughs Sant Jordi, champion;
and between the hills of lush garden
a spout of water clear
cries ‘Onward’ and ‘No fear!’
Each city-girl shares her heart
and wears her violets for him;
their looks are lights that burn and spark
from Love’s own cherubim.
Golden is this city fair.
The icy wind of December
must confusedly retire
in tones as gentle as from a lyre.
Josep Carner (1884-1970)
Original Catalan text
‘Nova Canço del Desembre Congelat – per Josep Carner’
El desembre congelat confós se retira: el detura una ciutat que de lluny admira on el cel és amorós; la muntanya fa redós i la blava onada s’és adormissada.
Barcelona, bell casal, flor de Catalunya, el desembre no et fa mal: dolçament s’allunya. Diu: -Gebrada no et duré, que hi ha encara en ton roser, al cim de les branques, tot de roses blanques.
Malaurat qui et faci tort i foll qui t’oblida; tens de festa i de conhort l’ànima reblida; l’ombra fosca de l’esglai pervinguda a ton espai es fa clara i fina, somriu i declina.
Hi ha al carrer més amagat cants de cadernera; hi ha un nou pol·len del passat en la polseguera; riu sant Jordi el paladí i, entre tosses de jardí, un broll d’aigua clara diu: “Avant!” i “Encara!”
Cada noia té promès i duu violetes; son esguard és tot encès de les amoretes. És daurada la ciutat. Del desembre el vent gelat confós se retira, dolç com una lira.
Joan Maragall is a name you’re unlikely to be familiar with if you’re not Catalan. Yet read on just a little, and I think in this century-old Catalan poet, you might find some familiar traits and recognisable desires.
Barcelona, 1860, and Joan Maragall i Gorina is born into a family of wealthy textile merchants. He grows and quickly becomes initiated into the life and customs of the Barcelona bourgeoisie, the powerful, the wealthy, the cultured strata of Catalan society. His privileged position frees him to foster and pursue a growing passion for writing. Is this still the case today, or has capitalism democratised culture and creativity? Hmm, discuss!
Maragall’s bourgeois upbringing is critical in developing his writing style, for a simple reason: he finds it lacking. Surrounded by safety, by comfort and an unimaginative, conservative conformity, Maragall feels stifled and smothered by the stultifying stew of ‘high society’. Though later in life he will turn and point an accusing finger at the privileged classes, initially he sees himself as an inner agitator, stirring to life a somnambulant and indifferent goliath toward a dynamic, cosmopolitan ideology.
All through his life Maragall will feel proud of his homeland, and identify with Catalan nationalism. Having studied law at University it is only to be expected that this wealthy, educated nationalist will accept calls to join the Catalan parliament, the Generalitat. But he doesn’t (incidentally his grandson, Pasqual Maragall, did enter politics, becoming President of the Generalitat from 2003-2006). For Maragall, there is another way of changing the current order of things, and it lies not in the cold, hard power of politics, but in the more subtle and personal – but no less powerful – form of the ‘living word’.
Words, claims Maragall, have a life force. They are not merely marks on paper (or type on tablets, in 21st century speak, sigh…) but are linguistic expressions of an individual’s being. Therefore the more fervently the poet, the novelist or the journalist expends themselves in their writing the greater punch their words will pack. You might call it ‘writing from the heart’. But what message is Maragall trying to get across? Take a look at what he says here in these quotes, then have a read of one of his poems on Project Poesia (see sidebar):
“I believe that the word is the most marvellous thing in this world, because in her are embraced and entangled all corporeal wonder and all spiritual wonder of our nature. It seems that the earth expends all its efforts in leading mankind to a higher sense of itself; and mankind expends all the strength of his being in producing the word.”
– From Elogi de la paraula (Praise of the word), 1903
What do you think? Personally I think his poems are beautifully in-sync with what he wrote above. The words of Pirinenquesand La Fageda d’en Jordàare infused, even saturated, with the spiritual. Not the ‘religious’, I hasten to add, but filled with a hunger for and awareness of a transcendental reality, of something ‘more’ beyond.
Tantalizingly close, but ever just beyond our reach, in Maragall’s poems it is in Nature that we come closest to this other reality. In the natural, the wild and the wondrous places we find a beauty, a purity and a stillness that stirs us to feel as close as we can to that something other. Feeling is key for Maragall. Introspection can only take us so far towards true self-recognition. For this, we need experience, we need to go out there and experience sublime nature with all five senses (and maybe some others we don’t have names for).
When we experience this – and describing what ‘this’ is, is the fuel for myriad poems – we are spoken to in something other than mere physical sensation. Seek that! – Maragall cries through all his living words of poetry – Hold on to that unexplainable life society tells you is imagined, that inexplicable voice they say is just in your head…
It could just be the most real thing you ever know.
Click here to see a more detailed biography of Maragall (in Catalan) and some beautiful old photographs of the man himself.