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Daniel John Sportiello | Wednesday, September 2, 2009

I spent the first two weeks of the New Year traveling through Spain. I tried, each day, to make some sense of it – to fit things I saw disconnected into some kind of coherent narrative. In the end, this was – like all narratives in a fallen world – something of a falsification. But it was not, I think, entirely without merit: I understand Spain better now, understand what its history means for human nature. I have learned the story of Spain – a story that came together only at the end.

In the final days of my journey, I went to the Valley of the Fallen, high in the mountains over Madrid. It is a war memorial to and a mass grave for 40,000 who died in their civil war – a memorial hewn deep into the mountain by Franco’s political prisoners. It is the fascist dream given physical form, a cavernous underground basilica into which one descends as though into one’s own tomb. It is a grotesque inversion, almost a parody, of Saint Peter’s, an echo of death itself – silent, patient and inevitable.

It is difficult to describe how it felt to be there – and even more difficult to describe my reasons for going. I suppose that I needed to see how the story ended. For the Valley of the Fallen is the logical conclusion of the glorious dream of empire born so nobly five hundred years earlier in the conquest of Granada, when Ferdinand and Isabel hoped that they might build the city of God here on earth. This was no small thing, but like all waking dreams it ended in madness.

Behind the altar is a grave that, almost alone among the thousands, has a name on it: Generalissimo Francisco Franco. He lies triumphant in this travesty that he built in God’s name, his grave inviolate under the dome of the mountain. I confess that I wanted to spit on it. I almost did. But it occurred to me that I had no right: Franco was evil, no doubt. But could I be sure that, had I been in his shoes, I would have done differently than he had? Could I be sure that I would have been on the right side? Could I be sure that I was now?

For there is something of Franco, something of the dream that was Spain, in my own heart – something glorious and zealous and entirely mad. Something evil: the temptation to build the city of God on earth, no matter the cost. It might be that my life will take such a course that, someday, students idealistic and na’ve will come to spit on my grave. If I am honest, I must admit that between me and depravity stands only the whim of history. The glorious madness lies curled inside – silent, patient and inevitable.

And yet. There is something glorious in the attempt of the Spanish Empire to transcend the merely human, something sublime. Are the 500,000 victims of their civil war too high a price to pay for “Las Meninas?” For “The Burial of the Count of Orgaz?” For “Saturn Devouring His Son?” Are the countless millions subjugated by the Spanish Empire, broken in the plantations and mines of the Americas, too high a price to pay? And, if not, isn’t even one victim too high a price to pay? But to what extent does it even make sense to ask these questions?

Nietzsche reiterates, again and again, that it is ever profound evil that makes anything truly worthwhile possible. His words are certainly true of Spain: the glory of Velázquez was borne aloft by the rape and pillage of Cortéz and Pizarro. The zeal of El Greco was not different in kind from that of Torquemada. And the sublime horror of Goya was but an echo of the madness to which he had borne witness his entire life.

Nietzsche concludes, ultimately, that we must affirm everything, no matter how awful. That we must learn not just to bear but to love fate, to make this world in its sublimity and its madness entirely our own. He might not be wrong. But this is, I suppose, little consolation to the fallen. It does not make their sacrifice any easier to bear.

In the end, it might not matter: there is indeed a part of me willing to trade my soul for glory. But I fear that the same might be said of all of us: this darkness is in each of our hearts – an original sin if ever there was one. Is Generalissimo Francisco Franco still dead, then? Not quite, I think: he lives in all of us – silent, patient, and inevitable. The Valley of the Fallen is our tomb as much as his. This is the story of Spain.

Daniel John Sportiello is a second year Doctorate of Philosophy student. He can be contacted at [email protected]

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.