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Homage to Catalonia.

20 Dec

Come close to my clamour,

people fed from the same breast,

tree whose roots

keep me in prison,

because I am here to love you

and I am here to defend you

with my blood and with my mouth

as two faithful rifles.

— Sitting upon the Dead, Miguel Hernandez.

(An edited version of this essay appeared on mylaw.net)

The Spanish Civil War is a bellwether for humanities geeks. For most, it was just one more brutal event in a brutal decade: with things like the Holocaust and atomic bombs to report, how interesting are a bunch of anarchists running around trying to change the world? There are a smattering of those in every war. For us nerds, however, the war means much more: it was a harbinger, a prophecy, a betrayal. This was as true at the time it happened as it is now; which is why all the eccentrics and writers of the world were drawn to the battle like moths to a flame. It was a war in which, as Auden once wrote, poets exploded like bombs.  Think back to any mid-century poet or journalist, and odds are they were annealed by fires across Spain. Orwell describes a very cosmopolitan Catalonia, brimming with Italians, Frenchmen, Germans, Poles, not to mention the Russians; Neruda, for that matter, made his way all the way from Chile. Spain, too, offered up her own literary sacrifices: Lorca, killed by Franco in Granada; Miguel Hernandez, lost to prison and pneumonia.

Orwell was amongst the first wave of these adventurists, and Homage to Catalonia is a bitter love-story about the country and the ideals he was determined to save. It begins in 1936, when Orwell first joined the POUM militia on the Aragon front, and closes in 1937, when he is running from Barcelona with the police, as he put it, one jump behind him. The story of how a soldier became a traitor is the story of Homage to Catalonia.

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