Richard Wright’s search for truth in Fascist Spain.
Reviewed: Pagan Spain by Richard Wright
(Harper & Brothers, 1957)
“Holy Week procession in Seville” (1954) by Richard Wright. Reprinted by permission of John Hawkins & Associates, Inc., and The Estate of Richard Wright. Courtesy of the Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.
Here’s how Richard Wright put it in Barcelona in 1954: “I have no race except that which is forced upon me. I have no country except that to which I’m obliged to belong.” Pagan Spain, Wright’s account of fifteen weeks in the country during the reign of dictator Francisco Franco, is two things: New Journalism, critically praised and underread, and the culmination of Wright’s lifelong odyssey to understand oppression—be it of the European or the American variety.
“God knows, totalitarian governments and ways of life were no mysteries to me,” Wright explains at the book’s outset, alluding to his childhood in Jackson, Mississippi. Fed up with what he described as an “absolutistic racist regime” there, Wright moved to Chicago when he was nineteen. By thirty-eight, he’d had enough of America entirely.
In Spain, Wright dissects daily life under Franco’s regime, and what he sees rings back through his Jim Crow upbringing. As in the postbellum South, he sees an isolationist culture and economy fixated on the past, a rigid society that humiliates its marginalized, and an overbearing brand of religion complicit in society’s failures. “Beleagured by modern ideas, stormed by the forces of social and political progress,” Wright reports, Spain is the kind of place that “had to withdraw, had to go back into the past and find some acceptable form of endurable life that could knit its poetic-minded people together again.”
As it turned out, Spain in the 1950s was not so different from the American South in all its Emmett Till glory.
With his reputation-making best sellers Native Son and Black Boy behind him, Pagan Spain was one of four nonfiction books Wright published in the ’50s. The other three, Black Power, The Color Curtain, and White Man, Listen!, focused on the dispersed legacies of racism, particularly in the post-colonial Third World. When Wright decided that he’d like to write a book on the people and culture of a single country, Spain won out for several reasons. Swedish economist Gunnar Myrdal, a Nobel laureate and friend to Wright, suggested Spain because of Wright’s interest in religion as a social phenomenon. Myrdal knew the plight of Spain’s repressed minorities—Protestants, Basques, Jews, gypsies—was a natural topic for Wright. Going to Spain also allowed Wright to follow up on advice Gertrude Stein had given him in Paris. To experience Spain is to encounter people at their most fundamental, she’d said. “You’ll see what the Western world is made of.”
Of course, as a former Communist, post-Civil War Spain also appealed to Wright’s politics. He’d railed against Franco while reporting for the Communist Daily Worker. “I had never been able to stifle a hunger,” he wrote, “to understand what had happened [in Spain] and why.”
Despite the similarities between Spain and the American South, Pagan Spain was Wright’s only nonfiction work that had nothing outwardly to do with race, a fact that gave Paul Reynolds, his agent, pause. “I will say from a sales point of view it would be superficially better if you wrote about negro people,” Reynolds wrote to Wright. Harper & Brothers was nervous Wright might produce another anti-Franco tirade, which ran counter to the United States’s Cold War interests. In reality, Wright wanted nothing more than to examine the lives of everyday people. “Why not take the reality of Spain as it struck me?” he writes.
Over the course of three trips to a dozen towns, the basic elements of Spanish culture are proffered for Wright’s judgment. Not long after he parks his Citroën in Barcelona, two young locals take him on a guided tour of the country’s Madonna-whore complex. Before even learning his name, Miguel and André lead Wright to a cathedral where they dip into the holy water and explain the difference between “good” and “bad” women. Not three hours later, the helpful lads take Wright to a bar full of hookers. André and Miguel become incensed when one of the prostitutes informs them she isn’t Catholic. Another prostitute swoops in, holding out her gold Virgin medallion for the men to see. “Mi Catolica,” she assures them. André nods in approval.
“To be a prostitute was bad, but to be a prostitute who was not Catholic was worse,” Wright observes.
“Spain is one big brothel,” he continues. With meager chances for women in a choked economy, prostitution was the one sure way women could make money. Wright comes across women—and a little girl—who grab their crotches in brisk self-advertisement.
Wright experiences the flip side of this at a Sunday dinner wherein André introduces Wright to his fiancée. “A virgin,” André proudly reports. Ever the straight-man, Wright relates:
“What does your fiancée do,” I asked him.
Dumbfounded, he stared at me.
“She’s a virgin,” he repeated.
Being a virgin is a full-time job, Wright concludes. Which makes sex all a sequestered girl thinks about, more than a prostitute would. “One could have scraped sex off her with a knife,” Wright says of the sighing girl moistening her lips. “Each man that she saw she regarded as a possible agent of defloration.”
Later in the evening, Wright is slipped a copy of a Falange catechism—propaganda to be memorized by girls—by Carmen, a quiet Barcelona dissident. Using the same technique that Joan Didion and others would use in the 1960s, Wright weaves self-contained snippets of the text through his story.
“Feminine Heroism” is addressed in the catechism’s sixteenth chapter:
Do women also have opportunities for heroism?
Yes, though for them heroism consists more in doing well with what they have to do everyday than in dying heroically….
So what is the real heroism of women?
Giving up the pleasures of life when we feel we have to do a duty over and above them.
What do “pleasures of life” mean?
All that is pleasant in life, beginning with life itself.
Given this, perhaps it’s no surprise that Wright sees repressed sexuality just about everywhere in Spain. When he visits the hallowed shrine of the Black Madonna, he depicts the surrounding mountains as “erect stone penises.” Wright must have been the only one on his Montserrat tour bus to note that the Madonna was seated amongst “granite phalluses, tumefied and turgid, heaved into sight, each rocky republic of erections rising higher than its predecessor, the whole stone empire of them frozen into stances of eternal distensions.” Wright wasn’t one to see the country in terms of sunshine and paella, Holiday-magazine style.
The unconscious irrationality in the Black Madonna’s popularity is also evident in the bloody violence of the bullfight, which Wright believes to be the core of Spanish culture. Critics have given Wright higher marks than Hemingway for his bullfight passages; in them, Wright sees less macho bravery than displaced psychic shame. The matador serves as a priest, his suit a quasi-vestment, but Wright believes the audience identifies just as strongly with the bull, even as it screams for the beast’s death. The animal is “a projected puppet of our collective hearts and brains” that ticket holders utilize to off-load anxiety about their tucked-away evil impulses. Any doubt that the bull symbolizes our shameful human nature falls away when the spectators swarm its dead carcass, spitting, kicking, and grinding its testicles with their heels. “Their eyes held a glazed and excited look of sadism,” Wright says. “One would have to be psychologically blind to miss the meaning of that.” The bull dies for their sins.
The book’s early humor evaporates as Wright approaches his conclusion. His narrative becomes episodic, relaying examples of the human spirit being brutalized by Spain’s recipe for unconscious living, the Church and the government its chief ingredients. What happens when hope dies? The Spanish would rather regress than confront the truth of their suffering. Wright draws his title from the conclusion that, despite the Church’s stronghold, the Spanish are actually too primitive to be Catholic. Their inability to see for themselves what Wright reveals in his prose is pre-Christian, “pagan.”
The book crescendos when Wright spots a flock of white-hooded penitents marching through Seville. At three p.m. on a Holy Week afternoon, the medieval figures begin floating out of doorways and, one by one, coalesce into a procession on the stone street. They hold candles “at least four inches in diameter and more than four feet long.” In customary Freudian fashion, Wright describes the candle wax as “flying white drops that were like semen spraying, jutting from the penises of sexually aroused bulls.” Stylishly dressed women march barefoot, others have bound iron chains to their insteps to make themselves bleed. What do the Klan in the Deep South and the Spanish penitents have in common under those ivory robes? Their impulses, Wright finds, run deeper and are more ancient than words can justify.
Upon its February 1957 release, New York Times reviewer Herbert Matthews called Pagan Spain “a provocative, disturbing, and, at times, sensational book. Spaniards will hate it, Roman Catholics will be dismayed, but other readers will have an exciting time.” Wright’s biographer, Hazel Rowley, held in her 2001 book that Pagan Spain contained some of Wright’s “most evocative, vigorous writing,” a decade in advance of 1960s New Journalism. Despite positive reviews, the book failed to gain traction with readers. Potential support from U.S. Protestants didn’t materialize because Wright’s extensive coverage of Spanish Protestant’s persecution was contained in the one hundred and fifty pages of his manuscript cut by Harper (which stopped publishing Wright after Pagan Spain). The publisher advanced only three thousand copies for the book’s release, and had sold only five hundred more a month later.
As Wright’s U.S. readership dwindled, his old editor and friend Edward Aswell sent him a letter. “It seems to me—and of course I’m only guessing now—that as you have found greater peace as a human being, living in France and not made incessantly aware that the pigmentation of your skin sets you apart from other men, you have at the same time lost something as a writer.”
There was some truth there, particularly in terms of his novels written in Paris. The success of Wright’s blockbuster debut novel was not solely a result of the book’s deftness and subtlety; Native Son’s power came from the heat and anger with which he wrote about racism in the U.S. Readers drawn to Native Son and Black Boy were less interested to read Wright once he broke through his personal barriers and wrote on a subject other than race.
With Pagan Spain, Wright graduated to the wider world, training his eye on the universality of those victimized by a hostile culture. Sadly, his former readership failed to make the leap with him.