Guidepost cover, 3 October 1969
A GUIDEPOST Reprint
Due to its extraordinary length (more than 5000 words),
this veritable magnum opus, as magazine articles go, is being
reprinted in 8 parts for easier read.
George Borrow • Washington Irving • Théophile Gautier • Richard Ford • Dumas •
Gerald Brenan • Hemingway • Fernando Díaz Plaja . . .
3 OCTOBER 1969
(5) Individualism, Independence & ‘Democracy’
One of the qualities for which Spaniards have been most praised is their sense of individualism and independence. “An individualist, proud, courageous, and at the same time possessing all the weaknesses of this great virtue: he is incapable of working with others”, writes Kazantzakis, and most people would be inclined to agree with him. There are few who would deny the Spaniard’s sense of individualism, though some might be tempted to term it anarchy. One has only to observe Madrid traffic to be convinced that it’s every man for himself!
This sense of independence particularly struck Borrow during the many years he associated with the lower classes of the Spain in those days. “The Spaniard of the lower class has much more interest for me, whether manolo, laborer, or muleteer. He is not a common being; he is an extraordinary man…he possesses a spirit of proud independence, which it is impossible but to admire… it is singular that I have invariably found amongst the low and slightly educated classes far more liberality of sentiment than among the upper.”
Gautier too, had the same impression when he wrote, “Spain is the true country of equality, if not in words, at least in fact” – and he cites an example in Granada where, upon it being found that dancing partners were lacking, the servants were invited to participate in the dances.
Hand in hand with this lack of class consciousness foreigners have been struck by the dignity with which beggars are received. “The beggar addressed us with that grave courtesy that is to be remarked in the lowest Spaniard,” wrote Washington Irving.
“Spain is still the most democratic of countries,” wrote Havelock Ellis. “The familiar and intimate relationship which we know in the old comedies of Europe as subsisting between master and servant, between gentleman and peasant, is still universal. The waiter, even in your modern hotel a few paces from the Puerta del Sol, pats you on the back with friendly intimacy as you step out of the lift on the day after your arrival, and every low-class Spaniard expects, as a matter of course, to be treated as an equal.
Walter Starkie, an Irishman, who set off in 1923 with a knapsack and a fiddle and wandered his way down from the French border to Madrid, earning his living by playing in the street, hobnobbing with the gypsies, wrote: “Some travellers may cast doubts on my assertion that the most picturesque beggars are to be found there. On that sunny July day in Fuenterrabia there were many beggars lolling about in the streets and I was immediately struck by their proud insolence… One came up to me in the plaza with his coat and capa literally in ribbons. He was tall and gaunt with pock-marked face, wild eyes, and tousled grey hair, and his ragged costume hanging in strips gave him the appearance of a half-plucked vulture. But no nobleman could have shown more arrogant grace than the mendigo did, as he doffed his tattered hat and gazed at me haughtily saying ‘Limosna, por Dios.’”
The beggar and the pícaro have, of course, been immortalized in Spanish literature, and though it is doubtful how “picturesque” the average Spaniard today finds these beggars, there is doubtless much of the pícaro left in the national character, though, it seems to be becoming diluted by a new rising middle-class.
See “(6) Awestruck Writers” for the next part.
Spanish Raggle-Taggle, Fair use