No One Is Untouchable: Not Federico Garcia Lorca, Not Ai Weiwei

[22 July 2011]

By Sean Bell

“In Spain, the dead are more alive than the dead of any other country in the world.”
—Federico Garcia Lorca

Underestimating China, in any regard, has never been a strategy that paid big dividends; not for nothing did Napoleon observe that when the sleeping dragon eventually awoke, “the world will shake”. Yet there were, weirdly enough, those who believed that Ai Weiwei was untouchable; that one of the most significant Chinese artists, political activists and cultural forces of our era was insulated from the reach of a reliably philistine Chinese government by his acclaim and celebrity. He appeared as a daring exception, a provocateur whose work and words the authorities had no choice but to grudgingly tolerate. What other conclusion is there to draw, when the man stages an exhibition with a title that, with a slight mispronunciation, sounds almost exactly like ‘Fuck your mother, the Communist Party central committee’ in the original Chinese?

Such naiveté was effectively dispelled in April of this year when he was suddenly arrested, and after nearly three months of detention, was released on bail only to be subjected to vilification in China’s state media, a Kafkaesque appraisal of his financial affairs and a spontaneously generated tax bill for $1.9 million. The worldwide publicity surrounding Weiwei’s imprisonment, and the wave of international protest and condemnation it triggered, did little to inconvenience the Chinese government. As far as they were concerned, the argument was concluded. With the arrest of Weiwei, they had made their position clear: no one is untouchable.

The reappearance of this old rule in a deadly game seems especially apt as we approach August 19th, marking the 75th anniversary of the poet Federico Garcia Lorca’s murder at the hands of a fascist death squad in the early, chaotic days of the Spanish Civil War. The two cases are not without contrasts; as impervious to world opinion as the Chinese government may be, it seems it would rather see a solution to the Ai Weiwei problem that didn’t end in a well-publicised corpse.

Sadly, Lorca’s fate did not trigger international outrage equivalent to that of Weiwei’s until it was far too late. But then, Lorca was not facing the sophisticated apparatus of a monolithic totalitarian state—he met his demise through thugs with guns and only the most mocking pretense of authority, of the kind that usually oversee such a regime’s birth pangs.

It’s shaming, in a way, to focus so much on Lorca’s death. In the introduction to his investigative polemic, The Assassination of Federico Garcia Lorca (which proposes arguably the most persuasive—and certainly most heartbreaking—account of the poet’s final days and hours), Ian Gibson wrote of meeting a local of Granada who reacted with disgust to Gibson’s anxious questioning. The old man was certain of the polite English historian’s intentions: he had not come to write about the city of Granada, or what happened during the war, or Lorca’s life and art. He had come to write about Lorca’s death, like all the foreign writers before him. It was true. The unknowables of the case are too tantalising, made all the more so by the fact that his body, like so many others whose abrupt disappearance heralded the rise of Francoism, was never found.

Mythic deaths haunt us. We imbue them with meaning—especially the tragic, pointless ones—and then reenact them in the mind’s eye, playing voyeur to our own history. We try to penetrate the loneliness of final moments by hazily building a picture with what we know. So what do we know of Lorca’s death? The Spanish sun. The crack of gunshots.

Lorca was a poet of no school. He’s usually included among the Spanish poets known as the Generation of ‘27, but they were generally grouped together, paradoxically, by virtue of their shared resistance to stylistic categorisation. He was a dramatist who brought theatre to the people, a homosexual who lived as openly as he could in an era where to live at all was no certainty, a supporter of the Republic and the sympathiser with the ruling leftist Popular Front. He had friends and admirers across the political and social spectrum, aroused controversy without courting it as shamelessly as some of his contemporaries, and in perhaps the last age where a poet could truly be considered famous, did everything he could to earn and justify that acclaim. He did not have the demagogic impulse that often proves useful for some artists, or is simply irrepressible in others. He once joked in a lecture that “whenever I speak before a large group I think I must have taken the wrong door.”

As with most artists who are “vanished”, there was little protocol or officialdom in his execution. Some muttered mentions of “subversive activities”, no hint of a trial, no kind of court for him to stand in and try to make a case for his continued existence. Imagine that: asking a poet to justify his life. What poetry might rise to meet that challenge? Even fascists knew better. Indeed, the regimes in question usually seem to be vestigially aware of just how well the state-sanctioned murder of artists tends to play with the public. In 1937, with the civil war still raging, General Franco took the time to issue the official line. “I say it again: we have shot no poets.”

This is reason why Lorca’s death unsettled many then, and haunts us still today: Governments tend to take on their worst form, to devolve to their most horrific manifestation, when they kill artists. Artists look out into the horrors of the world, and inevitably, the horrors sometimes reach back.

In recent weeks, reminders of Lorca’s death have emerged elsewhere. Amid Weiwei ‘s ongoing saga and new accusations that the death of Chilean poet Pablo Neruda may have had more to do with General Pinochet’s orders than the stomach cancer he was suffering from, Miguel Caballero Pérez, a Granada historian, announced at the end of June that after three years of ploughing through police and military records, interviews, rumours and misinformation, he has penetrated much of the mystery that surrounds Lorca’s death. In The Last 13 Hours of Garcia Lorca, Pérez’s new book, he claims to have identified the career policemen and volunteers who comprised the firing squad which executed the poet, along with hundreds of other left-wing sympathisers during the summer of 1936, for a bonus of 500 pesos. Whatever motivated the order to kill Lorca, Perez believes it is unlikely the executioners themselves knew who he was. To put it lightly, these were, in Perez’s words, “not the sort of people who read poetry.”

Perez’s investigation, like those that have come before it, deals in unanswered questions and unfinished business. In Spain, it’s better known as ‘Historical Memory’, the aspiration, now codified in an eponymous Spanish law, that none of the horrors of the civil war should be forgotten, and that the repudiation of the Francoist regime by history is of the utmost necessity. It is what motivates those who still haven’t given up the long, grim search for Lorca’s final remains. A team from the University of Granada attempted excavations in October 2009, on the site near Alfácara used as a mass-grave by the Nationalists during their first wave of anti-communist executions, in the most recent (and unsuccessful) attempt to locate what’s left of the poet—an exercise in trying to find bones amidst bones.

Such enterprises still make some acutely uncomfortable. In 1977, following Franco’s death, an amnesty known as the pacto de olvido was declared, which had the effect of essentially shutting down all discussion of the past. The campaign for ‘Historical Memory’ is changing that, but the backlash has been at times explosive: the mass-grave at Alfácar was only one of 19 that was ordered to be excavated—a spectacle that challenges all those who have grown up being told, and have gone on to teach their children, that in their darkest hour they did what they had to do in order to prevent the inevitable slide of the Second Republic into Bolshevism. As skeletons are unearthed, it must be hard to cling to that.

The Anti-Fascist Duende Permeates Art -- and Politics

Fascism is not defined by the number of its victims, but by the way it kills them.”
—Jean Paul Satre

As a dissection of the character of fascism, no work in fiction surpasses Vladimir Nabokov’s Bend Sinister. The chimerical nation portrayed therein suffers under a regime that, above all the other human and inhuman qualities and vices ascribed to that most totalitarian of ideologies—monstrous, hateful, paranoid, cruel, ruthless, bigoted, delusional—the trait that defines it most is its stupidity. Nabokov goes to extraordinary lengths to reinforce this in the reader’s mind: Fascists, necessarily, are stupid. Intellectual freedom and development, and the pains, perils and promise they imply, are crippled within the fascist mindset. Artists and intellectuals were, are and always have been the natural enemies of fascism—something, admittedly, the fascists tend to figure out for themselves.

Nick Cave posited that the duende, at the end of the 20th century, was more likely to be found in music than anywhere else: “Bob Dylan has always had it. Leonard Cohen deals specifically in it. It pursues Van Morrison like a black dog and though he tries to, he cannot escape it. Tom Waits and Neil Young can summon it. It haunts Polly [PJ] Harvey.”

But still: what is it, in particular, that authoritarian regimes fear about artists? In those first weeks of the civil war, before it fully took shape, before the Second Republic and a bickering coalition of liberals, democrats, socialists, communists, anti-clericists and trade unionists became a beacon and a battle-field that drew partisans from across the globe, the patterns in the violence had not yet emerged. All seemed to be chaos. Yet the order always comes from somewhere. So why was it decided, in the civil war’s apocalyptic overture, that the poet Lorca was to be among the first taken care of?

Because, quite simply, no one is untouchable.

There has always been a lingering, romantic perception that artists are somehow inviolate; that the unique position they hold in a society renders them as protected as priests. It’s an easily shattered delusion, and for regimes on the wrong side of morality (or even sanity), it’s one they are all too keen to shatter. The artistic response to the Spanish Civil War was huge and profound, from Picasso’s Guernica to Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, and while it may do them too much credit, I wonder if the fascists saw it coming. I wonder if they anticipated what an artist might say to a fascist, given the chance—and, quite simply, decided to remove that chance.

cover art

Bend Sinister

Vladimir Nabokov

(Vintage)

“Thus the duende is a power and not a behaviour; it is a struggle and not a concept. I have heard an old guitarist master say: ‘The duende is not in the throat; the duende surges up from the soles of the feet.’ Which means that it is not a matter of ability, but of real live form; of blood; of ancient culture; of creative action.”

—Federico Garcia Lorca, ‘Play and Theory of the Duende.’

Regrettably, I came to Lorca relatively late, having finally arrived at a suspicion of Salvador Dali in all his forms and a teasing fascination with what little I could read and see of Luis Bunuel. Eventually, in university, I spent some time in the library acquainting myself with the poet who kept reappearing in all accounts of the early, white-heat days of Surrealism’s original warring duo. Much of his drama still awaits me. And I must admit—like too many others, I suspect—that I knew of Lorca’s death before I knew of his life and work. His murder had entered myth.

As I read more and more, it was the duende, a concept that hid in Lorca’s shadows, ever-present, sacred and profane simultaneously, that turned those poems into detective work, both thrilling and frustrating. This term—shared freely amongst Spanish art, life and mythology—has ‘indefinable’ almost as part of its definition. For all I know, what Lorca called the duende, Charlie Sheen may call “winning”. The word originates in Spanish fairy tales, the name of a mischievous goblin—a characterisation it has not entirely escaped.

My mistake was to regard the duende as an intricate and elegant puzzle to be cracked. It was a 19-year-old’s reaction, presumptuous and over-analytical: could I perceive, could I understand, could I feel as Lorca did? I decided, almost three quarters of a century after the fact, that I could. The more I read of him, the more I realise there is no puzzle to solve, just “a song reaching the spirit of all things / and the spirit of all winds”. (‘New Songs’). Everything Lorca wanted to say is right on the page. Hear him, and like an echo, you’ll hear the duende.

Lorca wrote that Germany (“with”, he allows with glorious understatement, “some exceptions”) has a muse, Italy permanently has an angel, and Spain has the duende. But although the duende is merely Spanish in character; it is in evidence everywhere. Nick Cave provocatively updated the idea in a 1999 lecture in Vienna, positing the duende, at the end of the 20th century, was more likely to be found in music than anywhere else: “Bob Dylan has always had it. Leonard Cohen deals specifically in it. It pursues Van Morrison like a black dog and though he tries to, he cannot escape it. Tom Waits and Neil Young can summon it. It haunts Polly [PJ] Harvey.”

“To help us seek the duende there is neither map nor discipline,” Lorca assures us. “All ones knows is that it burns the blood like powdered glass, that is exhausts, that it rejects all the sweet geometry one has learned, that it breaks with all styles…” It is what fuels natural talent instead of skill; the mocking argument that does not disprove rational thought so much as make it irrelevant. It is chaotic, cruel and authentic. It is instinct and passion, as familiar and intimate as your home, but tinged with the unearthly and diabolical. The act of Lorca, so sensitive that experiencing the Babylon of New York seemed to cause him near-physical pain, dancing with the duende still fascinates. It is a game played for its own sake, though on 19 August 1936, it seems clear who lost.

Yet what took me years to realise, while periodically checking in on never-dying background arguments over what manifestos Lorca may or may not have signed, where exactly his sympathies lay, whether his death was a tragic oversight or an assassination of considerable importance, was that the duende may have been the most anti-fascist thing about Lorca. It’s not an idea that is easy to hijack politically, nor should it be, but when I wonder what it was about Lorca, in particular, that offended and scared the small and murky minds of fascism, I think of the duende.

Undoubtedly there were other reasons—the Falange and their cronies hated Lorca’s sexuality, his bohemian friends, his avant-garde attitudes, his association with the Republic—but the recognition of a human instinct, not an abstract philosophy, one based in primal imagination and passion and rebellion, seems more and more to be an opposite of all of fascism’s bad faith, regimented sterility and inhuman coldness. There is only one cure for that kind of creative action, that lust for life, and it comes by the barrel of a gun.

“Why should I care about posterity? What’s posterity ever done for me?”
  —Groucho Marx

Legacies are almost always tricky, and posterity, for Lorca, was a hazardous place to be. Someone once told a story that each day, someone from the Left will come and hang a red kerchief around the neck of the statue of Lorca that stands in the Plaza de Santa Ana in Madrid, and every day, someone from the Right will come and take it off.

cover art

Little Ashes

(US DVD: 26 Jan 2010)

Seventy-five years after the fact, even bearing Historical Memory in mind, it can be difficult to understand why the question of Lorca’s politics means so much to some, or why such questions are so necessary. There’s an argument that the quagmires of Lorca’s death and politics have distracted much-needed attention from one of the great legacies in Spanish poetry. However, to establish that the poet supported the Spanish Republic is not to reclaim him for socialism, but for sanity. To disprove any argument for Lorca’s supposed ‘neutrality’ is to prove him as a decent human being, and to deny the ghost of Francoism any further victory over one of a countless number of innocent victims. One of the few successes of Paul Morrison’s 2009 film Little Ashes (which portrays the youthful relationships between Lorca, Dali and Bunuel) was to illustrate just what a shallow, juvenile pose Salvador Dali’s ‘neutrality’ in the civil war truly was. It was not one shared by Lorca.

In the years prior to the outbreak of war, Lorca worked as the director of a university theatre company, funded by the Ministry of Education with the express duty of bringing radical, challenging interpretations of classic Spanish theatre to the outskirts of the country, free of charge. He spent his last years bringing theatre to the people, and was grateful to the government that allowed him to do so.  Lorca fulfilled the intention of every young radical: he never sold out, and grew up to practice his principles in a way that mattered and felt authentic to him. He went out into his nation and spread art, because he honestly felt it was the most worthwhile thing he could do.

While China is hardly the ideal environment for an avant-garde artist, Ai Weiwei could have chosen to remain just that; an artist. Instead he, like Lorca, chose to take an active involvement in the affairs of his homeland, to invoke a ‘jasmine revolution’ that many still hope may come to pass, and to combat totalitarianism with art and humour—two weapons that, time and time again, oppressive regimes have completely failed to understand. Lorca, as has been said before, was never so explicit. I, personally, choose to interpret his work, and the duende that permeates it, as having an intrinsically anti-fascist character. Others may think differently. Because of that interpretation, both he and his work embodied something that scares the worst of us, and appeals to the best of us. To prevent further tragedies from passing, for the sake of art and politics and the future as a whole, and for the sake of Ai Weiwei…

… we cannot forget the murder of Federico Garcia Lorca.

Ai Weiwei

Ai Weiwei

Sean Bell is a Scots-Irish-Armenian writer based in Edinburgh. His journalism has been published in the Glasgow Herald, the Sunday Herald, the Evening Times, the Scottish Review of Books and Death Ray magazine. He can be followed at www.twitter.com/SeanCMBell


Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/column/145177-no-one-is-untouchable-not-federico-garcia-lorca-not-ai-weiwei/