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Characteristics

It is a hazardous thing to attempt the analysis of national character, for after all, however careful the traveller may be in his inquiries, it is from the few individuals himself has known that his most definite impressions are drawn. Of course he can control his observations by asking the opinion of foreigners long resident in the country; but curiously enough in Andalusia precisely the opposite occurs from what elsewhere is usual. Aliens in England, France, or Italy, with increasing comprehension, acquire also affection and esteem for the people among whom they live; but I have seldom found in Southern Spain a foreigner--and there are many, merchants, engineers and the like, with intimate knowledge of the inhabitants--who had a good word to say for the Andalusians.

But perhaps it is in the behaviour of crowds that the most accurate picture of national character can be obtained. Like composite photographs which give the appearance of a dozen people together, but a recognisable portrait of none, the multitude offers as it were a likeness in the rough, without precision of detail yet with certain marked features more obviously indicated. The crowd is an individual without responsibility, unoppressed by the usual ties of prudence and decorum, who betrays himself because he lacks entirely self-consciousness and the desire to pose. In Spain the crowd is above all things good-humoured, fond of a joke so long as it is none too subtle, excitable of course and prone to rodomontade, yet practical, eager to make the best of things and especially to get its money's worth. If below the surface there are a somewhat brutal savagery, a cruel fickleness, these are traits common with all human beings together assembled; they are merely evidence of man's close relationship to ape and tiger.

From contemporary novels more or less the same picture appears, and also from the newspapers, though in these somewhat idealised; for the Press, bound to flatter for its living, represents its patrons, as do some portrait-painters, not as they are but as they would like to be. In the eyes of Andalusian journalists their compatriots are for ever making a magnificent gesture; and the condition would be absurd if a hornet's nest of comic papers, tempering vanity with a lively sense of the ridiculous, did not save the situation by abundantly coarse caricatures.

It is vanity then which emerges as the most distinct of national traits, a vanity so egregious, so childish, so grotesque, that the onlooker is astounded. The Andalusians have a passion for gorgeous raiment and for jewellery. They must see themselves continually in the brightest light, standing for ever on some alpine eminence of vice or virtue, in full view of their fellow men. Like schoolboys they will make themselves out desperate sinners to arouse your horror, and if that does not impress you, accomplished actors ready to suit your every mood, they will pose as saints than whom none more truly pious have existed on the earth. They are the Gascons of Spain, but beside them the Bordelais is a truthful, unimaginative creature.

Next comes laziness. There is in Europe no richer soil than that of Andalusia, and the Arabs, with an elaborate system of irrigation, obtained three crops a year; but now half the land lies uncultivated, and immense tracts are planted only with olives, which, comparatively, entail small labour. But the inhabitants of this fruitful country are happy in this, that boredom is unknown to them; content to lie in the sun for hours, neither talking, thinking, nor reading, they are never tired of idleness: two men will sit for half a day in a cafe, with a glass of water before them, not exchanging three remarks in an hour. I fancy it is this stolidness which has given travellers an impression of dignity; in their quieter moments they remind one of very placid sheep, for they have not half the energy of pigs, which in Spain at least are restless and spirited creatures. But a trifle will rouse them; and then, quite unable to restrain themselves, pallid with rage, they hurl abuse at their enemy--Spanish, they say, is richer in invective than any other European tongue--and quickly long knives are whipped out to avenge the affront.

Universal opinion has given its verdict in an epithet: and just as many people speak of the volatile Frenchman, the stolid Dutchman, the amatory Italian, they talk of the proud Spaniard. But it is pride of a peculiar sort; a Sevillian with only the smallest claims to respectability would rather die than carry a parcel through the street; however poor, some one must perform for him so menial an office: and he would consider it vastly beneath his dignity to accept charity, though if he had the chance would not hesitate to swindle you out of sixpence. But in matters of honesty these good people show a certain discrimination. Your servants, for example, would hesitate to steal money, especially if liable to detection, but not to take wine and sugar and oil: which is proved by the freedom with which they discuss the theft among themselves and the calmness with which they acknowledge it when a wrathful master takes them in the act. The reasoning is, if you're such a fool as not to keep your things under lock and key you deserve to be robbed; and if dismissed for such a peccadillo they consider themselves very hardly used.

Uncharitable persons, saying that a Spaniard will live for a week on bread and water duly to prepare himself for a meal at another's expense, accuse them of gluttony; but I have always found the Andalusians abstemious eaters, nor have I wondered at this, since Spanish food is abominable. But drunkards they often are. I should think as many people in proportion get drunk in Seville as in London, though it is only fair to add that their heads are not strong, and very little alcohol will produce in them an indecent exhilaration.

But if the reader, because the Andalusians are slothful, truthless, but moderately honest, vain, concludes that they are an unattractive people he will grossly err. His reasoning, that moral qualities make pleasant companions, is quite false; on the contrary it is rigid principles and unbending character, strength of will and a decided sense of right and wrong, which make intercourse difficult. A sensitive conscience is no addition to the amenities of the dinner-table. But when a man is willing to counter a deadly sin with a shrug of the shoulders, when between white and black he can discover no insupportable contrast, the probabilities are that he will at least humour your whims and respect your prejudices. And so it is that the Andalusians make very agreeable acquaintance. They are free and amiable in their conversation, and will always say the thing that pleases rather than the brutal thing that is. They miss no opportunity to make compliments, which they do so well that at the moment you are assured these flattering remarks come from the bottom of their hearts. Very reasonably, they cannot understand why you should be disagreeable to a man merely because you rob him; to injury, unless their minds are clouded by passion, they have not the bad taste to add insult. Compare with these manners the British abhorrence of polite and complimentary speeches, especially if they happen to be true: the Englishman may hold you in the highest estimation, but wild horses will not drag from him an acknowledgment of the fact; whereby humanism and the general stock of self-esteem are notably diminished.

Nothing can be more graceful than their mode of speech, for the very construction of the language conduces to courtesy. The Spaniards have also an oriental way of offering you things, placing themselves and their houses entirely at your disposal. If you remark on anything of theirs they beg you at once to take it. If you go into a pot-house where a peasant is dining on a plate of ham, a few olives, and a glass of wine, he will ask: 'Le gusta,' 'Will you have some,' with a little motion of handing you his meal. Of course it would be an outrage to decorum to accept these generous offers, but that is beside the question; for good manners are not an affair of the heart, but a complicated game to be learned and played on either side with due attention to the rules. It may be argued that such details are not serious; but surely for the common round of life politeness is more necessary than any heroic qualities. We need our friends' self-sacrifice once in a blue moon, but their courtesy every day; and for my own part, I would choose the companions of my leisure rather for their good breeding than for the excellence of their dispositions.

Beside this, however, the Andalusians are much attached to children, and it is pleasant to see the real fondness which exists between various members of a family. One singular point I have noted, that although the Spanish marry for love rather than from convenience, a wife puts kindred before husband, her affection remaining chiefly where it was before marriage. But if the moralist desires yet more solid virtues, he need only inquire of the first Sevillan he meets, who will give at shortest notice, in choice and fluent language, a far more impressive list than I could ever produce.


William Somerset Maugham