A short festival on Spain



This was written for an occasional series in The Sydney Morning Herald called ‘A short festival on…’ and I chose Spain. I’m posting it because we’re going to Spain in a couple of weeks, my first trip in some years. 

The Spanish would rather a fiesta than a festival any day, it’s a party and a lot more fun. We will hold ours on St Anthony’s Day, January 17th, a day on which a bonfire is lit (St Anthony’s fire?) in every village square, and neighbours gather to eat and drink.

What better to eat than a paella, ours prepared by Manuel Vásquez Montalbán, whose detective character, Pepe Carvalho, eats far more than he detects, and is pedantic about paella, asserting (in South Seas): “I made myself quite clear. Half a kilo of rice, half a chicken, a quarter-kilo of pork shoulder, a quarter kilo of peas, two peppers, two tomatoes, parsley, saffron, salt and – nothing else. Anything else is superfluous.” The wine, the legendary Vega Sicilia Unico, will flow like water.

Fiesta (The Sun Also Rises) is also a novel by last century’s most prominent Hispanophile, Ernest Hemingway, a tale which introduces the intertwining themes of our fiesta, the bullfight, the matador, and sex: eros and thanatos. In Fiesta, the matador, Pedro Romero, makes love to the bold and beautiful Lady Brett Ashley because the narrator, Jake Barnes, can’t: a war wound left him impotent. Hemingway does Lorca.

Because we can, we have invited Hemingway, and you can see him, glass of wine in one hand, cigar in the other, talking to his friend the matador Antonio Ordoñez, who will be demonstrating the art of killing bulls, showing classic passes, the pase natural, and his own derechazo de rodillas among them.

Our fiesta is being held in a bull ring, the roaring bonfire throwing glints and sparkles off Ordoñez’s suit of lights. Just the place to ponder the nature of a culture whose heroes are killers – matador from matar, to kill – and whose national sport, also an art, sacrifices animals and men in public. There is a darkness in the Spanish soul.

That darkness has a name: duende, the elusive spirit that poet and playwright Federico Garcia Lorca called “the hidden heart of disconsolate Spain.” It is to be found in Spanish art, literature and music. “All that has black sounds has duende” murmured Gypsy canto jonde (deep song) singer Manuel Torre upon hearing composer Manuel de Falla’s Nocturno del Generalife.

It certainly informs the paintings on show here. There are three in the art tent, the first and greatest, once defined as “the theology of painting”, in front of which the French romantic poet Théophile Gautier stood and cried “where is the picture?” It is Diego Velásquez’ profound, enigmatic and beautiful Las meninas, the maids of honour, a painting which transforms its every viewer into the King and Queen of Spain. All Spanish art stands on the shoulders of this man who, artist Anton Raphael Mengs said “paints the truth not as it is but as it appears to be.”


Our second painting is by one whose duende drips from his brushes, Francisco de Goya y Lucientes. We have chosen the baffling El perro semihundido, the half buried dog, from the series known as the black paintings. An abstract field of light with a curved horizon, bare but for the tiny head of a terrified spaniel. It has mystified viewers and critics for almost 200 years, moving many to tears. This is only detail from the larger painting which is way more mysterious – and  moving.


Finally, one work from the creator/destroyer, the protean Picasso, the painting that ushered in the 20th Century, of the most famous whores in history, Les demoiselles d’Avignon, equal parts eros and thanatos, with its cryptic reference to the promiscuous Picasso’s fear of syphilis.


But where are the killer heroes? Elsewhere in Goya and Picasso of course, on television all day during summer, and in the cinema regularly. In Carlos Saura’s 1983 adaptation of Carmen, his most successful collaboration with choreographer Antonio Gades. And most sardonically in Pedro Almodóvar’s 1986 Matador, in which the sumptuous Assumpta Serna murders her victims in coitus, and, ‘al momento de verdad’ (at the moment of truth), using a long hair pin in much the same way as her ultimate victim, ex-matador Nacho Martinez, despatched bulls with his sword.

The matador (or matadora) returns in Almodóvar’s 2002 film Talk to Her, a film already heralded as the first classic of the 21st Century, in which Rosario Flores plays a famed female bullfighter, gored, left in a coma, and cared for tenderly by her lover, Adrio Grandinetti.

We leave the films being projected onto a suspended muleta (bullfighter’s cape), and stroll to the fire for a plate of Montalban’s precise paella and to take a glass with Javier Marias, whose 1997 novel, Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me, opens with a man whose first night with a lover is interrupted by her death, in his arms. We note with pleasure we have been given a small scraping of socorrat, the burnt crust of rice from the bottom of the pan. And then the arena falls silent, but for the crackling of the fire.

We look up. The gate has burst open. A magnificent fighting bull runs onto the arena and skids to a halt in the sand, black hide glistening. He looks wildly to right and left, snorting steam. We are frozen with fear, but for Ordoñez, who reaches for his sword. The bull lowers his huge head, and charges the bonfire, crashing into it, scattering embers, ashes and flaming branches. The burning bull stands in the centre of the conflagration, bellowing.





You, me and misogyny .

cutcaster-photo-100537259-Confident-mature-man-with-a-woman-in-backgroundLet’s begin with a question. Why do men hate women? Or maybe that should read – do men hate women? And then let’s pretend we hadn’t heard the question for a while (pretty male reaction eh?) and go to the bullfight.

It was the summer of 1984. I was in Spain and in love. The object of my  – ultimately brief – adoration was an American woman who had grown up in Spain, and it was she who suggested the bullfight. Despite a by then 11 year association with and love of all things Hispanic, I’d avoided the bullfight: the idea frightened me. This time, spurred by what I thought was love, I went.

I was horrified. Not, I’m afraid, by the bullfight, but by my reaction to it. I loved it. I was undeniably physically and sexually thrilled by it. The light, the colour, the blood, the music – there’s no need to go into detail – those of you who have not been have read enough to know what I mean, and those of you who have been are either nodding in agreement, or disgusted and angry. Either way, please bear with me.

That brilliant old bull artist Ernest Hemingway writes in his first bullfight book (Death in the Afternoon) of his first experience by saying, with pride, that he too had loved it and was not afraid to say so because it had coincided with that time when – and I’m paraphrasing – he was learning to sort out how he really felt from how he ought to feel. And as he had enjoyed it, well, Goddamn it, that was that. Viva la corrida!

But I couldn’t leave it at that. Why had I, a civilized middle class Australian, succumbed to the bloodlust of an ancient pagan ritual? Wasn’t I ashamed of myself? What was I going to do about it? What I did about it was to recognise something that I think is very important for all of us blokes to recognise if we’re going to move forward in the business of relations between the sexes.

And that is the division between what we feel and what we think. Between our instincts and our intellects. Much of what is called political correctness is an attempt to ignore such schisms by insisting that we obey our rational selves, and completely ignore our kneejerk selves.

Something atavistic in me responded to that bullfight. I could deny it, lie, and express disgust at the barbaric behaviour of an entire nation, or  I could admit my response, analyse it – using the later, more advanced part of me, my brain – and recognise it for what it is. Put it in its place.

In “Control of the Mind”, Aldous Huxley, discussing the problem of man’s innate aggressive tendencies writes: “On the physiological level I suppose the problem is linked with the fact that we carry around with us a glandular system which was admirably well adapted to life in the Paleolithic times but is not very well adapted to life now.”

There’s a clue. Imagine life in those times (or get hold of a video of the film “Quest for Fire”). Hominids had just learnt to walk upright, had learnt to make stone tools and, according to some (anthropologist Richard Leakey for example), their first act was to bash somebody else on the head with one of those stone tools, or the femur bone of a large woolly beast.

Men were, even then, the stronger of the species. Courtship was, as all those cartoons of women being dragged into the caves by hair, at least perfunctory. The strongest males mated with the most women. Using a little novelistic license, it’s not hard to imagine the blokes having very little regard for the women they knocked on the head and raped. The basic adrenal system we had then – the fight or flight mechanism, with its autonomous bowel evacuation during moments of fear, what Arthur  Koestler called that “incomparably heavier machinery acting on the whole body” is still there, only lately and slowly being tamed into submission by the more adroit electro-chemical activities of the cerebral cortex region of the brain.

There’s another, inter-connected theory that has been advanced for man’s fear/hatred of woman. Imagine Paleolithic man, not connecting intercourse with birth – it took some time for the penny to drop – watching women swell, then deliver – life! This was a larger mystery than the sun, the stars, the whole damn universe. He can’t do that. He can hunt. He can kill. He can daub on the cave wall. But he can’t create life.

All this is not to imply, as is suggested by Joan Smith in her book Misogynies, that I am saying that “it is natural for men to hate or fear women” any more than I am saying it is natural for me or anyone else to love bullfights. It’s just evidence of the bits left over. My point is, not until we (and I mean we men) acknowledge that there are bits left over – and we shall have to source and catalogue them as well as acknowledge them – will we begin to move forward in evolutionary terms.

But that’s the main obstacle. Men don’t talk about these things much. And when they do, between themselves, they tend to say the most astonishing things. The incident I’m about to relate has occurred more than once. When asked by a male friend what my novel, The Man Who Painted Women (from now on TMWPW), was about, I replied, as I usually did, that it was an exploration of misogyny. My friend, a highly intelligent man, himself a novelist, said “it’s obvious why men hate women. Women are c…s.” He was, he told me, “only joking”. So were the other intelligent and cultured men who reacted in more or less the same way “only joking”.

“Women” wrote Germaine Greer in ‘The Female Eunuch’, “have no idea how much men hate them.”

In his collection of memoirs essays and reviews, ‘Writing Home’, Alan Bennett writes “Most men regard their life as a poem threatened by women.” That statement resonated very deeply with this man when he reflected on his own path. Here is a subtle deflection upwards, into the cerebral cortex, of the adrenal hate and fear into – blame. It’s all her fault that I can’t write, can’t paint, that my life is unsuccessful – her being wife, mother, girlfriend, whatever.

The hero (antihero?) of TMWPW, Rafael Pizarro Guadiana, is one of those far from rare, highly accomplished men, oblivious to his misogyny. More interestingly to me, the writer, is that he is obsessed by, consumed by and devoted to woman as subject of his art, and possessor of some – secret, some power, the source of which he can never find. “Perhaps you have been exploring the wrong corners” suggests Proserpina, the wise woman of the book. It is no accident that Rafa, as he is called, becomes a disciple of, and cuckolds Picasso. Picasso is the 20th century model for this kind of man.

But back to those difficult questions. Do you, dear, gentle, liberated male reader, hate women? Do I hate women? Do most men hate women? I say to you, yes, in some degree, in some way, in some leftover bit of you, I think you do. Some evidence.

As is proven, tragically, in every war, the first act of war – is rape.

During the conflict in Bosnia, I sat horrified, watching a Bosnian Serb soldier describing, on television, in graphic detail and mimed action, how he had raped countless women at bayonet point. Not a monster, an ordinary young man.

In a letter to his friend  Dr Trigant Burrow, one of the founders of group psychoanalysis, D.H. Lawrence  wrote: “I’m not sure if a mental relation with a woman doesn’t make it impossible to love her. To know the mind of a woman is to end in hating her.”

From the other side of the Atlantic, H.L Mencken: “Love is the delusion that one woman differs from another.” This reminds me of a joke, told me by another charming male friend. Why do women have different heads? So you know which one to take home. Baboom.

Some proverbs, aphoristic storehouses of collective wisdom:

“Woman is the confusion of man.”

“Women, wives, and wind are necessary evils.”

“A woman, a dog and a walnut tree: the more you beat them, the better they be.”

The 1996 Mitsubishi sexual harassment lawsuit in which it was alleged that this large Japanese company condoned quite horrific levels of sexual harassment in one of its American plants, resulting in an atmosphere where one woman complainant returned to work to find, in her locker, a note reading “Die Bitch! You’ll be sorry!”

And there’s no need to refer you to Prime Minister Gillard’s excoriation of Leader of the Opposition Abbott from the floor of the house

Combine a phallo-centric world with a level of vestigial misogyny of unplumbed depths, and we have, gentlemen, a deeply rooted problem that will not go away – until we pluck it out and examine it.

Did this novel I wrote answer the central question – why do men hate women? No. I don’t think fiction can answer questions. It explores, it pokes and prods. The truth, perhaps, has nothing to do with answers, but with questions, exploration.

Which brings us back to where we started. First we blokes must think, look into ourselves and then – let’s talk.