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  • By the Grace of God: Francoist Spain and the Sacred Roots of Political Imagination by William Viestenz
  • Nathan Richardson
Viestenz, William. By the Grace of God: Francoist Spain and the Sacred Roots of Political Imagination. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 2014. 223 pp.

Franco’s recourse to the symbology of rule by divine right is familiar. Viestenz’s investigation into this mechanic via a series of sophisticated close readings of the work of five canonical Spanish and Catalan novelists and poets examines the mechanisms and effects of this recourse to make a case for the role of the sacred in the very logic of political order, be it fascist, nationalist, or otherwise.

Viestenz begins with a brief review of the Franco regime’s consolidation of sovereignty by way of a sacred symbolism founded in creative historiography. He traces the roots of this historiography to nineteenth century (Balmes, Cortés, Clarín) and Generation of ‘98 thinkers who employ rationalist discourse to wrest religion from the exclusive realm of the sacred and then attach it to political machinations. In their writings political questions become theological ones. More insidiously, dissenters become outsiders (anti-Spain) and a threat to eternal essences (sacred Spain) which then demand violence via scapegoating for sustenance. The sacred, thereby, is converted into a potent tool of political organization long before Franco appropriates it to forge divergent Nationalist groups into what Viestenz calls a “single sacred communion” (30).

By the late 1940s, the aftermath of the Second World War seals the fate of fascism and makes an embrace of Catholicism and recourse to the sacred the only viable discursive option for preserving Francoism. At the same time, the regime never relinquishes its monopoly on frequent and “nearly incomprehensible displays of violence” (32). In Viestenz’s extensive use of Rene Girard’s theory of violence and the sacred, the two means are inseparable. Viestenz turns early to Girard in his first literary analysis of his study, a reading of Catalán author Joan Sales’s novel Incerta gloria. Like those to follow, Viestenz’s reading is close, challenging, and tightly intertwined with likewise carefully and deeply considered theoretical work. Over the course of the study Viestenz will engage with the ideas of Giorgio Agamben, Jacques Lacan, Henri Bergson, Rudolf Otto, Nietzsche, Hegel, and Heidegger among many others. His are not mere passing references but extensive reviews and analysis of their theories which can challenge the reader to keep up. Lengthy untranslated passages in Castilian, Catalán, and even Galician, moreover, demand an audience engaged in a broader understanding of the literature of Spain proposed by Joan Ramon Resina and championed by Viestenz as Iberian Studies. In the case of Sales’s Incerta gloria, a novel begun in 1948 and retouched by the author over the course of the Franco dictatorship, Viestenz understands it as registering the need during the dictatorship for consecrated symbols that can mobilize political will in [End Page 552] order to establish and sustain the logic of regime continuity. Such symbols, however, rely on violence, which in Sales’s novel manifests itself in the multipronged destruction of Catalonia and the Second Republic enacted by actions both fascist and anarchist, both groups driven by a similar obsession with returning Spain to some mythical holy state. In the face of such violence, the novel’s protagonists turn to religion as a “result of an ontological aporia that requires metaphysical truth” (46). Religion is not rational, merely necessary—like the violence it produces and requires.

Juan Goytisolo’s Reivindicación del Conde don Julián continues this exploration of the dark consequences of a state’s need to turn to exclusionary violence for sustenance. Rather than succumbing to violence, in Goytisolo’s novel the protagonist wrests the very principle of violence from the regime he so despises. Over the course of the novel he becomes the sovereign, symbolically infecting, invading, and desecrating the homeland previously defiled by the enemy. Together with Sales’s novel, these works show “that sovereignty based on a victimary mechanism functions like a mathematical formula of recursion where immolation and exclusion are programmed into the very reiteration of power” (75). The process reveals the...


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