Two years of my friendship with Abraham ben Yitzhak ( Sonne) coincided with the Spanish Civil War. It was the main subject of our daily talks. All my friends sided with the Republicans. Our sympathies with the Spanish government were unconcealed and expressed with passion.
For the most part we simply discussed what we had read in the papers that day. It was only in my conversations with Sonne that we looked more deeply into what was happening in Spain and considered its consequences for the future of Europe. Sonne proved to be well versed in Spanish history. He ha studied every phase of the centuries-long war between Christianity and Islam, of the Moorish period and the Reconquista. He was as familiar with the country’s three cultured as if he had grown up in all of them, as though they still existed and were accessible through a knowledge of the three languages, Spanish, Arabic and Hebrew, and of the corresponding literatures. From him I learned something about Arabic literature. He translated Moorish poems of the time as easily as if he had been translating from the Bible, and explained their influence on the European Middle Ages. Though he never claimed for a moment to know Arabic, it came out quite coincidentally that he was fluent in that language.
When I tried to explain certain events in the recent and past history of Spain by the particular type of mass movements specific to the Iberian peninsula, he listened and did not try to discourage me. I had the impression that if he expressed no reaction it was because he realized my ideas were still fluid and that it would be better for their future development if they were not yet solidified by discussion.
It was only natural at that time that we should think of Goya and his Horrors of War engravings. For it was his experience of the cruel; reality of his time that made this first and greatest of modern artists what he was. “He didn’t look the other way,” said Sonne. Those words were spoken from the heart. How shattering to contrast the rococo style of Goya’s early work with these engravings and the late paintings. Goya had his opinions, he was partisan; how could a man who saw the royal family with his eyes have failed to be partisan? But he saw what was happening as if he belonged to both camps, because his knowledge was a human knowledge. He detested war, more passionately perhaps than anyone before him or even today, for he knew that there was no such thing as a good war, since every war perpetrates the most evil and dangerous of human traditions. War cannot be abolished by war, which merely consolidates what is most detestable in man. Goya’s value as a witness exceeded his partisanship; what he saw was monstrous, it was more than he had any desire to see. Since Grunewald’s Christ no one had depicted horror as he did, no whit better than it was – sickening, crushing, cutting deeper than any promise of redemption – yet without succumbing to it. The pressure he put on the viewer, the undeviating direction he gave to his gaze, was the ultimate in hope, though no one would have dared to call it by that name.
Those who had not forgotten the teachings of the First World War were in a sate of grave spiritual torment. Sonne recognized the nature of the Spanish Civil War and knew what it would lead to. Though he hated war, he thought it was necessary and indispensable hat the Spanish Republic should defend itself. With Argus eyes he followed every move of the Western powers that were trying to prevent the war from spreading to Europe. He groaned to see the democratic powers reducing themselves to impotence with their nonintervention policy and knowingly letting the Fascists pull the wool over their eyes. He knew this weakness had its source in a dread of war, which he shared with them, but it also revealed ignorance of the enemy and terrifying shortsightedness. The pusillanimity of the Western powers encouraged Hitler, who was testing their reactions, trying to find out how far he could go; his enemies’ dread of war confirmed him in his warlike plans.
Sonne was convinced that nothing could be done to change Hitler’s determination top make war, that it was his basic principle (derived from his experience of war), the principle by which he lived and through which he had come to power. Sonne regarded all attempts to influence Hitler as futile. But it was necessary to break off the chain of his successes before all anti-war sentiment had been suppressed in Germany. This sentiment could be encouraged only by an unequivocal action outside of Germany. Hitler’s triumphal march was a deadly threat to all, the Germans included. With his fanatical sense of historic mission Hitler was bound in the end to drag the whole world into this war, and how could Germany hope to defeat all the rest of the world?
Sonne’s opinions were far in advance of his times. Politicians were staggering from one makeshift solution to the next. Though he saw the coming catastrophe more and more clearly, he took interest in every least detail in the Spanish conflict. For to his lucid mind, oddly enough, nothing could be regarded as settled once and for all; an unforeseen event, however unimportant at first sight, could give rise to a new hope – and such hopes must not be overlooked, everything must be borne in mind, nothing was unimportant. . .
I shall never forget the day when in a state of great agitation I came to meet Sonne at the Café Museum and he received me in total silence.. The newspaper lay on the table in front of him, his hand lay on top of it, he didn’t lift his hand to shake mine. I forgot to pronounce a greeting; the words that I was going to fire at him stuck in my throat. He had turned to stone, I was delirious with excitement. The same news – the destruction of Guernica by German bombers –had affected us in very different ways. I wanted to hear a curse from his lips, a curse in the name of all the Basques, all Spaniards, all mankind. I did not want to see him turned to stone. His helplessness was more than I could bear. I felt my anger turning against him. I stood waiting for a word from him. I couldn’t sit down until he said something. He paid no attention to me. He looked drained; he looked desiccated, as though long dead. The thought passed through my head: A mummy. She’s right. He is a mummy. That’s what Veza called him when she was angry. I was sure he felt my condemnation, even if I hadn’t said anything. But that too he disregarded.
He said: “I tremble for the cities.” It was hardly audible, but I knew I had heard right.
I didn’t understand. Those words were then harder to understand than they would be today. He’s befuddled, I thought, he doesn’t know what he’s saying. Guernica destroyed , and he talks about cities. I couldn’t bear the thought of his being befuddled. His clarity had become the biggest thing in the world for me. Two disasters had hit me at once. A town destroyed by bombers. Sonne stricken with madness. I asked no questions. I offered no moral; support. I said nothing and left. Even out on the street I felt no sympathy for him. I felt –it sickens me to say it – pity for myself. It was a though he had died in Guernica, as though I had lost everything and was trying to face up to it.
I hadn’t gone far when it suddenly occurred to me that he might be ill; he had looked frightfully pale. He couldn’t be dead, I thought, for he had spoken, I had heard his words, what hit me so hard was the absurdity of those words. I turned back, he welcomed me with a smile, he was the same as usual. I would have gladly forgotten the incident, but he said: “You needed a breath of air. I can see that. Maybe I need one myself.” He stood up and I left the café with him. Outside, we spoke as if nothing had happened. He made no further reference to the words that had so upset me. That may be why I have never been able to forget them.
Years later, in England during the war, the scales fell from my eyes. We were far apart, but he was still alive. He was in Jerusalem. We did not correspond. I thought to myself: Never has there been a more reluctant prophet. He saw what would happen to cities. And he had seen all the rest. He had had plenty to tremble for. He didn’t justify one atrocity by another. He had left the blood feud of history behind him.
The Memoirs of Elias Canetti, “The Play of The Eyes”; Farrar, Straus and Giroux 1977-99