Richard Wright’s Pagan Spain

Living in Andalusia for three months, I read Pagan Spain, a book that the great Black American writer Richard Wright published in 1957. From 1947 until the end of his life, Wright lived mostly in Paris. Gertrude Stein encouraged him to cross the border to Spain. During three weeks of 1954, he drove about 4,000 km of Spanish roads, rode trains in the south, and talked with people of diverse backgrounds, demonstrating empathy for all but the most annoying of them. His book demonstrates particular compassion for women, whose structural oppression Wright analyzes at length and in a way that surely qualifies him as a feminist in an advanced 1950s mode.

Overall, he portrays Spain as deeply backward, profoundly poor, and utterly static. He sees no prospects for change. To be sure, Franco’s fascist dictatorship suppressed progress, and 1955 was just under halfway through that long and dark chapter. However, Wright analyzes Franco as more of a symptom than a cause. The problem, in his view, is spiritual: the Spanish people are deeply irrational, hierarchical, communalistic, and superstitious, in contrast to the rational individualism of what Wright calls “the Western world”–and with which he explicitly identifies.

He acknowledges a bias for Protestantism (despite not being religious any more), but he needs an explanation for Spain’s backwardness compared to other Catholic countries, including France. He suggests that Spain is actually immured in an older, deeper–and therefore more profoundly static–form of religion, which he labels paganism. The rituals of Spanish Catholicism are pre-Christian fertility rites in superficial disguise. For instance, he reads the Black Virgin of Monserrat as a pagan fertility figure that is meaningfully placed among phallic rock formations.

I admire Wright, appreciate his sensitive portraits of Spanish acquaintances, and share his abhorrence of Franco. But his book offers a testable hypothesis: Spain will never change (and certainly not soon). One character who emerges as basically a fool is an American businessman who predicts economic development.

In fact, Spanish GDP grew at an average rate of 6.5% from 1959 to 1974, the period known as “the Spanish miracle.” Per-capita GDP was five times higher in 1990 than it had been in 1950. That growth accompanied a vast migration of people to cities and the transformation of work and daily lives, for better and for worse. Other countries experienced similar trajectories. El milagro español resembled il miracolo economico italiano, les trente glorieuses in France and the German Wirtschaftswunder. This convergence diminishes Franco’s credit for the growth. But Wright explicitly denies any possibility of similar change.

Once fascism ended, Spain was poised for further, rapid convergence with the EU countries, not only economically but socially, culturally, and politically. The country that Wright perceived as permanently stifled by reactionary patriarchy was early to legalize same-sex marriage and now has a cabinet with a female majority. Wright believed that piety dominated the Spanish psyche, but today just 18.5% of Spanish citizens identify as practicing Catholics (and of those, more than one third never attend mass).

Wright ends the book with a portrait of Holy Week in Seville, complete with delirious penitents with “bruised and bleeding flesh,” soldiers whose faces are “hard and stern”–“their gleaming bayonets … a forest of steel”–workmen with “bleak and pinched” faces bearing floats, and other mass expressions of subjugation and piety. “A feeling of helplessness, of desperation, of wild sorrow, of a grief too deep to be appeased clogged the senses.” All of this is Catholic on the surface but follows “some ancient pattern of behavior” based on a male/female binary.

We recently observed Holy Week in Granada. The floats sound similar to the ones Wright watched, and the number of participants remains extraordinary. But the whole event is highly informal, with fun roles for children, guys coming out from under the floats to check their phones or buy drinks, light security, and bands that sound like homecoming day in a US college town. Although I am sure that piety persists in some quarters, overall, one has a sense of traditional forms being transformed for radically new purposes.

Demetrio E. Brisset (2019) describes scattered efforts to organize light and even satirical Easter festivals under Franco, which were increasingly successful. “The foundations for the modern-day festivals were thereby laid. The successful shift from festivities in honour of Catholic saints to a type of celebration related to non-religious carnivals simply required a change of attitude, that was encouraged by another social and political context, i.e. disintegration of the system of moral norms after the death of Franco. The social effervescence of the fascinating period between 1976 and 1978 liberated the festivities from the tight control to which they had previously been subjected.” Brisset traces several influences on 21st century festivals in Spain, including tourism, political critique and satire, scholarly efforts to revive folkloric traditions, demands for women’s leadership, and even self-conscious neopaganism, which seems to owe more to the global New Age movement than to anything indigenously Spanish.

Perhaps we can say Wright’s view was interesting enough to prove flatly wrong. Although his values were benign, he dramatically underestimated the agency of the people he observed, which might be a lesson for all of us.

I think of a young woman Wright meets in Barcelona, whose role in life is to be a virgin. She never leaves her family’s funereal apartment because premarital contact with the outside world would open her honor to question. Meanwhile, her fiance, who is too poor to afford a wedding, regularly purchases sex from women he holds in contempt. Today, this woman could be alive and in her 70s. If she has survived–and I hope she has–she has seen extraordinary change.

Source: Brisset, Demetrio E., Novas festas profanas em Espanha, Revista Lusófona de Estudos Culturais, December 2019

This entry was posted in Spain, Uncategorized on by .

About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.