11. The Generation of 1898

Castilla miserable, ayer dominadora, Envuelta en sus andrajos, desprecia cuanto ignora. (Miserable Castile, yesterday lording it over everybody, now wrapped in her rags, scorns all she does not know.) Antonio Machado.

Spain has passed through the Renaissance and Reformation without altering its soul. It has passed through the liberal and industrial revolutions without really taking them to heart. It has stood rooted to its history, unwilling to adopt the new, unable to reform the old, unmoved in its vaster aspect by the great human impulses which have carried nations forward, uncompromising in its austerity and unshakable in its inertia.

In the last half of the nineteenth century education was a crying need for the people of Spain. Literacy was no longer a luxury; ideas had become the coin of freedom. Schools, more and better schools, were the necessity of the hour if the country was not to be left behind permanently. In confronting this need one man stands out. His name was Francisco Giner de los Ríos, and he was born in the town of Ronda in 1839. In the 1870’s the Spanish minister of education decided to call for a loyalty oath from all professors at the university, an oath to support the crown, the dynasty, and the Catholic religion. Giner, along with several other well-known professors, refused to take the oath and was dismissed. A group of teachers without a school, they decided to organize a university of their own, and to this they gave the name of Institución Libre de enseñanza, or “Free Institution Teaching.” It was founded in 1876. Giner thus headed what was in reality the first school in Spain that was independent of the state and of the church.

Giner’s students, and those who followed them, were a strong part of that wonderful generation of Spaniards who brought in the Second Republic. The difficulty was that there were not enough of them. Spain had started too late in her education for freedom. What could a handful of fine men do in a nation where the millions were still illiterate, where there had been no training in self-government, where the disease of absolutism was endemic in the body politic?

The result of this growing wave of intellectualism in Spain was the birth of a whole group of writers and artists, called in Spanish “the generation of 1898.” The war with the United States in that year, and the consequent rapid defeat of Spain, forced Spaniards to take stock of themselves, hence the name applied to this generation.

The writers of the  “generation of 1898” were a varied and brilliant group linked together only because of the epoch in which they lived. Each one was a distinct personality, with an esthetic credo and philosophy of his own. They certainly did not constitute a unified literary movement but they certainly did produce the finest literature to come out of Spain since the great days of the Golden Age.

Baroja, Unamuno, Valle-Inclán, Azorín, Ortega, Juan Ramón Jimenez, Antonio Machado, and Benavente make up a generation which came near to sloughing off the onus that had burdened the soul of Spain since the Golden Age. But there were no Balzac, no Tolstoy, among them, and, of course, no Cervantes. They left Spain much as they found her, in a state of vital anguish, with one foot in the past, the other in the air awaiting the future; and she is still straddling the unfathomable abyss.

Galdós (1843-1920), born in the Canary Islands, spent most of his life in Madrid, and became the interpreter of that sprawling capital. He arrived in Madrid in time to view the political and social upheavals of the 1870’s, and immediately began to search for the fundamental movements and emotions of the national psychology. Although he was liberal and anticlerical, he observed the inner workings of the Spanish psyche with a kind of benign neutrality. During his early years as a writer Galdós was influenced by French realism and naturalism, but finally he found his peace in a Tolstoyan love of humanity. His “best loved master,” however was the Englishman, Charles Dickens.

Galdós was a dedicated novelist who gave himself completely to his work. He wrote from seven in the morning until nine at night, day after day, week after week, with only a few breaks for meals and exercise. He wrote a total of seventy-seven novels, a tremendous output. He was a genius at accumulating details, inventing plots, delineating characters, and in drawing these all toward his foregone conclusions. He described Spanish life of the nineteenth century with such fidelity and precision that beneath the anecdotal picture appears the fabric of permanent reality, and beneath the image of the 19th century man, the image of eternal man. His masterpiece, Fortunata y Jacinta, is a broad canvas of many characters in Madrid which gives the illusion of life itself.

The other Spanish novelist who falls outside the “generation of 1898,” but whose work parallels that of writers of this group, was Vivente Blasco Ibañez of Valencia (1867-1928). Ibañez was the stormy petrel of his epoch, and some have claimed that he was excluded from the famous generation simply because of his phenomenal world-wide popularity. He had a primitive vitality and a gift for telling a good story. His best novels deal with the region of Spain that he knew best, Valencia, and his masterpiece is The Cabin.

Miguel de Unamuno (1864-1937) was the grand old man of the “generation of 1898.” He was a professor of Greek at the University of Salamanca, and later was made permanent rector or chancellor of that ancient institution. Although he was a Basque, Unamuno lived and wrote in Castile, and he saw in Castile the agonizing soul of his country.

He liked to talk to anyone who would listen intelligently. His tertulias were fascinating because of his conversations, or we should say his monologues, for Unamuno seldom gave anyone else the chance to speak. “Ideas come with talking,” he would say, and it is true that his essays vibrate with the passion of the spoken word. They are animated conversation carried to the level of first-rate literature. Unamuno is distrustful of science and rationalism. Education, for him, should strive to lead to wisdom rather than to knowledge. He believed firmly in the substance of Spanishness, and his philosophy was permeated with the Spanish Catholic tradition. He wanted to regenerate, to reinvigorate, and to resuscitate his country, by revealing and revitalizing its best values.

Unamuno was always a political dissident. Early in the century he opposed King Alfonso XIII; he opposed even more vigorously the dictatorship of Primo de Rivera, and he helped to bring about the Second Spanish Republic in 1931. However, he issued a chary reminder that there was an “eternal Spain” which must never be forgotten, a taproot of tradition from which the national life sprang. Soon he was attacking the Republicans for their inept government, and greeted with a certain enthusiasm the Nationalist revolt under General Franco, with its strong church support. In it, he hoped to find the regeneration of his mystical, eternal Spain. But when he saw German troops mingling with Spanish fascist in his beloved Salamanca, he cried out in mortal anguish, abominating Spanish fascism. Shortly afterwards, the old philosopher died. They said he died with a broken body and a broken heart.

Ortega y Gasset (1883-1955) was the other towering mind of this generation of Spaniards. He was openly antagonistic to Unamuno, and frankly on the side of Europe. He was a professor of philosophy at the University of Madrid, and later an influential member of the Republican parliament. He not only believed in the necessity of Europeanizing Spain, but he was himself distrustful of pure Spanish values. He feared the masses, particularly the Spanish masses with their semi-education, and upheld the rule of a select minority (his best known work is The Revolt of the Masses).

Ortega, like several other promising young Spaniards of his day, was sent to Germany for advanced education, and he came back from that country with a deep-seated admiration for the Germanic thoughts and things. Ortega extolled science, order, organization, and intellectualization. He feared the Spaniard’s unruly anarchy; he cried out for civic order, impersonal method, and social discipline. Although he has been called a philosopher, he was rather a well-educated and oftentimes sensational journalist whose writings and influential position in Spain gave him a unique importance. In 1923 he founded what was to become the best Spanish journal of this century, the Revista de Occidente.

Ortega could be a rigorous critic of his country, and in his book Invertebrate Spain, which appeared in 1921, he pulls out all the stops. His most telling sentence from that book is: “Spain today, rather than a nation, is a cloud of dust remaining after a great people have galloped down the highway of history.” The sickness of Spain was that she was not then a real society, she had no cohesiveness, no harmony of oneness. She was a conglomerate mixture, without leadership. Her unity, an illusory unity, was Castilian in origin, but her strong urges toward separatism and regionalism, felt more ardently in Catalonia and the Basque provinces. The main reason for this, says Ortega, was that Castile in her epoch of dominance had shut herself up in an impregnable tower, taking little heed of what was going on in the other provinces upon which she had enforced unification; thus the national life was disjointed and “invertebrate.”

The great novelist of the “generation of 1898” was Pío Baroja (1872-1956) who, like Unamuno, was a Basque who lived all his adult life in Castile. Baroja’s novels are primarily “novels of ideas.” Despite the fact that the clerical elements in the country, which were very considerable, disliked him intensely, he was the most popular novelist of his time.

Baroja is against everything, so he naturally pokes fun at both political extremes in Spain. He claims that the Spanish parliament is like a menagerie, and that the liberals and the conservatives both observe the same morality, but merely use a different style. But let us make no bones about it, Baroja was not a real revolutionary. He was a parlor pink in his politics, but in his private and public life he was simply antipolitical, or unpolitical. What he really believed in was a country where force was not needed in order to rule, a society where clericalism did not hold back the path of progress, a place where things were clean.

Baroja’s novels, like those of Galdós, present a wide cross section of Spanish life in all its ramifications. In his liking for the lower classes and their “struggle for life,” which is symbolic of their country’s struggle for life, he calls to mind the old picaresque tales of the Golden Age, with which his work has much in common. His characters struggle and fight for survival; in true existential fashion they act, and are responsible of their actions. They are condemned to a perfect freedom. They are, nonetheless, like shadows that flit to and fro on a dingy sheet.

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