Livin’ la Vida Barroca

With a bit of foreign travel looming on the horizon, it was time to renew the passport of my youngest child. I gathered the requisite papers and brought them to the post office. A few weeks later, the coveted document arrived.

I opened it up, expecting to find what I always had found inside US passports: a dry one-page recitation of personal data followed by numerous empty pages for recording the traveler’s entries and exits from various countries.

The moment my eyes focused on the inside flap, however, I was reminded of my continuing lack of post-September 11 imagination. How foolish of me not to realize that in times like these passports can, and should be, a full-blown propaganda documents, replete with the cheesiest and most hackneyed evocations of national grandeur. Page 1: a quote from the Star-Spangled Banner in a lithograph-like image of The War of 1812. Page 2: Lincoln’s famous quote about “government of the people, by the people and for the people.” Pages 3-4: a multicolor image of an eagle and a flag towering over the image and personal information of the passport’s bearer. And on and on for 24 more pages with graphic backdrops such as Mt. Rushmore, the Liberty Bell, and yes, buffaloes roaming across the open plains.

When most Americans think of the Baroque it is probably an association with French music or Latin American architecture. It is certainly not inaccurate to do so. But it is important to remember that the Baroque was, and is, much more than this.

The term has its roots in the Iberian Peninsula of the late 16th and 17th centuries, a time when Spanish and Portuguese empires were both hugely important and visibly decadent. In the late 15th and early 16th centuries these two relatively underpopulated an unsophisticated kingdoms had leapt to world prominence on the basis of their ferocity (honed in the centuries-long frontier struggle against the Muslim “heathen”) and their precocious understanding of naval technology. Between 1470 and 1550 these came to control much of Africa, all of Central and South America, and a substantial pieces of Europe (much of southern Italy, the Low Countries and a good part of today’s Germany and Austria). But no sooner did they establish control of these places then, as could be expected, resistance to their rule began to grow.

In the Americas, the Iberians’ relative military and naval superiority allowed them to overwhelm the opposition until the beginning of the 19th century. In Europe, however, things were far more complicated. There, especially in the lands of northern and central Europe, the opposition to Iberian rule was not only military, but also ideological. The Reformation, which we now tend to think of in almost wholly theological terms, was in fact a movement with an enormous geopolitical subtext. For the Dutch and for the Germans, becoming Protestant was not only a matter of talking more clearly and directly to God, but also ridding themselves of their Spanish overlords and their Italian ecclesiastical agents.

The Spaniards reacted to the challenge of the Reformation and its incipient embrace of empiricism, by instituting the Counter-Reformation, the upshot of which was an effort to repackage – but in no way fundamentally alter – the now time-worn tenets of their Church-centered philosophy of cultural hegemony. It was what we might call today a campaign of cultural “re-branding.” As such, it was largely circumscribed to the realm of the aaesthetic.

This might have worked had the German and Dutch complaints with the Spanish been aesthetic. Rather, they were bound up in much more essential questions of dignity and self-determination. There thus ensued what the Spanish nowadays call a “dialogue of the deaf.” On one hand, we have the Spaniards and Portuguese (the kingdoms were united between 1580 and 1640), with their ostensibly sophisticated and worldly Jesuits at the fore, inventing new ways to sell old imperial and theological wine. On the other, we have the rebel elites of Holland and numerous German kingdoms who had long-since decided that their social and commercial dreams could never realized within the framework of a Catholic empire led from Madrid.

Unable to entertain, never mind admit, the validity of the ideological or territorial claims of their unruly northern subjects, the Spanish Hapsburgs and their official creators did what all frustrated ideologues do in times of crisis: they pumped up the volume. It is in this act of historical desperation that we find the core logic of the Baroque. “If only we can say it more colorfully, more artistically, more ingeniously we will win them back.”

But of course, with the intended Northern audience long since inured to the siren song of the South, the only people left to listen to the ever more extravagant claims of cultural superiority were the captive citizens of the Iberian Peninsula itself! And so it was.

From the 1580s onward, precisely the moment when the first cracks in the façade of the omnipotent empire began to show, the Spanish political and intellectual class plied the populace with an unremitting diet of self-aggrandizement, punctuated only by the lacerating ironies of Miguel de Cervantes. This constant stream of church-state propaganda kept viceroys and their armies well-motivated for a good long time. But it did nothing to prepare Spain for the challenges of modernity. Indeed, the implied demand that even the best Spanish thinkers work and create within the ever more narrow alleys of patriotic and theological self-affirmation (as opposed to the expansive fields of free inquiry), virtually assured the country’s relegation to the dustbin of history.

There was a time in the not very distant past when the US leadership class believed the essential vitality of the US cultural political heritage. But judging from the design of my child’s new passport, they no longer trust in its ability to speak for itself. It appears we too are now denizens of the new Baroque, destined, like the Spaniards before us, to live out our decline in a propagandistic netherworld designed (so they tell us) for the benefit of others.

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Author: Thomas Harrington

Thomas Harrington teaches Iberian studies at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn.