Catalan Futurist: Joan Salvat-Papasseit
Politics and literature often go hand in hand. This isn’t something to be ashamed of. That is, so long as the art is the preliminary, gut-desire of the writer, not the politics itself. In today’s literary scene we have many political-writers of fiction: Khaled Hosseini, Hisham Matar, Gore Vidal, Nadine Gordimer and others. All of them remarkably talented writers, if not somewhat one-trick ponies.
The question begs itself: could writers like Hosseini and Gordimer ever write such hopeful, artistic masterpieces as say Lolita or Ulysses or, closer to our times, Atonement and The Narrow Road to the Deep South? Politicised writers tend to focus more on their message rather than aesthetics. Of course there is politics in all fiction, literature and politics are as uncomfortably intertwined as an Italian coalition government. But there are only a handful of writers who can use politics as a means to enhance, fuel, and never supersede their art; we can think of Orwell and DH Lawrence (and his political views stunk badly). And then there is Joan Salvat-Papasseit.
Whom you’ve never heard and whose name you cannot pronounce.
Born in the late 19th century, Joan Salvat-Papasseit lived and died in Barcelona during tumultuous political times (First World War and all its disastrous domino effects) and wrote some of the most avant-garde and unique poetry you are ever likely to read.
His father, a merchant sailor, died in mysterious circumstances when he was a boy leaving his upbringing in the hands of his mother. Who, needless to say, struggled harshly to raise a family on her own. The family Salvat-Papasseit grew up in was badly impoverished. Schooling and education was never an option for him and his family. As soon as he was old enough (and probably before) he dived into work. His youth was spent in the dock poorhouse of Barcelona, where he would spend most of his life, and he did odd jobs like apprentice statue-maker, grocer-boy and for a sustained time night-watchman in the docks.
In his teens he began to develop an interest in politics, especially socialism. Uneducated but proudly self-taught, his vigour stemmed from a sense of injustice at society’s inequality and the horrible state of social justice. In 1916 he was imprisoned for his political writings.
In 1918 the tide began to turn for young Joan. He published his first collection of poetry Humo de fabrica, and he found steady work as books manager of a cultural group called Galeries Laietanes. It was also in 1918 when he married Carme Eleuterio. But 1918 wouldn’t be the quite-perfect phoenix of a year for him. In the same year he began showing severe symptoms of tuberculosis which confined him to long stays in sanatoria – the only other place he ever lived in apart from the docks. The illness would claim his life a few years later, despite offered the best treatment paid for by wealthy benefactors, he died in great agony in 1924. A short, tortured life, yet he is still considered one of the greatest poets of Catalunia and indeed of all Spain. A statue of him was erected in 1938 in the docks of Barcelona where he spent most of his life. He is firmly rooted in that proudly Catalonian pantheon of great artists which include Anton Gaudi, Salvador Dali, Joan Maragall, Joan and Miro.
How? In such a short, uneventful lifespan. That’s a rhetorical question, as are all questions asked by writers in their writing: the answer, look no further, is his poetry.
His poetry was influenced by Catalan modernisme and Italian Futurism; two styles that sought to integrate the poet and society into the rushing currents of the modern world, with all its dynamic industrial delights and social plights. Salvat-Papasseit’s poems were bi-artistic; his poems were visual, dynamic, moving, tender. And yet, this wasn’t merely artistic posturing. The self-taught son of a merchant sailor knew how to write a good line!
You will remain
To see how good it all is:
(Nothing is Paltry)
Despite being a politically active writer he was also interested, as the last quote highlights, in life and death, particularly since he spent most of his life fearing a premature death that inevitably came. “I am a BUFFOON who is dying.” He shouted out prophetically in Wedding March. In the poem he seeks out a legacy, tries to realise that he is assured some degree of immortality by virtue of his verse: “and so I will be immortal as from now has been born/my I in the ALL.”
In his poetry Salvat-Papasseit sought to strip away the veneer of banality that he saw in everyday scenes all around him to reveal the dynamic, riveting nature of the urban environment he so loved. Later on in life he disassociated himself from orthodox Christianity and he began finding rituals and religiosity in the scenes of glorious urban mundanity he saw all around him, especially during his time as night-watchman. This from Still on the Tram: “Girl on the tram you’ve got your eyes in your book/ and the page blushes/ on being envied.”
And in the last stanza of a poem called Christmas he gives us a scene of Tiny Tim-level misery that combines his love of the struggling and his apathy towards Christianity:
Tomorrow at the table we will forget the poor
— so poor as we are —
Jesus will be born.
He will look at us for a moment with our sweets
and after looking will start to weep.
Politics and the everyday weren’t Salvat-Papasseit’s only interests. He was a kinky writer too. He had an eye for the erotic, and acknowledged that love and sex were an integral part of city-life. He wrote a poem about a pimp called Love Vendor which give us some morbidly memorable lines: “The love vendor/ brings rare jewels:/ the girl you want/ the girl you choose.” In the wittily titled Give Me A Saint he raises a kinky, profane girl to the status of a saint, and he combines here Greek lyricism with French erotica: “That saint who, when alms-giving,/ if her eyes pierced you, kissed your neck,/ and her taste was that of the finest girls/ and on the rise of her breast were the sweetest dreams.” Never before or since has blasphemous cat-calling been so refined.
Salvat-Papasseit was as obsessed with his art as he was with social injustice. Few could unite the two as eloquently as he. He was extremely productive throughout his lifetime, he experimented with different forms, styles and muses, and displayed the kind of obsessions to his work that chefs show to their 17-hour shifts or a footballer’s brutal devotion to the training pitch. And this whilst writing political essays and trying to stay afloat, day to day, and later on, whilst fighting an excruciating illness he could never defeat. Are any writers out there today as hardcore as this? If there are, please, stand up and let yourselves be heard!