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ArribaAbajo«Seeing history»: reflections on Galdós' El Abuelo

John Beverley

Georg Lukács argued that the grand historical theme of the nineteenth century was the decline of «gentile society», the sometimes gradual, sometimes abrupt displacement of the European aristocracy and its economic base, feudal agriculture, by the new masters of urban science and capital deriving from the twin impact of the French and Industrial Revolutions.88 The theme had (and has) a special currency in those countries where the conflict between a nascent industrial capitalism and traditional culture and mode of production hung most in the balance: Russia, Italy, the Spain of Pardo Bazán, Pereda, Galdós. Brenan reminds us that «under all the unrest and revolutionary agitation of the last hundred years (in Spain) lies the agrarian question».89 The thematic mise en scène of a novel like Doña Perfecta is essentially a schematization of the contexts of the problem: Madrid against the countryside; «science» and economic Liberalism against tradition, Catholic dogma, what Marx would call «feudal socialism»; bourgeois entrepeneur against paternal elite; individual against community. The train which brings Pepe Rey to Orbajosa indexes the new society of urban capitalism («[...] y al oír su enorme voz despertaban aldeas, villas, ciudades, provincias»); the journey on mule-back from the station to the town, «Un viaje por el corazón de España», the timeless world of Castilian feudalism and its illusions and protagonists.

Galdós and his contemporaries inherit from Jovellanos and the Spanish Enlightenment the problem of reconciling the rival claims of these «two Spains» which meet at the juncture point of the railway station in Doña Perfecta. In his early production, written against background of Carlist insurrection and the political disillusion of the Restoration, Galdós cannot find the point of synthesis.90 Hence the tragic denoument of Doña Perfecta, the intimation that the terms of the struggle are irreconcilable. It is a novel about the failure of mediation, the inability (on both sides) to move from ideology to understanding. The «old» consumes the «new» but only at the expense of destroying itself in the process.

The intricate urban explorations of the Madrid novels in no sense betoken an abandonment of the concern sketched in Doña Perfecta. They are studies in the historical development of the other term of the struggle, the society which in its web of transactions, careers, adulteries, fashions, intrigues is crafting its own hollow victory over the Orbajosas of Spain. On the other side of the Madrid novels, El abuelo revives in a sense the world of Orbajosa but in a dialectical «negative». What was repressed in Doña Perfecta has now come to pass, the time of history displacing the time of tragedy. The «media docena de grandes capitales» Pepe Rey suggested as a solution to Orbajosa's decay have lain hold to the resources of the land (not always in the spirit of liberal idealism represented by a Pepe). The center of power has shifted from Perfecta's study, where priest and landowner met to maintain the texture of tradition and community, to the homes and businesses of what the Count of El abuelo calls «los   —56→   señoritos nacidos de mis cocineras o engendrados por mis mozos de cuadra». Pepe Rey typified the idealism and arrogance of a class struggling to come into power; the aging, solitary aristocrat of El abuelo the very same qualities of a class faced with its historical eclipse. Pepe's voyage to Orbajosa represents a kind of epic of bourgeois colonization; he is the missionary of «progress», «science», the city. The Count's return to his hereditary estate is, inversely, an attempt to recover a feudal tradition and legitimacy:

Todos los caminos y veredas de este país me conocen; conócenme las breñas, las rocas, los árboles... Hasta los pájaros creo yo que son los mismos de mi niñez... Esta hermosa Naturaleza fue mi nodriza.

(Act I/Seene five)                

Galdós centers the action of his play in the decaying architecture of the estate, La Pardina. But glimpsed off-stage throughout the first four acts (e.g., in the festival for Lucrecia at the end of Act I) and entered directly in the last is the community, Jerusa, of the new masters: the Alcalde, Senén, the doctor, the «cosmopolitan» Lucrecia, daughter of an Irish-american businessman. The identification of the Count with the physical being of his land yields to a «llanto amarguísimo de las cosas». The hereditary title has been usurped by the «bourgeois» Lucrecia; the ancestral home belongs to the now barely grateful servants, Venancio and Gregoria. The Count clings to the habits of the paternal landlord - the afternoon coffee, the «tuteo», his insistence on staying in the room once occupied by his mother, the outbursts of arrogant wit -but he is only reluctantly tolerated as a guest in what was once his home. The «new men» of Jerusa are anxious to see him put away from interfering in their plans in a monastery. He ridicules their pretensions (the perfume affected by the ex-servant, Senén, for example): «[...] una civilización improvisada y postiza, como una levita que compra el patán en un bazar de ropas hechas»; Sois ricos, pero no sabéis serlo». But the Jerusans reply by giving the family name, Arista-Potestad to their main street and that of the Count himself to their municipal fountain. These memorials resemble nothing more than the «respect» with which a newly emerging dominant class usurps the culture and authority of its past masters after it has decisively defeated them.91

The family name itself, a typically Galdosian portmanteau, is meant to define an irony hich cuts in two directions: against the «toothless» arrogance of the aristocrat and against the hastily assembled culture of the Jerusans which he attacks. Beyond the loss of the estate, the usurpation of «Arista-Potestad» extends to the Count's suspicion that the legitimacy of his family line has been corrupted by bastardy. He knows from his son's final letter to him that one of the two grandaughters, Nell and Dolly, staying with him on the estate, is illegitimate, the product of Lucrecia's adultery with a painter of peasant origin. But he does not know which. His final challenge to the «civilization improvisada y postiza», of the Jerusan bourgeoisie is to discover the legitimate daughter and pass on to her his title. This search forms the main line of action in El abuelo.

As the play begins, the two girls have been scheduled for a history lesson with their tutor, Don Pío. The subject of this lesson dominates centrally the development of the first four acts. It is prefaced by the girls' antics outside the house in Act I/Scene four. The lesson itself, a miniature comedy of manners,   —57→   occupies most of Act II. Its consequences form later in the day (Act III) the subject of a discussion between the two girls, the Count and the tutor. The Count and Pío return to it in their private conversation in Act IV/Scene II which precipitates the denouement.

The Count's interest in the matter is «strategic»; he proposes to discover the legitimate grandaughter by comparing with Don Pío their behaviors during the lesson. Galdós means the audience to participate in the search. Consequently the scene (Act I/Scene four) in which he introduces the subject of the impending lesson also establishes the ambiguity of the personalities of Dolly and Nell. Dolly claims here that she «laughs at shoes» and is happy to go barefoot; Nell, the more proper of the pair, chastises her sister and adds that she has been «muy burra» in their history lessons with Don Pío. Dolly counters in the giddy and spontaneous manner which characterizes her. She burlesques the great names of Spanish history. The intrigues of Doña Urraca with her brother Alfonso in the civil wars of the Castilian nobility become on her lips a matter of «le picaban los sabañones». Nell complains of the «lío tremendo» of having to learn the geneologies of the Visigothic kings. But Dolly is more direct; she throws the history book they have been looking at into a tree, remarking in effect that Alexander the Great and the Arab Invasions are «for the birds». Nell remonstrates: «Te tomarán por una desarrapada del pueblo». The remark sets up the suspicion that Dolly is the illegitimate child. But at the same time Galdós introduces a note of affinity between Dolly and the Count. She counters Nell's homily on the importance of «La ilustración» with a scathing characterization of Senén's recent pretensions to «culture», a characterization the Count echoes when he mets his former servant in Scene seven.

In the scene of the lesson itself, the girls play with their long suffering tutor with an unerring instinct, both flattering and cruel, for Pío's weak points (his own illegitimate daughters). They are «aburridísimas»; they want to be «savages». Dolly butchers a question on the identity of Themistocles, relating him strangely to Perseus in the myth of the Gorgons. Pío, exasperated, tells them not to confuse History with Mythology. Their replies (Nell: «Si mentira es una, mentira es otra»; Dolly: «Y nos importan lo mismo».) intimate a question which is important in the subsequent development of El abuelo, namely, where is «real» history (of the Count's family, of Spain) to be discovered apart from the myths of national and dynastic glory and nobility which are the substance of their textbooks? As if to answer, (Pío himself begins to get his history a bit muddled) the girls propose a trip to the beach where, as Dolly puts it, «estudiaremos el viaje de Colón a América». Dolly's casual remark is pure insincerity; nevertheless, it touches on the concepts of educational reform that would later be represented, for example, by the program of the Institución Libre de Enseñanza: the study of history not as a series of dates and names to be memorized but rather in the concrete interaction of place, event, and actors. The brief discussion of Grammar which follows underlines the point. Pío is concerned that the girls learn to speak properly so that they can shine in society. But the girls reply that it is not «participles» which will get them accepted but their natural prettiness and elegance.

The same opposition of «book learning» and «vital» knowledge reappears in condensed form in the dialogue on the lesson and the general education of   —58→   the girls in Act III/Scene one. The Count has admonished the good Pío not to put «más paja» in the heads of his girls; what is needed is to educate their wills. To this point, Dolly candidly notes: «Por eso a mí no me gusta saber nada de libros, sino de cosas». Pío, however, catches her off guard in this bit of child's wisdom («qué son cosas?»). The Count interposes that the real teacher of the girls will be life itself -«la rigurosa existencia»,- and suggests to Pío «la historia la repasaremos usted y yo».

The nominal reason for the Count's desire to talk to the tutor is, of course, to find out which of the girls he thinks best in the lessons. But the «history lesson» suddenly becomes not only the means but also the burden of his inquiry into the truth of his own meaning and heritage. He must find out, which of his son's daughters is the «real» Arista-Potestad who will then carry the name of the ancient family into the future, beyond his own ruin and impending death. Nell, sycophantically, asks the Count to give them a «lesson» instead of Don Pío. He tells the girls that it is not he who will teach them a lesson but rather they who will show him, through his growing knowledge of them, the truth of his own history.

In their dialogue in Act IV, the Count proposes to the tutor that they should study la «Historia viva..., que es la que ríe... La muerta... casi siempre llora». Pío does not understand that he means by «Historia viva» precisely the girls, the blithe critics of the «Historia muerta» of their textbooks. For this «dead» history has another sense. The proud and commanding Count and the «espíritu suave» of the melancholic tutor share a private history (the tutor's bastard children) which reconciles and brings into a fundamental human identity the two opposite characters. The Count notes: «No hables más de tus hijas... ¡Cómo se enlazan la historia bufonesca y la historia grave! La tragedia y el sainete son más amigos de lo que parece; amigos, sí, como tú y yo».

Galdós places the history lesson and the discussions which grow out of it within the larger context of the theme of «seeing» in El abuelo. The Count wants to be able «to see» through the lesson his own integrity. The development of his search into the characters of Dolly and Nell is counter-pointed by the progress of his blindness which is symbolized in the nocturnal setting of the final act. He speaks of being able to see only «cosas grandes». Galdós implies that it is this physical failure of vision which prevents him from recognizing by appearance the legitimate grandaughter. Frustrated at his inability to decide decisively between the girls he cries, «¡Luz! ¡Luz!» But the failure is an inner one too. The Count's sense of legitimacy is coded into the aristocratic prejudices of a «nobleza de ley». He can «see» the girls only through facts which are external or ambiguous: the color of their eyes, the sound of their voices. His own personal myth of the Arista-Potestad blinds him to the reality of Dolly and Nell and to the moments of his own spontaneity and intuitive understanding: for example, the sudden rush of sympathy he fels for Lucrecia in Act II/Scene eight when two antagonists, aristocrat and bourgeois «pretender», face to face at last, are almost reconciled in the memory of the son and husband they shared. But he withdraws into arrogance, and an insulted Lucrecia indicts him: «[...] raza de locos, caballería burlesca, honor de bombolla». It is an exact characterization of a «legitimacy» which has taken refuge in a fantasy of historical greatness, which   —59→   has confused precisely history and mith, which produces only a hardness of soul that must close itself to the natural flow of sentiment and reconciliation.

The Count's blindness indexes his reactionary traditionalism, the values he poses against the «bastard» present. But it also works in an inverse sense in the direction of his search. More and more he comes to rely on an inner vision of self which convinces him that Dolly is his true descendent. The ability to see only large things becomes here the possibility of discovering a kind of «elective affinity» which transcends the limitations of his defeat. (Don Pío, his bourgeois counterpart also has weak vision and is forced to wear strong glasses.) Senén's confidential revelations in the final act yield the identity of the «legitimate» grandaughter. But the «proper» Nell will carry into her marriage with the young «marqués de seis meses» only the formality of the family name. It is with Dolly that the Count identifies his person and the continuity of his history: that is, precisely with the bastard child and precisely too because she is the bastard, because her generosity and willfulness are the Count's own. Dolly exists as a form of nobility beyond the historical decandence of the Arista-Potestad, as a class.

It is in these terms that El abuelo most intimately approaches the play that has often ben called its model, King Lear. Of another Shakespearean tragedy, Julius Ceasar, the late Sigurd Burckhardt remarked with respect to Brutus and the conspirators:

Instead of first submitting to the present, the given, and trying to discover its inner structure and meaning, they judge and condemn it by pre-established standards. And so they are blind not to the present but even to the past they know so well.92

A similar failure of vision is at the heart of Lear's recognition of Cordelia: hence, the implications of Kent's injunction «See better, Lear...» The phrase applies to the contexts of the history lesson in El abuelo. The Count's search metamorphoses into Galdós own intention which was to educate his public to «see better» the meaning of its present as history, its giddy, chaotic, «bastard» present. Left behind in this lesson are the equally distorting «eyeglasses» of two kinds of historical mythology: the one provoked by a sterile nostalgia for tradition and purity, the myth of an imperial Spain, the other by the morality of resentment of the classes that disinherited the owners of the first. Galdós identification is neither with the Spain of agrarian feudalism nor with the «intermediate» Spain of the Restoration: the nouveaux riche Spain of Nell and her marquis, of Senén and the Jerusans. It is with the Count and with Dolly both, that is, with a Spain that has yet to come into being.

University of Pittsburgh

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