The Artistic Difficulty of the Woman as Such

ImageOn Sunday, the 28th of May, 1882, Vincent Van Gogh writes to his friend Anthon Van Rappard, concerning the prostitute Clasina Maria Hoornik, commonly known as Sien, whom he would live with for two years and who would drown herself in the Rotterdam harbor in 1904:

het leven is er over heengegaan en smart & tegenspoed hebben haar gemerkt –– nu kan ik er iets mee doen.

(The approved English translation of the Van Gogh Museum is: Life has given her a drubbing, and sorrow and adversity have left their mark on her — now I can make use of it.)

I came across this quote in a Spanish translation of Guido Ceronetti’s essay Dolore-Tempo-Thanatos: la donna in tre immagini. The Spanish translator, who probably did not look at the Dutch, is faced with an ambiguity upon encountering the partitive clitic “ne” in the Italian. The version in Ceronetti’s original text runs: Presentemente posso estrarne qualque cosa. Just afterward, Ceronetti quotes the same phrase in French, which was presumably the language of his edition of Van Gogh’s letters and which, like Italian, has a partitive clitic (en) at its disposal: en tirer quelque chose. The Spanish translator seems not to have had access to the Dutch original, and was unable to judge from grammatical evidence alone whether the ne in the Italian text or the en in the French referred to “sorrow and adversity” or to Sien herself. Compelled by the requirements of his language to make a choice, he has written: now I can make use of her.

Error or no, this elimination of Ceronetti’s ambiguity clears the way for a very fruitful manner of thinking about the text and about Van Gogh’s perception of this woman, in whose agonies he perceived a sort of divine torment that was perhaps necessary to his idea of art. The passage continues:

It is cruel and fascinating, this en tirer quelque chose. If he had not been able to get anything out of her, what would he have done? Would he have punished that body for not being sufficiently a man of sorrows [English in original]? And yet, the secret of Sien was to be precisely the sorrow-body required to satiate Vincent’s need to make himself responsible to any possible outcry against the world’s sidereal silence.

So often, art is predicated on the exploitation of the sufferings of others. In the so-called Western tradition, the sufferings of women have been particularly rich grist for this mill. In a sense, the suffering person is a pretext for, at best, the artist’s communion with his own fixed ideas, and at worst, an opportunity to exploit the guilty conscience of the audience for renown and money. Van Gogh seems, however, to have been decent, taking Sien in despite the scorn he faced from his family and writing, concerning her, to his brother Theo:

you who set great store by manners and culture, and rightly so, provided it’s the real thing – what is more cultured, more sensitive, more manly: to forsake a woman or to take on a forsaken one?

It is true though that he left her not long after.

Klaus Theweleit, in his enormous, unfinished tetralogy Das Buch der Könige, asserts that the history of Occidental art and literature can be examined as a mode of suppressing women’s physicality to permit their re-emergence in art:

… the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, the organizing paradigm of the producing couple, which is not so much about the tragic failure to call back the beloved as about a deliberate program of delivering the woman’s body to Hades. In reanimating the body of the dead woman, the man produces new possibility––in other words, “art.”

 

The Dignity of Poorness in World

One of the most curious epiphenomena of the intrusion of internet-based activity into so many areas of our lives has been the proliferation of videos of animals. Jacques Derrida, in what for me is his most deliberate, measured, and beautiful book, L’animal que donc je suis, speaks of the animal as an inevitable other, with particular and withering emphasis on Heidegger’s idea of the animal as weltarm and vindicating the dignity of animals through an invocation of a well-known passage from Jeremy Bentham: “The question is not, “Can they reason?” nor, “Can they talk?” but rather, “Can they suffer?” It is not the fashion to talk of nature nor of the spiritually inexorable, I am nonetheless sure that the matter of one’s proper comportment in regards to animals is a basic aspect of moral being that can only be avoided at the cost of a mauvaise conscience so consuming as to render one ethically incomplete. The vehemence with which Adorno has been posthumously taken to task for the phrase

The possibility of pogroms is decided the moment when the gaze of a fatally-wounded animal falls on a human being

has a red-faced, blustering nature about it that typifies reactions to an argument that is irritating but philosophically sound; one that is correct, but to the consequences of which one does not wish to be beholden. Anyone who has watched an animal’s impotent wailing as a person holds it in the air by its leash, kicking it until it pisses everywhere in fear, as I have, because I lived for a number of years in proximity to a person who abused animals, will find it difficult to maintain the self-serving illusion that his pain is superior or more worthy of consideration than that of a poor, quivering beast.

The viewing of images and videos of animals on the internet, particularly engaged in mock-human activities or expressing affinities we are wont to associate with the human, although in our hearts we know they are not our exclusive domain, should lead one to question the perversity of a model of existence in which the independent lives of animals are given virtually no place.

Derrida, in the aforementioned book, devotes various pages to the naming of animals and the degree to which animals possess their names. Of course the notion of a name as the rubric for a distinct and irreducible identity is a perversion, the origin of human names, like those of animals, lies in the summons, even today, in many languages, it is customary to explain one’s name by the locution I am called. Beyond this, the name is an evocation of the absent. Many animals have a sense of this aspect of names as well, and will react with excitement or fear when the arrival of a benevolent or cruel figure is announced.

Animal friendship is widely attested to both in ethological literature and in the anecdotes of country people. As I watched this video about companionship and longing, I wondered to what extent the facets of naming and friendship that transcended the understanding these two animals had of them––thus, those known to be proper to “man”––did not serve to denature and disfigure our fundamental relations.

Many of the writers I most admire reserve harsh words for sentimentality, and yet, though I have never taken the time to think this through as I should, I often have the feeling that sentimentality is a more adequate disposition in comparison with emotional and intellectual refinement, which so often consists of discarding naivety in favor of a demeanor mirroring others who are remarkable not for their greater kindness or sensitivity, but rather for occupying some station of which we are envious.

I have not been able to stop thinking about these animals, whether they will always be together, whether they are still as happy as they appear to be at the end of this video, for some time, particularly when I am trying to fall asleep. Most probably, the part of myself that is concerned with the destiny of these animals is far more worthy of cultivation than the part of me that is clever or attempts to pursue a career in letters, but I do not know whether I may ever be certain about this, because I do not know whether I am resigned to the moral hypocrisy upon which the way of life typical of the country where I live is based or whether some day, the shame of this hypocrisy will become too much to bear and I will try, somehow, to live differently.

Julien Green, Diaries

It is so hard to know how complicated life is or is not, or whether its complexity is an abstraction outside of time or depends upon the vicissitudes of self-presentation. Often I have felt that only the jarring, the unassimilable, can rouse one from the spiritual torpor on which the poetic sense of life probably feeds, and present a more just account of how things really are; but then, particularly when I am exhausted or in need of consolation, so-called simple thoughts, elegantly phrased, seduce me with their meditative tenor. 

For some years now I have had the idea that I should read the diaries of Julien Green, but other things always seemed more pressing. It is only because I was so taken with the beautiful cover and shape of this recently published selection, which I could not forget about once I had seen it in LA Central close to the MACBA in Barcelona, which is my favorite bookstore, and bought it the next time I was there, that I finally got around to them. There is a quality of restraint in his writing that recalls the humility of finely crafted instruments or furnishings the beauty of which lies in an absence of excess and an appropriateness to their purpose.photo-1

8 September 1933

I ask myself often what the sense of life might be, if it does in fact have one, and above all, to what degree the external world exists. What is the meaning, for example, of the disquiet in the Europe of the present moment, the fever in Germany, the anguish of so many men and women who see tomorrow so black and so rife with threats? It is evident that no one can answer this question, but frequently, I have the fleeting impression of glimpsing a world that doesn’t exist, or that doesn’t exist in the manner we imagine. Perhaps the material world has only a symbolic value. This is an idea that has been familiar to me since I was fifteen. Thus it may be that the universal disquiet is the imaginary representation of your own disquiet. The “crisis” is, first of all, inside you. The disorder of the world corresponds to an inner disorder that you rediscover in yourself.

Undated

The liberty of dreams cannot be reconstructed in a state of wakefulness.

Alfred de Vigny, The Death of the Wolf

Someone approached me recently about doing a volume of poetry by Alfred de Vigny. My interest in the project was married to a degree of timorousness about my capacity to respect the formal constraints the abandonment of which renders the translation of a poet of this type pointless. To see if I could do it, I chose one of his classic poems, La mort du loup. The English version follows the French. [Update: this project appears dead in the water, but this poem still attracts tons of traffic, so if anyone knows a publisher that might be interested in doing a Vigny volume, please let me know.]

Alfred de Vigny, La Mort du loup (1843)

I.

Les nuages couraient sur la lune enflammée
Comme sur l’incendie on voit fuir la fumée,
Et les bois étaient noirs jusques à l’horizon.
Nous marchions sans parler, dans l’humide gazon,
Dans la bruyère épaisse et dans les hautes brandes,
Lorsque, sous des sapins pareils à ceux des Landes,
Nous avons aperçu les grands ongles marqués
Par les loups voyageurs que nous avions traqués.
Nous avons écouté, retenant notre haleine
Et le pas suspendu. — Ni le bois, ni la plaine
Ne poussait un soupir dans les airs ; Seulement
La girouette en deuil criait au firmament ;
Car le vent élevé bien au dessus des terres,
N’effleurait de ses pieds que les tours solitaires,
Et les chênes d’en-bas, contre les rocs penchés,
Sur leurs coudes semblaient endormis et couchés.
Rien ne bruissait donc, lorsque baissant la tête,
Le plus vieux des chasseurs qui s’étaient mis en quête
A regardé le sable en s’y couchant ; Bientôt,
Lui que jamais ici on ne vit en défaut,
A déclaré tout bas que ces marques récentes
Annonçait la démarche et les griffes puissantes
De deux grands loups-cerviers et de deux louveteaux.
Nous avons tous alors préparé nos couteaux,
Et, cachant nos fusils et leurs lueurs trop blanches,
Nous allions pas à pas en écartant les branches.
Trois s’arrêtent, et moi, cherchant ce qu’ils voyaient,
J’aperçois tout à coup deux yeux qui flamboyaient,
Et je vois au delà quatre formes légères
Qui dansaient sous la lune au milieu des bruyères,
Comme font chaque jour, à grand bruit sous nos yeux,
Quand le maître revient, les lévriers joyeux.
Leur forme était semblable et semblable la danse ;
Mais les enfants du loup se jouaient en silence,
Sachant bien qu’à deux pas, ne dormant qu’à demi,
Se couche dans ses murs l’homme, leur ennemi.
Le père était debout, et plus loin, contre un arbre,
Sa louve reposait comme celle de marbre
Qu’adorait les romains, et dont les flancs velus
Couvaient les demi-dieux Rémus et Romulus.
Le Loup vient et s’assied, les deux jambes dressées
Par leurs ongles crochus dans le sable enfoncées.
Il s’est jugé perdu, puisqu’il était surpris,
Sa retraite coupée et tous ses chemins pris ;
Alors il a saisi, dans sa gueule brûlante,
Du chien le plus hardi la gorge pantelante
Et n’a pas desserré ses mâchoires de fer,
Malgré nos coups de feu qui traversaient sa chair
Et nos couteaux aigus qui, comme des tenailles,
Se croisaient en plongeant dans ses larges entrailles,
Jusqu’au dernier moment où le chien étranglé,
Mort longtemps avant lui, sous ses pieds a roulé.
Le Loup le quitte alors et puis il nous regarde.
Les couteaux lui restaient au flanc jusqu’à la garde,
Le clouaient au gazon tout baigné dans son sang ;
Nos fusils l’entouraient en sinistre croissant.
Il nous regarde encore, ensuite il se recouche,
Tout en léchant le sang répandu sur sa bouche,
Et, sans daigner savoir comment il a péri,
Refermant ses grands yeux, meurt sans jeter un cri.

II.

J’ai reposé mon front sur mon fusil sans poudre,
Me prenant à penser, et n’ai pu me résoudre
A poursuivre sa Louve et ses fils qui, tous trois,
Avaient voulu l’attendre, et, comme je le crois,
Sans ses deux louveteaux la belle et sombre veuve
Ne l’eût pas laissé seul subir la grande épreuve ;
Mais son devoir était de les sauver, afin
De pouvoir leur apprendre à bien souffrir la faim,
A ne jamais entrer dans le pacte des villes
Que l’homme a fait avec les animaux serviles
Qui chassent devant lui, pour avoir le coucher,
Les premiers possesseurs du bois et du rocher.

III.

Hélas ! ai-je pensé, malgré ce grand nom d’Hommes,
Que j’ai honte de nous, débiles que nous sommes !
Comment on doit quitter la vie et tous ses maux,
C’est vous qui le savez, sublimes animaux !
A voir ce que l’on fut sur terre et ce qu’on laisse
Seul le silence est grand ; tout le reste est faiblesse.
– Ah ! je t’ai bien compris, sauvage voyageur,
Et ton dernier regard m’est allé jusqu’au coeur !
Il disait : ” Si tu peux, fais que ton âme arrive,
A force de rester studieuse et pensive,
Jusqu’à ce haut degré de stoïque fierté
Où, naissant dans les bois, j’ai tout d’abord monté.
Gémir, pleurer, prier est également lâche.
Fais énergiquement ta longue et lourde tâche
Dans la voie où le Sort a voulu t’appeler,
Puis après, comme moi, souffre et meurs sans parler. ”

Alfred de Vigny, The Death of the Wolf (1843)

I.
The clouds eloped across the moon in flames
Like smoke above the bonfire whence it came,
The woods were black, to vision’s furthest pass,
We walked in silence through the dew-damp grass,
Brambles teemed beneath the heather’s fronds,
Until, under sap trees like those of Landes,
We saw the gashes from the daunting nails
Of the wandering pack of wolves we had trailed.
We listened, standing fixed, our breath restrained,
Our bodies still, while neither wood nor plain
Was racked or heaved by breezes fulminant;
The weathervane beseeched the firmament
In grief; for the drafts in the heights respired
And only grazed the solitary spires,
While pitched against the stones, the oaks below
Seemed huddled on their elbows in repose.
No sound rang out; when lowering his head,
The oldest of the hunters knelt and said,
— That man who thereabouts had never erred —
While at the crosshatched sand he keenly stared,
Quite softly, that those tracks so freshly laid
Attested to the truculent parade
Of deer wolves with their stripling cubs in flight.
The knives were brandished in the veil of night,
The rifles hidden, with their gleam so white,
Across the brake, we strode toward the fight.
Three men stopped short, and searching what they saw
I glimpsed two flaming eyes, a famished maw,
And four lean forms distinguished there below
Frisking in heather in the moonlight’s glow,
As every day, with leaps and howling voice
At master’s return, the harriers rejoice.
Their forms were like, alike as well their dance,
Though quiet were the wolf-cubs as they pranced.
Aware that two steps nigh and half-asleep,
Their adversary, man, was poised to leap.
The father posed arrect aside a tree,
His wife, marmoreal, impassively
Stayed, like the beast by Romans praised whose breast
Nursed Romulus and Remus, men of flesh
With souls divine. The wolf steps out and stands,
His long claws sinking in the sorrel sand.
He was condemned, we trapped him unawares,
Our men had blocked the path back to his lair.
And then he seized, in fauces hot with hate
Our prize hound’s throat, his fury was so great;
His iron jaws would not forebear to thresh,
Not even when our bullets pierced his flesh;
Our knives, like pincers, made a dreadful clank,
And clashed and clanged as in his bowels they sank,
Till the moment when the choked and lifeless hound,
Now long dead, fell at his feet to the ground.
He glared at us, let fall what he had killed,
Our knives were plunged in his flanks to the hilt
And to the blood-caked dust the beast was pinned;
In crescent cruel our rifles hemmed him in.
Collapsing, still he stares, a hellish gloat,
His face bestrewn with blood heaved from his throat.
In pride he spurned all deference to his death,
He closed his eyes, and fell without a breath.

II.

Against the smoking gun I lad my head,
My feeble will on ill-formed vigor fed,
I thought to chase the she-wolf and her brood,
Who full of rue had vanished from that wood;
Without her cubs, that widow, noble, grave
Would not have left her mate his death to brave;
But she was pledged, her progeny to keep
To teach them to bear hunger, not to weep,
To not submit to machinations vile
That bind the beast of burden to man’s wile,
At his behest to run, to hunt, to kill
The erstwhile lords of forest, rock, and hill.

III.

Alas! I thought, despite all earthly fame,
Our cowardice redounds to our great shame.
That is your wisdom, animals sublime!
To know what you were, and what you leave behind.
Silence alone is great, all else is frail.
— O savage wanderer, well I’ve heard your tale,
Your dying gaze has set my heart afire,
It said: “Your soul by study should aspire
To that degree of stoic haughtiness
That I, though feral-born, have yet accessed:
To wait, to weep, to pray are futile all;
Instead you’d fain your weighty task recall:
To take, as I, that path that fate decrees,
To live, to suffer, and die wordlessly.”

The infamy of literature

This morning, reading a broadly acclaimed biography of a celebrated writer, I came across a sympathetic account of the latter’s father, who had died as a consequence of a botched medical procedure, followed by an apparently sincere appreciation of the struggles this man had been forced to undergo as a consequence of his race, his poverty, and his condition of exile. I thought of how the web of privileged acquaintances that had made the composition of this biography possible and had led to its becoming a popular and critical success was analogous to the endogamous apportionment of money and privileges that had rendered the life of this émigré father so bitter and disappointing and his death so derisible. This is a picture in miniature of the infamy of literature and of the cultivation of feeling as an end in itself. In many cases literature is no more than a means by which, from a position of privilege, people of a sensitivity that quite easily grades into the cagey profit from sorrows already long since brought into flower, about which nothing can now be done, to assure themselves a place in the prevailing social and economic order where they will be tolerated as a kind of pampered moral ornament. 

In Tui, in the Province of Pontevedra

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I was brought to the city of Tui because I had asked to see Portugal, which lay on the other side of the Miño river, although, to tell the truth, the meaning of the phrase to see Portugal and the moral significance of this desire were not at all clear to me. In Tui, a city of 15,000 people, there is a stone ornamental tablet affixed to the outer wall of an artfully constructed but very dingy building commemorating the birthplace of the famous fascist Calvo Sotelo, whose murder marked an important flashpoint in the escalation of enmities that culminated in the Spanish Civil war. We had a coffee there and ate a Spanish omelette laced with long strands of golden potato like the flat, rectangular pencils carpenters use. In a pattern repeated incomprehensibly throughout the world, the people of Tui, who are in general quite poor, choose to be governed by a conservative party that would gladly see them ground into dust. Our guide was a man who, although an atheist and a Marxist, had special rights of entry to the cathedral, and we were therefore able to see the cloister, the orange trees, the stone lions with bronze tongues that flanked the rear egress, and the tomb of the cathedral’s builder, who bore the last name Torquemada, but was of no relation to the Grand Inquisitor and Hammer of the Heretics. Tui was among the last redoubts of antifascist forces in the northeast of the peninsula during the Spanish Civil War, and as a consequence suffered brutal repressive measures on being overtaken. There, against that wall, said our guide, pointing to the church of Saint Dominic, is where not only the insurgents themselves, but often their wives and children were brought to be shot.

Today, at the Mercado San Miguel…

Today, at the Mercado San Miguel in Madrid, I nearly paid thirty-five euros for a glass of Vega Sicilia Único. Not long afterward, as we were walking through a nearby plaza, a man whose topaz skin and French accent led me to believe he had immigrated from Mali or Burkina Faso, touched my arm and asked me for change so that he could buy a coffee with milk. Though it is possible to say that I looked at him, because I recollect his shape and expression and the tattered green jacket he wore, it is equally correct that I did not look at him in the sense that, while he was obviously a human being and therefore, as Kant asserts, an end in himself, and though my perceptions in theory exist in part to help me in forming an idea of what are the proper ends of life and of the nature of my responsibilities and obligations, I allowed the act of perception to be disjoined from its proper ends, so that it was impersonal, like the gazing of a camera. It was only after we began to walk away, and I thought again of the comparative prices of the glass of Único and of the coffee with milk that the man had begged me to buy him, that I began to feel the enormity of my negligence. When I spoke of this, my wife suggested that we turn around to find the man, but when we did so, he had left, either someone kinder than I had given him the money he needed or, more likely, he had despaired of meeting with a sympathetic soul in that part of the city and had tried his luck somewhere else. I thought of how often we are allowed only one chance to do the proper thing. More particularly, I thought of my father, who had chosen precisely the moment when the having of a father might have mattered to me to absent himself from my life, and with whom my relations, as a consequence, have been distorted ever since. I will be allowed to perform other acts of kindness in my life, but I will never again be able to show kindness to the man from Mali or Burkina Faso. Although in fact the condition of poverty would justify someone in seizing forcefully a passerby’s arm, perhaps with the thought of shaking them from the frigid-hearted lull into which the initiate into consumer societies is driven by his sense that life consists fundamentally of the exercise of shrewdness through a long series of acts of accumulation and outlay that are only brought to a close by death, and making them realize that each of these acts has not only a consequence for themselves and those close to them, but also for the millions of people who are ejected from these consumer societies and who can find no means of ingress back into them, the touch of this man from Western Africa, a region with which I have a certain degree of acquaintance because my wife writes on its literature and films, was very gentle, and it occurred to me that where he was from, it was probably not unusual to touch a stranger, and that in fact the proscription of physical contact between strangers in the countries I was best acquainted with was a kind of perversion. Not long after this, I walked past a bar called Provenzal that advertised The Cheapest Beer in Spain and offered draft beers for forty European cents. For the price of the glass of Único, I could have purchased eighty-seven of these beers and given them to the countless people like the man from Mali who roam the streets of Madrid asking for change. The beers would not have been very large or of an especially high quality, but I believe these people would have enjoyed them. I recalled the assertion by Fernand Braudel that there is no form of communal life, however impoverished or degraded, that is unacquainted with the notion of luxury, and believed that in consequence, this hypothetical gift, which I suppose I will never actually give, might have a significance as great, from a moral perspective, as another, apparently more useful donation. I thought of how the man from Mali or Burkina Faso had asked for a coffee with milk and not a coffee alone, and how this word, milk, by expressing a preference and hence an individuality of spirit, was an assertion of dignity. And I thought also of how he had tried coffee before, both with a without milk, and wondered what precisely was the character of his nostalgia as he remembered this beverage, more or less sweet, suffusing his esophagus and stomach. Already, in my mind, I had begun to consider how the words I am now writing would take shape. I considered that this entire act of writing in which I am now engaged would consist of the public exposure of my guilty conscience. Many of the writers we esteem most highly make great hay of their guilty conscience. As every week, I recalled these lines of Paul Celan’s: Welches der Worte du sprichst, du dankst dem Verderben. The spoilage or ruin Celan speaks of may be another’s or my own, but in any case, the attitude of literature, at least in my case, at least as regards my manner of writing thusfar — and at least at present, I do not have a better idea of what writing might be — one directed, not toward the eradication of suffering, but rather toward tergiversation in the face of doing so. Writing relates intimately to insecurity as to what should be done, or to an impulse toward symbolic redemption that arises when the possibility of a more concrete form thereof is occluded. I have the sense that writing should not reduce itself to moralistic exhortations. And yet writing must serve for something more than the generation of surrogate selves who live out an ethics for which we are insufficiently brave.

Nicolas Bouyssi on Édouard Levé

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Translated on the fly, in the morning, without coffee.

The author’s name is not an evaluative criterion. The author’s name is not a frame. The names Homer and Shakespeare include, perhaps, countless men. The distinction between the abstract and the figurative artwork has long been obsolete. Art has scarcely anything to do with reportage. Art has scarcely anything to do with journalism though it does, perhaps, have something to do with investigation. A monumental work is not more important or ambitious than one that is not so. Literary or artistic pleasure are not based on identification. The possibility of identifying or not identifying with a character cannot be an evaluative criterion. That which art wishes to say lacks any sort of importance, what rather matters is knowing what the epoch seems to be saying via art, and how to decode it. It is always possible to say the same thing through a photo or through text. The arts are symmetrical and take nourishment from one another. The symmetry of praxis is the opposite of diffuseness and of dilettantism. Monumental art, like the timeworn conservation of redundancy, is an art that is afraid of not making itself understood. Architecture is an enduring art with which nearly no one knows how to identify. Decorative art is an ephemeral art that is afraid of its own uselessness. The culture of political engagement, of sternness, has become a ghetto culture, addressing itself solely to those whose apparent searching is derived from their already having found. The bestseller is the cultural logic that dreams of transforming the world into a ghetto. In the one case as in the other, there is no room for interpretation. There is no room for the encounter with an other side, an unforeseen particularity, with alterity, in other words. One has begun to do something, and it progresses, one realizes, up to the point of stumbling over, grazing against, the limits and the interest of one’s milieu or one’s epoch.

From: Esthetique du stéréotype: essai sur Édouard Levé (2011).

In the Small Towns of the Sierra de Francia

In the small towns of the Sierra de Francia in the province of Salamanca, the rustic architecture of which reminds one of Alsace, from whence the ancestors of the present-day townspeople came to take the place of the Jews and Muslims slain or expelled during the Reconquest, a pig runs free in the town, following a centuries-old tradition. The neighbors feed it from their scraps or let it sleep in the empty ground floors of their homes, where livestock were kept in earlier times. In the spring festival, the pig is slaughtered, cooked, and devoured. In the days of the Inquisition, which in Spain did not end until the early nineteenth century, converted Jews and Muslims were made to dine on the pig’s flesh as a sign that they had forsaken their heretical beliefs, though in any case, as what was desired was more often their property than their faith, reason might yet be found to question their commitment to Christ. When this happened, they would be taken to a shrine, cursed at and spit on, tied to a stone cross in the center of the village and burned alive. If they showed penitence, a merciful citizen would strangle them with a garrote before setting them alight. The women in my company, most from Latin American countries in which defenders of the Catholic faith murdered untold numbers of inhabitants, and who spoke their mother tongue as a consequence of this crime, lined up to have their picture taken with the stone cross, to post it on Facebook to the amusement of their friends and husbands, who were in turn sitting at home in Bristol or New Hope contemplating the fate of a man who had been absolved of the crime of murdering a black teenager who had been walking home to watch a basketball game with his younger brother. There was great disappointment that the pig in La Alberca was nowhere to be found. Its counterpart we saw twice in Miranda del Castañar, first lying, with a bored countenance, at the feet of two old men seated on a stone bench smoking, and then later eating lettuce and tomato scraps from a basin, surrounded by children. More than the seven-hundred-year-old ashlar stonework of the city walls, more than the public building with the gargoyle at the corner on which the pregnancies of wayward young women were blamed, what interested my companions and even myself was the pig, which we longed to lay eyes on, and perhaps to stroke its sparse, rough coat of black hair.