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Lorca’s sleepless city: a vision of the financial crisis

What can we learn about the philosophy of capitalism from the poet and playwright, Garcia Lorca? Lorca’s engagement with modernity 70 years ago is all at once detached and anguished, enraged and reconciled, and ultimately unified through contradiction.

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Anna Kotenko


I argue that through Lorca’s poetry we can learn how to approach this current economic crisis with a perspective and awareness that is more constructive than the fear-base underpinning much of the current media response.

This is not to dismiss the very real implications of high unemployment rates, inflation and poverty, but perhaps it’s time to use art as an interpretive tool.

Lorca understood and captured the substance of the processes of capitalism in Keynesian, Neoclassical and Classical economics; flux.

The dialectical motion of capitalism underwrote Marx’s famous proclamation: “All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, men at last are forced to face… the real conditions of their lives and their relations with their fellow men”.

Marshal Berman’s brilliant book on modernity; titled “All that is solid melts into airdistinguishes Marx’s voice for its ability ‘to turn in on itself’ and to express progress in terms of creation, destruction and recreation.

I suggest that this same quality denotes Garcia Lorca’s New York Poetry and carries with it a warning in the face of the continuing Eurozone talks.

Lorca’s New York poetry tells us most about his relationship with modernity and capitalism. This section of poetry is characterised by shock and fascination; a pertinent feature of the dialogue surrounding the current economic situation.

Dali had criticized Lorca for not capturing modernity, with much of Lorca’s previous work focusing on rural Andalusian life.

Dali’s comment provoked Lorca’s decision to leave his beloved Andalusia and go to New York. New York allowed a freedom that Lorca did not have in Andalucía.

Despite this, his New York poetry is starkly bleak and void of the sensuality evident in poems such as: “Son de Negros en Cuba”, written in Cuba on Lorca’s return to Andalusia from left New York.

The absence of sexuality in “Poeta en Neuva York” hints at isolation from the natural world, and at personal alienation, which is especially redolent in “Ciudad sin sueño” (Sleepless City).

Of all his works, Ciudad sin sueño perhaps best encapsulates his preoccupation with inevitability of destruction in the modern world.

Lack of sleep itself can be an expression of capitalism and the onset of ruin. Not stopping to be refreshed, the city is in a continual process of flux. Nothing stays the same and everything changes.

The contrast between the natural images and the grey sponge landscape, where only dead butterflies are left, relay how modernity in New York had taken on a life and force of its own, detached from nature.

Lorca was acutely aware of the distinction between the individual and the ‘public’, which resulted in isolation. The image of the boy crying because he does not know the bridge exists: “aquel muchacho que llora por que no sabe la invencion del Puente”, is intriguing.

The boy’s smallness and individuality contrast with the image of the bridge. What is significant is the suggestion that without modern structures people are lost.

Whilst buildings are designed as public goods, they may not be designed for people, and hence he can’t find it.

And herein lays a symbolic similarity with economics, which is concerned with the distribution and production of goods and services. While the boy is looking for the bridge, economists are looking for an effective answer to the crisis.

Despite its bright lights, Lorca’s New York is a city of darkness and the only real light is from the moon. The moon is a symbol of death for Lorca, and throughout the poem the implication is that death is waiting for a city that doesn’t sleep.

This is echoed in the line: ‘it is necessary that we are taken to the wall in which iguanas and serpents wait’, where prehistoric creatures represent life before modernity. The repeated cries: ‘Be awake, be awake, be awake’ affirm the dangers of sleeping.

There is something chilling in this poem in the context of the current global financial crisis. But it is not nihilism, nor inevitability.

If Lorca is to be read in terms of economic forecasts, his poetry is not implying that we should accept this inevitability. Instead it suggests that we should develop our awareness to see the contradictions in the system, wake up, and accept responsibility.

Lorca surpass the underlying contradiction of a city that never sleeps, but needs to wake up, by describing an automated world, which is void of sensuality.

The rhythm is mechanical in places to reflect how a constant rush is deceptive and the pace quickens to express a sense of urgency to be lifted from it.

Lorca often used New York’s theatricality to symbolise the need for both perspective and change.

Lorca’s love for theatre was great. The stage allowed him to transcend his own life into an art form. It is not surprising that through his poetry Lorca perceived modern New York as a staged production.

The ‘skull of the theatre’ in Ciudad Sin Sueno may be another apocalyptic vision. But is also displays the distinct message that the city is “not real”. The city became jungle like to Lorca, with hordes of people scuttling like ‘furious ants’ to skyscraper buildings.

The concrete jungle of today is a clichéd statement, which indicates we have come to accept it. Current Eurozone talks have become almost theatrical in their prevalence and the politics surrounding the crisis have become integrated into daily entertainment.

Lorca’s defiant message in a lecture in New York in 1930 was that he had not come to entertain but to fight.

In the postmodern era of financial liberalisation, globalisation and transnationalism, we move even faster, are less private and can experience more isolation. Perhaps it is fair to say that we have become complacent in our alienation.

This is not to discount the enormous democratic benefits of globalised communication, open economies and increased migration. Alienation is just a part of the story; but it is often the unheard part.

And it is considerable; approximately 1.4 billion people still live in absolute poverty, which is an underestimate. Systematic isolation continues through xenophobic immigration policies, unfair terms of trade and financial liberalism.

This ‘bottom billion’ of the world population symbolises the risk that Lorca hinted at in his poetry and which we are now all too fully aware of. The risk has become real in the absence of an integrated perspective on the impact of policies and decisions.

The implications of risk are perhaps best expressed in a translation of “Ciudad sin sueño” as a ‘city that does not dream’. This conjures obvious connotations of a city trapped by its own obsession with progress, echoed by the lines: “there is no oblivion, no dream”.

Ultimately, Lorca is warning about the nature of a system that turns in on itself, that melts into air and recreates more of the same. The message seems to be not to panic, because creation can be born from destruction. Yet for this to be possible clear vision is needed.

It is important to remain alert and watchful, and accept that things always change can be applied to today’s current crisis. It is not just the immediate Eurozone crisis that we should be warned of.

The Eurozone crisis is a mark of the structural problems inherent in the global economy and signals for a deeper integration of perspective. Now what is needed is for Lorca’s message to be heard. And seen.

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