When My Esteemed Partner asked me which country I wanted to visit next, I answered without hesitation: Spain. My reason was equally clear: I wanted to see Las Meninas in person. I fulfilled that goal on our first full day in Madrid, and the remainder of our trip was full of world-historical artworks: Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights, Picasso’s Guernica, Berg’s Wozzeck (an amazing performance at Barcelona’s Gran Teatre del Liceu), and the artwork pictured above, Gaudí’s Sagrada Familia. I have wanted to see that amazing church since I learned of its existence in high school Spanish class, and it did not disappoint. More even than the Bosch, it felt like an artwork that I could never exhaust, like every square centimeter was saturated in meaning.
This morning, instead of my usual doomscroll, I started reading one of the two books I bought about the Sagrada Familia when I was in Barcelona. I always enjoy buying art books, but My Esteemed Partner explicitly limited me to one this trip, given the need to drag it thousands of miles. I allowed myself two because it intersected so perfectly with something I was trying not to think about (and mostly succeeding): my teaching. At Shimer College and now at the Shimer Great Books School, we have “comprehensive exams” that are less tests than interdisciplinary mini-courses on an unpredictable topic. Coming up with themes that bring together the three big areas of the liberal arts — humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences — can be challenging. We have had success with comps on Galileo, genetic engineering, sleep, transformation, and many other topics. I think we could also have a lot of success with a study of the Sagrada Familia. Not only is it obviously a major artwork (humanities!), but it its design is based on organic models (the tough-to-get natural science element!) and it intersects interestingly with questions around Catalan nationalism (social science!). Its very name introduces a Catalan phrase into the international lexicon, the church itself is full of prayers and scriptural quotations in Catalan, and of course Gaudí himself worked primarily in Barcelona and is a major point of national pride.
I have never been a big fan of nationalism, given that the brand most accessible to me is that of the Evil Empire. Spending time in Barcelona, though, I felt like the kind of minority nationalism represented in Catalunya had its strong points. As a language nerd, I relished the opportunity to be surrounded by a Romance language I would otherwise not encounter, and I reflected on how difficult and alienating it would be for one’s native language never to be allowed to be part of public life. There is also a public-spiritedness and inclusiveness to this kind of nationalism that is very attractive — though I wonder how much of that is actually dependent on minority status, on a desire to be better, more responsible, more tolerant, than the majority culture they are defining themselves against.
These reflections are extremely superficial, I realize. But they reflect my growing sense that the appeal of nationalism has been something of a blindspot for me. Reading Robinson’s Black Marxism, I was struck by the fact that his argument that Europeans were well-versed in racialization on the cusp of modernity was not based on their treatment of the Jews or their encounter with Muslims or other “outside” groups, but — as in Foucault’s discussion of “race” in the lecture courses — on what we might anachronistically define as white-on-white racism, both within each nation and of course between nations. Robinson shows how powerful nationalism, as a kind of submerged discourse of race, proves to be in modernity and even in the thought of Marx and Engels themselves — in a way that “shouldn’t” happen according to straightforward Marxist principles. This phenomenon, which “should” be epiphenomenal and dispensible, actually shapes people’s lives and self-understanding much more than class identity ever could. In fact, one could argue that in places where strong class identities did form, it was dependent on a kind of nationalism, even in the USSR itself.
My gut agrees with the vulgar Marxist position that this “shouldn’t” be so. The “nation” is not real in the sense that the material conditions of our livelihood are real. What’s more, I simply have an aesthetic objection to the trappings of nationalism — the flags, the sports rivalries, the insistence on “our” cultural traditions (which are often less than a generation old), etc., etc. As irreducibly American and white and midwestern as I obviously am, in my heart I not only want to be a rootless cosmopolitan, I also want everyone else to want that and don’t fully understand why they don’t.
But they don’t and they won’t and that continues to shape our world even in the face of a climate disaster that everyone knows is coming and everyone knows transcends the constructs of race and nation — and yet no one will let go of race and nation, as we game-theory our way past the canonical two degrees of warming. Perhaps this is why race and nation are indispensible to capitalism as the one true global actor: both give the illusion of ownership and control, both give people something to live and fight and die for, but at the wrong level. People are living and fighting and dying for something that, in the last analysis, does not matter. But of course it does, because being told that where you come from and how you talk and what you eat are wrong and stupid and not allowed is indeed oppression. That’s what I can’t figure out.
In any case, I plan to continue my new routine of Gaudí rather than Twitter. And I leave you with this question: is the Sagrada Familia the last great explicitly Christian work of art? I have to say that when I was touring the church, I thought, if this is what Christianity is, then I would be forced to take Christian practice seriously again. But of course the Sagrada Familia not what Christianity is. It’s the work of an idiosyncratic quasi-madman who was charismatic enough to sign multiple generations up to his crazy project. But it’s not not what Christianity is. Anyway.