Catalunya and the Coming Flood

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Catalonia has opened a flood-gate. Whether or not they succeed, the rushing waters cannot be held back.

From Rhyd Wildermuth


He’d sent his favorite painting to his friend in Paris, a friend who’d managed to hide his anti-fascist politics long enough to keep his position in an archive as Nazi bootsteps echoed through the streets of France. He bid auf wiedersehen to his hosts in Marseilles, especially his close friend Hannah Arendt, stuffed the loose leaves of his final manuscript into a valise, and traveled to the small town of Cerbère, at the tip of the southwesternmost part of mainland France.

The Gestapo had direct orders to apprehend him. So, too, did the Stalinists.  There was no where else for him to run but here.

He’d gotten a visa, arranged by an American poet friend. But the Nazis would not let a Jew leave France through any port, and his only hope was to flee by boat from Portugal. To get there, though, he would have to travel through Fascist Spain, and to get into Spain he had only one hope: Catalonia.

Only a year before, Catalonia had been free, the last bastion of anarchist and leftist resistance in Europe as fascism swept through the continent. Many Catalonians still remembered, still resisted, including the former mayor of the town of Portbou, just on the other side of the Pyrenees from Cerbère. The mayor had helped resistance fighters to the fascist Franco regime flee in France, and now he would help the Jewish Marxist philosopher, Walter Benjamin, flee the fascists in France towards safety.

I wish this story ended well.

I wish I could tell you a happy tale of how Benjamin, exhausted and harried, arrived finally at a port in Lisbon and from there sailed from European fascism forever. But he arrived in Portbou one day too late; Franco had just issued a decree that any Jews in Spain without Spanish citizenship should be immediately deported to France, and he was put under house arrest by the Guardia Civil.

Even the still-burning heart of resistance in Catalonia could not save him against the full weight of the Spanish government. But rather than face the gas chambers of Germany, he injected himself with a lethal dose of morphine, the last entry in his journal quoting Kafka:

“There is plenty of hope. But not for us.”

Last year I, along with my best friend who’d been haunted for months with dreams of the dead philosopher, followed the rocky and steep trail Walter Benjamin took across the Pyrenees from Cerbère to Portbou. The path leads ever upward, winding its way through outposts of cork oak and vast oceans of wildflowers, with the blue-green of the Mediterranean always at your back until you reach the dizzying top. But as you descend the Catalonian side, the entire land seems to change around you, massive cactus and scrubby bushes your primary companion. By the time you reach Portbou, you are in a different world completely though barely a few miles as a crow might fly from where you started.

Neither of us ever really quite understood why we made that trek. It was her first mountain climb, my first in years. The whole trip had been one of anxiety–uncertainty why we were there in the first place, confusion about the path, panic about our insufficient plans and the mere handful of coins we’d had between us during the journey. We’d run out of water before we got to the top, arrived exhausted and hurried in Portbou, realizing we had just enough money to take a train out but barely enough time to catch it, and neither of us speak Spanish or Catalan.

Why did we make that trip? Why cross a mountain just to spend brief minutes in the small town where our favorite philosopher died? And why did we feel so much dread that day and the days afterward, fearing something was coming we were supposed to prepare for?

Watching what is happening in Catalonia and the rest of the world now, I suspect I know a bit more of those answers.

“Catalonia is Not Spain”

By now you’ve probably heard about it all. Earlier this month, a vote was held in the semi-autonomous region for independence. The Spanish government declared it illegal and sent out the Guardia Civil (whose insignia is still a fasces) to seize ballot boxes and beat up old women who’d cast their vote. And then, on the 27th of October, at 3:35 pm local time, the Catalonian leaders followed the direction of the voters and declared independence.

In just 24 hours, the conservative Spanish government had moved to depose the independence leaders, had seized control over local police and emergency services, threatened parliamentarians with treason, taken over the public broadcasting services in Catalonia and installed their own leaders over the region.

And as of the writing of this essay, Spain has jailed 9 of the elected leaders of the Catalonian government who partook in the independence move. They are charged with treason and sedition, eight of them without possibility of bail, and must together pay 6.7 million Euros to cover the Spanish government’s ‘court costs’ or have all their possessions seized.

Worse from the government is promised.

But while the Spanish government attempts to punish Catalunya for its desire to be independent of the nation-state of Spain, it is not the only one showing disapproval. Large corporations are threatening to leave Barcelona or have already done so, the same process of “Capital flight” which has brought many a populist and leftist government in the global south to its knees.

And the leaders of the ‘free world’ have made clear which side they are on, and it’s not the people of Catalonia:

  • The United States under Donald Trump issued a statement through the State Department vowing to support “the Spanish government’s constitutional measures to keep Spain strong and united.”
  • Theresa May, the prime minister of the United Kingdom, was even harsher, stating Britain “does not and will not” recognise Catalonia as an independent entity.
  • Emmanuel Macron, the pro-capitalist leader of France, stated: “There is a rule of law in Spain with constitutional rules. Mariano Rajoy wants these rules to be respected and he has my full support.”
  • From Angela Merkel’s government spokesman: “The German government does not recognise such a declaration of independence.”
  • From Turkey, whose leader Erdogan has violently put down Kurdish attempts at independence (including ordering the beating of American supporters of the Kurds): “Turkey will continue to support Spain’s territorial integrity, constitution and political integrity.”
  • And from the president of the European Union, Donald Tusk: “For EU nothing changes. Spain remains our only interlocutor.”

As of the writing of this essay, the only European government to be somewhat supportive of Catalonia has been the Scottish Parliament, who were blocked from efforts to join the European Union independent of Britain after Brexit by the Spanish leader Mariano Rajoy himself. Belgium, currently ruled by a coalition which includes separatists, made a less supportive statement but has tweeted out instructions to Catalonians on how to seek asylum within Belgium in the likely event of Spanish political repression. The deposed president of Catalonia fled there already with 8 other Catalonian independence ministers.

And what about Russia? In multiple statements since the initial referendum, Vladimir Putin has made clear Catalonia “is Spain’s internal business and must be resolved within Spanish law and on the basis of democratic traditions,” though certainly seems eager to capitalize on the European Union’s double-standards regarding support for independence movements.

That so much condemnation has quickly come from the leaders of the “free world” should give anyone dismissive of Catalonia’s independence bid pause. When Donald Trump, Theresa May, Vladimir Putin, and Recep Erdoğan all agree Catalonia must remain part of Spain, something else is probably going on here.

That ‘something else’ is much bigger than Catalonia itself. If anything, Catalunya’s desire for self-governance threatens the entire capitalist world order.

The Identity Politics of the Nation

To understand the threat Catalunya presents not just to Spain but to capitalism itself, we need to look at the concept of the nation-state and its relationship to capitalism. But before that, we need to unravel precisely what a Nation is and how it is used to control people.

First, we must remember: most of the modern nation-states in existence are relatively new.  For instance, what we know of as Italy was birthed in 1871; Germany came fully into existence that same year. France as a nation-state was born in 1792, a little after the United States (1776). But even still it is not quite correct to look at any of these nations as being quite so old: the United States has only existed in its current territorial form since 1959 and didn’t fully control the land which is now the 48 contiguous states until 1912. Germany in its current form has only been around 1990 (after re-unification); France is in its 5th incarnation as a Republic (1958), and several European nation-states in existence 30 years ago no longer exist, including Yugoslavia (died 1990) and Czechoslovakia (died 1993), birthing new nations from their ashes.

So the nation-state is hardly an eternal form. They come, they go, they form and re-form, but before the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, they cannot be said to have existed at all. What came before were less organized systems of governments (usually kingdoms) attempting to exert control over land and very diverse people through direct force.

The nation-state significantly changed the world, and not just because it created borders and all the modern methods of state violence (police, bureaucracy, etc.).  More than anything, it changed the way people saw themselves, slowly replacing their local identifications with National identity.  For instance, before the birth of the French republic in 1792, there was no real sense of what it meant to be French (and anyway at that point, no more than half of “the French” actually spoke “French”).  Only through long decades of war and government repression of differences did the idea of being French actually take hold in France, and even still some (including Bretons and Corsicans) refuse to call themselves “French.”

The Nation-State, then, is not just a new political construct, but a new way of arranging people and defining their meaning and identity. This identity creates what Benedict Anderson called “imagined communities,” constructed connections between people who will never meet each other but see themselves as part of the same Nation.

In the United States, “American” may not mean the same thing to people on the far left or the far right, to a poor Black woman or an upper class white male, but it’s incredibly rare (except among First Nations peoples) to find anyone who actually refuses to allow themselves to be called an American. That shared national identity binds people who hate each other, binds oppressors and oppressed people together, around a shared sense of membership in the social construct called the Nation.

That definition in places like the United States appears fixed and unquestionable, but in the European nations from which the ancestors of white Americans came, national identity is not monolithic. France, for instance, has at least five other competing national identities within its European territory: Alsatian, Breton, Basque, Corsican,  and Occitanie. Add to this the colonized outremer departments such as Martinique and Guyane and you have many, many more non-French identities.

These identities are not just regional; a Corsican who tells you they are Corsican is not just telling you they live in Corse, they are telling you they do not live in France. Here where I live in Bretagne, it is the same: friends and strangers often vehemently correct me when I say I live in “France.” For them, France is an occupying force, an identity pushed upon them and one they are fully justified in rejecting as they please.

The United Kingdom has a similar internal division: for some Welsh, Scottish, Cornish, and Northern Irish folk, “British” is not just an identity they refuse to be defined with, but it is an enclosure and erasure of their cultural and ethnic identity.

One Nation Under the God-State

For the rulers of Nation-States like France and the United Kingdom, national identity is the primary means by which they are able to get the people they govern to not just identify with each other, but identify with the rulers themselves. The French leader Emmanuel Macron, for example, is the President of the French people. If the people Macron tries to rule do not see themselves as French, the laws he and his government create and enforce cannot adequately control people without using overt violence.

Similarly, Theresa May is the British Prime Minister: if the people in Scotland see themselves no longer British, the only way her government can control what the Scottish do is by direct force. Governments lose their appearance of legitimacy (and much of their power) when the people they are supposed to represent no longer identify as part of the imagined community they were elected to lead.

If you are a reader who considers themselves American, imagine how different your relationship to the United States government (and especially Trump) might be if you did not see yourself as an American. Say, for instance, that your parents were Irish and you see yourself more Irish than you do American, and you were living in an area where most of the people you knew spoke Irish and also didn’t see themselves as American. Your perception of the legitimacy of the United States would radically change.

There are already examples of this alternate identification in the United States. Some First Nations people refuse the label of American and point out that the United States is an occupation on their land, a settler-colonist government which is fully illegitimate. Also, some Black and Pan-African thinkers likewise identify more with Blackness or Africanness than with “American,” though these movements do not (by no fault of their own) have the same ongoing ancestral connection to land that First Nations peoples do and thus often have to reconstruct cultural identity.

From here, it should be easy to understand that what is happening in Catalonia is not some aberration in the history of humanity. And also it should be easy to understand why powerful Nation-States attempt to inculcate a singular constructed identity. But another objection is often raised against regional independence movements, particularly by liberals and some anarchists.

That objection? That Catalonia’s desire for independence is “nationalist,” and nationalism is fascist.

Fascist Nationalism vs. Autonomous Movements

Currently sweeping through Europe and the United States are far-right identitarian movements invoking cultural, ethnic, and racial ‘purity’ to fuel their desire for political power and a future without immigrants, Muslims, and anyone else besides themselves. In the United States, for instance, the so-called “alt-right” has marched openly carrying torches and chanting anti-semitic and anti-Black slogans. In Europe, groups like Bloc Identitaire, PEGIDA, Golden Dawn, Alternativ fur Deutschland, Front National, and others associated with the New Right/Nouvelle Droit have staged rallies, attacked refugees and anarchists, and even gained many seats in parliaments.

Besides their anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim and anti-Jewish rhetoric, these groups have another thing in common: they argue for European states built around ethnic/racial/cultural identity. In this way, they may seem not much different from the movement in Catalonia (or Bretagne, or other places) but for one crucial difference: exclusion. For, while the European far-right tries to redefine the nation along identitarian lines, they also think those nations should only be composed of those identities.

That is, fascist nationalism is primarily exclusionary. On the other hand, the Catalonian independence movement has not said “Catalonia only for Catalonians.” In fact, part of the political platform of an independent Catalonia was the immediate granting of citizenship to immigrants of any ancestry who already had resident status.

More so, fascist nationalist groups have had a horrible time gaining support from independence and autonomous movements. The Front National headed by Marine Le Pen, for instance, did worse in Bretagne during the elections than in more culturally-assimilated (“French”) regions in France, while the far-left/communist candidate, Jean-Luc Melechon, did better in Bretagne than elsewhere.

While it may seem counter-intuitive to Americans unfamiliar with Spanish history, in Catalonia the far-right anti-immigrant/fascist groups are supporting Spanish national unity, not Catalonian independence. There are both historical and ideological reasons for the fascists to take Spain’s side: Spain was ruled by a fascist dictator from 1939 until 1975 (the longest fascist government in history). Spain wasn’t ‘liberated’ from fascism, either–Franco only left power because he died, and the successive ‘democratic’ governments since then never fully (or even partially) purged the fascist sympathisers from their ranks.

Ideologically, though, fascism has much more in common with (and much more to gain from) the Nation-State (and national identity) than it ever would from independence movements. Fascism is at its core both nationalist and statist: none of the far-right movements in Europe are calling for the abolishment of the State or the breaking up of States into distinct cultural regions. Instead, they demand stronger States which exclude, punish, and make war against people who are not like them.

Catalonia has no such plaform, nor does the other independence movement with which I am most familiar, the Breton nationalist movement (mostly made up of communists and anarchists anyway).

So we see here that Catalonia’s independence is both a threat to fascist identitiarian movements as well as the governments of liberal democratic states like the U.S., U.K, France, and Germany. And here’s where our discussion of nationalism finally leads us to the collusion of the Capital and the Nation-State, and why what Catalonia is doing threatens the entire order.

Capitalists and the Nation State: Symbiotic Parasites

There are two things which govern the mutual relationship between Capitalism and the Nation-State. The first is the Capitalist’s desire to gain wealth, avoid risk, and protect their investment. The second is the Nation-State’s need for political stability and wealth in the form of tax-income. These two imperatives function in tandem and make both the Nation-State and the Capitalist mutually parasitic on each other, and thus natural allies.

The first should seem self-evident: investors, corporations, and banks do not like losing money and do everything in their power not to do so.

Economic and long-term investment forecasts aren’t used by the rich the way that the average person uses a weather report. For us, whether it rains next week won’t change much of our lives–we may not plan that trip to the beach with friends or the outdoor barbecue, but unless we are farmers, we don’t significantly change our behavior. For the rich, however, the stability or volatility of a market determines whether or not they are going to keep investments or move them to another market.

Those decisions based on volatility or stability don’t just affect the wealth of the investors, of course. They also determine whether or not people keep their jobs, get to borrow money for houses, or even get to survive at all. So when an investor decides that a market is too risky and decides to move their money elsewhere, that economic chaos can cause political chaos too. Capitalists need to protect their investments (property, primarily) during such times, and also need to protect themselves from political actions from the poor they’ve harmed (riots, assassinations, worker-takeovers, etc.).

A Nation-State is the perfect entity to provide these things for the rich. Through its ability to control markets by laws, policing, and military actions, the Nation-State can guarantee to the capitalist a stable economic climate. Also through its police, judicial, and military powers, the Nation-State can punish people who react violently to decisions by Capitalists to move investments, cut wages, destroy neighborhoods (gentrification), or even outright steal from people.

On the other hand, the Nation-State needs taxes in order to function. Taxes on income and commerce are an easy and difficult-to-oppose means for the State to gain wealth, and thus the economic activity generated by capitalists directly benefits the Nation-State. The more economic activity, the more tax revenue–thus the hyper-consumerism that banks and corporations encourage becomes an addictive drug for the state.

Subsistence farmers or people who only work enough to survive and make most of their own goods cannot produce enough tax revenue for a government to fund massive military campaigns or even run a modern state. Likewise, if a citizenry becomes self-sufficient and self-governing, they rely on the state much less and even begin to oppose it. On the other hand, economically hyper-active citizenry often tend to associate their wealth with the leaders of nation-state itself and become more loyal to it (the way President Bill Clinton or Prime Minister Tony Blair were credited with their respective nation’s economic growth, for instance).

What happens when a Nation-State deviates from this mutual relationship, though?

One need only look at what happened to Argentina and other South American nations who elected leftist or left-leaning governments and platforms to find out. When Argentina in 2001 announced they would no longer pay back debt forced upon them by the International Monetary Fund, capitalists punished the people severely through a process called “Capital flight.” Basically, banks, corporations and large investors quickly pulled their money out of local economies all at once, leading to banks running out of money, millions of people suddenly losing jobs and access to credit, and entire cities suddenly going bankrupt.

So although the relationship between the Nation-State and the Capitalists is mutually-parasitic, the Capitalists are able to do much more damage to the other than the Nation-State can, unless the Nation-State itself seizes the wealth and property of the capitalists (which occurs only during communist take-overs of the State).

The Gates Are Open

Now, back to Catalonia. As I mentioned in the beginning of this essay, Capital flight occurred immediately when the Catalonians voted for independence. Hundreds of Spanish corporations left or moved their headquarters, because to stay meant too much risk. Also, the Catalonian independence movement was heavily influenced by far-left politics, further suggesting to the capitalists that they might not get nearly the same profits in the region as they currently do under the conservative and neo-liberal Spanish government.

So both the Capitalists and the Spanish government have punished Catalonia for their desire to determine their own future. And here’s where a floodgate just opened that threatens to drown the entire capitalist world: we all just saw them do that.

Liberal Democracy (the system that the US, United Kingdom, and almost every European nation uses) has been able to function so well and fight off leftist and independence movements for so long because it veils the Nation-State’s collusion with the Capitalists better than any other system. It promises freedom and democracy to its people, but in Spain it literally beat up old women who’d just voted for autonomy and imprisoned democratically-elected Catalonian leaders.

It also claims to be opposed to fascism, but in Catalonia the conservative Spanish government and the “socialist” minority party are doing exactly what the fascists want. Likewise, the widespread condemnation of Catalonia’s independence from the leaders of every other large Liberal Democratic nation have also revealed themselves to be against democracy and in agreement with the fascist movements in their own countries.

The entire world just watched this happen, especially every other independence movement. We have all watched what the Nation-State and the Capitalists will do together to stop anyone who tries to determine their own future. The Scots saw this, as did the Welsh. The Bretons saw this, as did the Basque and the Corsicans.

So, too, did everyone who was under the illusion that the Nation-State is inviolable and eternal, that governments can protect us from the capitalists and that capitalism was not invested in the authoritarianism of the Nation-State. They now know their governments and capitalist class are all ultimately on the same side as the fascists.

Catalonia has opened a flood-gate. Whether or not they succeed, the rushing waters cannot be held back.

What comes next in the world is uncertain. Which groups inspired by what Catalonia has done will try next? Which groups will succeed? And what beautiful alliances will begin to form between all these apparently disparate movements across the world? Will we see Bretons and Scots and the Basque meeting together with First Nations people, co-ordinating mutual aid and international solidarity between their movements?

Or will we see the fascists seize this moment, using the panic of the governments of the world to manifest their dreams of homogenous, exclusive, authoritarian Nation States?

I don’t know. When I think on Walter Benjamin’s last journal entry in Catalonia before he killed himself, that quote from Kafka, I imagine those who’ve put their hope in this first full attack on Spain seeing a glimpse of all the future movements that will arise.

If Catalonia fails, they too may find themselves penning those same words: “There is plenty of hope, but not for us.”

Rhyd Wildermuth

Rhyd Wildermuth is a co-founder and the managing editor of Gods&Radicals. He’s a poet, writer, theorist, and nomad currently living in occupied Bretagne. Find his primary blog here, his Facebook here, or support him on Patreon here.

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Risāla of The Violet Smile

There is indeed a cabal between poets and nightingales. Between poets and things that fly and sing in the night, that animate the trees’ branches where sounds and sweet airs tryst and disappear. In turn, this highlights the connection the poet has with that other daughter of nocturnal birds: the witch.

From Slippery Elm

The calcined stones come back.
The fallen temples come back,
The bursted whore houses, the green courtyards
Where the smile of Priapus
Keeps warm the memory of fountains.

My love, let us go along the vanished streets,
Across the bright geometry which still points
To mysterious love and hidden
Pleasures, still so sweet in the night.

Here is the house of the goddess. In the blue
Sanctuary, you can still smell the perfume.
Of sea foam and jasmine and
Carnations salty with her flesh.

The phallic symbol, jolly as ever
Riots in the thick foliage—stretched out
On the happy pan of the balance
Which offers it to love. It is heavier
Than all the fruits of the earth.
Aphrodite smiles in the shadows
As she feels the sea throb in her buttocks.

O ancient brightness! O far off light!
Naked light, love, shine on us always
And when the day comes when we are no more than stones,
After we too, my love, are only ruins,
Let us lie like these stones singing in the sun,
Leading others to love along our vanished ways.

—Rafael Alberti (trans. Kenneth Rexroth in his Thirty Spanish Poems of Love and Exile)

Some say the lyric was born in exile. This is only partly true, as the lyric was born when language itself was born. Born from humans mimicking the cries of birds and beasts, of the sound of the rain in the branches. Of thunder, waves against the shore, and the reverberations that all of these made in the bodies of our earliest ancestors. Those bodies were humanity’s first instruments.

But the lyric does thrive in exile, and like a recalcitrant dandelion or wild rose breaking through layers of outworn concrete, it has always been reborn with renewed vigour at moments in history coloured by the fracturing of Empire and State. Moments where, through song, we are connected to our most primal beginnings.

The ancestor of vocalized human language is bird language. Therefore, birds have pride of place among the ancestors of poets, and there is no bird more emblematic of this relationship than the Nightingale.

Maria Rosa Menocal puts it thus:

In the beginning, the bird is all things: Zen object of contemplation, singer like the poet himself, solitary like the soul—or is it God?—mourning witness to the lover’s blight, innocent, joyful beauty itself—or is that the Lover? They are clan brothers (some say it is a cabal) these poets and birds, survivors from forever, from the age of dinosaurs, but they are still, stark on the horizon. They keep us guessing: is he our soul? is she my lover? is she the singer? Does he clarify? Does he mystify? Will he fly away, just as I thought I finally had him in sight?

There is indeed a cabal between poets and nightingales. Between poets and things that fly and sing in the night, that animate the trees’ branches where sounds and sweet airs tryst and disappear. In turn, this highlights the connection the poet has with that other daughter of nocturnal birds: the witch.

Empire and State are inimical to lyric poetry, and instead have tended to favour the epic and the panegyric. Hence the lyric thrives when these fall apart, or when it is banished and forced to re-inhabit the wilderness that bore it. This is the lyric nightingale that Mahmoud Darwish referred to in his ‘Diary of a Palestinian Wound’: And we came to know what makes the voice of the nightingale/ A dagger that shines in the face of invaders. A singing totem he inherited from Lorca, who inherited it from Don Luis de Góngora y Argote, who inherited it from the ghosts of Troubadours and the Moorish ghosts that still haunt the streets and flower covered patios of his native Córdoba.

The truest poet is the lyric poet, whether her voice be accompanied by the lyre, the harp, the guitar and hand claps of flamenco, the berimbau, or the kick-kick-snare of an adept beat-boxer.

Yet, by the standards of the contemporary literary establishment, and even by those of some small journals that fall on or just outside the margins of the mainstream, lyric poetry is derided and labelled mere ‘confessional poetry’. Nature is something to ignore, deny, or collect specimens of in small flasks to be later displayed in chic exhibitions. The lyrical celebrations of the joie of youth, the ecstasy and abandon of love, wine, and song, are considered immature and juvenile indulgences. Poetry, having lost its music and its duende reads more like the most sober of prose, despite the fact it is at times written out in stanzas, which is to say, despite it at times being dressed in the typographical garb of poetry. But even stanzas are on the wane as more and more poets abandon them in favour of the ‘prose poem’, under pressure to constantly seek out new visual forms and to adopt a posture ‘more-avant-garde-than-thou’. Otherwise, they get scarce or no attention from many mainstream editors and judges who care little for music, magic, or strength of poetic vision, yet care much for what they consider to be the most topically trendy and formally ‘cutting edge’.

Gone is Enheduanna. Gone are Sappho and Catullus. Gone the scops. (The griots would be gone were it not for the emcees true to the elements, though the work of these are hardly ever considered literature). Gone wild Majnūn driven mad by his lost Laila. Oisín and others like him have disappeared in Fairy never to return. The descendants of William of Aquitaine have forgotten how to trobar. The wish of Novalis was granted; his soul was erased by the love the night brings. Baudelaire’s spleen exploded. The lyric tree that Lorca sought to prune to make it flower again all the more exuberant and beautiful, that lonely wind-blasted fairy thorn, that Golden Spruce of Haida Gwaii, that wide-leafed poison-milk witch’s fig, has been given to the axe and sold for pulp.

Modern ‘Western’ civilization banished the Nightingale long ago, and instead claims as its ancestor the Empires of the Classical world. In simple terms, the modern ‘Western’ telling of history goes as follows: Our civilization was born with Classical Greek civilization, and was further developed by the Romans until their empire fell apart. Then the lights went out for about a thousand years until the advent of the Modern period and beginnings of the Nation-State in 1492.

This is the grand récit or master narrative that has been told and re-told over the centuries and is still the dominant model employed by the textbooks of today. What seldom appears even in our contemporary textbooks is the detail that this narrative was written by Renaissance scholars who tended to re-write history to the tune of their own ideologies and political agendas, or to those of the politicians to whom they rendered service.

Thanks to these scholars and their intellectual descendants, to this day, the medieval period is often thought to be a synonym for ‘the dark ages’, for what is archaic and outworn, a wrinkle in the fabric of progress, of the smooth linear telling of ‘Western’ history.

But nightingales sing in the dark, and the fracturing of the Roman empire brought about a whole cacophony of ‘vulgar’ Romance vernaculars, vernaculars that co-existed and co-mingled with various Berber languages as well as a great number of Hebrew and Arabic dialects and hybrids with Romance. And of course, the poems that were composed and sung in all of these.

It is important to recall that what were the ‘dark ages’ for ‘Europe’ was the ‘Classical’ or ‘Golden Age’ for Islamic civilization. However, the fact the lyric favours political splintering is still reflected, to give one example, in the explosion of poetry in the badi’ style, a literary heresy closely associated with religious heresy, that was cultivated in Al-Andalus during the taifa period after the disintegration of the Umayyad derived caliphate there.

The Nation-State has no room for the lyrical riot of voices, languages, and cultures living together in the intimate conditions (an intimacy that bore dazzling cultural fruits, alongside some violent conflicts) that characterized what came to be known as the ‘medieval’ period. It makes perfect sense that the historians of the Renaissance re-wrote history to smooth over the expulsions, ethnic cleansings and linguistic discriminations that had to happen in order for the Nation-State to come into being. The dominant aesthetic of the Renaissance is derived from the smooth symmetries of Classical taste in art, of well defined categories and identities, and in some instances, of the mute and minimal. This is the aesthetic of the cool, smooth and well-polished pearl, and not the ‘cacophony’ or spectacular lyric excesses of much medieval art and literature, or their younger cousin the Baroque, a word thought to come from the Spanish barrueco, which literally means a rough or imperfect pearl.

In many ways, just as Modern civilization claims its roots in Classical civilization, so too does Modern literature and art in many ways drink from the fountains of Classical aesthetics. This perfect pearl and the polished and learned cherub voices that sing its praises are a far cry from la perle en brute, raw and natural, robust and godly as the kiss of Pan.

The Romantics challenged this view and sought inspiration in the often politically fractured yet culturally fertile medieval period, while they simultaneously fought against the societal changes brought about by the Industrial Revolution. However, the engines of Modernity proved too powerful to bind with lyric enchantments. This is reflected in the tastes of the contemporary literary establishment referred to above, and in the meanings the term ‘romantic’ has come to be associated with.

Nowadays, ‘romantic’ is often used as a synonym for ‘escapism’, ‘whimsical nostalgia’, or ‘hollow fantasy’, and has been mostly emptied of its political connotations. Far from an attempt to escape reality, Romanticism is really a passionate and fearless plunge into the very marrow of the same. The edict of the English Romantics was to call for love, wine, and snuff until you cry out ‘Hold, enough!’, yet at the same time be tempered by the tranquility and ferocity of Nature, to get out walking in the rain and mud. To dive in and Live. In its truest sense, it does not project some hollow fantasy onto a cold stark inert reality, rather, it asserts that Reality in and of itself is inherently magical. All of it. The whole spectrum of existence and experience, from joy to suffering, youth to old age, is innately imbued with spirit and wonder. This only ceases to be the case when one changes the syntax with which they communicate with reality, a change that is often associated with the loss of childhood innocence.

Surely, to focus obsessively on one’s ‘self’ does no service to poetry. And yet, the age old axiom stands: as above so below; as within, so without. The lyric poet is not given to self-indulgence, but to feeling the world so deeply, seeing it so profoundly, that their own soul is erased in the soul of the world. Think of the anonymous lyrics of popular or ‘folkloric’ poetry, in these, the ‘lyrical I’ belongs to no one but the Wind. How wise the youth, who knows the insights and feelings they have are unique and ephemeral, knows there is oh so much more to learn, and takes advantage of all of their joie in employing Death as copy editor. How wise the elder who defeats death by kindling the black flame of their innocent heart.

The Countess, by Wild Grace

Romanticism, the age old lyric traditions that it in some way preserves, as well as the traditions it inspired that in some senses parted ways from it, are bearers of the Violet Smile. The violet smile of true poetry, a smile beyond the fictitious divides of literary currents, languages, and time periods imposed by the most learned poetry critics and their anthologists. That smile at once innocent, wise and mischievous that seems to say ‘I-know-a-secret-that-you-don’t-know-but-I-can-show-it-to-you-if-you-but-come-with-me-and-take-my-hand…’

It is a sad thing that today ‘romantic’ is used as a derision. If a poet is inspired by the Romantic current, she or he usually feels a pressure to apologize for it.

Furthermore, the notion that Romanticism is not political is utterly false. We see this in Wordsworth’s alleged activity as ‘undercover agent’ around the time of the French Revolution, in the radical activities of Shelley with his infamous Masque of Anarchy, and those of Blake with his Proverbs of Hell to give a few examples.

Detail from the ‘Troubadour Casket’

There is a reason that the incendiary book that sparked the Romantic revolution in English was titled Lyrical Ballads. Surely, lyric poetry has a long history of political commitment. Think of Dante in exile, champion of the vernacular poets, of the Troubadours, of the sweet new style. Think of the Troubadours themselves, often considered heretics by their opponents. Their connections to Catharsim is noteworthy, but it’s not the whole story, nor is it analogous to the ‘heresy’ expressed by many Troubadours and Trobairitz. This is due to the Cathars’ denial of sex and the body, whereas the heresy of the Troubadours was more often a fin’amour whose physical consummation (when consummation was to be had) was celebrated before or as dawn broke, as demonstrated by the l’alba genre. This heresy was decidedly a religion of love, or, dīn al-hawā to use the equivalent Arabic term.


We can go back further and think of the aforementioned poets of taifa period Al-Andalus whose poetic model with all its lyrical, anarchic, and debauched mystical components was absorbed by their neighbours north of the border of the taifa of Zaragoza (in Arabic, Saraqusta). Let’s not forget that William of Aquitaine was a brother of arms to some members of the Banū Hūd of Zaragoza. It is clear the Occitan verb trobar from which the Troubadours take their name, is connected with ṭaraba, if not the Arabic verb itself adopted into the Occitan language. The meaning of the verb root ṭ-r-b and its derived forms is as follows: Arabic Verb Form I: to be moved (with joy or grief); to be delighted, be overjoyed, to be transported with joy; Arabic Verb Form II: to delight, enrapture, gratify; to sing, vocalize, chant; Arabic Verb Form IV: to delight, fill with delight; enrapture, gratify, to make music; to sing, vocalize, chant; to play music (with object pronoun, “for someone”), to sing (with object pronoun “for someone”). This has been more than demonstrated by many scholars over the years, and in recent years we can highlight the work of Cynthia Robinson that I have drawn upon here. And yet, sadly, due to ideological reasons, this is something many Romance philologists and medievalists continue to deny at all costs.

The legacy left behind by the notorious Abū Nūwās and others like him who used homoerotic lyrics to subvert the religious and political authorities of Abbasid Baghdad was carried on by the taifa sovereigns and their poet-courtiers, who took things to a whole new level in being themselves kings who subverted the very notions of kingship. With their poems of love and praise to the charming, coquettish and somewhat androgynous Cupbearer (androgynous and gender-blurring whether this Cupbearer was a boyish young woman, or, more often, an effeminate young man, and very frequently an eroticization of the Christian Other) completely pulled the rug out from under the rigid commonplace hierarchies…

Let it be known that whether sung to as rosinhols in Occitan, or ‘andalīb in Arabic, the undeniable totem of both of these groups of poets was our lyric Nightingale.

Returning to Romanticism. It should be specified that Romanticism itself is far from homogenous, and when we use that term we are referring to a wide range of thinkers and artists across a wide range of languages and political landscapes, and across a time-frame whose start and end dates are rarely the subject of agreement. Furthermore, I am in no way advocating any sort of ‘neo-romanticism’ (whatever that means) and understand there are also aspects of Romanticism worthy of critique.

In any case, much of this has been forgotten or denied. After Shelley ‘suffered a sea change’, so to speak, in what can almost be seen as a strange poet’s offering to the gods of the ocean, his washed up dead body was thrown into a bonfire on a beach at Viareggio. The story goes that this was done by, or at least done in the presence of, his friends Lord Byron, Edward Trelawney, and Leigh Hunt. His heart was alleged to have been salvaged and kept as a keepsake by his widow and fellow writer Mary Shelley in a silver case. Yet for many, that charred-black heart, its silver coffer, and the Memory behind it were cast back into the sea.


The Funeral of Shelley by Louis Édouard Fournier

In the succeeding years, after the Victorian poets entered stage Right, we arrive at the advent of literary Modernism, and with it, a strange paradox comes into play. While ideologically very different than the Romantics, much of Victorian era poetry can still be described as lyrical. This might have less to do with the poets themselves and more to do with their environment. In the nineteenth century, magic and a ‘magical worldview’ was on the wane but still had a considerable foothold, especially in rural areas. ‘Western’ civilization was becoming industrialized at an even more alarming rate but wild nature was not yet so suffocated by concrete and smog.

In contrast, while Modern poetry flung open the doors for experimentation it closed them on the lyric. Modern poetry can hardly be called lyrical, and some would argue that it should not even be called poetry. There are of course exceptions. Whitman is hailed as a ‘father’ of Modern poetry for flinging open the doors in his espousal of free verse, but his were songs primarily to the open road, not to the city street choked by pollution. Also, the fact his poems were meant to be ecstatically chanted, combined with their intensely personal nature, makes them, in a way, lyrical.

Or ee cummings with his nod to the medieval lyrics in “All in green went my love riding”. With cummings we have a formally and orthographically experimental poet when one first sees his poems upon the page, but all his experimentation is done in the service of music and lyrical themes, as it must be. In many cases, it’s less the Modernists themselves who are responsible for the prevailing derision of the lyric in contemporary poetry. The guilty party is more so the critics who the Modernists were posthumously enshrined by, and many of the poets of later decades taken to ‘avant-garde’ posturing.

It is notable that in Woody Allen’s film Midnight in Paris, a film that presents a reasonably broad panorama of the Modernist dramatis personae, that two of the most famous poets in their respective languages, poets who often get lumped in with the Modernists by the critics and anthologists, would be conspicuously absent. These are Federico García Lorca and William Butler Yeats, poets that in large part can only be considered Modernists if you deem them guilty by association.

It matters little if each of these poets pruned the lyric tree of his respective tradition, but in the connections they maintained with the land beneath their feet, with its folklore and the spirits that imbue even rocks with life; they represent something quite different. Lorca’s entire oeuvre—even the plays!—have been sung and absorbed by flamenco lyric tradition. Yeats’ poems have also been sung and there are few poets in English who have such an exquisite sense for the musicality of language as he does.

Both these poets lived during the ‘Modernist era’ in literature and were associated with some of modernism’s biggest names, yet while others were looking forward they were looking backward. Each in his own way and toward different ends carried out a mobilization of folklore, to borrow a phrase from Peter Grey & Alkistis Dimech.

These poets defy rigid classification into any particular literary current. This is to be expected from any poet whose output is based upon trafficking with fairies and duendes. It is worth mentioning that modernismo in Spanish literature is different from modernism in English, and, as exemplified by the bacchic and pagan Ruben Darío, in some ways is much closer to Romanticism.

Also, different languages got their modernisms at different times. Modernism or the term ‘modernist’ should never be used as a mere synonym for what is ‘revolutionary’, ‘iconoclastic’, or ‘innovative’. What differentiates modernists proper from their innovative counterparts of all time periods, are the specific connections those innovations have with modernity, with industrial civilization.

In Yeats’ case, Yeats the magician is incompatible with Yeats the modernist hence the omission or enormous understatement of this facet by subsequent anthologists, a facet which is more than a bit important to arrive at a nuanced understanding of both the man and his work.

Of course, there are also magical aspects to the work of T.S. Eliot but these are expressed in a completely different way. In his short essay “Modern Poetry is Prose”, Lawrence Ferlinghetti makes the following commentary:

“Modern poetry is prose because it sounds as subdued as any city man or woman whose life force is submerged in urban life…Like modern sculpture, it minimized emotion in favor of understated irony and implied intensity. As such it is the perfect poetry for technocratic man…And the nightingales may still be singing…but we can hardly hear them in the city waste lands of T. S. Eliot, nor in his Four Quartets (which can’t be played on any instrument and yet is the most beautiful prose of our time). Nor in the prose wastes of Ezra Pound’s Cantos which aren’t canti because they couldn’t possibly be sung. Nor in the pangolin prose of Marianne Moore (who called her writing poetry for lack of anything better to call it)…nor in the outer city speech of William Carlos Williams, in the flat-out speech of his Paterson. All of which is applauded by poetry professors and poetry reviewers in all the best places, none of whom will commit the original sin of saying some poet’s poetry is prose in the typography of poetry—just as the poet’s friends will never say it—the dumbest conspiracy of silence in the history of letters…Most modern poetry is poetic prose but it is saying plenty, by its own example, about what death of the spirit our technocratic civilization may be dealing us, enmeshed in machines and macho nationalisms, while some continue longing for some nightingale among the pines of Resphigi. It is the bird singing that makes us happy.”

Woman injured during Catalan referendum, October 1st 2017

It is in a mesh of macho nationalisms that I find myself in at this very moment. Indeed, that we are are all increasingly finding ourselves in. Since the events of October 1st in Catalunya I have walked the streets of Granada and seen the city become gripped in a fit of flag fetishism. The gazpacho-red and paella-yellow banner of Spain has been unfurled over numerous balconies throughout the city centre, and anti-Catalan sentiments (with a healthy dose of renewed hate speech toward ‘Rojos’ and environmental activists) are in the process of reaching a witch-hunt-esque fever pitch.

Only individuals as despicable as Mariano Rajoy and his government can make the perhaps equally ill-reputable Carles Puigdemont look like the victim, or worse, a hero, from the perspective of governments and media sources outside of Spain. Yet within the Spanish mainstream, Rajoy, the National Police and the Civil Guard are seen as the heroes for giving the Catalans a paliza or beating of which they are considered to be the well deserved recipients. Tragic to see ones neighbours and friends enveloped in Spanish flags; tragic when one sees this in their own extended family, and even more tragic when members of that family were killed or imprisoned for fighting against, or disagreeing with, the fascists in the Spanish Civil War. Fascists come in all shapes and sizes, they come from the Right and they come from the Left (cf. the policies of Getulio Vargas in Brazil in the 30’s, 40’s, and 50’s), but perhaps one of the most clear and universal hallmarks of fascism on the government level is openly state-sponsored violence to effectuate political coercion. This is Rajoy’s idea of an, and I quote ‘amiable’ democracy:

Is it any small wonder the heraldry of the Civil Guard, the heraldry painted on all of their vehicles, is a sword crossed with a fasces?


Rajoy is the head of a party (Partido Popular) founded on the same ‘España, una, grande, y libre’ ideology of Franco, Primo Ribera, and The Catholic Monarchs Isabel and Fernando before them. A party founded on ‘Christianist’ principles, or in other words, principles of ‘political Christianity’ (cf. Islamism or ‘political Islam’). The PP thrives off of insurgent Basque and Catalan activity and more recently Islamic terrorism because it needs them as external demons in order to make every one feel more ‘united’ and ‘together’ under a flag that stands for stolen Gold and spilt Blood. We all know that Catalunya is Spain’s economic and industrial powerhouse and therefore the Spanish government cannot afford to let them separate, but ironically, the PP also benefits from what is happening due to the widespread awakening of Spanish nationalist sentiment it has aroused, swelling in power like a blood-fattened tick. It’s worth pausing and asking another question. Is it any small wonder the tragic attacks of this past August happened in Barcelona just a month and a half before the referendum?

All of this is directly related to our discussion of Empire, State, and the lyric. In order to understand why let us return to our commentary on mainstream historiography and consider the year 1492 in a bit more detail. We all know it as the year that Columbus and his crew ‘discovered’ the New World, and some people also know it as the year the Catholic Monarchs finally took control of the Nasrid Kingdom of Granada—an event that meant the end of what remained of Al-Andalus and the birth of Spain. Others know it as the year the Sephardic Jews were expelled from the peninsula, but few know that in addition to all this, on the 18th of August that same year—just a few weeks after Columbus set sail—1492 saw the first publication of the first Castilian grammar, codifying that language and establishing its hegemony in the Iberian Peninsula, a linguistic hegemony that it still enjoys. Spanish, when referring to the language, is a misnomer. The language is referred to here as castellano, in the same way it is also referred to in much of Latin America. Spanish, like the Spain it refers to, in reality does not exist, but were founded, like most nations, on ideological fictions. It was this cacophonic cultural pluralism of Galician, Catalan, Euskara (Basque) Aragonese, Hebrew, Arabic, Berber, Caló—and all the hybrids between them and different dialects of the same—that had to be smoothed over to create modern Spain, highlighted by historians as a prime example of the beginnings of the Nation-State. This is one of the dead horses of the medieval period that was thrown overboard in the calm seas of the Horse Latitudes (between 30 & 38 degrees North and South), as Menocal insightfully showed us, sacrificed in order for the winds of progress and modernity to blow, in order for Columbus’ ships to be able to continue sailing onwards toward a brave new world.

Keep in mind that Castilian (especially in its Andalusian and Valencian varieties) is absolutely chock-a-block with words derived from Arabic (arabisms); indeed, even Catalan has arabisms but to a lesser extent. It should not be forgotten that once upon a time the area that would come to be known as Catalunya was also part of Al-Andalus.

The Reconquista, the Spanish nation’s most beloved myth, is exactly that, a myth. Spain did not exist at the time of the so called Reconquista and numerous scholars have challenged the degree to which the different Christian Crowns considered themselves to be engaging in a re-conquista as they went about making land grabs to the South and in the Balearic Islands, not to mention fighting amongst themselves. Berbers have always been crossing the Straight of Gibraltar, have always lived in and done business with the peoples of Iberian Peninsula, and before they were converted to Islam, many were Christian and some even Jewish (cf. al-Kāhina). If Morocco belonged to Christians and was later conquered by Muslims, by the same twisted rhetoric of the Reconquista, that would give Christians the right to ‘reconquer’ Northern Africa, something that only the most despicable members of Spanish society would advocate. The vast majority of the Spanish flag wearers and ‘¡Arriba España!’ chanters would find this barbarous.

Also, scholars like the incendiary Emilio Gonzalez Ferrín deny that there was a Muslim conquest in Spain, hence the ceaseless efforts of Right-wing oriented scholars to silence him and punch holes in his research, for naturally, if there was no conquest, there cannot be any reconquest. Gonzalez Ferrín insists that what happened in the Iberian Peninsula was not a conquest, but a revolution, or a gradual process that slowly assimilated Islam and Islamic culture over time. He makes the following points: All the sources that describe the conquest were redacted much much later than the events they describe. The population in the south was largely Arian Christian rather than Catholic; Arians deny the trinity so their beliefs are actually very similar, or at least compatible with, those of Islam. How could it have been possible for some 300 ragtag soldiers (the oft cited 10,000 from the sources is likely highly exaggerated) to conquer just about the entire Iberian Peninsula in a few short years—taking into account the very difficult topography—when it took the Romans almost 200 years to do the same? These are all mysteries that the appearance of a coin from the 8th century whereupon it is written Muhammed is the prophet of God fall very short of answering.

Whatever the case, there is fortunately a growing new generation of Arabists, Hebraists, and Romance philologists who are committed to using their disciplines to destroy the toxic myths of Nations and Nationalism, and not the other way around, as has been the case for much of the previous century and earlier. Indeed, philology has been used on equal-footing as that other most powerful way for the greedy and power hungry to prove their nations: War. And in the ostensible absence of war, international sports (the World Cup, the Olympics). No Spaniard feels so Spanish as when they see la selección nacional take to the pitch, nor when Spain wins the World Cup. It arouses pride in those who don’t even like football, and in pretty much all Spanish citizens, be these catalans, vascos gallegos, aragoneses, castellanos, or the andaluz ‘más gitano’.

Mastering philology is one of our keys to mastering reality, to unravelling the grand récit and making room for all those other voices that don’t make the canons of national literature, for the lyric poets singing in the streets and leafy bowers. To speak with Bob Kaufman, for all those ships that never sailed, the ones left scuttled in their stalls with their seacocks open. Ships that could have sailed toward a very different future than the one brought about by Columbus’ voyage and the events surrounding it. Today we bring them back Huge and intransitory And let them sail forever.

All reality is quantity and quality. Numbers give the quantity, words give the quality. Hence operative kabbalah or other (almost all?) magical systems that employ numbers and words—the true roots of all things—to make change in the world. Languages come from the elements, from roots (cf. Empedocles). We see this so clearly in Hebrew and Arabic in that all words are derived from verbs of three (and some two and four) letter roots. Verbs are superior to nouns, because they represent the animating principles that substantiate nouns, that make them move. Therefore, we can flip the adage of the concrete and very ‘modern’ William Carlos Williams: No ideas but in movement.

As Empires and States continue to crumble, now’s to declare our intent in all our myriad babel tongues, in all our lyric and varied voces magicae: the homecoming of love (and wild nature) among illustrious ruins.


Slippery Elm

Slippery Elm’s poetry and prose in English and Spanish have appeared in dozens of journals and anthologies in both Europe and North America. He has performed as a part of flamenco groups in Europe, Africa, and North America, in courtly settings, as well as in the streets, by hearth corner, and under leaf. He is the editor and translator of the poetry anthology Your Death Full of Flowers and the author of two pocket poetry books. He compliments his poetry and dance by studying Arabic and Hebrew philologies.

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