Franco’s Face

Franco King Juan Carlos 24 May  1974 Victory Parade Madrid - GettyNuno Silva, a Portuguese-born footballer who has played in Angola and Portugal, and who has just started playing for Spanish football team Real Jaén in Andalusia, this week wore a t-shirt emblazoned with the face of Spanish dictator Francisco Franco (who died in 1975) to his inaugural press conference. Twitter was, initially, in uproar, especially since Silva’s excuse was, despite being from the Iberian peninsula, not knowing who Franco was thus neither what repercussions wearing said t-shirt might have.

However, a day later – incredible as it may seem – a recently-minted video advert appeared on the Real Jaén website, which contained the hashtag #LaCamisetaDeNuno(‘Nuno’s t-shirt’). It is an offer for their season ticket holders. Nuno Silva rather awkwardly presents the free t-shirt one could receive if one were a season-ticketed fan who turned up with a friend. The advert ends: ‘Nuno Silva didn’t know the history of Spain, but he did know what a ‘Friend’s Season Ticket’ (Abono Amigo) was’. There is a lot to take in here: the alarming fact that Silva had no idea who Franco was, and saw the offending t-shirt as a fashion item; the way in which polemic is treated on social media; and finally, the paradoxes of a neo-liberal society and its skewed approximation of historical fact.

‘I have lived in Portugal and Angola and do not know the depth of the history of Spain’, declared Silva in his statement of apology. One cannot blame another for lack of knowledge, but not knowing this particular information about the recent history of a neighbouring country (and coming from a country that has its own long history of dictatorship – and indeed spending time in Angola) shows an incredible lack of personal interest. It is not out of the ordinary to criticise a person’s own trajectory through the world. I do not like it when people are dismissed as ‘stupid’; it is a stupid reaction in itself. What interests me is the question of a figure who is crucial to Spanish consciousness – and its conscience – seemingly slipping back into view, ultimately with very little real commentary. The obvious misjudgment of the act is perhaps where the immediacy of social media can hold impatient judgment. But the response to the apparition of Franco’s face in public is fascinating, because in only a matter of days it has disappeared from view – although none of the broadsheets have yet produced any commentary on what is a very recent event. However, don’t hold your breath.

What Silva does not know, he says, is the ‘depth’ of Spanish history (he uses the word ‘grueso’, which also implies density, fattiness and complexity); the shallowness of time is a feature of liberal capitalist culture, where a person born in 1986 like Nuno Silva has no idea about the events of his parents’ generation; shallowness, also, is apparent in social media’s initial rage, followed by enchantment at the killer publicity move performed by Real Jaén, called by one on Twitter ‘masterful’. By either re-tweeting or favouriting Real Jáen’s advert, you can also show like or dislike. As another Twitter user put it, ‘there’s no such thing as bad publicity’. All that matters in this case is the image itself as a symbol in the Twittersphere – as an act of controversy that, through the machinery of social media, can be approved or disapproved. The content of the image is, for the most part, ignored. This is all about appearance and says nothing about the fatty, dense, complex recent past of Spain. It denotes social media as a kind of viral imagistic poetry, launching images like bullets into the ether which, whilst under consideration, are not considered at all.

Francisco Franco’s dictatorship started in 1939 after a Civil War. He died in 1975, after forty years as Caudillo (leader), or Generalísimo, of Spain. His image hung in every city, town and village in Spain. His profile, proud and powerful, appeared on coins. His regime was oppressive and characterised by a focus on national tradition, family and the Catholic religion. Many writers and artists went into exile; others were shot or subsumed into the regime. The civil war that preceded Franco’s long term as caudillo was a bloody affair by any standards – it has been controversially called ‘the Spanish Holocaust’ by renowned Spanish cultural critic Paul Preston. An internecine struggle has left its hidden mark on Spanish culture. In the latter part of his dictatorship, as censorship relaxed (somewhat), Spanish letters offered its own critical response to authoritarian Spain in the shape of authors like Juan Goytisolo and Miguel Vázquez Montalbán. After ‘the transition’ to neo-liberal democracy, the new democratic government declared a ‘pact of silence’ on the past – and looked forward, like any good modern capitalist state. Only as recently as 2007, with the inauguration of la ley de la memoria histórica (the Historical Memory Law), were mass graves of soldiers shot during the war dug up and plotted. As many as 2000 have been exhumed, but there are more. But the impulse to move forward at any cost – the madness of modernity – finds no depth in these exhumations. There is a public sense that Franco is very much in the past and that silence might be more useful than discussion.

In literature, the case is rather different, of course, and the poets continue to unearth the bones and ghosts of franquista Spain. There, arguably, is the only place we can question the madness of the capitalist machine – and the shallowness of its trajectory. It makes the apparition of Silva’s t-shirt doubly confusing; firstly, that by wearing it he shockingly, according to some, brings Franco back into the public sphere – what is Franco doing here, as a latterday Che Guevara, with an aura of magic conferred to the Generalísimo’s person?; and secondly, all we find in the shallows of response is a Franco that everyone can recognise – a product, made to sell season tickets.

What if we were, as Silva suggests might be wise, to immerse ourselves in the meat and gristle of Franco’s face? The incongruity of this symbol of fascism used – if only indirectly – to get bums on seats, underlines quite how insidious culture can be. That the past is reduced to a series of like and dislike buttons is nothing new – it is a disturbing feature of social media that has been much commented on. And new Luddites abound as you would expect; being reactionary is a facet of the shallowness of culture. But let’s take a look at that face; such death behind the eyes; such poise even after his own death. Let’s rip back a bit of that skin – the muscles are taut still, the eyeballs even more glaring without the folds of skin that surround them. All of this seems familiar. Under the glare of the spotlight, Franco’s ravaged face is reassuring. In fact, it is not attention-grabbing at all.

Because Franco is not dead.

The process that starts with well-meaning horror and ends with admiration for a publicity stunt well done shields another, more complex truth. Spain, like every other neo-liberal state, exists at least partly in a quick-moving blur of denial. Generations forget from one to the next – Nino Silva is an example of that. Underneath the skin of being Spanish lies the meat and gristle of Franco’s face, existing alongside forgetfulness like a malevolent alien. It is not that Franco has suddenly made a reappearance into the Spanish cultural imagination – and needs to be shut out. Quite the opposite: it is that Franco always exists under the skin of conscience and the manner in which culture reacts to his apparition – like a spot, or tumour – is the measure of the substance of culture itself.

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  1. Fearghas MacFhionnlaigh says:

    Explico Algunas Cosas (I’m Explaining a Few Things)
    by Pablo Neruda.

    You are going to ask: and where are the lilacs?
    and the poppy-petalled metaphysics?
    and the rain repeatedly spattering
    its words and drilling them full
    of apertures and birds?

    I’ll tell you all the news.

    I lived in a suburb,
    a suburb of Madrid, with bells,
    and clocks, and trees.

    From there you could look out
    over Castille’s dry face:
    a leather ocean.
    My house was called
    the house of flowers, because in every cranny
    geraniums burst: it was
    a good-looking house
    with its dogs and children.
    Remember, Raul?
    Eh, Rafel?
    Federico, do you remember
    from under the ground
    my balconies on which
    the light of June drowned flowers in your mouth?
    Brother, my brother!
    loud with big voices, the salt of merchandises,
    pile-ups of palpitating bread,
    the stalls of my suburb of Arguelles with its statue
    like a drained inkwell in a swirl of hake:
    oil flowed into spoons,
    a deep baying
    of feet and hands swelled in the streets,
    metres, litres, the sharp
    measure of life,
    stacked-up fish,
    the texture of roofs with a cold sun in which
    the weather vane falters,
    the fine, frenzied ivory of potatoes,
    wave on wave of tomatoes rolling down the sea.

    And one morning all that was burning,
    one morning the bonfires
    leapt out of the earth
    devouring human beings —
    and from then on fire,
    gunpowder from then on,
    and from then on blood.
    Bandits with planes and Moors,
    bandits with finger-rings and duchesses,
    bandits with black friars spattering blessings
    came through the sky to kill children
    and the blood of children ran through the streets
    without fuss, like children’s blood.

    Jackals that the jackals would despise,
    stones that the dry thistle would bite on and spit out,
    vipers that the vipers would abominate!

    Face to face with you I have seen the blood
    of Spain tower like a tide
    to drown you in one wave
    of pride and knives!

    see my dead house,
    look at broken Spain:
    from every house burning metal flows
    instead of flowers,
    from every socket of Spain
    Spain emerges
    and from every dead child a rifle with eyes,
    and from every crime bullets are born
    which will one day find
    the bull’s eye of your hearts.

    And you’ll ask: why doesn’t his poetry
    speak of dreams and leaves
    and the great volcanoes of his native land?

    Come and see the blood in the streets,
    come and see
    the blood in the streets,
    come and see the blood
    in the streets!

    [English translation by Nathaniel Tarn (American poet, essayist, translator, and editor) in Selected Poems: A Bilingual Edition, by Pablo Neruda. London, Cape, 1970.]

  2. Fearghas MacFhionnlaigh says:

    Just how close to the surface Francoism remains in Spain is clearly a matter of grave concern. However, one wonders if Real Jaén’s “La camesita de Nuna” video is more than a tasteless attempt to turn controversy into cash. It doesn’t recycle the Franco image as such, but opportunistically tries to make a marketable one-liner joke out of Nuna’s faux pas.

    The moral questions raised do bring to mind somewhat the controversial adverts of Italian photographer Oliviero Toscani, most famously those for United Colours of Benetton, which depicted, for example, Death Row inmates. Toscani shrugged off the flak, saying “All I’ve done is put a news photo in the ad pages”. But it is fairly evident that he was hitching a ride on volatile social issues in order to sell jerseys. He obviously did hold strong taboo-flouting views himself, but nonetheless the knack was to identify and hitch a ride on the wave of prevailing opinion. Maybe the Real Jaén marketing people (sub)consciously influenced by Toscani’s approach.

    Toscani worked for a while with Andy Warhol, whose own “Car Crash” photograph/ screenprint series also provide a morally queezy antecedent.

    Returning to the Franco image, a curious coincidence is that it was Oliviero’s Toscani’s photojournalist father (Fedele Toscani) who took the famous photo (which appeared in Corriere della Sera) of executed Italian fascist dictator Benito Mussolini, hanging by his heels in a Milan square.

    A 9 min youtube on Toscani:

  3. Andrew Giles says:

    That Neruda poem is breath-taking, and I think it’s a very good translation. I especially like ‘the stalls of my suburb of Arguelles with its statue / like a drained inkwell in a swirl of hake’, and then ‘and the blood of children ran through the streets/ without fuss, like children’s blood’. Both lines realign the original version just a tiny bit, and I think that is well done.

    You’re right, of course, that this is ‘a tasteless attempt to turn controversy into cash’. It interests me too, though, to what lies beyond the attempt itself – something like a rip or tear in reality that allows Franco to seep through. And then what we do with that: if we should face it, somehow, or let it lie. There is a kind of inherent anxiety involved here that I continue to think about. Social media just seems to flatten that process – which makes it harder to read.

  4. Fearghas MacFhionnlaigh says:

    Andrew Giles writes:

    “That the past is reduced to a series of like and dislike buttons is nothing new – it is a disturbing feature of social media that has been much commented on….Spain, like every other neo-liberal state, exists at least partly in a quick-moving blur of denial. Generations forget from one to the next…Social media just seems to flatten that process – which makes it harder to read.”

    The above quotes of course raise deep cultural-philosophical questions. To begin to do justice to them would require essay-length consideration. But silence wouldn’t contribute anything at all, so following are a few sketchy thoughts. You will no doubt be ahead of me, but the general reader might not.

    Your viscerally evocative: “something like a rip or tear in reality that allows Franco to seep through” of course begs the age-old question: “What is REALITY and how can we know it?”

    The pop-art movement of the late 1950s/ 1960s signalled a move of consciousness from “natural” world to “urban” world, from primary to secondary engagement with reality. By the latter, I mean there began an artistic preoccupation with, and celebration of, found illustrative ephemera – ie machine-reproduced imagery from comics, magazines, billboard hoardings, movies, tv etc. The pop artist pragmatically accepted this (often anonymous) commercially-generated material as de facto “everyday reality”, going on to playfully and accessably re-mediate it to the public.

    To pick up on Warhol again, he claimed he wanted to be a machine. Hence, the mechanistic repetitiveness of his screenprints, intentionally imposing equally mindless banality on soup-cans, Marilyn Munro, car crashes, electric chairs etc. Arguably, there was no reality behind the image. There was for him no “real” Marilyn to seep through any “rip or tear” in the mechanistic sequence.

    Jumping forward to the ubiquity of computers and the 24-hour multimedia internet world. A generation grows up having substantially processed daily existence from within a lifelong electronic bubble. Almost everything “known” has been pre-edited and pre-filtered via technology by “another”. The question might well be posed: How, for this generation, can “reality” be validated? Indeed I wonder how many would even understand that question in the sense that your article asks it.

    Insofar as “reality” is accumulated experience of incoming data, Franco has now BECOME an image. As has Hitler. As has Stalin. As has Marilyn Munro. William Wallace of course looks like Mel Gibson. Abraham Lincoln like Daniel Day-Lewis (or in his “vampire hunter” guise, like Benjamin Walker). The outrageous license taken by Hollywood scriptwriters has BECOME the history, or at least the most widely internalised version of it. How many seek to tear through the glossy imagery in search of another “truer” reality? That project requires four convictions: a) there IS such a “reality”; b) it is discoverable; c) it is worth the effort to find it; d) it makes a blind bit of difference to anything anyway.

    We are talking of course of the mugging of traditional “modernist” reality by a more subjectivist “post-modernism”.

    I have an interest in the thinking of the late Dutch philosopher Herman Dooyeweerd (1894-1977). In Dooyeweerd’s analysis of the modern Western worldview he detects an internal dichotomy between an assertion of universally valid, cause-and-effect, Mechanistic Law, and an equal assertion of ultimately lawless Free Personality. It seems to me his critique is given a good deal of credence by the “robot versus human” type conflicts of movies such as Terminator, Matrix, Battlestar Galactica, Ex Machina etc.

    Postmodernism could thus be read as a shift away from an espoused “reality” of universal law (the “grand narrative” polarity), and towards an espoused “reality” of transient provisional consensus (“personal freedom” polarity). As has been recently insisted by more than one person on another Bella Caledonia thread, no “ideological” or “religious” descriptions of “reality” are now acceptable. Of course the statement “There is no Big Story” would seem to be a self-refuting universal claim. But maybe it’s just me…

    Postmodernism is thus characterised by provisionality, skepticism, eclecticism, self-parody (lest one be accused of “exclusivist” dogma). Postmodernist “reality” can only be a tentative, pick and mix, flux and fusion, culturally inclusive, affair.

    In terms of imagery, exploring reality is now consequently rather like “décollage”. Tearing through one poster just reveals another poster, and another. Ultimately, perhaps, though unlikely, it reveals a brick wall. We can see this kind of inconclusive (but certainly entertaining) interrogation of “reality” manifest in films like “Matrix” (again), “Inception”, “Source Code”, “Fight Club” etc.

    I heard Will Self on Radio 3 explain that his latest novel did not have a “narrator” or a “beginning, middle, and end” because these features belonged to the now-redundant Christian worldview. It struck me as wonderfully funny.

    I have now written far too much here. But I do want to try to bring all this to bear briefly on the nature of Fascism itself. In the aftermath of the Nazi occupation of Holland, Dooyeweerd determined to seek out the philosophical taproot of National Socialism. He wrote:

    “Today we live under the dominion of an idolatrous view of reality that absolutizes the historical aspect of creation. It calls itself dynamic, believing that all of reality moves and unfolds historically. It directs its polemic against static views that adhere to fixed truths. It considers reality one-sidedly in the light of historical becoming and development, arguing that everything is purely historical in character. This “historicism,” as it is called, knows of no eternal values. All of life is caught up in the stream of historical development […] We will do well to keep the affinity beween National Socialism and the Historical School in mind, for later we shall see that Nazism must in essence be considered a degenerate fruit of the historicism propagated by the Historical School.” (Roots of Western Culture: Pagan, Secular, and Christian Options, Paideia Press 2012, pp 43, 53)

    Dooyeweerd saw that Nazism in its totalitarianism recognized no law (eg no international law, no divine law, no moral law) above itself. It followed only the “Destiny of the German People [“Schicksal des deutschen Volkes”]. I have not come across any mention of Franco by Dooyeweerd, but he does distinguish German Fascism from Italian Fascism by saying that the former was Volk-based (“blood-and-soil” [rather than “national” as such]), while the latter was State-based (evoking Eternal Rome).

    Perhaps the merciful fact is that even should we have the misfortune to wake up in the Spanish Civil-War past we would discover that the original Franco himself was not ultimate reality, but (as Picasso so graphically caricatured him), a gross flesh-and-blood distortion of “reality”. Or maybe on second thoughts that last sentence is just a ridiculous attempt by me to be clever. A bullet in the head would surely be a sufficient encounter with reality for most of us.

  5. john Strachan says:

    In defense of Nuno Silva. How many English sportsmen would recognize a picture of Eamon de Valera or Michael Collins? Both iconic faces to the Irish that we share these islands with

  6. Brian Fleming says:

    John, perhaps a more apposite analogy would be how many Irish sportsmen would recognise a picture of Winston Churchill? I’ve no idea of the answer though.

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