Goya – Journey’s End

I AM in two minds whether to write this last chapter or not. The thirteenth must, I am afraid, have been rather dispiriting, and I see little prospect that this will be any better. Did we not come to Spain to be amused, not depressed ? And yet, to tell the plain truth, I can never be very long in Spain before the melancholy fit falls. I have often wondered whether all travellers are subject to the contagion of this malady which seems to me to be endemic in the Peninsula. I must assume that they are not—some of the pleasure-seekers at any rate appear to be uniformly successful in their search. I suspect, how-ever, that they are travelling in a Spain of their own imagining, a land where all the women are Carmens with flashing eyes and roses twisted in their raven tresses, all the men toreadors in gala dress, or bandits in disguise, or at the very least gay rascally gipsies, where nobody ever does anything but smoke endless cigarettes, or strum upon guitars, or dance to the exhilarating clatter of the castanet. I scarcely know whether to envy them or not. For the Spain of my imagining is like a landscape over which the great clouds roll their shadows, its glittering gaiety swiftly tracked by the submerging gloom ; a country of hard outlines unsoftened by the haze of sentiment ; of a keen, unveiling atmosphere which compels the eye of the mind no less than of the senses to view things realistically. In such a land one is hurried from immoderate delight to unreasonable dejection. Pleasure has a precarious tenure ; tends therefore to become intense and avid ; makes haste to glut itself before its prey can be wrested from it. I don’t suppose that life is more tragic in Spain than elsewhere ; it is more naked, that is all—in most other countries the skeleton is decently covered up or hidden in the cupboard.

I will ask you, however, to descend for the last time the stone steps leading down to the basement beneath the Prado. The most memorable experience that I ever received in a picture gallery was when I passed through the door of this room for the first time, and found myself face to face with the ” Two Men fighting with Cudgels ” (Dos hombres rinendo a garratazos). It was like a plunge from a tepid atmosphere into ice-cold water, that sends the blood racing back to the heart. I had, as you know, just made a preliminary tour of the whole gallery. I had seen no small number of tragic and realistic paintings. But all the time I had been aware, delightfully aware, that they were paintings—here for the moment I was illuded, and stepped back as though I had been struck by a blow. I don’t mean to imply that the illusion depended upon any trick of verisimilitude. The painter had made a clean sweep of all the easily recognisable details of reality and almost of colour itself. But his intention seemed to have beers fundamentally different from that of all the other painters whose canvases covered the walls of the gallery. They had all been engaged in translating, . or rather re-translating, reality, adding glosses, often very beautiful glosses, of their own. They had all been preoccupied in one way or another with beauty. They had all been undisguisedly anxious to please, determined to make the best of things and to ransack the most commonplace material until they had succeeded in bringing to light some element of pleasure, were it only the iridescence of the mud. I told you how, on looking at Ribera’s realistic picture of ” The Martyrdom of St Bartholomew,” I quite forgot the tragedy of the scene in the sheer exhilaration of the colour and the energetic line. Goya alone seemed to have had no eye upon the spectator. Nothing can have been further from his mind than the desire to please. He happened upon a hideous incident and he painted it with the same spasmodic directness with which an-other man at seeing it might have ejaculated an oath. All the other painters used blank cartridge ; Goya alone loaded with ball.

Two peasants, shepherds apparently, strike at one another’s heads with clubs. The face of one is already almost battered in. In the oblivion of their hate they have sunk knee-deep into a swamp. They have no thought but to hurt and to kill. Behind them is a dark, desolate landscape of piled-up and fantastically shaped mountains. In the low heaven hang grey sullen clouds. In it all there is an implication of primitive and elemental rage, indescribable in words. The savage and unfamiliar character of the landscape suggests a remote age when the earth was but newly formed out of the void. And man emerging out of the slime, ” the disease of the agglutinated dust,” first manifests his life in an outburst of fratricidal hate. It is a new vision of the eternal tragedy of Cain.

I turned and saw that the walls of this section of the basement were covered with canvases of like character and colouring, if colouring is not too vivid a word to apply to the narrow range of grey-greens, grey-yellows and grey-blacks in which all the pictures were executed. In all of them a rude, almost inchoate handling, mostly knife-work, I take it, gave a decisive effect to the brutality of the conception. These canvases were painted by Goya for the decoration of the little country house which he had acquired on the other side of the Manzanares, near the Puente de Segovia, about half-an-hour’s walk from the town. His wife died about the time of the restoration of King Ferdinand, in 1814. All his children save one predeceased him. Here, in la quinta del sordo, as the place was popularly called (the deaf man’s house), the old man lived on alone, in a soundless world, with his bitter thoughts and his disordered visions and his distressing memories of the horrors of the war. And here he painted his last testament, his apocalyptic vision of a ruined world. Can we read in these sombre and cryptic canvases the half-disclosed secrets of the painter’s soul ?

Here we are struck by the resounding reverberation of that slight note which we first observed in the paintings of the monastery of Aula Dei —the preoccupation with the crowd. It had been growing all the while in Goya’s work. Although as a portraitist he was compelled throughout a great part of his life to deal with the single figure, when he painted for himself and not for his patrons we find him almost invariably choosing to paint men in the mass. Probably the psychology of the crowd interested him more than the psychology of the individual, for the temper of the crowd is always more violent, more passionate, more elemental, than that of the individuals who compose it, and violence and passion were the qualities which had the most forcible fascination for Goya’s nature. Certainly the surging tumult of the crowd gave scope to his brush to exercise itself in those problems of movement which intrigued him even more, I think, than the problems of light. Goya, always a city dweller, was familiar with crowds, the crowd of the bullfight, the crowd of the pilgrimage, the crowd of the royal procession—at the joyous entry of Ferdinand into Madrid in 1808 the press was so great, we read, that the progress of the monarch from the Puente de Segovia to the royal palace occupied six hours—and during the war, as in all periods of intense popular excitement, there were crowds everywhere and always. Are we to see a significance in the fact that Goya, who was not only the last of the old masters but the first of the new, painter to the Court though he was, painted by preference the people ? At any rate, we cannot fail to notice the, contrast with his predecessor of a more aristocratic age.- Velasquez consistently used his brush to dignify the individual ; the only crowd that he painted, that- in “Las Lanzas,” is a military crowd, orderly and motionless, sub-ordinate in interest to the two principal figures. The historian may read in Goya’s work the passing of the aristocrat.

Nevertheless, they must have a great fund of ingenuity who hold to the view that Goya was an eager and enlightened democrat. If it be true that he whipped, the Court with satire, he had scorpions with which to lash the mob. From his house across the Manzanares he could see every 15th of May the crowds of country folk and townspeople flocking to the Hermitage of San Isidro, the patron saint of Madrid. The pilgrimage lasted a fortnight, and like most pilgrimages (our own included) had a pleasure-seeking no less than a serious intention. In his earlier days Goya had looked with a kindly eye upon these scenes of popular merry-making. But now the old man, prowling in the meadows of San Isidro at nightfall, sees the riotous crowds returning to the city and in his heart there is only bitter, mirthless laughter. The faces of the returning pilgrim-revellers shine out of the surrounding gloom, wan and fantastic. As the procession tops the hill the figures bunch themselves together in a pyramid-shaped heap, a shouting, drunken, frenzied mob. In the foreground a guitar player, with gaping mouth, rolls his eyes in a delirium. Not a sound pierces the ears of the deaf painter, but he sees the drunken roar. ” This the Sovereign People ? Sots ! Madmen ! ” he exclaims as he turns on his heel and makes his way back through the noiseless darkness to the quinta del sordo.

At night crowds populate his dreams, but crowds more fantastic and terrible than those of any human pilgrimage. Here is a midnight crowd of witches, squatting round a satanic shape in the form of a goat cloaked with a mantle. This diabolical side of Goya’s imagination was prominent in his work almost from the first. It has been noted as inexplicable that a man who looked outward upon reality with such clear-sighted gaze should at the same time have continually turned the eye of his mind upon the occult and satanic world of a seemingly diseased imagination. Stranger still that he who scoffed at every form of superstition should have so deeply imbrued his work in the dye of it. Such psychological problems we can scarcely hope to unravel. I have a private fancy that a clue may possibly be found in the persistence of haunting childish memories. When in the long winter evenings the old women gathered round that immense yawning hearth in the little hovel in Fuendetodos, what blood-freezing stories of witches and spirits of evil must not the little Francisco have drunk into his soul !—seeds which, falling into his furiously working imagination, bore a monstrous harvest of nightmare fancies. Perhaps in the folk-lore of Aragon lies the clue to much of the occultism of the “Caprichos.” A mere conjecture, that’s all.

Still more obscure and enigmatical grow these darkling visions. Here is a fantastic landscape in which we can discern horsemen and coaches—is it a wedding party ?—while overhead two crouching forms ride in the air, and in one corner we catch a glimpse of that familiar symbol, the gleam of levelled gun-barrels–a vague impression of menaced joy and impending fatality. In another picture we see four intertwined half-naked figures floating midway between grey earth and grey sky ; “Las Parcas ” (The Fates) is the title that has been given to it—but who is the fourth form who is borne impotently along in the lap of the other three, with hands bound behind his back and a hopeless, senseless leer upon his face ? Can it be a derisive image of Man, drifting in the winds of fate ? Last and most fearsome of all, an ogre, gigantic, naked, with wild white hair and starting eyeballs, devouring a human body. Brutally the gnarled hands grip the poor flesh ; the head is gone ; the arm disappears into the cavernous mouth. Here at last the sema indignatio of the painter seems to have swept him far out of the sane tradition of European art into the abyss of the monstrously and the savagely grotesque, which only the perverse imagination of the East has dimly explored.

Are we to find in these tremendous symbols Goya’s considered and final verdict ?—Life a sense-less, soulless force, that creates only in order to annihilate its own creations ; Destiny a huntress whose game is man ; and Man himself, pitted against incalculable odds, foredoomed to disaster —a manikin, whose puzzled endeavours and shattered joys and imbecile passions are the theme of the high mirth of the gods : that is the sad conclusion of the whole matter. It is not an answer to the riddle of the universe—it is a denial that any answer exists. It is an affirmation of the Everlasting No !

It seems impossible to escape from this interpretation of these despairing visions, and yet I am well aware that it is one that is difficult to reconcile with Goya’s many expressed or implied professions of belief. I remember that Brother James, the plumbing brother at the monastery of Aula Dei, was careful to point out to me that, though he did not live a good life, the painter of the monastery frescoes was not an enemy of the Faith. At the time I was inclined to be sceptical of the latter of these assertions at any rate ; but I have since thought that the pious Father may not have been so far astray as I had supposed. That the author of the ” Caprichos ” was an Anti-Clerical scarcely needs to be stated ; but neither should it require statement that an Anti-Clerical is not of necessity an Anti-Catholic. That he was no friend to priests and monks as a class, though he could be friendly with them as individuals, that he bitterly hated and pitilessly exposed the ecclesiastical abuses of the age, may be admitted without establishing a charge of infidelity. His explicit affirmation in his will of his belief in the Trinity may be regarded merely as a concession to legal prudence. Not so easily, however, can the personal note in his intimate letters to his friend Zapater be explained away. ” God give us life for His holy service,” he exclaims quite simply.

And another time, during an attack of illness, he beseeches his friend to pray for him to the Blessed Virgin. Such expressions do not fall naturally from the lips of a professed unbeliever. The correspondence with Zapater ceases in 1801. It may be that the calamities of the following years bred doubt and despair. We know how the horrors of the war harrowed his soul ; what grief he suffered by the death of nineteen of his children we can only conjecture. He had a solid ground for pessimism.

But what need is there to stumble at a contra-diction or two in a man’s life ? Consistency is but a pedestrian virtue after all. There is room enough in the human heart, God knows ! for Faith and Despair to lie down side by side. They are well-acquainted bedfellows. We have all good reason, though not all of us courage enough, perhaps, to cry out with Walt Whitman : ” Do I contradict myself ? Very well then, I contradict myself ! ” A wise man leaves it at that. Or he may go further and, like Miguel de Unamuno, find a zest in the stubborn inward conflict : ” I will not make peace between my heart and my head ; rather let the one affirm what the other denies, and the one deny what the other affirms, and I shall live by this contradiction.” We have equal justification for calling the chess-board of life either black or white ; in his latter years there seems to be little doubt that Goya preferred to call it black.

In this he was not alone. There was a tempera-mental tendency in the philosophy of the age to paint the world blacker than it is—blacker, I mean, than we hope it is. It may give rise to curious speculations to recall that about the time when Goya was decorating—or shall we say darkening ?—his house with these sinister can-vases, Schopenhauer was training the heavy guns of pessimism upon the modern world. European thought was flying the signal of distress. The Romantics were marching to the music of a lament. Young men everywhere were suffering, not without a certain delicious languor perhaps, the pangs of the Weltschmerz. We can be very sure that these voices of the North never penetrated to the quinta del sordo, and that its inmate would never have listened to them if they had. Like all good Spaniards he had a healthy aversion to reading, unless the book were the sensational book of life. But it is a striking and often repeated circumstance that, in times of special stress, common ideas and still more common emotions arise spontaneously and independently of one another. A wide chasm, however, separated Goya’s pessimism from the fashionable pessimism of the age. The prevalent melancholy was the melancholy of young men, which is never without a certain luxurious rapture. In quite another sense than that which Keats intended it is true that ” in the very temple of Delight veil’d Melancholy has her sovran shrine.” Goya’s despair was the infinitely bitterer despair of age, savouring of the sour relish of experience. In his case, moreover, it was not an exotic flower which fascinates by its very strangeness ; it was an indigenous root, bitter with the bitterness of the soil.

” He who has faith in nothing,” Araujo Sanchez has remarked in an able commentary of Goya’s life, ” he who doubts, belongs to no party.” The pessimist is never a partisan. For this reason, it has always seemed to me strange that Goya should have been acclaimed as a prophet of liberalism ; for liberalism is merely optimism in action. Neither am I able to see in him the gonfalonier in art of the French Revolution. The revolutionary, if he is at all distinguishable from the mere nihilist, professes an affirmative creed ; Goya’s was wholly negative. Doubtless the painter was the revolutionist’s temporary ally in the preliminary, work of breaking down, but he had no plan of reconstruction. Indeed, the cardinal mistake of most of those who have theorised about Goya’s life and work would seem to be that they have insisted on making a thinker of him. The lasting part of his achievement is founded not in thought but in passion. Life came to him not through the intellect but through the senses, as indeed it comes to most men, but his senses were in more immediate contact with his spirit, touching it directly with pangs of joy and pain. He saw and felt, but he did not stay to reason. He had indeed no time, for with him a thing seen did not slowly wind its way into the brain to be transformed into thought ; it flashed straight to the heart and fired his passion, as a spark ignites a powder magazine. His utterance is always explosive, never ratiocinative. Though his work was largely satirical, it lacks that fine edge of irony which cannot be put upon satire without a certain deliberation and even detachment from ire ; his satires are the hot expostulations of an angry man, outspoken, abusive and coarse, if coarseness could make their meaning plainer. His tragedies must not, I think, be taken as the shocking illustrations of which the revolutionary makes use to sting his audience into a reforming zeal ; they are more like the spontaneous exclamations of horror which you may sometimes hear from highly strung spectators in a theatre, inextricably compounded of pleasure and pain. The violent and the tragic fascinated him because in violence and tragedy life is usually raised to a higher power. The world showed itself to him in a series of vivid visions, as a landscape is seen in lightning flashes, more intense and abrupt than in the equal light of day.

” Il est de la famille de Voltaire, de Diderot et de d’Alembert,” said Yriarte. I rather think that that is a family which counts no Spaniard among its relations. The neatly planned logical systems of these philosophers, their tolerant acceptance of a damaged world, their easy rejection of immortality, offer no relief to the tragic Iberian despair ; nor can their ironical scepticism find currency across the Pyrenees until translated into the language of passionate denial. ” To cultivate one’s garden “—in such uneventful drudgery the Frenchman may find a sufficient satisfaction ; to the Spaniard it were a solution worse than no solution at all. Assuredly Goya’s passionate blood knew no chill admixture with so temperate a stock. His soul was besieged by ghostly terrors undreamt of in the philosophy of the Encyclopaedists. He was haunted by the spectre of Destiny, which for him wore the shape of a Destroying Angel, devoting man and all the splendid Babylonian edifices of his spirit to inexorable and purposeless destruction. Of what avail to cultivate one’s garden when at the last the gardener him-self must fall upon the upturned sod and become one with the insentient mould ? ” As we cannot attain the highest, which is to be immortal, to be God, let us wreck all,”—it is Unamuno once more, voicing the spirit of Spanish despair—” ` All or nothing,’ that is our motto, like Ibsen’s Brand.” Among the drawings of the ” Desastres de la Guerra ” you will find one which at the first glance seems to be only a wild and unintelligible rendering of chiaroscuro. When you decipher it you will see that it represents a corpse half buried in the earth. With a returning breath of life, the shape raises itself upon a skeleton arm and writes upon a scroll the word ” Nada “—Nothing.

I am sorry to have to part with you, my friend, in this dim basement, before this dismaying image. I am sure you must feel that this is a somewhat cheerless termination to our pilgrimage. I am at a loss to know what to do for a happy ending, for I confess I am so unmodern as to have a predilection for happy endings. But perhaps I have taken these despairing visions too seriously, more seriously than their author himself. For these, you will remember, are the pictures which he painted to hang upon his own walls, the chosen companions of his pétit déjeuner. I cannot think without an admiring wonder of the old man sitting down every morning, with his coffee and roll and napkin, calmly surveying, and as it were defying, the menaces of Fate. His morning meal must have been a daily act of courage. No doubt he too, like another pessimist who refused to be intimidated by his own creed, thanked whatever gods may be for his unconquerable soul, and the years found him unafraid. And is it not assuredly more creditable for a man to enter upon a new day in such a mood of armoured courage than with a spirit which demands the fortuitous circumstances of a smiling heaven and scented roses for the fulfilment of its felicity ? The pavement in front of Café Condal seems rather remote, does it not ? with its morning brightness and sea-scented air. Perhaps we should have been wiser if we had stayed there all the time, and entertained ourselves with our encouragingly optimistic breakfast companions and the agreeable confidences of El Diluvio. For my part, I am sure I shall never recapture that mood of matutinal serenity in this hard-featured and hard-hearted Madrid. I don’t intend to stay here a day longer. To-morrow morning I shall leave for Salamanca, that city of golden silence, which pours with so generous a measure oil and wine into the wounded spirit. But I am afraid I can-not decently ask you to accompany me thither, for it contains, so far as I know, but one picture by Goya, and that not above suspicion.