Last month I argued that the terms of a city’s identity and the basis for its eventual decline are written into its rise to fortune and fame. That the very things that make a metropolis great are the ones that eventually bring it down: cities slip off and fade out by being themselves. Rather than imagining that the loss of their status is caused by a stroke of bad luck or a fatal error, “great cities inscribe the terms of their essential identity and eventual demise in the adventure of their ascent.”
The fall of a city is a fundamental part of who it is, as firmly its own as what it was previously admired for. It is like a trait acquired over a lifetime that eventually makes its way into the will and testament, getting passed on to future generations (what geneticists call soft inheritance). This reminds me of the doctor in Robertson Davies’ novel The Cunning Man (1994), who by focusing on treating people and not diseases, also understood that people fall ill and die, inevitably, from being who they are. No cause of death can ever be considered foreign; all of them are domestic. I remember how unsettling I found the idea when I first read it, since it implies that even when a loved one has a nasty habit that is killing them, we should understand they are doing it as part of their way of living life.
Barcelona could be happy that way, enveloped in modesty and discreetly going about life, but it’s not.
What Barcelona most suffers from is a craving for greatness, for being recognized and loved, whether for its architecture, street life, gastronomy or football. It is not enough to be satisfied with what you have, which some psychologists say is a stepping stone to happiness. Barcelona could be happy that way, enveloped in modesty and discreetly going about life, but it’s not. Other places could care less about being liked, they have made peace with their lot in life: Barcelona hasn’t. Other places are fine, but Barcelona wants something more. Beneath its veneer of order and sociability, amidst the well-adjusted pace of its neighbourhoods, the city seems to have an almost pathological distaste for itself, which is contradictory. Even Barcelonans who gaze proudly into the mirror of their hometown every morning end up dreaming about a facelift every night.
I think it comes down to this: Barcelona has suffered from the syndrome of being the heart and soul of a nation that is not independent. It is not the capital of a nation state, though historians suggest it could have been (under the Visigoth rulers in the 5th century, in the medieval Kingdom of Aragon, or with the autonomy of the Second Republic). This perceived breach between reality and desire, combined with the powerful narrative of having been historically demoted from a previously superior status, has left its mark. If Catalonia were independent, and Barcelona its capital, it would take a hell of a lot of pressure off. It would be boring, sure, and staid, and probably not as fascinating. But there would be a lot less of the sort of forced anxiety that has brought it to overstate its case, standing on its moralizing high ground, boasting about being the best at this or that. In the dance between fulfilling its destiny and falling short, Barcelona has been caught in a dizzying cycle of trying too hard, doing things that are absurdly spectacular and often excellent – then sitting fidgety, for decades and even centuries, not happy with the results, fussing over what could have been.
It is not a question of whether the situation can be remedied or not, referendums notwithstanding. Caught up in a quandary of your own doing, all alternative or prosthetic responses end up being valid, as long you can get some proportional benefit. Better the realm of possibility than sitting there, doing nothing. If there is anything that can be done to help cover things up, you do it, turning the city into an irritating operation of surrogate fronts and facades, which its own residents look upon with estrangement.