RICHARD WRIGHT'S PAGAN SPAIN:
MILITANT MODERNISM AT THE APEX

by Ralph Dumain

The new edition of Pagan Spain has a preface by Faith Berry. She has quite a bit to say, especially about Wright's errors in explaining cultural and religious facts about Spain, presumably issuing from the limitations of Wright's Freudian and militantly secularist perspective. More importantly, she fills in some of the gaps in our knowledge owing to the fact that much of the original manuscript was cut out for publication. She also informs us of a novel Wright projected about the Spanish conquest of the Aztecs, and of other relevant background concerning the reception of Pagan Spain. She adeptly summarizes the major themes of the book and recommends it highly even while distancing herself from any commitment to Wright's perspective. Wright is praised for his courage, yet any accounting for the passion behind Wright's fanatical secularism is muted.

If I were a postmodernist academic hack, my review would be couched in the language of "intertextuality." The truth is, regardless, that the reading of the text constantly evokes comparisons with other texts as well as situations in real life. Wright makes a number of parallels himself. Fascist Spain reminds him of the Mississippi of his childhood. A religious ritual in Seville in which the participants don robes with conical hoods reminds him of the Ku Klux Klan of the American South (p. 284). Wright shocks a hysterical white woman abused by a taxi driver by telling her she is "acting like a Negro" (p. 88). There are several comments linking his psychological experience of being a member of a persecuted race in America to the experience of women, Jews, Spanish Protestants, and others (see esp. p. 162).

Faith Berry favorably compares Wright's description of a bullfight to Hemingway's. She does highlight Wright's sympathy for the plight of Spanish women. Thankfully, she refrains from the fashionable cliche of downgrading Wright as practiced in the academic hackwork of black feminism. However, she has barely scratched the surface. Wright is as far from the macho man as any human being could be, and the implications of this fact have not been understood. Far from glorifying the bullfight even while acknowledging the overwhelming power it has on its audience, Wright indicts the spectacle as a criminal and barbaric practice, deriving its existence and its appeal from poverty and psychological repression. Comparing Wright with his lifelong contemplative compassion for human suffering to the lifelong macho he-man posturing of Ernest Hemingway, one might well take the latter's suicide as a putative loss to the literary world in a rather different, uncustomary light.

Wright is so subversive and threatening, perhaps there is an accounting for all the people who have taken the trouble to distance themselves from him in some way. Think of Ralph Ellison's posturing, citing Hemingway as his big influence, against Wright, even to the point where Hemingway's safari writing is to have enabled Ellison to survive by his own wits in the wild: there is something unclean in this. Reflect upon Margaret Walker's assault on Wright's manhood, insinuating that his allegedly pipsqueak voice suggests a lack of masculinity, implying that his rejection of her was not a rejection of her, but an act unbecoming a real man, just as a real black man wouldn't turn his back on black women to take up with white women. I feel to spit and spit and spit again.

Wait, I'm not done with intertextuality yet. Wright tells people in his book and us too that his message for the world is: "The people of Spain are suffering." This is consistent with Wright's other work. He doesn't mock the ignorant and backward, regardless of his implicit scorn for all backwardness. This is yet another parallel with his experience of Mississippi. In Black Boy, his secular reaction to the hyperreligious slave mentality of the black woman is not scorn. It goes beyond rejection, for when he writes of his mother, Wright says his life task is to explain the meaning of meaningless suffering. And so he proceeds in Spain.

Wright never fails in his power as a writer. Everything he writes, fiction or fact, reads like a suspense novel. There is no scene, event, or conversation that is not dramatic. There is a characteristic, virtually deadpan restraint that paradoxically intensifies the drama and hence the impact of what Wright is trying to get across. And so his indictment of Spanish Catholicism takes no prisoners.

Here there is no "love affair with the Spanish people" as there is in many another visitor's travel writing. Nor is there any pro-people propaganda such as one might find among the anti-fascist partisans of the Spanish Civil War. Wright finds the Spanish people in defeat, and all he has to report is how hopelessly backward they are.

However, there are sympathies. His sympathy for the condition of women comes out in many places, not just in his overt descriptions of the oppressive conditions under which Spanish women must live. One of the most revealing is an incident on the train where his enthusiastic conversation with a group of women becomes almost conspiratorial, carried on under the eyes of disapproving Spanish men stunned by the idea that women could be taken seriously enough to converse with as equals.

I think there is a debt of apology to be paid by a number of people who have worried us to death over Wright's masculinity and masculinism. What interests Wright is suffering, ignorance, thought and consciousness, not the cult of testosterone.

Now I am ready to approach the very heart of Wright's perspective, his embrace of modernity and his rejection of all traditionalism. All of Pagan Spain is a negation of tradition, but nowhere more than in the passage (p. 21) in which Wright sums up his entire testament:

I have no religion in the formal sense of the word .... I have no race except that which is forced upon me. I have no country except that to which I'm obliged to belong. I have no traditions. I'm free. I have only the future.

Wright rarely gets caught up in preaching. His technique is one of restraint. Although he flat-out states his views in places, a major form of argument in this book is the method of contrast, the juxtaposition of real, socially incriminating facts of life with the illusions, delusions, denials, and unreal ideas that people have about their existence. Ultimately, the extreme duality between thought and reality shows up the total failure of a society and its way of life.

The role of women and the sexual practices in Spanish society show up this duality in the most extreme fashion. The official, ideal denial of sexuality is coupled with the most complete and morbid obsession with sex in practical life. Prostitution is ubiquitous and rampant. The schizophrenia of the madonna-whore complex rules the male psyche of the entire land. The Spanish people are so at war within themselves that repressed sexuality saturates the psychology of the bullfight, as when Wright reports crowds of spectators wildly attacking and crushing the testicles of the dead bull. This is not even to discuss other sensational matters such as "white slavery". It is a portrait rather at odds with the romanticization of the Spanish people and Hemingway-style machismo, but it is consistent with Wright's instinctive revulsion against predatory sexuality one can find in other works, where he reveals a visceral horror of striptease, prostitution, sexual exploitation, sexual desperation, etc.

Beginning with the facts of prostitution but spreading out to every department of society, Wright shows us that official Spain cannot descend from the dreamland of idealistic pronouncements to the acknowledgment, let alone the practical remediation, of anything real. For Spain there is no hard empirical data, no sociological analysis, no treatment of anything objective or material: reality is swept under the rug.

The major device of Wright's method of contrastive juxtaposition is his periodic citation from a Falangist catechism interspersed with incidents out of Wright's travels in Spain. Early on in the book, Wright obtains this hard-to-find fascist indoctrination manual from a sympathetic Spanish woman who marvels at his statement that he is free from tradition. The catechism consists of step-by-step questions and answers regarding Falangist principles, logically constructed to appeal to the intellectual level of the mentally retarded, so simplistic is its logical structure. The statements are all general and abstract declarations about the cosmic, spiritual mission of Spain, recovery of lost national glory, lofty moral principles of clean living and self-sacrifice, the divisiveness induced by liberalism and parliamentarianism: the whole is deduced from self-validating, unquestionable first principles. Obviously, the architecture of fascist metaphysics is just about the same everywhere. One of the more self-revealing remarks about the catechism is the declaration that the Falangist movement is a poetic movement (p. 278). Wright's main comment is that this catechism is a prescription for failure, but rather than arguing against it at length, he reveals its absurdity by juxtaposing it to real life.

Only after making a survey of the other spheres of Spanish life does Wright turn to Spanish "intellectuals" for their opinions, a couple of chapters into the final section, "The World of Pagan Power". There are a variety of viewpoints expressed, from social darwinist contempt for the masses all the way to shamefaced admissions of Spain's social bankruptcy. Here one lives in an atmosphere soaked with nostalgia: the intellectuals romantically confirm the social retardation of Spain, how it has never been able to accept the early loss of its empire, living in a dream of the past, not developing. There is one concluding statement yet to be made about this state, but first we must confront the most enigmatic aspect of Wright's book.

Wright is obsessed with the conundrum of Spain's place in western civilization. It is an odd obsession by the standards of many today. It would probably not correspond to the ideological spirit of our time for a radical, oppositional black intellectual to insist on his psychological oneness with western civilization, but Wright does so in all of his work. Wright is such an ardent devotee of modernity, which for him is even more an aspiration than a fait accompli, that he identifies the modernity he celebrates with western civilization. Yet Spain, the birthplace of the conquest of the world by the modern western world, is not a modern nation.

Since I now felt most strongly, in fact, knew that Spain was not a Western nation, what then did being Western mean? .... It was not my task to define the totality of the contents of Western civilization; I was interested only in that aspect of it that engaged my attention in relation to Spain. I was finally left to believe that that difference lay in the area of the secular that Western man, through the centuries and at tragic cost, had won and wrung from his own religious and irrational consciousness. In Spain there was no lay, no secular life. Spain was a holy nation, a sacred state—a state as sacred and irrational as the sacred state of the Akan in the African jungle. (pp. 228-9)

Wright's comparison of Spain to Africa then takes a startling turn:

The traditions of the Akan African were unwritten, were fragile, and had been mortally jolted by the brutal and thoughtless impact of the Western world. The African, though thrashing about in a void, was free to create a future, but the pagan traditions of Spain had sustained no such mortal wound. Those traditions were intact today as never before.... This was a fact that made me feel that the naked African in the bush would make greater progress during the next fifty years than the proud, tradition-bound Spaniard! (p. 229)

I wonder whether anyone has commented on this passage before. Though with its own derisive mode of expression, this statement "intertextually" echoes C.L.R. James's notions of modernity! James did not focus his attention on the backward cultural aspects of either Europe or Africa, but in his cultural analyses of the Caribbean and the western hemisphere in general, James ascribes a flexibility and vanguard role to New World cultures that is not bound by the longevity of tradition-conscious Europe. The analogy is full of imperfections, but if one thinks of how the enslaved Africans were stripped of their traditional cultures and reduced to the lowest possible degree in the economic and social arrangements of the West, and survived that and fanatically embraced the potentials of theoretical liberty, having nowhere but up to go, how such people could become free to develop without being weighed down, let alone buttressed by, the drag of an antiquarian past, and perhaps ultimately lead the rest of the world in the struggle for freedom and cultural development, then the basis of the analogy comes into focus.

Wright's meditation on Spain proceeds even further. Spain's religious state of being is different from and even more extreme than other Catholic backwaters of Europe such as Italy. Why?

It was too easy to say that Spain had, somehow, missed, slept through a whole period of historical development-- a period in which science, art, politics, and human personality had established their own autonomy and justification. In a way that had happened. But that was only one way of describing the real situation. The boundaries of Spanish religiosity went beyond the Church.... [Wright's ellipsis]

[my ellipsis....] The cold fact was: Spain was not yet even Christian! It had never been converted, not to Protestantism, not even to Catholicism itself! .... An early and victorious Catholicism, itself burdened with deep traits of a paganism that it had sought vainly to digest, had here in Spain been sucked into the maw of a paganism buried deep in the hearts of the people. And the nature and function of Catholicism had enabled that paganism to remain intact. And today Spanish Catholicism boasted that it was the most perfect and the purest Catholicism in all the world .... [Wright's ellipsis].

Though Wright acknowledges that the rest of the West has its pockets of the irrational, he is awed that Spain has totally escaped a secularizing process that has even made inroads into Asia and Africa. I shall reflect upon this awe momentarily, but first I have to complete the picture of where this deliberation goes.

Wright then turns inward to ponder why he simply cannot accept Spain as it is but is perturbed by its alienness.

The first thing, though, that I had to be clear about was my own deep non-Catholicness, my undeniable and inescapable Protestant background and conditioning, my irredeemably secular attitude, and, beyond all that, my temperamental inability to accept childlike explanations of a universe which, if it had any ultimate meaning, was surely not the kind of universe that could be represented by pictorial images of a cosmic family whose members were quarreling among themselves. (p. 231)

Later on in the book, Wright again compares Protestantism to Catholicism, to the detriment of the latter (pp. 272-2). The Protestant is the more advanced being, more dynamic; his belief system is more inward; he can make demands on himself and project them onto his external environment. The Protestant has created modern political institutions; he is more worldly, more literate, more industrial, in contrast to the stagnancy of the Catholic world.

There is nothing puzzling here, but we must return to Wright's amazement at the non-westernness of part of the West. Here we must get intertextual again. Elsewhere, most likely in Black Boy, Wright makes the curious comment that black Americans, at least the sort he grew up with in Mississippi, never quite caught the spirit of western civilization. He doesn't say this about the white mountain men of the Ozarks, whose magical practices Zora Neale Hurston links with Haitian voudun. Why be more or less amazed here than by Spain? One might well wonder how much of the territory covered by the West actually caught the spirit or was even conscious of carrying the banner of Western civilization. However, this very formulation gives us the key insight: Western civilization to Wright is a form of ideality; a set of potentials embodied as a living force in the world. Once Wright managed to catch this dynamic spirit in dull-witted, stagnant Mississippi, and learned to make of himself a conscious being, his compass was set for life. This mystery, that the spirit of the West had not even fully conquered the actually existing West, helped Wright to settle his accounts with the world's heritage and history. If stale and backward tradition could not be shaken off within the primary orbit of the West itself, then the mystique of western man dissipates along with all previous civilizations. If one's home is modernity, and modernity is above-all future-oriented, geared toward progress, self-development, and the liberation of human potentiality, one feels that dizzying sense of liberation in throwing off the weight of the whole past. The West is a state of mind, not a place in space. Spain encapsulates everything that held Wright back: the mind-deadening forces of tradition and oppression, the dead hand of the past. To crack open the mystery of Spain is to be able to spit upon the past one last time before turning one's back on it forever.

But the tragedy of Spain is that it could not accept change: its rejection of modernity plunges it into a more hopeless miasma of dreamy superstition and unconsciousness, of social stagnancy and decay than the most impoverished, illiterate and underdeveloped Third World nation. Withdrawal from modernity not only necessitates fascism as a political order, it entails the psychological death of the retreat into primitive metaphysics. It is a warning to us all. Man can sink no lower. Hence Wright ends the treatment of a society that froze its nature in 1492 with the supreme contempt which it deserves:

Convinced beyond all counterpersuasion that he possesses a metaphysical mandate to chastise all of those whom he considers the 'morally moribund,' the 'spiritually inept,' the 'biologically botched,' the Spaniard would scorn the rich infinities of possibility looming before the eyes of men, he would stifle hearts responding to the call of a high courage, and he would thwart the will's desire for a new wisdom .... [Wright's ellipsis] He would turn back the clock of history and play the role of God to man.

How poor indeed he is ...." (pp. 287-8)

What a condemnation on which to end a book! There remains one yet unstated but decisive implication, not for Spain, but for the descendants of Mississippi and other comparable locations. This aspect of Wright--the contempt for tradition and the pre-modern; the militant, secular embrace of modernity and futurity--has never been fully accepted or assimilated by the African-American intelligentsia, let alone the average, untutored African-American reader of Wright. The militant secularist message of Pagan Spain is still too threatening to be absorbed by the African-American public because its real message hits a lot closer to home than to Spain. So, in closing, let us repeat Wright's testament and let it ring out like an anthem:

I have no religion in the formal sense of the word .... I have no race except that which is forced upon me. I have no country except that to which I'm obliged to belong. I have no traditions. I'm free. I have only the future.

©1999, 2000 Ralph Dumain. All rights reserved.


Richard Wright Study Guide
(includes following links & more)

Richard Wright's White Man, Listen!

Lest We Forget--The Hidden History of the African-American Autodidact:
A Belated Tribute to Black History Month

Cornel West's Evasion of Philosophy, Or, Richard Wright's Revenge

Individual Identity, Historical Meaning, and the Unknown Autodidact


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