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Why Lorca Matters

Noël Valis


Memory and death. The solid and the spectral. The murdered Spanish poet-playwright Federico García Lorca (1898-1936) and his posthumous literary life hover between the two poles, like his missing body. One Lorca scholar, Andrés Soria Olmedo, put it this way, “We look for his remains … we open the likely tomb … and it is empty…” Seeing García Lorca through the lens of absence is a historical phenomenon starting with his assassination in 1936 at the start of the Spanish Civil War. From Latin America, José González Carbalho, the son of Spanish immigrants and a friend of Lorca, wrote in 1938 that the poet’s death, “unhappily certain, has something of the phantom about it.” This ghost is not the Freudian return of the repressed, but the shape historical awareness of his death and disappearance has taken. Then, as if it were of importance to counteract the ghostly with something more solid, he wrote that “above all, there is his death, which should be remembered more than his own work, because his death is the terrible document of an historic moment.” Thus, scholars and non-scholars alike have pursued his life, death, and work with the fervor of a quest.


His body, which has never been found, has been the subject of multiple failed attempts at exhumation. Practically every scrap of documentation pertaining to his execution produces paroxysms of excitement, with boasts we’ve finally learned the complete truth about his murder. And it’s not just his death, his life as a gay man in early twentieth-century Spain has also whipped up flurries of research. Similarly, a rediscovered manuscript, a previously unknown letter, bring joy and high prices at auction. Like his work, Lorca’s life and death are impossible to understand or even to locate in their entirety. The archive is a simulacrum of what once was. How do we capture or fix memory, if the archive that is Federico García Lorca forever escapes our hands? What is an archive?


It isn’t simply a document, place, or institution. An archive does not remember by itself, but rather is a place from which to remember, reinterpret, and ensure that the sumptuous memory palace called Lorca never occupies the place of oblivion. Why insist on Lorca as a kind of archive? Because the very themes of the material and the spectral, death and memory we associate with an archive are also key to understanding the value and meaning of Lorca’s plays and poetry. And because, remarkably, readers have consistently fused Lorca himself with his work, reading his life into his words. Literal biography is not the point but, rather, the persistence of the individual and individual memory. Why and how Lorca died matters. Above all, he matters because his works embody the individual’s struggle with and against things as fundamental as death, desire, and identity.


Lorca was born and died in two of the most significant years in modern Spanish history: 1898, when Spain lost Cuba following the Spanish-American War, and 1936, when Nationalist, or Francoist, troops rebelled against the legitimate government of the Second Republic. Both these wars had international consequences. The earlier conflict signaled the United States as an emerging major power for the first time. The Spanish Civil War (1936-39) arguably served as a precursor to World War II ideologically and militarily, with the participation of the fascists (Germany and Italy) on Franco’s side and the communists (The Soviet Union) on the Republican side, along with the volunteer International Brigades.


Lorca was a strong supporter of the Second Republic, the principal reason why the Nationalists shot and buried him in an unmarked grave on August 19, 1936. His traveling theater group La Barraca, which brought classic sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Spanish plays to remote, underserved communities, was a government-supported enterprise. His brother-in-law and socialist mayor of Granada, Manuel Fernández Montesinos, was executed on the day of Lorca’s arrest. We now believe his homosexuality also played a role in the murder. Politically-tinged family squabbles involving Lorca’s father, a wealthy liberal landowner, cannot be ruled out either. The murder of a poet tells us something about the time we live in, about what we value.


Most significant to situating Lorca: the 1920s and 30s was an extraordinary period of literary and artistic creativity in Spain, matched only by the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Golden Age of Garcilaso, Cervantes, Quevedo, Góngora, Calderón de la Barca, Velázquez, El Greco, and Murillo. Lorca shared the stage with Rafael Alberti, Jorge Guillén, Pedro Salinas, Luis Cernuda, Picasso, Dalí, Miró, and Juan Gris, not to mention older writers and thinkers like Juan Ramón Jiménez, Miguel de Unamuno, and José Ortega y Gasset. After the Primo de Rivera dictatorship in the 1920s, the promise of political reform under the Second Republic seemed initially to be of a piece with aesthetic promise in Spain, but a polarized society, torn between tradition and modernity, soon led to war.



Federico García Lorca | Encyclopedia Britannica


Like other poets of his generation, Lorca sought to harmonize both in his writing. His first popular success, Gypsy Ballads (Romancero gitano, 1928), brought new life to the most traditional of poetic forms, the ballad, with an avant-garde stylized approach to imagery and perspective. In “Ballad of the Moon Moon,” for example, the moon is at once “lewd and pure,” with “hard, tin breasts,” who takes away a little boy to some other mysterious realm. Is it death or sleep? Both are linked to the fathoms of desire. Lorca’s plays and poetry are filled with characters and voices with an intense yearning for life. “Green I want you green” (“Verde que te quiero verde”) in “Sleepwalking Ballad” condenses this compelling force to be, to desire, just as Adela’s green dress does within the repressive walls of The House of Bernarda Alba. The titular character of Yerma wants a child so much she is driven to kill her own husband, who cannot give her one. Yerma lives by tradition, but with such forceful single-mindedness that she turns it upside down, fracturing her own identity. The traditional norms that govern both men and women in Lorca’s rural tragedies are not so much juxtaposed to the modern as reimagined through a modern understanding of tradition.


What makes the relation between tradition and modernity so slippery in his writing is the base upon which he constructs that relation: the elusiveness of desire and identity. Desire does not define identity; it makes it more baffling. “Green I want you green” has color but comes without explanation because what does it mean to want someone green? We do not know. The line is magnetic in the original Spanish, visually and aurally; you could even say compulsive but also opaque and so overwhelming that it obliterates the contours of individual identity. The personae in the poem are sleepwalkers, moving between reality and dream-work.


From a similar setting, the Young Man in one of Lorca’s most experimental plays, When Five Years Pass, postpones life till death catches up with him, even as the character’s grasp of his identity continually slips away, in the same way memory does. He is a ghost, shifting among multiple time frames and spaces, multiple masks. He does not know how to live, one of the fundamental questions Lorca explores in much of his work. Concealed beneath the Young Man’s avoidance of life is fear of desire, of homosexual impulses he cannot recognize. If uncontrollable desire is fatally bound up in death in plays like The House of Bernarda Alba or Blood Wedding or a poem like “Sleepwalking Ballad,” the frustration or extinction of desire (also seen in Bernarda Alba as well as When Five Years Pass and Yerma) follows a similar path. For Lorca how we live also speaks to how we die. Thus, two men fighting over the same woman both kill each other in Blood Wedding, giving birth to a mother’s grief in the last line, “the dark root of a scream.” Lorca’s characters—often socially marginalized—find their own actions and desires not only bewildering but painful. Similarly, the first poem in Poet in New York ends with “Stumbling into my own face, different each day. / Cut down by the sky!”


The wound that is the human condition lacerates Lorca’s work, like the “desolate horn” of the bull piercing the thigh of the celebrated bullfighter Ignacio Sánchez Mejías in his extraordinary elegy. His “wounds burned like suns,” Lorca wrote. These lesions point to something deeper than accidents of the flesh because they happen in a world in ruins, where we are aware of something irretrievably broken or where we are the fracture itself opening us up to death. Poet in New York, for example, is strewn with the wreckage of urban society—a modern version of our fallen nature. But the Lament for Ignacio Sánchez Mejías is even more exemplary in this respect, multiplying death in a profusion of images. The more Lorca attempts to absorb and understand the fact of death, the more death’s dominion proliferates in the poem, metaphorically propagating. Images cannot contain it.


To the contrary, what the poet achieves is to make death fecund, as expressed in the tremendous line, “death laid its eggs in the wound,” a reference to the gangrene that killed the matador, who had returned at age forty-three to the bullring after several years of retirement. The transformative power of death is fruitful, suggesting the reverse of finality, such as we read in the refrain, “because you have died forever.” This “forever” is ambiguous for appearing unstoppably definitive. I am reminded of what Lorca’s brother Francisco said about another poem, “Rider’s Song”: “for Federico dying is not arriving, because death surprises us always in the midst of our journey, and every death is, in some sense, an assassination.” This is why the horseman says, “Ay for death awaits me / before I get to Córdoba.” You could also say that if death is a not arriving in this poem, correspondingly, life is a never finishing because the rider is always arriving. This is another way of seeing that death paradoxically possesses not only an enormous vitality in his poetry but strangely, the capacity to create a lasting world, signaling a certain porousness between life and death.


In his talk on the untranslatable notion of duende, the spark of creativity, of “everything that has black sounds in it,” Lorca wrote, “a dead man in Spain is more alive as a dead man than anywhere else.” But immediately after he says, “his profile cuts like the edge of a razor.” This dead man is the incarnation of a wound, as though death could continue doing damage posthumously, or alternatively, as if being alive bore the incurable wound of death. Also worth noting is the exceptional, incomparable character Lorca grants to a dead man in Spain, just as he does for Sánchez Mejías. In both cases, the grace or gift each one possesses ultimately turns into a disability, a wound. But that grace is life itself.


On the one hand, Lorca’s lament reminds us of the ghosts we will become. He writes about the bullfighter, “We stand before a laid-out body that is fading, / a clear form that once held nightingales, / and see it filling with bottomless holes.” The body dissolves like memory itself. On the other, here is the penultimate stanza, in Galway Kinnell’s version:


No one knows you. No. But I sing of you. I sing, for later on, of your profile and your grace. The noble maturity of your understanding. Your appetite for death and the taste of its mouth. The sadness in your valiant gaiety.

And then these concluding verses:

There will not be born for a long time, if ever, an Andalusian like him, so open, so bold in adventure. I sing of his elegance in words that moan and I remember a sad breeze in the olive grove.

These last lines are true to the spirit of elegy but also true to the spirit. This is the breath, the voice of the poet, the archive that remembers us. And sings. This is why Lorca matters.


 

Noël Valis is a writer, scholar, translator, and Professor of Spanish at Yale University. She has written on the literature, culture, and history of modern Spain; the Spanish Civil War; religion and literature; Federico García Lorca; and the study of celebrity and cultural icons. Her work in women’s and gender studies was recognized with the Victoria Urbano Academic Achievement Prize. A Corresponding Member of the Royal Spanish Academy and past member of the NEH’s National Council on the Humanities, she is also the recipient of Fulbright, Guggenheim, and NEH/National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowships. Her latest book is Lorca After Life (Yale University Press, 2022).

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