I was working on a column called “The Fall of Barcelona”, when a pathological version of Jihadist extremism reared its head in the city, and I thought it might not be appropriate. There was no point in kicking Barcelona when it was down, it seemed, of rubbing salt in open wounds. I would not want to be seen to be taking advantage of a moment of weakness, of criticizing in an opportunistic way. Thing is: those terrorist acts neither brought Barcelona down nor wounded her, as it has since been evidenced. They did not weaken the city in the least; it is as intact and sound as it ever was (small condolence). If the aim of these articles is to consider the underlying clichés of Barcelona, its unspoken biases and obstinate absurdities, the August 17 attacks contributed nothing in the way of an “opportunity” to do so.
The fall of Barcelona goes quite beyond the terms of one terrorist attack, however painful. In some ways, it is far deeper, overriding its banality (in the sense Hannah Arendt described evil), whose perpetrators are pathetic, shallow pawns in the logic of another (that other, in absentia, who has every intention). The fall of a city always has to do with what it makes or unmakes of itself.
The fall of Barcelona goes with a set of terms pertaining to the decline of all urban conglomerates. This has been, since antiquity, a formula that has held true. Take Rome: the decadence of the city was not rooted in its overextended empire, whose repressed extremes eventually found the gumption to march on the centre. Blame not the barbarian hordes. Rather, much earlier, in the shift from Republic to Empire, which gave it the tools to domineer and execute conquest, the seeds of decay were obstinately sown. At the political apex of the Empire, the satirist Juvenal decried a city wholly uninterested in politics, fully devoted to panem et circenses.
Great cities inscribe the terms of their essential identity and eventual demise in the adventure of their ascent. I first was made to reflect upon this in conversations with a veteran American writer I met in my first months in Barcelona, 30 years ago this month. He was a kind of self-exiled beat poet; I suppose we were in London Bar. Speaking about the literary expression of cities, I asked him which novel best described New York. The House of Mirth, he replied, by Edith Wharton, which took me aback. Writing before Manhattan skyscrapers, before jazz, before tickertape parades and the implosion of Wall Street, Wharton portrays a town of muddy streets and uptight mores where aristocratic Dutch surnames still garnered respect. Where the summer swelter and its mosquitos would drive all monied types to Newport Beach.
I am not sure what the literary equivalent for Barcelona would be, perhaps Narcís Oller, La febre d’or [Gold Fever] (1890-92), with its financial speculators, petty ambition and extreme small-mindedness. Others say it’s La ciudad de los prodigios (1986), the Eduardo Mendoza novel, which adeptly addresses the obsession for overblown projects meant to bolster urban prestige, and their effect on the common folk called to build them. By looking back, Mendoza anticipated what was to come, which is only possible if you are skilled at identifying patterns of repetition. Considering he wrote it before Barcelona was awarded the 1992 Olympics, when the extent oLa ciudad de los prodigios f its hangover would have been unimaginable, only adds to its power of prestidigitation.
What we are considering is a sort of principle whereby a city’s essence and the reasons for its fall must somehow be articulated (in literature, or elsewhere) before its rise has even been perceived. Realizing you are slipping into oblivion when you are already going down is no good: it is like putting a sad mask on an already sad face. You have to do it before. Nor is it enough to make the best of your decadence by enveloping it in a cool narrative, turning clean streets into mean streets, gangsta rapping the city—though nobody here has any interest in doing this anyways. No one in Barcelona – not politicians, not writers, not even documentary filmmakers – can stomach the idea that what is definitively wrong about the place is what makes it truly interesting, in a totally non-hipster way of framing the question.