The teacher Oriol Junqueras is back in front of a class after eight years. The Catalan pro-independence leader has been giving a class from a virtual classroom at the University of Manresa in the midst of a pandemic and while serving a 13-year prison sentence which he received for his part in Catalonia's 2017 independence referendum. The title of the lecture could not have been more appropriate: "Classical values for difficult times."
As the years have passed, Junqueras has learned to project a fascinating fusion of his humanist and political profiles. He can turn a campaign event into a master class, and conversely, it is inevitable that his outcry against the injustice of prison will also be heard in a university lecture on the classics.
In the midst of today's complex situation, the classics that Junqueras focused on are texts that have stirred the emotions of readers over the centuries, from Socrates, Plato and Aristotle to Dante, Petrarch, Shakespeare, Cervantes, Goethe, Tolstoy, Byron, Zweig... All those who embody universal values and who "tend to be a good guide, a good reference, when the world changes".
Interestingly, however, the work in which he focused most attention in his class today was Aeschylus's bloody tragedy of Oresteia, a saga of how, in the face of a succession of terrible crimes, the community must decide, in which the author shows that the only possible justice is that which comes from the pact of the representatives of the community, of free people.
For Junqueras, doctor in history and former Catalan vice president, the classics allow us to understand the world and those aspects which affect us, because they appeal to the soul, to emotions and sentiments that can be shared by humans of all ages; they seduce over the centuries with emotions that are constant in human beings generation after generation, whether it be love, fear or grief following the death of a loved one.
“Seduction is this ability that a person or a literary work can have to take us towards it, to trap us within its plot, images and references, and when we feel trapped in it, when we are in the skins of the protagonists of the work, we can experience the same feelings, emotions, reflections that that person lived, last century or 25 centuries ago”, he explained.
This seduction "illuminates every corner of our soul, every emotion and feeling our soul can feel" and places the reader in front of a mirror of universality. This capacity is what makes a classic work: "We like discovering that what we have felt, someone else has felt before."
This is also the case in the midst of a pandemic. "In difficult times, anything can happen. These periods can provoke very different reactions", he explained. In the fourteenth century, the Black Death, which in a matter of weeks wiped out between a quarter and a third of the population in some parts of the planet, was the context for Boccaccio's The Decameron, in which a dozen young people seek refuge in the countryside, fleeing the epidemic, and decide to tell stories.
Later, in the early nineteenth century, a volcanic eruption caused planetary cooling that generated snowfall in midsummer and the failure of agricultural crops for two summers in a row. Based on this, Lord Byron wrote Darkness, often interpreted as fiction, when he was actually describing the reality he saw - with days of no sun and nights of no stars.
It is the same reality that is depicted by Turner's brush in works where the sun always appears blurred and which Junqueras invited his audience to search for on the internet. "I can't do it because in the place where I live there is no such thing as the internet," he said, in the only direct reference to his situation in Lledoners prison.
And in that same icy summer of the early nineteenth century, he recalled, a group of people took refuge in the Swiss Alps, including Mary Shelley and John William Polidori, and from the stories they told that summer, in that same house, Frankenstein and The Vampire emerged.
Junqueras concluded his class underlining the opportunity represented by the pleasure of learning, the taste for knowledge, and he illustrated this with an episode of The Simpsons which, he said, he saw yesterday in which Lisa Simpson has with her Walt Whitman's book Leaves of Grass - the US author who inspired The Dead Poets' Society because he invited new generations of authors to live and feed on poets who were already dead.
Professor Junqueras displayed his indisputable teaching skills at the University of Manresa this morning. The tools with which he can capture an audience, sharpened over many years and perfected in public life. “There is nothing as easy when it comes to catching the attention of an audience as to start saying "Once upon a time", because it awakens the memory of our childhood when we began to discover the world through a story", he explained, before bringing the class to a close and returning again to the world where the consolation of classic literature arrives, but the internet does not arrive.