Lots of Goya and Other Images We’d Never Seen Before

I was traveling in Spain,

on a trip to study Goya, when the terrorists struck New

York and Washington

on Sept. 11. On the afternoon of that fateful day-when it was morning, of

course, in New York-my companions and I, a small group of American critics and

journalists, had just descended into the courtyard of the Escorial after a

visit to its great library, which is said to be the third oldest in Europe and

is especially rich in ancient volumes of Greek, Latin, Arabic and Hebrew

literature.

One of the guards,

clearly much agitated by something he was hearing on his walkie-talkie, took

our Spanish tour guide aside to give him the news of the horrific attack on New York. This splendid young man, who only a few minutes

before had been proudly discoursing on the glories of Spain’s artistic and

architectural past, suddenly looked as if he might faint. When he was

sufficiently composed to speak to us, he began by saying, in a choked voice, “I

don’t know exactly how to say this …” and then told us what little he’d just

learned.

We quickly returned to

our hotel in Madrid, and it was there, on the CNN and BBC television

broadcasts, that we had our first glimpse of the carnage in New York. There is no way to describe the combination of

fear, fury, isolation and helplessness that most of us were feeling at that

moment. Telephone contact with New York was severed, air travel grounded; there was no

hope of reaching our nearest and dearest, and nothing but one horror after

another on the television screen.

The fear was not for our personal safety, of course. We were

not in any danger. It was fear for the future of our country, which only a fool

could believe would not be permanently altered-and possibly even permanently

wounded-by this war, as President Bush promptly and correctly described it,

that had suddenly descended upon us. This is a fear

that, in my view, is unlikely to be abated in the lifetime of anyone now old

enough to comprehend its portent.

As there was no possibility at that moment for our group-all

of whom had come from New York or

Washington, D.C.-to

return to the States, we decided to resume the tour. Yet from that moment, our

art tour had acquired a somewhat surrealistic character, with exalted aesthetic

experience and excited conversation interspersed with the fears and the tears

engendered by our frequent recourse to television and newspaper accounts of the

massacre of the innocents in New York

and Washington. And when, a couple

of days later, we were at last able to telephone our families and friends,

their anguish only added to our own. Among ourselves, we joked a lot and we

drank a lot, and together we saw a lot of Goya-and much else besides-we had not

seen before. But much of the time, our minds were also occupied by those images

on the television screen, which even an inspired and disabused talent like Goya

could not begin to approximate.

What also added to the

bizarre character of our visit-for myself, anyway-were

our daily encounters with 21st-century Madrid, now a vibrant, prosperous, modernized,

cosmopolitan capital that, in everything but the dazzling remains of its

historic past, is unrecognizable for any visitor who, as I did, first knew the

city in the last days of the Franco regime.

In that period, Madrid

looked like a city stuck in a time warp: very proper and repressed in its

public life, while making discreet attempts on the fringes to modernize and

emancipate itself from a benighted and faltering authoritarian regime. On the

art scene, for example, there was a flourishing school of abstract painting

that was much admired in Paris

and New York-precisely the kind of painting that had been

banned by Stalin and Hitler. I daresay the painters themselves were emphatically

anti-Franco, as I was quickly made to understand when I was taken to a

late-night party in one of their studios. If they felt any qualms about lending

their prestige to Franco’s international image, they did not speak of it in my

presence. They did not have to, for their admirers in New York had already persuaded themselves that this mode

of abstract painting was to be understood as a sort of anti-Franco protest art.

In cosmopolitan Madrid

today, however, the greatest change is not to be found in the contemporary art

scene (which, for the most part, conforms to prevailing international trends),

but in the dress and demeanor of the young. Like their counterparts in Paris,

London and New

York-but at times going to even greater extremes-the

younger generation in Madrid

embraces every opportunity to flaunt freakishness and erotic provocation. The

young men with colored spiky hairstyles and dog collars to match, the girls

affecting braless bosoms and pierced navels, the open display of amorous

embrace in the streets and the pop music that is everywhere the anthem of

emancipated youth-at times, it makes the streets of Manhattan seem positively

sedate by comparison.

You don’t have to be a political expert to see that Spain

is now a highly democratized society; you have only to look at what the young

spend their apparently ample money on. This is democratic globalization at the

ground level, so to speak, with all of its attendant ghastly taste,

free-floating narcissism and compulsive consumerism. It’s to be preferred to

what it supplanted, of course, but it isn’t always very pretty. As for what it

portends for the future of high culture, that is a

problem by no means confined to Madrid.

Although I was abroad

for only a single week, it was clear from the moment we finally landed at

J.F.K.-by which time I had been traveling for some 16 hours-that the country

had entered upon a new historical epoch. I came back to a city in mourning, a

city in which the churches were now attracting bigger crowds than the movie

houses. It was Saturday night, and in the West 40′s where I live, a few blocks

from Times Square, the streets were almost deserted. When I turned

on the television set, it was something of a shock to hear the familiar liberal

voices earnestly attempting-not always persuasively-to master a

seldom-before-heard vocabulary of patriotism in reporting the news. Why, there

was even to be heard, from time to time, a grudging respect for President Bush.

This will soon pass, of course, but the long-term effects of

Sept. 11 will not. For better or for worse, we shall never again be the country

or the society we once were. We are a country permanently at war.