“The ‘country of countries’ which Podemos is calling for harks back to an old idea of Ortega y Gasset”

Helena Miguélez-Carballeira

Senior Lecturer in Hispanic Studies at Bangor University (Wales)

Helena Miguélez-Carballeira.
Helena Miguélez-Carballeira. Author: David Forniès
Born in 1978 in Vigo, Galicia, Helena Miguélez-Carballeira is a senior lecturer in Hispanic Studies at Bangor University, Wales. Author of Galicia, a Sentimental Nation? Gender, culture and Politics (University of Wales Press, 2013), her academic research focuses on feminist and postcolonial approaches to national cultures in the Iberian peninsula. A few months ago she was in Barcelona, at CIEMEN, to present the Galician-Portuguese translation of her book, which has received a lot of attention in Galicia.

Nationalia: Why do you think that Galicia is represented as a sentimental nation by different political traditions?

Helena Miguélez-Carballeira: Around 2007 I began to analyse canonical texts from Galician literary history. My aim was to work towards a feminist critique of it. As I progressed, I realised that there was a profuse number of adjectives and metaphors referring to the supposed sentimentalism of Galician identity, to ideas which define Galicia as a nation with lyrical proclivities rather than rational or political ones. That sentimental aspect often appeared bound to female traits (passivity, sweetness, tenderness, musicality of the language). That’s where the discourse about Galician identity which we’ve been hearing for decades was constructed. It’s a stereotype which still survives today, palpable in political and advertising campaigns. It’s a discourse about national identity which various political parties have turned to – from the neo-regionalism of the PP (Popular Party) to the nationalism of the BNG (Galician Nationalist Bloc) – who have used it in their very distinct political programmes as a resource to appeal to the sentiment of Galicianness.

N: But where does this idea come from?

H. M-C.: According to my research, the origin of this stereotype can be found in the second half of the 19th century. The historians José Verea y Aguiar and Manual Murguía (husband of Rosalía de Castro) wrote the first histories of Galicia with a nationalist aambition and resorted to the myth of the Celtic origins of Galicia – which already existed in the classical sources – in order to create a discourse of national identity distinct from the Castilian one.

N: The Celtic myth.

H. M-C.: The prototype of the sentimental Celt was already showing up in the European political cultures of the second half of the 19th century (in the texts by Ernest Renan about the Bretons and by Matthew Arnold, in the 20th century, about the Irish and the Welsh). In Spain this idea was imported with regard to Galicians, but it had a double use. For the first Galician nationalists, the idea of the sentimental and lyrical Galician Celt served to combat the negative stereotype of the Galician people as vulgar, dirty and crude which had been circulating in Spanish culture since the Spanish Golden Age. On the other hand, the emergent Spanish nationalist discourse at the end of the 19th century took advantage of these discussions to promote an idea of the sentimental Galicianness as something feminine and, therefore, politically inchoate and passive, as informed by the discourses of sexual difference of the time which have persisted until today.

N: Didn’t they resort to the fact that Galician-Portuguese had been the cultural language of the Castilian crown in the times of Alfonso X the Wise, as a historical token of prestige?

H. M-C.: That wasn’t known then. It began to find recognition after 1880 and 1890 when the first of such discoveries began to appear, granting prestige to the incipient Galicianist narrative. They tried to create a positive national consciousness through the Celtic myth of Galician origins, but certain state institutions such as the Spanish Academy of History, which kept a close eye on how attempts to create self-focused histories on the peripheries could support a regional agenda, were eager to discredit historical narratives and practices of those like Murguía – who were accused of being parochial and exceedingly passionate, not true, objective historians.

N: OK…

H. M-C.: That’s the root of one of the problems with which we’re still struggling today. The Spanish Academy accepts that the Galicians are Celts. But in their design being Celtic doesn’t imply being more advanced. It means being lyrical, easily upset, sentimental, underdeveloped. Thus Galicia, as a political subject, is infantilised – as a people who haven’t managed to achieve full political consciousness – and is, furthermore, feminised. This has been a stereotype which Galician nationalism, from then until now, has had to engage and, at times, fight with. The dialectic, as you can see, is clear and also typical of colonial discourse.

N: Feminising the other and the subaltern is intrinsically colonial?

H. M-C.: That’s one of the basic hypotheses of Edward Said’s Orientalism and of feminist postcolonial critique. Said showed that the colonial subject had to be represented through a discourse which legitimised their inferiority. And the feminist postcolonial critique adds that these colonial discourses were almost invariably coloured by gender images. The colonised people were represented as effeminate, backward, sexual degenerates, timid. That’s how the colonised people are feminised while the empire comes across as bound to traditional masculine values, such as power, rationality and virility.

N: Said spoke about colonial discourse in respect to African and Asian contexts. In the case of stateless nations of Europe, which examples would you suggest?

H. M-C.: In the case of the Galicians, there are references everywhere, and in my book I study a good number of them. To give a recent example, in 2011 the Xunta (government of Galicia) presented a tourism campaign entitled “Galicia, will you keep my secret?”, where a female voice which represented Galicia described herself as sentimental and passive. As far as the United Kingdom is concerned, there is the canonical text from the beginning of the 20th century about the Celtic races by Matthew Arnold, English philologist and the first professor of Celtic Studies at the University of Oxford, in which the Irish and Welsh identities are constantly represented as sentimental, feminine, irrational and pre-political, in need of policies governed from England.

N: Rosalía de Castro is an iconic figure. What image does she have in Galician nationalism?

H. M-C.: She’s a fundamental figure, obviously. Murguía, the early nationalist historian who we talked about earlier, was the first person to have an interest in the mythification of Rosalía de Castro, who died in 1885, as a Galician national poet. But this process was carried out in parallel with a de-politicisation of de Castro’s literary and ideological legacy, which allowed for the celebration of the writer’s work, but only within a sentimental framework (which included the exaltation mainly of her poetic work and the emphasis on the emotional dimension of her texts, presented as the lyrical voice of Saudade). All of that concealed the more political dimension of her texts; her anti-colonial, feminist stances and her critique of social inequality. Galician, feminist, literary studies have produced rigorous and very important work which attempts to break from this discursive construct.

N: Everyone wanted to use Rosalía for their own purposes.

H. M-C.: Certainly. You must remember that during Franco’s dictatorship masses for Rosalía were permitted! She was the only figure through which it was possible to express a certain amount of nationalist sentiment. There’s the case of Xaime Isla Couto, one of the intellectuals from the Galaxia group who was briefly arrested in the 1970s for shouting “Independence!” during one of these masses.

N: Contemporary Galician nationalism, born towards the end of Franco’s dictatorship – and concretely its majority organisations, the Union of the Galician People (UPG) and the Galician Socialist Party (PSG) – are the only nationalist movements in Spain which have been dominated by the left. Paradoxically, these parties are very masculine. At the same time, the Galician feminist movement is perceived as very strong from the Catalan countries.

H. M-C.: The first Galician nationalist movement with a political ambition, that of the Irmandades de Fala, already had to fight the stereotype of Galician feminine sentimentality. This can be seen in the early period of the magazine A Nosa Terra where you can see how the nationalist discourse appears much masculinised, with constant references to virility, power and even the capacity to respond aggressively, a quality which the new political Galician man would have to exhibit. Reading the first editions of A Nosa Terra, from 1916 onwards, one can see how they were trying to create a new Galician political subject linked to virility who had to “stop weeping” and making poetry. It was a call to politicise the popular Galician classes, the peasants and the seamen, through the masculinisation of the discourse. That has survived to an extent in the organisations from the 1960s and 1970s which you were talking about.

N: Can you tell us about your current research project?

H. M-C.: I am working on a project entitled “Towards a Postcolonial Spain: Culture, Politics and Conflict for a New Cycle”, funded by the British Academy. I’m not completely sure about the “new cycle” part, as whether or not there will be profound changes in the political structure of the state remains uncertain [smiles]. The idea is to work on the different national cultures comprised by the Spanish state with the tools of a postcolonial critique, which help us to understand both the symbolic and cultural discourses which exist around Spain’s internal national conflicts (such as the metaphor of the relationship between Catalonia and Spain as a marriage where, lo and behold, the feminised part is Catalonia) as well as the forms of material repression which have persisted to this day (imprisonment, exile, dispersion and torture). In the field of discourse, it’s interesting to analyse the Spanish post-1898 regenerationist essays and to find explicit parallels between Cuba’s independence and a potential Catalan or Basque secession. I study this awareness of a Spanish colonial continuum as evidence that throughout the 20th century the question of Spanish unity has often been discussed in relation to an imperial trouble. This appears in Spanish fin-de-siècle regenerationism, but also in the theoretical texts of falangism, written by Onésimo Redondo or Ramiro de Ledesma, and in the numerous essays on “the Spain problem” that were published during the Transition (I’m thinking, for example, of the book Lo que queda de España (1978) by Frederico Jiménez Losantos), when a genuine cultural battle was taking place with regard to the right of self-determination of Spain’s internal nations.

N: And in the liberal and intellectual world? And on the left?

H. M-C.: As well! Ortega y Gasset is a prime example. His book España invertebrada theorises that the unity of Spain is an inalienable characteristic of Spain’s imperial greatness. As Xacobe Bastida studied, the Spanish constitution of 1978 is purely under Ortega’s influence in that sense. His idea that the provinces must be respected and granted certain levels of self-government for the benefit of Spanish unity and greatness imbued the constitutional consensus on the question of devolution and still informs unionist discourses and campaigns in the present, as anyone can notice. So, Ortega’s vision hasn’t been broken yet.

N: Very interesting…

H. M-C.: The discourse from the main state parties today continues to follow Ortega in this sense – from the “nation of nationalities” that appears in the Constitution to the “country of countries” of Podemos.

N: Is Catalonia always at the centre of the attack?

H. M-C.: The profuse number of essays which have been produced since the beginning of the 19th century with regards to the relations between Catalonia and Spain is remarkable. All of this demonstrates the centrality of the Catalan question each time that the political regeneration of the state is discussed, as you can see even today.

N: Here in Catalonia, the world of the “En Comú” parties speak a lot about Pi i Margall. Xavier Domènech, candidate for En Comú Podem, quotes him constantly.

H. M-C.: Yes, but surely it needs to be added that Pi i Margall’s federalist theories did not avoid engaging with the question of the right to self-determination and that that right also appeared bound to anti-colonial stances in the Spanish context itself, such as those maintained by part of the Catalanist movement at the end of the 19th century (here I’m thinking of Domènec Martí i Julià and certain sectors related to the Catalanist Union). I think that the major political conflicts of the Spanish 20th century have revolved around the question of self-determination and this is a reality which has been pushed outside of the framework of debate. I can’t see the current debates on federalism bringing the question of self-determination back into the debate.

N: The fraternity…

H. M-C.: The history of Spanish unity is not exactly related to the idea of fraternity, but rather to empire and imposition. One day the question will have to be put forward as to why discourses and programmes that are being presented as radical, constituent and ground-breaking, continue to be invested in defending the unity of Spain, an idea which has a profoundly problematic intellectual and political history.

N: Is there a genuinely federalist and anti-Orteguian Spanish left-wing movement?

H. M-C.: Of course, there are Spanish left-wing organisations which recognise, unconditionally, the right to self-determination, just as PSOE and PCE did before 1978. As far as intellectuals from this very suppressed tradition are concerned, Alfonso Sastre is a good example.

N: What really intrigues me is that the emerging left really vindicates Machado and Lorca – with Lorca even getting support among the anti-colonial left, such as CUP and SAT – who were both heavily influenced by Ortega, right?

H. M-C.: These figures are often evoked as proof that the marginal pro-independence movements are not anti-Spanish in an ethnic sense. That said, the constant evoking of these figures in relation to internal national Spanish conflicts is very Orteguian, which is to say, it evokes a principle of solidarity and brotherhood in virtue of a consensus which they want to create from the very centre of the state.

N: Were there any anti-colonial Spanish intellectuals in the 1930s?

H. M-C.: Within the Andalusian regenerationist movement, Blas Infante, for example, worked towards an anti-colonial critique of Andalusia, even though this was not embedded in a separatist programme. The thoughts and writings of Blas Infante are very interesting because they put forward the subject of Al-Andalus and the Jewish and Andalusi legacy, thus dismantling some important myths of Spanish historiography. Javier García, at the University of Coimbra, under the supervision of Boaventura de Sousa Santos, is currently working on the idea of Andalusia as an interior colony of Spain from a historiographical perspective. In the Catalan context, the anti-colonial intellectual par excellence has been Manuel de Pedrolo. I’m very interested in studying those figures who upheld the theory of Spanish internal colonialism during the dictatorship and afterwards.

N: They must have been seriously ostracised…

H. M-C.: When the Francoist dictatorship ended, a kind of corporate culture was developed around the question of the Autonomies. All the intellectuals from stateless nations who continued to call for the rights of the nations to self-determination were marginalised. The opposite happened with those other intellectuals who had no problem in acclimatising to the new times.

N: Any examples?

H. M-C.: I find the ascending trajectory of Antonio Muñoz Molina, which has been studied from a critical perspective by Álvaro Fernández, very interesting in this sense. It’s very important to see how the success and visibility of certain organic intellectuals have been directly proportional to their criticisms of Spain’s peripheral nationalisms. Huge efforts have been mobilised in spreading the idea that left-wing and nationalist demands are not compatible, as if the latter always had an exclusivist, ethnic agenda and lacked solidarity. We can see how whole electoral campaigns are still being designed on the basis of this discursive tradition, which is very post-1978.

N: And who would be at the opposite end?

H. M-C.: Alfonso Sastre, Eva Forest or the Catalan Manuel de Pedrolo are the complete opposite of these kind of intellectuals. They were people who kept a maintained their political commitment and suffered in certain cases and silence as a result. Moreover, there are also those intellectuals working in the respective national liberation traditions who sometimes have to carry out their work from prison or exile. Joseba Sarrionaindia, in the Basque case, or Carlos Calvo Varela in Galicia. I’m interested in studying how intellectual activity develops in contexts of extreme repression. What material conditions determine these individuals’ ability to continue to do culture?

N: The same pro-independence left have too often forgotten about Manuel de Pedrolo. Even around Lleida they scarcely mention him.

H. M-C.: I’m not really sure. Recently many valuable studies about Pedrolo’s legacy have been published, such as Xavier Ferré Trill’s recent book, which analyses the national question in Pedrolo’s texts. I am interested in this line of research, but with an emphasis on the presence of anti-colonial ideas in Pedrolo’s work. To give just one example, in the 1960s Pedrolo translated Sartre at his most anti-colonial stage, the Sartre who wrote the preface for Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth and Gisèle Hallimi’s book about the Burgos Trial, just imagine! It seems to me that Pedrolo was interested in Sartre’s existentialist thinking, but also in his anti-colonial thinking.

N: To conclude, Galicia’s relationship with Portugal. At CIEMEN we are aware of the Galician-Portuguese language debate. To what extent does Portugal look to Galicia? And vice versa?

H. M-C.: Curiously, the linguistic debate in Galicia still provokes a debate about colonialism and its legacy. At the Galiza Decolonial conference, which took place in February 2016 in A Coruña, the theorist Boaventura de Sousa Santos began his keynote speech by saying: “this is the first time that I’m using my colonial language in a decolonial context”. I like this use of anti-colonial vocabulary at moments in which people don’t expect it. I think that they are historically very revealing and that current political and cultural critique in Spain could gain a lot from this way of looking at things.

Translation from Catalan by Alex Berry.