Galdós and the nineteenth century novel: the need for an interdisciplinary approach1
In recent years, several scholars have pointed out that few students of Galdós' novels make use of his non-fictional prose despite the fact that he worked with both forms simultaneously, and often borrowed material from his articles for incorporation into a novel.2 Even fewer investigators haved moved in the direction of studying Galdós and his contemporaries in their social and historical contexts.3 Yet such an approach is particularly necessary in Galdós studies, since every line of his writing exhibits a remarkable sensitivity to Spanish national politics and to the issues of his day. Indeed, most galdosistas would agree that Galdós utilizes contemporaneus historical and social realities as framework for his novels. Such an assumption carries with it, implicitly, the recognition of a socio-historic dimension inherent in Galdós' literary aesthetic.4 It further raises the fundamental question of his vision of reality, the particular view he entertains of the world around him and about which he is constantly writing. Therefore his aesthetic must be considered from three angles: first, what was the social reality in which Galdós lived and wrote;5 second, how did he perceive that reality (what was important to him, what inconsequential); and third, what were the alterations which that reality and his view of it underwent as they were absorbed by Galdós, transformed by his imagination, and incorporated into his works? If we accept this tripartite approach to Galdós' novels and to their critical elucidation, we must also accept the need for complementing historically and sociologically the admirable work done thus far in Galdós criticism. Such a complementary approach would begin not only by defining Galdós' socio-historical context; it would also entail a study of how he considered that reality in his non-fiction, independently of an examination of the novels.6
Recent efforts to place Galdós in his historical context have demonstrated the necessity of this tripartite methodology. For example, in 1965 Antonio Regalado García published a work which attempted to determine the ideological content of Galdós' novels in general and of the Episodios nacionales in particular.7 He suggested that far from being progressive and liberal, Galdós was in fact quite conservative, and furthermore that his entire corpus was oriented in favor of the status quo. It has been shown elsewhere that Regalado's assumptions were basically flawed by his own misunderstandings both of the dynamics —6→ of Spanish history, and of Galdós' personal ideologies as manifested in his nonfiction.8 Such an unbalanced critique was, of necessity, bound to fail when applied to Galdós' fiction. Clara Lida, an historian, made a similar attempt in 1968.9 Working in the opposite direction, her analysis suffered from not having explored with any precision Galdós' personal view of reality as shown in his newspaper and magazine articles. Moving directly from Spanish history to its novelization without first examining the peculiarities of Galdós' historical perspective, Lida could only conclude that Galdós was tolerantly liberal and supported the regimes of Sagasta and Cánovas.
Now it is not our intention to recapture Galdós for Liberalism, nor to facilely bestow upon him a specific political orientation. We ought attempt, however, to contribute to a clearer understanding of his ideas, and thereby move closer to an accurate comprehension of his novels. The fact is that Galdós' world and his vision of it are far more complex than has generally been assumed. An examination of his newspaper and magazine articles clearly shows this. During the years 1885-1898 Galdós began to discern the failure of the constitutional system in Spain. Of the breakdown in the political fabric he had this, for example, to say:
En el orden interior, la herencia del 87 tiene también sus puntos negros. Hay males que no serán remediados por el año que se aproxima ni por sus sucesores. El caciquismo, por ejemplo, es de tal consideración entre las calamidades nacionales, que tiene remedio menos fácil que los terremotos, las inundaciones y el cólera.10
Nor was he slow in placing the blame, which he laid squarely on the rulers of the country. A year earlier he observed («Política menuda», 19 diciembre, 1885: PE-1, 103-110):
Never before had Spain enjoyed so many legal freedoms,11 yet legal rights had not brought with them social justice, as Galdós noted in 1887 («Política de verano», 29 julio: PE-1, 319-328):
Only socio-economic problems, and not political ones, now interested the masses. For some time Galdós was aware that whereas a revolution based on purely —7→ political grounds would fail, «[...] la revolución social, si tuviera en España elementos preparados para ella, podría encontrar lema y bandera. ('Un rey póstumo,' 22 mayo, 1886)»13 Furthermore, parliamentary Liberalism seemed less and less efficient in dealing with the increasingly difficult circumstances of urbanization, industrialization and regionalism.14 Enormous socio-economic inequities were the disastrous by-products of the growth of Spain's cities and the modernization of her industry. The poor were the ultimate victims, as one of Galdós' most memorable articles makes clear («La cuestión social», 17 febrero, 1885: C-1, 147-156):
As far as Galdós was concerned, Liberal politics were becoming the politics of stagnation;15 self-interest, not ideals, kept the turno pacífico functioning and made government the bastard child of caciquismo.16 «Liberalism had become sterile, and the Liberals and Galdós' own middle class were to blame:
|(«El 1.º de mayo», 15 de abril, 1885: PE-2, 268-269, italics added).17|
If Galdós rejected the political ideologies of his time, he could not reject ideals. While he understood that socialism and anarchism were expressions of the ideal of social justice, even as early as 1872 Galdós could not accept the expedient of revolutionary violence against his own middle class.18 Furthermore, he could not overcome the pessimism engendered by his obvious class biases,19 and accept social and economic equality. He admitted as much in 1885, for example:
Tras de una perturbación más o menos grande, según las localidades, volverán las cosas al estado antiguo, y todo seguirá lo mismo, los capitalistas siempre explotando, los obreros trabajando siempre y viviendo al día. El Estado metiéndose en funciones que no le corresponden, no puede ofrecer más que paliativos. El remedio de la desigualdad no vendrá nunca, porque la desigualdad es irremediable, eterna y constitutiva.20
Galdós' inner conflict culminates on 12 July, 1893, in an article appropriately titled «Confusiones y paradojas».21 Beginning with a description of Spain's confused and unhappy spiritual landscape, he asks
Galdós follows these questions with a strong critique of the society of the nineteenth century and its ostensibly democratic ideals:
|(187, italics added)|
Structural change without internal, spiritual change is fruitless. The life of the spirit is dying. There are no viable religious or philosophical ideals. Philosophy contradicts itself (186); religion, it is true, can at least fall back on its immutable dogma, «[...] que dan descanso al pensamiento:... (idem)», but when all is said and done, it must be admitted that reason has killed faith: «Volvemos los ojos a la religión, y en ella buscamos consuelo al ansia de verdad que nos devora; pero vemos perdida la fe y nuestra razón harta cultivada no permite que la fe nazca en nuestro ser. Apenas brota, la razón la ahoga. (idem)»
Self-interest and personal gratification are the motive forces which predominate in social relations (190). In an emotional tirade which smacks of a critique of materialism and positivism,22 Galdós suggests that the reason for this disintegration of society is to be found in the non-intuitive, deliberate and deliberately critical approach to life:
|(193-194, italics added)|
Consequently, while we inhibit greatness, we raise up the masses from ignorance to mediocrity: «Caminamos a pasos de gigante hacia el predominio del vulgo ilustrado. (l94)» Is this «nivel medio» preferable to a generally low social and cultural level «[...] en el cual se destaquen aisladamente, figuras esplendorosas... (idem)»? Galdós seems to indicate that elitism and isolated greatness are more desirable, but provides no solution:—9→
Concluyo pidiendo indulgencia a mis lectores por esta opinión individual que corrobora la paradoja expuesta. No hay que burlarse de las paradojas, que suelen entrañar verdades.
|(195, italics added)|
This is tantamount to an aesthetic of ambiguity, a complex, ironic vision of an involuted world, fraught with paradox and crosspurposes.23 But that is not all. In 1885, as urban society began to expand and was increasingly beset by conflicts of all types for which there seemed to be no answer, Galdós looked upon the possibility of socialism with a jaundiced eye:
Now this is not, as has been believed,25 a retreat from social conflict through religion. It is, rather, an attempt to reconcile both points of view, as Galdós himself states exactly two years later in 1887:
|(PE-1, 299-301, italics added)26|
He continues, noting that the coastal areas of Spain are finally liberating themselves from this «espiritualismo», and are therefore -in contrast to the central area of the country- making cultural and socio-economic progress.27 In designating Madrid the capital of Spain, Philip II «[...] condenó a España a estar durante siglos bajo el dominio de aquel espiritualismo malsano, y estableció el predominio de la pobreza, erigiéndola en virtud y hasta en razón de Estado. (301, our italics)» It is not a proven fact that poverty leads either to greatness of nations, or to the sanctity of the individual; eternal glory, Galdós notes, has nothing to do with self-enforced poverty. Spaniards must learn that the material progress of the country is not immoral. but is in fact a necessity. The opinion that all business and progress is sinful will lead to stagnation, he warns, and will similarly discourage government-supported endeavors: «Tendríamos un poder legislativo resueltamente espiritual, y esto podrá ser muy bonito y muy cristiano, pero nos convirtiría pronto en pobres de solemnidad.» (303)28
Galdós is saying that if, on the one hand, personal abnegation and resignation are necessary in order to resolve the pressing problems of contemporary society, then, on the other hand, this must not be static, since there are no easy answers, politically or morally.29 That is, one must still continue to strive for the amelioration, both material and spiritual, of man's existential predicament. One must, in other words, make use of any available but -in Galdós' terms- ethical and nonviolent means to survive and by doling so, improve the condition —10→ of one's existence. Nor is it legitimate to dissociate one's own survival from that of others.30 Furthermore, by 1895 Galdós can no longer find any validity in categories such as politics, religion, or classes. He comes to use the middle class world not merely as a subject, but also as container, in which all manner of life and lives move and interact, as César Barja perceptively observed many years ago:
As never before, Galdós came to see the society of his time as being invested with tremendous fluidity. More and more, the novels of the period reflect the social structure which he described in his Discurso Académico32:
Galdós' concept of society is organic: its components are subsumed to the whole. For example, he makes no distinctions between the «social question» and the «religious question». There is only one «question», that of survival in its total sense: survival of the spirit as well as the body, survival of the individual as well as society.33
If we understand this, then we see that capitalism and socialism were simply the two sides of the same coin for Galdós. This rejection of ideology certainly did not imply an evasion of social conflicts, which in fact weighed heavily on him as his important article, «La cuestión social», indicated. Similarly, as we read in «Confusiones y paradojas», spiritual ills could not be solved within the polarity religion-rationalism. The achievement of harmony in life, that is, the survival of personal and collective humanity, therefore became one of Galdós' principal interests and served as the core of the novels, particularly after 1885 and before 1898. This fascination with the struggle for existence led Galdós naturally to the pueblo, the lower classes, particularly those of his own Madrid where life was constantly lived on the frontier between destruction and fulfillment, madness and excruciating but redemptive self-awareness.
The lot of the common people was indeed unenviable. The years of the Regency in Spain witnessed the beginnings of a social disintegration which enveloped the urban lower classes. This group, particularly in Madrid, existed under the most extreme conditions of poverty and spiritual and material neglect. No institutions except the charities gave them either protection or consolation, and there is reason to believe that even the charities failed in this regard. The masses existed not merely without the aid of, but in spite of, the government, the Church and the economic system which exploited them mercilessly. The lower classes of Madrid, Galdós' pueblo, were not only considered eminently expendable by their «rulers»; they were in fact geographically, physically and spiritually marginal to all aspects of Madrid society. They were even marginal to the economic system, for they could always be replaced by a constant stream of jobless workers migrating into the city from the provinces.34
On the other hand, with the rise of positivism and social theory in the last half of the nineteenth century, a new consciousness beset the upper classes. In Madrid, they came to realize that beyond their shops and salons, beyond the fringes of their tree-lined neighborhoods, behind the Royal Opera and the Price Circus, there existed another world with values and lifestyles wholly different from theirs, a world characterized by crime and disease and deprivation. Its monuments were not palace and theater, but casa de vecindad and taberna where the hungry could kill their appetite with a glass of adulterated aguardiente.
And so a new tension developed in Spanish society, generated by guilt and later, as socialism and anarchism entered Spain, exacerbated by fear. With this tension came a defensive drive to ameliorate the lot of the lower classes in a way compatible with the interests of the middle and upper classes (Aranguren has described this atmosphere admirably35). Galdós was certainly not ignorant of this new movement to maintain the status quo by introducing small, acceptable reforms. During the months preceding the First Republic, he had written about the nascent workers' movement in Spain; in these and subsequent articles he demonstrated an awareness of society's increasingly difficult plight and its often contradictory nature.36 And Galdós, because he loved Spain and Madrid, because he also loved to write about Spain and Madrid, began to write also about the new social consciousness and the new tensions. More importantly, his attention was attracted to the ultimate source of the social unrest (as he saw it), the suffering of the masses. And as we observed earlier, he was also drawn into considering the question of the masses' ultimate release from deprivation by Liberal and bourgeois panaceas.
Now it is not our contention that Galdós sat down and with conscious intent began to write about the grave problems threatening Spain. Rather, he wanted to write about Spain, and therefore was driven also to analyze her troubles.37 Galdós grew progressively disillusioned with the Restoration and Liberalism, as he came to see that the rising middle class was just as content as the upper classes to ignore the problems of the country. And as he also grew aware of the increasingly difficult situation of the masses, the pueblo in whom he also placed his hope, Galdós began to experiment novelistically, re-creating social —12→ ambiguities and contradictions -as he saw them- in the world of his novels, searching that world for new and viable solutions. Because the pueblo was so central to Spain's problems, it also became central to many of Galdós novels. And out of the pueblo, out of the whirl of its life with all its tensions, characterized by constant engagement in the battle for survival, the purest forms of victor and vanquished emerge as saint38 and criminal; the one purified by the experience of conflict, the other debased. Galdós' newspaper articles indicate that the author, during the years 1885-1898, found himself penetrating ever deeper into the social arena to find and study such individuals.39 His interest in crimes and criminals reflects a growing awareness of the conflicts immanent in the wellspring of social and political forces. Criminals and saints, that is, individuals of complete personal abnegation (as shown below, both types in their pure forms are self-denying: the former, through total dedication to evil, is self-destructive; the latter, through total dedication to good, is self-sacrificing), take on for Galdós a super reality. They are opposite ends of the life spectrum as he visualized it. But each extreme, by having endured the conflict of life, is bound to the other and is made larger: the saint by his/her sacrifice, the criminal by his/her waste and destruction. Two women, Ernestina Manuel de Villena -not a member of the lower classes but certainly involved in the battle for survival- and Higinia Balaguer, both subjects of long essays by Galdós,40 best personify these templates much as, for example, Pecado and Benina do in the fiction.
We may chart the sociological origins of such individuals without difficulty, since the dilemma faced by any member of the lower classes was of relatively «simple» solution (although it was never even remotely gratifying). As the awareness of their exploitation deepened and they realized that they could depend neither on existing institutions nor on prevailing value systems, the masses were confronted with three alternatives. They could, first of all, withdraw among themselves and simply live out their lives as best they could. The caciques anticipated this passive response when they tightened their control of the electoral process in 1890 (a measure advocated by Cánovas in a speech that year in the Ateneo41). Most members of the lower classes did withdraw, thus submitting (or at least manifesting submission) to the value systems and morality of the rulers of society who were in fact responsible for their predicament.
The other two choices for members of the lower classes also entailed moral decision, but both were in defiance of the prevailing values of Liberalism and the middle class. For the members of the lower classes could also deny themselves, becoming thereby either saints (and possibly also madmen), or criminals. Each of these two types could choose by sheer power of will to destroy the duality within them that Gumersindo de Azcárate described as follows:42
The sinner or criminal, by rebelling against society suffers intolerable de privation; for as one isolates oneself from the social world -psychically at the very least and often also physically- one alienates oneself from human contact. The true criminal rejects the validity of human relations, of contact between people on anything but the most basic material level. One negates the things of the spirit because one must act aggressively and destructively against other human beings. For one's own peace of mind and self-preservation, one must therefore carry positivism to its reductio ad absurdum.43 The criminal is selfdedicated to evil and crime for their own sake, not merely to satisfy personal appetites but to frustrate those of others. Inherent in this is the desire to establish control over life, to make others suffer as much as oneself, not out of an obsessive drive for vengeance but for power over one's own and others' existence. The imagination of many nineteenth century writers was captured by those of their contemporaries who achieved this deep level of self-affirmation through crime, a self-affirmation which paradoxically was, on the spiritual level, equivalent to self-denial. Such individuals come alive for us in fiction, for example, in the character of Vautrin or Pecado, who are of the same mold; one member of Galdós' society, Santiago Alcántara, described the mold with blunt eloquence:44
[...] el espíritu del mal, el rebelde a Dios y enemigo del género humano, ha logrado infundir en algunos de sus esclavos un odio, a su manera desinteresado y purísimo también, en contraposición y remedo de la más ardiente caridad. (his italics)
Emerging from the same world of intense deprivation, the saint similarly breaks with the established order. However, this individual seeks fulfillment not in things, nor in control over others, but in human relationships. The saint, like the criminal, by rebelling against society and its value system is subjected to extreme hardship; in this case such mortification is material, not spiritual.45 The criminal sees society as a deterrent from the freedom of material well-being; the saint sees the necessity of freedom from the material in order to enjoy spiritual well-being. The criminal is ultimately anti-human, the saint sacrifices him/herself for humanity. The criminal denies the validity of human relationships and therefore denies the self as a spiritual and feeling entity. The saint ignores but does not efface his or her physical existence, in order to affirm the intangible, the belief that people should not be defined in terms of their possessions or of their interactions with the physical environment, but in terms of their relationships to each other. And each pursues their goal with a single-mindedness reminiscent of the ascetics.
* * *
Saint and criminal were therefore extreme results, or better, by-products, of the life process, of living and dying among the lower classes. And Galdós, like many other writers, discovered that in dealing with these by-products of an oppressive, frustrating life in society, one could get at the life process itself: one could, in short, portray a society by delineating and defining the forces at work on certain of its members. The stumbling-block, however, putting aside —14→ purely literary (i.e., technical) considerations, was that the author might be blind to certain forces and choose to ignore others. In that sense, an author portraying a society according to his or her peculiar vision, was, in the process, defining personal biases. Such biases are part of the creative apparatus from which a writer's aesthetic is fashioned, and therefore relate closely to his or her fictional works.
It is for these same reasons that Galdós, like all writers, must be studied in the context out of which his works spring. A solid grasp of the life of end-century Madrid, independent of what Galdós himself describes in his fiction, is vital if we are to come to a deeper understanding of the man, his biases, and his aesthetic.46
Queens College. The City University of New York