gall and gumption

Friday, April 25, 2008

Writing for Posterity

Went to see Lorca’s Bodas de Sangre at the Gala Theater Sunday. I came away thinking Lorca’s plays are much more interesting on stage than they appear on paper. On the stage you can appreciate the sort of bareness of the stories and the evocativeness of the language. They are wonderfully uncluttered and direct. There is only one single action, just as Aristotle says there should be, and that action is a revelation.

When I was an undergraduate, and even for a little while after, I had a bout of Lorca-mania. So watching this performance I felt like I was sitting there exchanging observations with a much earlier version of me, the one that was still looking in books for what I expected to find, for what I already knew I wanted. That may still be true of me now—I have my tastes and preferences—but my knowledge of what it was possible to have and want from literature was much smaller. My basic feelings about things haven’t changed; It’s still really about life for me, first of all. And then it’s about the excitement of the medium; but there’s a third bit now that I had no way to get back then, which is the drama of creating. Not in any sort of “Agony and Ecstasy” way. I mean, I can’t bear the sort of movie where the Great Artist or Great Composer suddenly leaps up from his chair, tosses his quill pen on the desk with a triumphant “Hah!” and dashes out into the courtyard and the chickens scatter and he finds his girlfriend and they do that slow camera circle thing that always makes me feel dizzy. I’m talking about the drama of creating when you see it in what is created. Someone has a subject and has to find a way to make it speak, or let it speak. You track that drama through changes in tone, in point of view, in the use of things like metaphor, in the weave of what is made.

Some writers are easier to track that way than others: Tolstoy, Lawrence, Faulkner, Dickens, Wordsworth, Dostoevesky are especially easy (I’m talking about the ones that it’s worth following, of course). You can take their creative temperature by just reading what they wrote. Looking at Lorca’s work way back then I don’t know whether I couldn’t see the maker in the work, or whether I ignored him because I expected him to be somebody else. But watching the play I think I saw him.

So here are a few things that crossed my mind. The play is stripped down, lean, like a Greek tragedy, which is sort of interesting all by itself because there seems to be a sort of tradition in Spanish and Latin-American literatures of a certain indulgence in rhodomontade, or at the least an ornate and formal rhetoric. Someone like Alas loads his realism with irony, but you can’t really imagine Lorca capable of that sort of sly oblique humor that comes with full deniability. In the popular arts of our time, the subversive truths are in the mouths of a garrulous servant, daffy in-laws, a 1,000-year-old lady, by a cuddly space alien who talks like a hippie. Think of them as Sancho Panza’s idiot descendants. They are symptoms of repression.

Lorca was close friends with Bunuel and Dali and helped in the creation of Un Chien Andalou, and thereby collaborated in doing something far more dangerous. The Surrealists appropriated seriousness. Un Chien Andalou did two unforgivable things: it showed that it had no respect for the limits of “good taste” and morality, and it did so with the solemnity of a sacrament. This is something that I think goes far beyond the shock of any individual image. And if you think a piece of art like this is only about scandalizing the bourgeois sensibilities of early 20th-century Spain, you’re sort of missing the point. You’re likely to fall into the error of thinking of what they did as a historical event in a remote place. They appropriated seriousness because they might need it sometime. This is dangerous. I don’t mean only in terms of the risk of artistic failure. I mean people kill you over that.

Lorca’s landed peasants are terse and humorless; The Mother in Bodasis fearfully blunt. Not kings and queens, they are the nobility of poverty; they have their land—not good land but they own it and are bound to it as rulers are bound to their kingdoms, which fulfills, with just a touch of deadpan irony, another of Aristotle’s requirements. Strategic alliances and marriages take place; it’s a small world they live in. The action of the story couldn’t be simpler. A bride runs away with her married lover on the day of her wedding, they are pursued, and the groom and the lover both end up killed. That’s the whole thing, and there is nothing, not one single line, that suggests some kind of larger connection. It isn’t about the rights of women, it isn’t about the hard life of peasants, it isn’t about anything except the story. Except as you follow along you get the sense that something is at work there: the macho culture of “honor” that casually exacts the deaths of the two men, the rigidities of the society in which the play takes place, and last, a sense of the immanence of violence.

But the reason you get that sense of context is because the characters who make up this little society are so completely committed to these things. It’s the force of their commitment that creates the situation in which forbidden love has such catastrophic consequences. They have a few ideas: endurance, honor (men’s honor and women’s honor), family pride, and a relentless need to work their arid land for every penny of value it can yield.

This, I think, is what made the characters seem so strange back when I was reading Lorca. But it makes for great concentration on stage, and then, oddly, the story can accommodate these more formal and abstract elements, like the way symbols work their way into the language (carnations for blood, for example) and the personifications, and the way Lorca uses a sort of incantatory repetition, as in the chorus’s singing of an Epithalamion. These peasants don’t sit around playing flutes and weaving garlands and writing poetry; they’re the sort of people who, to borrow a phrase from Bessie Smith, get their hands on a dollar and “hold on to it till the eagle grins.” Lorca’s use of formal devices invokes a pastoral world that elevates them into a kind of nobility that they wouldn’t have in real life. But at the same time it seems so artless. Lorca’s flowers of rhetoric have a way of just seeming to randomly festoon his speeches. It’s like this touch of irrationality that appears. I mean poetic irrationality. Except that these seemingly random invocations of carnations as symbols of blood and violence, and the way that the violence infuses the language, get through to you in the end.

The violence is offstage. You don’t see it, of course, but by the time it happens you begin to feel that violence is immanent among these characters, in this world, as a presence, like Necessity, like any deity who manifests himself in a dust cloud or a bird flying overhead or a fit of madness. Violence preserves honor, it exacts revenge, it gives completeness and resolution to human action like nothing else does, its law holds the members of this society in their relations to one another. It is the law. And this law’s function is to keep the law of violence in place. There is a simple and specious rationality by which everyone lives: only a crazy person would break the law, only a person who had run off the rails would not shun its punishments and seek its rewards.

Except that The Bride and Leonardo discover that in submitting to the law they are betraying themselves, and they can’t bear to do it. So they run. And are pursued. Their forbidden love turns them, in effect, into prey. The Groom and Leonardo fight; both die. There’s no winner. The Mother is grief-stricken and her words are even more full of blood and death and despair and heroic resolution. The Bride follows the corpses of The Groom and Leonardo back to the village, and speaks to The Mother.

You too, you would have gone. I was a woman on fire, wounded inside and out, and your son was a stream of water that could give me sons, land, health; but the other was a dark river, filled with branches, that brought me the murmur of its reeds, and its song between clenched teeth. And I went with your son who was like a child born of water, cold, while the other sent flocks of birds that prevented me walking, and sent frost into the wounds of a poor withered woman, a girl scorched by the flames. I did not want it. Listen to me! I did not want it. Do you hear? I did not want it. Your son was my goal, and I did not betray him, but the other seized me in his arms like a wave of the sea, struck me like the kick of a mule, and I must be dragged along forever, forever, forever, forever, even if I had been old and all your son’s sons had held me back by the hair!

When she arrives onstage, dressed in her tattered wedding gown, bloodstained and dirty, I start to entertain the suspicion that the women in this play are drama queens and the whole thing is a guileless and innocent drag show. I can't completely put this idea to rest. You must understand; this is not, in my view, a bad thing. That's why it's so touching: I don't think he thought he was writing a drag show. He followed his instincts and a drag show was the result, but it's a drag show of terrible seriousness because he presents the violent world of the characters with the same sincerity and simplicity, with the same intuitive trust in his own imagery. Of course Lorca had personal experience of forbidden love. Certainly his being gay was one form of forbidden love. But his art was another, which is strange because he wasn’t a didactic writer. Whether he “belonged” to Surrealism with any kind of conscious intellectual commitment I’m not sure; he seems to have been the sort of person who would always just be himself. But in a time of reaction and disintegration, human uniqueness can be fatal.

His death was a perfect act of fascist violence:

García Lorca left Madrid for Granada only three days before the Civil War broke out, when the Spanish political and social climate, just after José Calvo Sotelo murder, became unbreathable. He was aware that he was certainly heading towards a city reputed to have the most conservative oligarchy in Andalucía. After the war broke out, García Lorca and his brother-in-law, the socialist mayor of Granada, were soon arrested. He was killed, shot by Nacionalist militia on August 19, 1936. Lorca was thrown into an unmarked grave somewhere between Víznar and Alfacar, near Granada. Significant controversy remains about the motives and details of his death. Personal non-political motives have also been suggested. Lorca's biographer, Stainton, states that Lorca's killers had made remarks about Lorca's sexuality, suggesting that homophobia played a role. The dossier compiled at Franco's request has yet to surface.

Because when the violent go into action, they pick off the weak first. They stalk their prey, they need to destroy and they don’t know why. Every rationale is a partial lie if not a lie entire. It’s not only that; the hostility that Lorca experienced, that law of violence, was killing him before any shot was fired. He was an intuitive person, not a theorizing speech-making political revolutionary; he knew instinctively what was up, and he translated that, simply, as he translated all experience, into his own distinct idiom of imagery and voices. He did not think like other people. He published his thoughts. He was strange. He was queer. He could be spared.

Society only has to gather the hate; some enterprising person can be counted on to turn up and carry out the kill. Fascism ruled in Spain for 40 years after Lorca was shot. Somebody appealed to Necessity in killing him and his brother-in-law. The historic moment demanded it, no doubt, they were acting in support of history and all right-thinking people and it would help them get on in the brave new world they were creating, and he was just a fag anyway. Nobody remembers who killed Lorca, and if their names could be recalled from oblivion justice would turn around and toss them into infamy. But Lorca is not forgotten.

You might as well write for posterity, all things considered.

Update: Slight bit of tweakage added overnight.


At 8:57 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The best literary essay I've read in a long while.

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