Friday, January 13, 2012

Robert Hughes via Halvard Johnson

The strangest instrument of cultural Catalanism—and one that had nothing whatsoever to do with the workers—was a poetry contest known as the Jocs Florals, or Floral Gamers. Its object was to confirm that a “great,” patriotic, national literature was being written in Catalan. Catalan writers, acting on a belief in the power of poetry that was indissolubly part of romanticism, and under the influence of Aribau’s ode, persuaded themselves that their verses could mobilize large numbers of their fellow Catalans into separatist fervor. To do this, one had to be archaic. As the Majorcan poet Marià Aguilo put it in the 1850s,

Cec d’amor per un llenguatge
Que no tinc prou dominat
Emprence el pelerinatge
Per fossar del temps passat.

Blind with love for a language
All too powerless today,
I set out on a pilgrimage
Through the graveyard of olden times.

     Thus it came about that every year, from 1859 on, a literary elite of Catalans would gather in Barcelona to recite their fulsome and stereotyped praises of Catalan virtue and Catalan history in verses so precious and old-fashioned that few other people could understand them. Each poet believed that he (or she) was thus striking a blow for Catalanism. Few of their productions are read today. And yet the Jocs Florals were far more than a literary game with prizes. Until well into the 1880s they were the binding institutions, the “spinal column,” as one critic  put it, of the Catalan Renaixença; they were the yearly proof that the Catalan language was the conduit of elevated national sentiment, and their decline marked the transition between the Renaixença and the wider, more international and aestheticized interests of Catalan modernisme. The Jocs were a medieval revival, institutionally stronger, in some ways, than the original—though emphatically not in terms of poetic merit.

--Robert Hughes

fr. Barcelona
[New York: Vintage Books, 1993] 


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