Author Archives: Portals Journal

Call for Papers | Portals, Spring 2017, Volume 14

Let us turn a critical eye to objects in relation to human beings, as portrayed through literature and culture. With the recent proliferation of Brown’s “Thing Theory,” our understanding of the relationship between humans and inanimate objects has expanded. An analysis of the materiality of the human body as it compares to that of objects, as well as the distinction between “object” and “thing” will make up the focus of the upcoming 2017 Portals volume.
The Comparative Literature Student Association invites you to submit original critical essays and short creative fiction of a comparative or critical nature. Papers that engage the theme of human-object interaction in diverse literary and linguistic traditions will be featured prominently, though all will be considered.
Submission Deadline: April 9, 2017
Send your original and previously unpublished submission as a .doc attachment to with Portals Submission in the subject line.

Authors will be contacted within two weeks of the deadline.
Submission Guidelines:

  • Essays should be in MLA style, 12-point font, and no longer than 25 pages; these will compare at least two texts from different linguistic traditions. Citations should include the original language and an English translation.
  • Authors may submit up to 3 pieces of critical or comparative fiction.
  • Authors should be currently enrolled undergraduate students, graduate students, or doctoral candidates.
  • Include a 250-word abstract and a cover sheet with contact information, including school affiliation and current academic standing. Your name should not be featured outside the cover sheet; this is a blind selection process.
  • Submissions not in English will be considered, though translations will be prioritized.

All inquiries should be directed to our editors at:

Portals is published once a year in the spring semester at San Francisco State University, in conjunction with the Comparative Literature Student Association (CLSA). Portals features student work that contemplates literary topics across cultural, regional, linguistic, and temporal boundaries. Portals is available in scholarly journal listings worldwide.
We encourage authors to read our journal thoroughly before submitting.

The Leper by Jeong-Ju Seo, Prince Grass: Returning from Shenyang by Myung-Han Lee, and Storm Roaring At The Castle Roof by King Gwanghae

Translations by Heejung Sim

The Leper
by Jeong-Ju Seo

The sun, the light, the sky
The leper, deep in sorrow.
At moon rise, in the barley field,
He devours a child 1.
All night,
He weeps: cries of crimson colored flowers.

– 未堂 서 정 주 –
해와 하늘빛이문둥이는 서러워
보리밭에 달 뜨면 애기 하나 먹고
꽃처럼 붉은 울음을 밤새 울었다.

Prince Grass: Returning from Shenyang
by Myung-Han Lee

Exuberant wild Prince grass,
Leisurely flowing Taizi River 2
Lonely subject on his way back home 3,
For whom does that spring light shine so delicately?


회자심양( 回自瀋陽)-이명한(李明漢)

漠漠王孫草(막막왕손초) : 왕손 풀은 아득하고

悠悠太子河(유유태자하) : 태자 물은 유유히 흐른다

孤臣獨歸路(고신독귀로) : 외로운 신하 홀로 돌아오는 길에

春色爲誰多(춘색위수다) : 봄빛은 누굴 위해 이리도 짙은가

Storm Roaring At The Castle Roof
by King Gwanghae

Humid air fills the town.
Day has already turned to night
As the roaring current rolls in.
Wild green mountains’ worrisome air surrounds the clear autumn.
Desperate to return,
I have seen too many wild Prince grass,
But without promise, this vagabond dreams of the Capital City.
Hardly any word from home,
A lonely boat on a foggy lake floats ceaselessly.





궂은 비바람이 성머리에 불고
습하고 역한 공기 백 척 누각에 가득한데
창해의 파도 속에 날은 이미 어스름
푸른 산 근심어린 기운이 맑은 가을을 둘러싸네
돌아가고 싶어 왕손초를 신물나게 보았고
나그네의 꿈에는 제자주(서울)가 자주 보이네
고국의 존망은 소식조차 끊어지고
안개 자욱한 강 위에 외딴 배 누웠구나

光海君 李琿


Translator’s Note

These translations initially began as a personal interest. My main goal for this project was to unearth some rarely translated medieval and contemporary Korean poems that have strong cultural reflection and historical depth. A challenging part about this project was working with poems written in Old Korean and not the modern Korean we know of today. Up until the early 20th century, due to the long history of Chinese colonization of Korea, modern Korean alphabets were not considered official written language. Thus, poems like “Prince Grass” and “Storm Roaring at the Castle Roof,” were originally written in Chinese characters instead of modern Korean alphabets, and were later translated into modern Korean.

I selected three poems from three different distinctive poets: Jeong-Ju Seo, Myung-Han Lee and King Gwanghae of Joseon Dynasty. Despite the difference in their time period, their poems all deal with feelings of loss and isolation one feels under the weight of history. Moreover, their reflective nature further demonstrates particular cultural aspect of “Han.”

“Han” is a unique Korean cultural trait and is implied or explicit, is in every aspect of Korean life and culture. “Han” can be understood as an overwhelming sense of sorrow and melancholy equivalent to African-Americans’ blues. “Han” is central to understanding Korean-ness because of Korea’s history of frequent foreign invasion and oppressive colonial experiences. The three poets all similarly express personal and historical “Han” in one way or another.

The first poet, Jeong-Ju Seo, is a controversial figure within Korean literary community because of his history as a Pro-Japanese activist. However, among western readers, he is better known as the founding father of modern Korean poetry. He was nominated five times for the Nobel Prize. He lived from 1915 to 2000. His inspiration primarily came from history, foreign poets such as Baudelaire, and his experience of living under Japanese occupation during early 20th century. Baudelaire’s influence can be seen in Seo’s poem “Leper.”As Baudelaire attempted to explore beauty coming from the place of darkness, Seo, too, explored human desire for life through leper’s perspective as he committed an unspeakable crime. His depiction of beauty through symbolic color red, which represents life the leper desperately desires, invites cross-cultural empathy.

What took the most effort in translating “Leper” was translating the cultural references only Korean readers may be familiar with. In Korea, there was an old wives’ tale about eating a child’s liver and how it could cure leprosy. There are no known origins for this tale; however, many lepers who already felt persecuted by society actually carried these gruesome crimes out. Although this had been out of practice for decades before Jeong-Ju Seo’s time, it appears that the myth surrounding these incidents still survived and had inspired him to reference it in his poem. Aside from Seo’s interest in folklore and cultural identity, Seo’s apparent sympathy for the leper and his feeling of isolation and helplessness stems from his experience as a colonial subject under Japanese rule.

The second poet, Myung-Han Lee, served as a civil servant in the Royal Court of the Yi Dynasty during 15th century Korea. He was known for his fervent loyalty to the Ming Dynasty despite their declining state at the time. He was held captive in Manchu Qing Empire with the Crown Prince of Korea. During this ordeal, he served as the Crown Prince’s advisor. He returned to Korea with the Crown Prince in 1643. His poem “Prince Grass” was written on his return journey to Korea.

In the second poem “Prince Grass,” there is a subtle historical reference to the first and second Manchu invasion of Korea which had occurred from 1627 to1636. Due to Korea’s deeply rooted loyalty to the Ming Dynasty, Manchu Qing Empire found it necessary to conquer Korea by force. The two invasions left Korea in ruins and ended in an unfair peace treaty which resulted in the Qing Empire taking the Crown Prince and his brother Grand Prince as hostages to Shenyang. This was a turbulent time in Korean history, politically as well as personally, with violent change forced upon many government officials who considered themselves loyal to the teachings of Confucius and the Han principles of China. The transfer of power from the Ming Dynasty to the Qing Dynasty disrupted this political order. Lee’s poem successfully captures the “Han” of this particular time period through the perspective of a captive returning home alone.

For this poem, I worked with a previously translated version as the piece was originally written in Chinese. When translating this poem, one of the difficulties I faced was finding an appropriate name for what the poet calls prince grass. According to Dr. Min Jung in his book, Woori Hanshi Sambaeksoo (Our Three-Hundred Chinese Poetry), prince grass is another name for Angelica, also known as Dong Quai. Both Chinese and Korean locals have called them prince grass because they believed it invoked the image of sadness in its scenery. Prince grass is often found in northern parts of Korea and various places in China but mostly nearby Shenyang’s Taizi River as referenced in the poem. It resonated well with the overall tone and theme of the poem to literally translate the name as prince grass instead of using its Latin name Angelica, which may be more familiar to Western readers.

The last poet, King Gwanghae, was the fifteenth king of Joseon Dynasty. He lived from 1575 to 1641 and reigned from 1608 to 1623. His most notable accomplishments included restoration of official documents destroyed during the Seven Years War, which lasted from 1592 to 1598 and reconstruction after the war. He was also heavily criticized by the conservatives for his neutral diplomatic stance between the Qing and Ming dynasties. His neutral stance resulted from his own traumatic experience of Seven Years of War. He was later dethroned in a coup staged by his nephew, who was an avid supporter of the Ming dynasty and died in exile. His poem “Storm at the Castle Roof” was written during his time in exile on Jeju Island.

In “Storm Roaring at the Castle Roof,” there are some references to Jeju Island to which the poet was exiled after being dethroned. This reference is not as clearly implied as the poet often jumps back from his daydreams and reality. However, his overall nostalgic tone in the poem points to his deep “Han,” resulting from his dethronement and subsequent foreign invasions Korea suffered. While translating language-wise was not an inconvenience, the help from my writer’s group was crucial in translating the feel of the poem from Korean to English. Their feedback was essential in guiding me in determining what sounded right and if it had successfully transferred the feelings that poets had originally intended. Directly translating sentences from Korean to English made the meter and rhyme sound quite different. Instead, I took liberty with the rhythm and translated it to its current version. For example, in “The Leper,” my main issue was tense. Originally the poem was written in past tense in Korean, but I chose to translate it into present tense in English, as the present tense seems to represent the leper’s despair better.

The main goal of this project was to transfer the historical, cultural and emotional aspect of Korean poems to life in English. As mentioned earlier, “Han” is an important aspect of Korean history and culture and it is my hope that through my reinterpretation of these poems from Korean to English, Western readers will hopefully be able to gain a new perspective of Korean culture and history.

  1. During Joseon Dynasty (1392-1897), there was a popular belief in Korea that eating innocent children could cure leprosy. Lepers were then often blamed for the disappearance of children in towns and faced punishment by angry mobs.
  2. A river located in Shenyang, roughly translated: the Crown Prince River.
  3. This is a reference to Crown Prince Sohyeon who was taken as a hostage in the Manchu Court during the Qing Dynasty at Shenyang by the terms of a peace treaty after War in 1636. He was kidnapped to Shenyang with his wife, two children and his brother, Prince Bongrim.

Challenging Cultural Crossroads: Memory, Identity, and Narrative Purpose in Patrick Chamoiseau’s Solibo Magnifique and Mario Vargas Llosa’s El hablador

by Elizabeth Lee

Patrick Chamoiseau’s Solibo Magnifique (Solibo Magnificent, 1988) and Mario Vargas Llosa’s El hablador1 (The Storyteller, 1987) depict intricate late 20th century post-colonial Martinican and Peruvian societies where cultural boundaries become blurred and traditional customs continue to disappear due to lingering colonial influences. Under these conditions, defining a culture and consequently orienting oneself within that space become challenging endeavors. In Solibo Magnifique, the titular character, who is a storyteller in Fort-de-France, Martinique, passes away unexpectedly during carnival while speaking to a crowd of listeners, spurring a farcical police investigation that leads to violence and additional deaths. The narrator Oiseau de Cham2, who acts as a “marqueur de paroles” (“word scratcher” [115])3, then attempts to recreate a memory of Solibo and of the vanishing oral tradition, transcribing his words and recognizing in the process the difficulty—and impossibility—of directly translating the oral into the written. El hablador similarly addresses this tension between orality and literary tradition when the Peruvian narrator comes upon a photo of a Machiguenga storyteller surrounded by an audience in the Amazon. Imagining that this storyteller is his ex-university friend Saúl Zuratas, he attempts to once again write a novel about the Machiguenga and its storytellers.

The narrators and storytellers in both texts are therefore situated among a mixture of cultural beliefs and customs. In their manifesto, “Éloge de la créolité” (“In Praise for Creoleness”), Jean Benarbé, Chamoiseau, and Raphaël Confiant argue, “We cannot reach Caribbeaness without . . . the unconditional acceptance of our Creoleness.” This Creole identity (créolité) and, consequently, the Creole space that Solibo and Oiseau de Cham inhabit are “the interactional or transactional aggregate of Caribbean, European, African, Asian, and Levantine cultural elements, united on the same soil by the yoke of history” (891; emphasis in text). Thus, reaching Creoleness is a continual process of embracing the diverse historical and cultural elements that form part of Creole identity, and only then can Caribbeaness take shape through the acceptance of cultural differences amongst the peoples in the Archipelago (894). On the other hand, El hablador presents a dichotomy where the narrator and Saúl Zuratas find themselves between Peruvian culture and the Machiguenga, an indigenous group in the Peruvian Amazon. However, because Peru is a transcultural nation where the Machiguenga form a part of it, both Peruvian and Machiguengan cultures are interconnected and yet in some ways distinct products of Peru’s colonial and post-colonial history. Thus, Solibo Magnifique and El hablador present characters who define themselves differently within this multicultural environment. This allows the narrators—who are storytellers themselves by occupation—to then contemplate how Solibo and Zuratas handle the crossing of cultures and shape their identities, and how the portrayal of these storytellers become a projection of the narrators’ own internal struggles as they attempt to grasp this complicated mix of cultures and cultural crossings. This essay explores the complex cultural identities of these narrators through a discussion of the reasons that compel them to remember and recreate the storytellers. It will then address the way their narratives reveal parallelisms between themselves and the storytellers, ultimately considering the act of writing as a method to shape and reshape the self and others.

1. Narrating Memory

Although Oiseau de Cham and the Peruvian narrator in El hablador express a continual interest in marking down Solibo’s words and writing a realistic novel on the Machiguenga, both do not set about accomplishing these tasks to their full extent until their identities within their respective societies become destabilized through loss and the uncertainty that follows it. In Solibo Magnifique, this notion of loss emerges implicitly early on through the narrator’s need to write down stories he hears. He expresses his obsessive determination to document Solibo when he explains, “J’accumulais des notes derrière des notes et des nuits fiévreuses à les remettre au propre, avec la rage prémonitoire d’un en lutte avec le temps: les conteurs étaient rares, j’en avais trouvé un” (45-46) (“I accumulated notes upon notes and spent feverish nights putting them in order, with the premonitory rage of one wrestling with time: storytellers were rare, I had found one” [22-23]). Noting the rarity of storytellers, Oiseau de Cham suggests that these stories forming a part of Martinican tradition, and therefore Martinican identity, are slowly disappearing. The question of time also becomes an important aspect since loss in this novel generates tension between past and present, tradition and change, and consequently between Solibo and Oiseau de Cham. Nevertheless, Solibo’s role as a storyteller becomes crucial to the narrator’s quest to remember past traditions as he mentions that now only folkloric institutes celebrate the spoken word. Cheikh M. Ndiaye notes that Solibo’s social status is analogous to that of a griot or African storyteller and associates him with Negritude, a literary movement begun by francophone intellectuals including the Martinican poet and politician, Aimé Césaire, that called for a return to and an embracing of African roots (114, 117). What fascinates the narrator, then, is the difference engulfing him and Solibo. Whereas Solibo positions himself firmly within the realm of orality, Oiseau de Cham depends heavily on the written word as a way to preserve the present. He discloses, “À force de patience, j’avais fait admettre mes cahiers, mes crayons, mon petit magnétophone à piles qui ne fonctionnait jamais, mon appétance malsaine pour les paroles, toutes les paroles, même les plus inutiles” (43-44) (“With patience, I got them to accept my notebooks, my pencils, my little tape recorder with batteries that never worked, my unhealthy appetite for tales, all tales, even the most trivial ones” [21]). By calling his appetite for tales “malsaine” (unhealthy), he highlights this ethnographic approach as an unnatural way to retain Solibo’s sayings. His use of anthropological methods—a discipline with roots in Europe—pits him in direct opposition to Solibo, since the latter’s relationship to orality as a way to remember and circulate information evokes African traditions, which also form part of Creole customs.

Ultimately, Solibo remains a mystery to Oiseau de Cham even as he realizes the importance of Solibo’s gift for the spoken word and the need to preserve it. He writes, “Car, si de son vivant il était une égnime, aujourd’hui c’est bien pire: il n’existe . . . que dans une mosaïque de souvenirs, et ses contes, ses devinettes, ses blagues de vie et de mort, se sont dissous dans des consciences trop souvent enivrées” (26) (“For if in his life he was an enigma, today it is much worse: he exists . . . only in a mosaic of memories, and his tales, his riddles, his jokes on life and death have all dissolved in minds too often sodden” [8-9]). The fear of forgetting Solibo—who the narrator at certain times describes as an otherworldly figure—spurs him into producing a “parole” for him, since even these fragmented memories of him are fading already. He claims, “J’aurais voulu pour lui d’une parole à sa mesure: inscrite dans une vie simple et plus haute que toute vie” (27) (“For him, I would have wished words his size: inscribed in a simple life and yet higher than life” [9]). Oiseau de Cham’s use of the word “parole” is important in understanding the purpose and structure of this text, because it demonstrates the manner in which Oiseau de Cham wishes to present Solibo and his memory. Solibo gains the “Magnifique” (Magnificent) part of his name because of his oral skills. His words become a “parole.” On the other hand, the written is not a “parole,” as Solibo informs Oiseau de Cham: “Oiseau de Cham, tu écris. Bon. Moi, Solibo, je parle. Tu vois la distance? . . . tu veux capturer la parole à l’écriture, je vois le rythme que tu veux donner, comment tu veux serrer les mots pour qu’ils sonnent à la langue . . . On n’écrit jamais la parole, mais des mots, tu aurais dû parler” (52-53) (“Oiseau de Cham, you write. Very nice. I, Solibo, I speak. You see the distance? . . . you want to capture the word in your writing, I see the rhythm you try to put into it, how you want to grab words so they ring in the mouth . . . One writes but words, not the word, you should have spoken” [27-28]). This distinction between “parole,” “mot,” and even “écrit” induces a question then: If, as noted earlier, Oiseau de Cham subscribes to the written word rather than the spoken, how does he ultimately negotiate between these two opposing forms of communication?

To the narrator, Solibo becomes a figure who can provide a perspective outside of his own, challenging his preoccupation with writing and perhaps even forcing him to eventually negotiate between the oral and the written, between his connection to Creole and French forms of memory. Oiseau de Cham claims, “Mystère sur mon devenir si le personnage de Solibo Magnifique n’avait réveillé ma vieille curiosité, me permettant ainsi, à travers lui, de retrouver une logique d’écriture” (44) (“Who knows what would have become of me if Solibo Magnificent’s personality had not awakened my old curiosity, thus allowing me (through him) again to find sense in writing” [22]). Even so, this acquired sense in writing is undermined through Solibo’s death: not only does Oiseau de Cham lose this tangible connection to the oral past of Martinique, but this death also threatens his position as a “marqueur de paroles.” If his social function is to record stories that shape Martinican culture, then the disappearance of these storytellers suggests that the position of a “marqueur de paroles” will fade along with them. Consequently, his decision to create a written memory of Solibo reveals a desire to hold on to this aspect of a cultural past that is fundamental to Creole identity4.

By contrast in El hablador, the Peruvian narrator begins the novel by attempting to forget his Peruvian identity, only to be forced to revisit it when confronted with memories of his past struggles to understand the Machiguenga and to write about them. He explains, “Vine a Firenze para olvidarme por un tiempo del Perú y de los peruanos y he aquí que el malhadado país me salió al encuentro esta mañana de la manera más inesperada” (13) (“I came to Firenze to forget Peru and the Peruvians for a while, and suddenly my unfortunate country forced itself upon me this morning in the most unexpected way” [3])5. Although he expresses his need to forget Peru, the narrator does not give any concrete indication of his relationship to this country, exposing a lack of connection to his cultural background. He distances himself even further from Peru by setting up an antithetical relationship between Italy and Peru when he sees through a window display photos depicting the Peruvian jungle and decides to enter the building to study them:

Con un extraño cosquilleo y el presentimiento de estar haciendo una estupidez, arriesgándome por una curiosidad trivial a frustrar de algún modo el proyecto tan bien planeado y ejecutado hasta ahora—leer a Dante y Machiavelli y ver pintura renacentista durante un par de meses, en irreductible soledad—, a provocar una de esas discretas hecatombes que, de tanto en tanto, ponen mi vida de cabeza. (13)
(With a strange shiver and the presentiment that I was doing something foolish, that mere curiosity was going to jeopardize in some way my well-conceived and, up until then, well-executed plan—to read Dante and Machiavelli and look at Renaissance paintings for a couple of months in absolute solitude—and precipitate one of those personal upheavals that periodically make chaos of my life. [3-4])

The juxtaposition of the Peruvian jungle and Renaissance Italy brings into focus the question of roots and identity. Not only does the narrator favor a time period in Italy that sought to revive and establish classical Greece and Rome as a foundation for European culture and knowledge, but he also reveals his wish to disassociate himself from what he deems is an unfortunate and unrefined component of Peru. By describing his curiosity as “trivial” (banal), the narrator displays a desire to view those photos of the jungle as inconsequential. At the same time, however, he realizes that they will provoke a primitive part of himself that he has thus far suppressed, since he applies the word “estupidez” (stupidity) to his actions and predicts that they will generate chaos in what he suggests is currently a well-ordered life—at least while in Italy. Additionally, the fact that he wishes to be alone with his well-organized plan of studying Renaissance works reveals perhaps a sense of fragility to his identity, where intrusions that might not even be as significant as the photos of the jungle can further destabilize his sense of self as a Peruvian writer and intellectual.

Ultimately, a photo of a Machiguenga storyteller creates anxiety within the narrator and propels him to write about this indigenous group again, years after his first attempt while studying in Paris, thus revealing his need to understand this world that he cannot seem to penetrate. Of his past endeavors to write about the Machiguenga, the narrator reveals, “había renunciado a escribir mi relato sobre los habladores. Había borroneado cuadernos y pasado muchas horas en la plaza del Trocadero, en la biblioteca y las vitrinas del Museo del Hombre, tratando de entenderlos y adivinarlos, en vano. Inventadas por mí, las voces de los habladores desafinablan” (121-22) (“I’d given up the idea of writing about the habladores. I filled any number of composition books with my scribblings and spent many hours in the Place du Trocadéro, in the library of the Musée de l’Homme and in front of its display cases, trying in vain to understand the storytellers, to intuit what they were like. The voices of the ones that I’d contrived sounded all wrong” [107]). As with the earlier juxtaposition between Italy and the Amazon, here the author locates himself within the civilized, intellectual world that is France and attempts to faithfully depict the lives of those in the Amazon jungle. Furthermore, he later on explains,
[C]ada vez que despachaba a la basura el manuscrito a medio hacer de aquella huidiza historia, era la dificultad que significaba inventar en español y dentro de esquemas intelectuales lógicos una forma literaria que verosímilmente sugiriese la manera de contar de un hombre primitivo, de mentalidad mágico-religiosa. Todos mis intentos culminaban siempre en un estilo que me parecía tan obviamente fraudulento . . . (176)
([E]ach time I threw the half-finished manuscript of that elusive story into the wastebasket, was the difficulty of inventing, in Spanish and within a logically consistent intellectual framework, a literary form that would suggest, with any reasonable degree of credibility, how a primitive man with a magico-religious mentality would go about telling a story. All my attempts led each time to the impasse of a style that struck me as glaringly false . . . [157-58])
Like Oiseau de Cham in Solibo Magnifique, the narrator in this text attempts to write about an oral tradition through a European framework by essentially imposing the Spanish language on the Machiguenga voice. However, Oiseau de Cham does not reject the cultural tradition he writes about as he takes part in the quotidian life of those he incorporates into his writing. By contrast, the Peruvian narrator reiterates this dichotomy of the intellectual and a supposedly more primitive group, underscoring what appears to be a purposeful distancing between himself and his subject matter.

Considering the near impossibility of depicting the Machiguenga accurately, the inclusion of Saúl Zuratas becomes essential to the narrator’s project due to the former’s multifaceted identity. The narrator conflates the Schneils’ encounter with a storyteller possessing a facial birthmark with the photograph he sees of a Machiguengan storyteller with a similar attribute, and he decides that the storyteller in the photograph is none other than Zuratas. Thus, the narrator undermines the realism of his novel by creating a fictionalized representation of the Machiguenga and the oral tradition. He cannot determine with certainty that it is truly Zuratas. However, without incorporating him into the narrative, the Peruvian narrator would not have an adequate connection to the Machiguenga that could prove constructive to his writing endeavors. Just like Oiseau de Cham cannot attempt to write a “parole” without Solibo, the narrator here needs a character who can negotiate between both Peruvian and Machiguengan spheres for him. Yet, much like Solibo, Zuratas remains an enigma, and the narrator describes this puzzle as:
[L]a transformación del converso6 en hablador. Es . . . lo que ha motivado que, a ver si así me libro de su acoso, la escriba.
[ . . . ] Retroceder en el tiempo, del pantalón y la corbata hasta el taparrabos y el tatuaje, del castellano a la crepitación aglutinante del machiguenga, de la razón a la magia y de la religión monoteísta o el agnisticismo occidental al animismo pagano, es difícil de tragar pero aún posible, con cierto esfuerzo de imaginación. Lo otro, sin embargo, me opone una tiniebla que, mientras más trato de perforar, más me adensa. (265-66)
([T]he transformation of the convert into the storyteller. It is . . . what has impelled me to put it into writing in the hope that if I do so, it will cease to haunt me.
[ . . . ] Going back in time from trousers and tie to a loincloth and tattoos, from Spanish to the agglutinative crackling of Machiguenga, from reason to magic and from a monotheistic religion or Western agnosticism to pagan animism is a feat hard to swallow, though still possible, with a certain effort of imagination. The rest of the story, however, confronts me only with darkness, and the harder I try to see through it, the more impenetrable it becomes. [244-45])
Even though Zuratas becomes a vehicle through which he can frame the Machiguenga narrative, his ideological views of the civilized-native paradigm prevent him from truly understanding this indigenous group, much less Zuratas. By pointing out the progression from merely being sensitive to the plight of the Machiguenga to becoming a storyteller within this tribe, the narrator emphasizes his belief of himself as a civilized and therefore rational man. A conversion of thought is an intellectual pursuit, but embracing the position of a storyteller among the Machiguenga requires a complete transformation of one’s belief system and cultural identity—a move that is unthinkable and thus impossible to the narrator given his predisposed notions of the inferiority of the Machiguenga. Consequently, the “intrusion” of the photographs in the narrator’s life while he is in an Italian city that was at the heart of the revival of the classics merely functions as a reminder of Peru and its potentially disorienting complexities. Rather, the images of the Machiguenga serve to question and challenge the narrator to embrace this “primitive” side of his Peruvian heritage. Yet failing to do so creates a fractured sense of identity, much like with Oiseau de Cham who labors to express the multidimensionality that defines Creole identity.

2. (Re)Imagining the Self and Others

The narrators’ struggles to navigate and depict complex spheres result in narratives that ultimately serve as a reflection of their own identities as they grapple with the uncertainties wrought by Solibo’s death and the memories of Zuratas and the Machiguenga. In Solibo Magnifique, Oiseau de Cham continually emphasizes these cross-cultural tensions by conveying the distance between Solibo and himself. However, he is not the only one to remark on this gap. Ti-Cal, a government employee, also comes to this conclusion during his statement to the chief-sergeant, Bouaffesse: “En fait, il [Solibo] était mieux inscrit que nous tous dans la vie d’ici, il ne poursuivait visiblement aucun mirage, ne se détournait pas de lui-même, mais explorait à fond ce que nous sommes avec un regard de grand touriste, ou d’éternel enfant” (190) (“In fact, he [Solibo] was more inscribed in the life here than any of us, he wasn’t running after some mirage, he didn’t turn away from himself, but profoundly explored what we are with tourist eyes, child’s eyes” [131]). While Solibo appears alienated from others, he is actually more at ease with his identity in this cultural space. Oiseau de Cham on the other hand embodies this notion of chasing after a mirage when he answers, “Non, pas écrivain: marqueur de paroles, ça change tout . . . l’écrivain est d’un autre monde, il rumine, élabore ou prospect, le marqueur refuse une agonie: celle de l’oraliture, il recueille et transmet” (169-70; emphasis in text) (“No, not writer: word scratcher, it makes a huge difference . . . the writer is from another world, he ruminates, elaborates, or canvasses, the word scratcher refuses the agony of oraliture, he collects and transmits” [115]). He does not want to synthesize, but rather, he seeks to play the role of a passive observer and offer a representation of Martinique as it is by recording Solibo’s words and presenting it directly to his readers. This becomes problematic due to the impossibility of translating the oral into the written—as Solibo communicates multiple times to Oiseau de Cham—and results in an unsatisfactory substitution.
Solibo Magnifique stresses the notion that marking down words without actually analyzing their ramifications also builds a sense of superficiality, as the act risks losing meaning and purpose. Solibo tells the narrator, “‘Z’Oiseau, tu dis: La tradition, la tradition, la tradition . . . tu mets pleurer par terre sur le pied-bois qui perd ses feuilles, comme si la feuille était la racine! . . . Laisse la tradition, pitite, et surveille la racine . . .’” (63) (“‘Z’Oiseau, you say: Tradition, tradition, tradition . . . you bawl on the floor for the tree that loses its leaves, as if the leaf was the root! . . . Leave tradition alone, son, and watch the root . . .’” [36]). His words show the narrator’s lack of understanding of what Solibo considers as “l’essentiel” (53) (“the most important thing” [28]). Solibo challenges Oiseau de Cham to comprehend the essence of orality beyond its manifestantion, pushing him to move past being compelled to record these revered storytellers merely because they are now extremely rare. Benarbé et al. claim that “marqueurs de paroles” gradually took literary autonomy when recording the words of storytellers (bards, minstrels, griots, etc.), which caused “a break, a deep ravine between a written expression pretending to be universalo-modern and traditional Creole orality enclosing a great part of our being. This nonintegration of oral tradition was one of the forms and one of the dimensions of our alienation” (895). Only through grasping the essence of orality can Oiseau de Cham then perhaps produce a piece of work that is not simply an inadequate imitation of Solibo’s word, but instead, a work that stands on its own merits as one that discerns the meaning of créolité.
Interestingly, while Oiseau de Cham does not replicate orality, he appears to apply certain aspects characteristic of Solibo’s style into his own narration. He describes, “ . . . Solibo conservait ce regard qui voit le monde sous d’autres dimensions . . . Il captivait les compagnies au rythme de ses gestes, baillant la parole non plus dans l’assemblage évanoui des veillées traditionnelles, mais dans les refuges des nègres d’antan, des nouveaux nègres-marrons, des nègres perdus, des nègres abandonnés, à mauvais genre et en rupture de ban” (42-43) (“Solibo kept that look which sees the world in other dimensions . . . He would captivate the company with the rhythm of his gestures, no longer spinning the word in the vanishing scene of a traditional wake, but back in the mountain refuge of the blackmen of yesteryear, the new maroons, the lost blackmen, the abandoned ones, the bad apples on the brink of outlawry” [20]). Solibo’s inclusivity of experiences that constitute numerous layers of Martinican history reflects the multiplicity of voices in Oiseau de Cham’s narrative. He presents a spectrum of identities that become embroiled in the investigation of Solibo’s death, ranging from Congo, who is alienated because he evokes an African past that is more a distant memory than actuality in Martinique, to the Chief Inspector Évariste Pilon, who is French-educated and consequently disconnected from the “witnesses” in the novel. In presenting the characters’ memories of Solibo and their testimonies to Bouaffesse and Pilon, Oiseau de Cham creates not a text that reproduces Solibo’s words as he had originally planned but, rather, a collective memory that is moreover reflected in the use of “we” in the text. Delphine Perret argues that since “we” denotes different groups at certain times, it demonstrates the narrator’s solidarity with each of those groups (833). Likewise with Solibo, Oiseau de Cham notes a moment when one of the witnesses states,
Sans avoir connu ces pays, . . . Solibo Magnifique pouvait en parler, et en parler et en parler . . . Les confidences de ces femmes, leurs façons de goûter la nuit suffisaient au conteur pour décrire chaque terre, chaque peuple, chaque douleur. Même les femmes du Brésil, du Chili, de Colombie comme Conchita Juanez y Rodriguez, s’étonnaient de sa prescience sur l’Autre Amérique.
[ . . . ] Solibo répétait: La misère dessine toujours de la même manière. (176)
(Without having been in these countries, . . . Solibo Magnificent could talk about them and talk and talk . . . The women’s secrets, their ways of tasting the night were enough for the storyteller to describe each land, each people, each pain. Even the women from Brazil, from Chile, from Colombia like Conchita were astonished by his knowledge of the Other America.
[ . . . ] Solibo used to say: Misery draws the same way everywhere. [120-21])
Just as Solibo can understand the women’s pain through his own experiences, the narrator can connect with the other residents of Fort-de-France, because he is equally confounded by Solibo’s sudden death from “une égorgette de la parole” (42) (“snickt by the word” [20]). Like Solibo, this identification with those he chooses to represent in his work allows Oiseau de Cham to write his “parole.” Perret additionally notes that the fluidity of moving from one group to the next on the part of Oiseau de Cham and his eventual identification with Pilon at the end of the novel establish his own lack of a stable identity (833). Consequently, Oiseau de Cham becomes an active participant in the narrative instead an outside observer tasked with recording and transmitting information.
Moreover, Oiseau de Cham manages to negotiate between the oral and written by incorporating elements of orality in his text, thus creating a space where both can coexist. In the first pages of the text, the narrator sets up a call and response that parallels Solibo’s call, é krii, and its expected response, é kraa (33). Oiseau de Cham presents the following address before the first chapter:
Mes amis!
Le Maître de la parole
prend ici le virage du destin
et nous plonge
dans la déveine…
(Pour qui pleurer?
Pour Solibo.) (23)
(My friends!
Here the Master of the Word
swerves onto the sharp curve of destiny
and plunges us
into ill-luck
(Tears for whom?
For Solibo.) [7])
By addressing the readers, asking for whom they should cry, and providing a response to the question, Oiseau de Cham sets up the expectation of a direct reader engagement with the narrator that is analogous to that between a storyteller and his audience. It also lends authority to the narrator as he informs the reader of how they should react to the tale that follows, much like the way Solibo’s words inspire a certain level respect and reaction from his audience. The rhythmic and poetic form here is furthermore a reminder that Oiseau de Cham attempts to add rhythm to his writing in order to mimic the oral. Significant, is that this is not merely applied to the words that Solibo speaks, but to a call and response, a technique directly linked to orality. Consequently, sound and music become important characteristics of the narrative, not only adding rhythm to the text but also a theatrical aspect that captivates the reader. While Oiseau de Cham takes his turn to speak to the crowd after discovering Solibo’s death, he comments that the drummer Sucette fills the silences by creating sounds on the drum skin, an act that reflects the way Solibo’s words were accompanied by Sucette’s drum (79). Along with the use of onomatopoeia such “pin pon pin pon” (110) to indicate the sirens of fire trucks and drawn out words that reveal panic but that are also exaggerated such as when a character cries “Po la poliiice!” (83), Oiseau de Cham adds a performative dimension to the novel. This theatrical aspect transforms written language into a performance, adding a visual and auditory facet that echo Solibo’s gestures as he spoke.
Through a recollection of Solibo’s last words and his advice concerning writing, and spurred on by his death, Oiseau de Cham manages to create a compromise between the oral and the written that is also reflected through the structure of the novel. John F. Moran claims that beginning the text with the police’s incident report and ending the novel with Solibo’s final words symbolizes the divide between orality and literature (225). The clinical document from the police represents a purely written form of communication; whereas, Solibo’s orality conveys a more subjective portrait of life in Martinique, where knowledge is based on perception more so than on tangible facts. Oiseau de Cham’s text is found in-between the police’s incident report and Solibo’s last words, representing his journey from a frame of mind that is solely focused on transmitting information in written form to one that is capable of considering the nuances of orality that cannot be translated onto text. Oiseau de Cham’s inability to convey a complete image of Solibo consequently demonstrates that orality can only survive through a negotiation between two juxtaposing elements: oral and written, French and Creole.
In El hablador, however, the Peruvian narrator is unable to negotiate between the Peruvian and Machiguengan components of his identity the way Oiseau de Cham seems to achieve in some regard. The depiction of Zuratas’ hesitations concerning a full embracing of his Machiguengan identity as a storyteller reveals the Peruvian narrator’s own reluctance to fully explore Machiguengan culture. What ultimately distinguishes the Peruvian narrator from Oiseau de Cham in terms of writing a narrative that reflects a compromise between different groups, traditions, and languages is the former’s irreverent attitude towards Zuratas’ stance on the Machiguenga. He writes of his discussions with Zuratas regarding the government intruding into the tribe: “A veces, para ver hasta dónde podía llevarlo ‘el tema,’ yo lo provocaba . . . No, Mascarita, el país tenía que desarrollarse. ¿No había dicho Marx que el progreso vendría chorreando sangre? . . . Pero yo sentía, cuando lanzaba estas provocaciones, que le dolían como si hubiera hablado mal de don Salomón Zuratas” (31-32) (“Occasionally, to see how far his obsession might lead him, I would provoke him . . . No, Mascarita, the country had to move forward. Hadn’t Marx said that progress would come dripping blood? . . . But I could feel that when I provoked him in this way I was hurting him as much as if I had run down Don Salomón Zuratas” [21-22]). These provocations reveal that the Peruvian narrator views Zuratas as an interesting anomaly and that he does not truly want to understand the cultural repercussions involved in attempting to assimilate the Machiguenga into the dominant, industrialized portion of Peruvian society. Additionally, calling Zuratas “Mascarita” (Little Mask) not only places emphasis on his physical appearance, which alienates him from others, but it also highlights the difficulty the Peruvian narrator has in truly perceiving him.
Due to this distance between the Peruvian narrator and Zuratas, the narrator winds up portraying contradictory aspects of Zuratas as a Machiguenga storyteller due to a lack of understanding of the latter. During one of his visits to a Machiguenga doctor and his family, Zuratas is offered the option to stop his nomadic ways and settle down with a wife. He considers, “Sentí ganas de aceptarla. [ . . . ] Esta que llevo es una buena vida, ya lo sé. Los hombres que andan me reciben con alegría, me dan de comer y me hacen halagos. Pero vivo viajando ¿y cuánto tiempo más podré hacerlo? Las distancias entre las familias son cada vez más grandes. Últimamente pienso mucho, mientras ando, que un día las fuerzas me faltarán” (159-60) (“I felt like accepting it. [ . . . ] It’s a good life I’m living, that I know. The men who walk receive me gladly, give me food, pay me compliments. But my days are spent journeying, and how much longer will I be able to keep that up? Distances between families grow greater and greater. Lately, I often think as I’m walking that one day my strength will give out” [143]). Zuratas’ apparent ease in discontinuing his role as a storyteller exposes his view that perhaps his position is more an occupation than an essential part of his identity. His thought process does not appear to reflect an awareness of the crucial role he plays as a link between families, especially as he remarks that these families are now settling further and further apart. Such a reality would make storytellers even more important to the survival of the Machiguenga tribe. Even though Zuratas does not realize his critical role, a Machiguenga woman who has been given to him as a wife acknowledges the potentially disastrous consequences of not having storytellers. Before committing suicide to prevent their marriage from taking place, she states, “No quiero que rabien contra mi, diciendo: ‘Por ella nos quedamos sin hablador’. Dirán que le hice mañoserías, que le di bebedizo para que me tomara de mujer. Prefiero irme” (161) (“I don’t want them to rage at me, saying: ‘Because of her we’ve been left without a storyteller.’ They’ll say I tricked him, that I gave him a potion so he’d take me as his wife. I’d rather go.” [144]). This juxtaposition of a Machiguenga woman realizing the importance of storytellers when Zuratas himself does not seem to highlights his prior identity as a Peruvian Jew. What perplexes the Peruvian narrator is his belief that because Zuratas has become a Machiguenga “hablador,” this means that the latter has been able to fully embrace the Machiguenga culture. He does not question the possibility that Zuratas may not be fully assimilated into Machiguengua culture and so he writes, “Porque hablar como habla un hablador es haber llegado a sentir y vivir lo más íntimo de esa cultura, haber calado en sus entresijos, llegado al tuétano de su historia y su mitología, somatizado sus tabúes, reflejos, apetitos y terrores ancestrales” (266) (“Talking the way a storyteller talks means being able to feel and live in the very heart of that culture, means having penetrated its essence, reached the marrow of its history and mythology, given body to its taboos, images, ancestral desires, and terrors” [244]). Yet Zuratas’ belief that he can fluidly shift from the role of a Machiguenga storyteller to an ordinary member of the tribe reveals that, like the Peruvian narrator, he has not yet fully penetrated the essence of this culture.
In addition to this contradictory representation of Zuratas as a “hablador” that reveals an impenetrable quality in the latter, the dual narrative structure of El hablador further evokes the distance between the Peruvian narrator and the Machiguenga and, as a result, between Zuratas and the tribe. Unlike Solibo Magnifique, where the entire narrative embodies elements of orality and literature, the chapters in El hablador are specifically designated either to the Peruvian narrator or to the Machiguenga storyteller. In claiming that the “civilized” Peruvian narrator’s chapters frame those of the “mythic” Machiguenga speaker, José Andrés Rivas proposes that the novel is a metaphor of the Americas (195). He asserts, “La novela está escrita por un narrador ‘civilizado’. Es la perspectiva del hombre culto que contempla desde Europa a la nueva tierra. Es el asombro del conquistador. El del blanco que mira al aborigen (y éste a su propia tierra) . . . El tema es el mundo del mito contempado desde la razón. Y de la separación de sus fronteras” (196) (“The novel is written by a ‘civilized’ narrator. It is the perspective of the cultured man who contemplates the new world from Europe. It is the astonishment of the conqueror. The white man who observes the indigenous (and from his own country) . . . The theme is the mythic world being contemplated through reason. And the separation of their boundaries”). It is because the Peruvian narrator considers the Machiguenga through an outsider’s lens that he fails to depict a realistic Machiguenga storyteller. Zuratas as a storyteller ultimately attempts to change Machiguengan customs, consequently blurring the boundaries the Peruvian narrator labors to conserve between Peruvian and Machiguengan cultures. Early on in the text, the Peruvian narrator shares Zuratas’ views on certain aspects of indigenous tribes that he does not agree with. He writes,
Que a los niños que nacían con defectos físicos, cojos, mancos, ciegos, con más o menos dedos de los debidos o el labio leporino, los mataran las mismas madres echándolos al río o enterrándolos vivos. A quién no le iban a chocar esas costumbres, por supuesto.
[ . . . ] De pronto, se tocó el inmenso lunar.
—Yo no hubiera pasado el examen, compadre. A mí me hubieran liquidado —susuró—. (35-36)
(The babies born with physical defects, lame, maimed, blind, with more or fewer fingers than usual, or a harelip, were killed by their own mothers, who threw them in the river or buried them alive. Anybody would naturally be shocked by such customs.
[ . . . ] Suddenly he touched his enormous birthmark. “I wouldn’t have passed the test, pal. They’d have liquidated me,” he whispered. [25]).
Alienated because of a large purple birthmark on his face, it becomes particularly important to Zuratas that he gains acceptance in one of the cultures he finds himself in. This is at least how the Peruvian narrator analyzes Zuratas’ psychology, that the attraction of the Machiguenga is their acceptance of his birthmark. Thus, despite the fact that Zuratas has explicitly expressed his belief in non-intervention amongst the tribal groups of the Peruvian Amazon, the Peruvian narrator portrays him attempting to change Machiguenga customs. Through the Machiguenga storyteller, he writes,
Al seriphigari le he preguntado muchas veces: “¿Qué significa tener una cara como la mía?” Ningún saankarite ha sabido dar un explicación, parece. ¿Por qué me soplaría así Tasurinchi? Calma, calma, no se enojen. ¿De qué gritan? Bueno, no fue Tasurinchi. ¿Sería Kientibakori, entonces? ¿No? Bueno, tampoco él. [ . . . ] Algunas cosas no tendran [una causa], entonces. Ocurrirán, nomás. Ustedes no están de acuerdo, ya lo sé. Lo puedo adivinar sólo mirándoles los ojos. (229)
(I’ve asked the seripigari many times: ‘What does it mean, having a face like mine?’ No saankarite has been able to explain it, it seems. Why did Tasurinchi breathe me out this way? Shh, shh, don’t get angry. What are you shouting about? All right, it wasn’t Tasurinchi. Kientibakori, then? No? All right, it wasn’t him either. [ . . . ] So some things may not have one [a cause]. They just happen, that’s all. I know you don’t agree. I can see it just by looking at your eyes [208]).
The Machiguenga refuse to consider the possibility that Tasurinchi, the god of good, and Kientibakori, the god of evil, could have created Zuratas as already having a facial deformity. Because of their customs, he should have been killed had he been born with the birthmark. Consequently, Zuratas attempts to change Machiguengan culture by presenting himself as an example of someone who was born with a deformity but who is not evil, even though he is aware that he is offending the Machiguenga. If, as Rivas argues, this novel is a metaphor for the conquest of the Americas, then this scene depicts the Peruvian narrator attempting to civilize an indigenous group through Zuratas, therefore establishing his inability to accept the Machiguengan culture as it is. Noting that he is not even in the Peruvian Amazon as he writes this but in Firenze, the Peruvian narrator cannot help but impose his own European-influenced perspective on the Machiguenga narrative and judge the tribe’s customs and beliefs, further reflecting the notion of a metaphorical conquest of the Americas.
Moreover, by incorporating European narratives into the Machiguengan oral tradition, the Peruvian narrator further exposes his incapability to understand the Machiguenga. Throughout the Machiguenga chapters, Zuratas interjects his narrative with the phrase, “Es, al menos, lo que yo he sabido” (48) (That, anyway, is what I have learned [38]). He distances himself from the tales he shares with the tribe through an emphasis on the fact that he has learnt this material from others and that he is merely conveying it to them. The act of storytelling becomes simply an act of speaking about what others have told him—as the novel’s title may imply. Zuratas does not necessarily have to fully embody the Machiguenga culture and identity in the process, which appears to be the case since he adapts Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis” and presents it to the Machiguenga. Through this story, he introduces the issue of physical appearances to the tribe by telling them that during a trance, he had been transformed into a bug, Gregor-Tasurinchi. Even though a seripigari—a Machiguengan shaman—advises him, “Lo mejor es que te olvides. No hables más de eso. Lo que se recuerda, vive, y puede volver a pasar” (228) (“You’d best forget it. Don’t talk about it anymore. What’s remembered goes on living and can happen again” [207]), Zuratas nevertheless reveals that he has not been able to forget and continues to tell this tale. Even though throughout the Machiguenga narrative he expresses a respect for a seripigari’s knowledge, he goes against his advice, suggesting that he has personal reasons for telling Kafka’s tale. By incorporating this tale into the novel, the Peruvian narrator reveals the use of writing as a tool to understand Zuratas’ frame of mind, even as the latter has supposedly assimilated into Machiguengan life and should not in theory impose Western narratives into the tribe’s traditions. That the Peruvian narrator first chooses to present Zuratas the storyteller as solely Machiguengan but then ultimately falls back to a narrative full of allusions to Kafka and Jewish history suggests the impossibility of completely staying within a single cultural frame in a country such as Peru, a place composed of diverse and interwoven customs and beliefs.
Oiseau de Cham and the Peruvian narrator both use writing as a strategy to better understand the storytellers, Solibo Magnifique and Saúl Zuratas. In Solibo Magnifique, Solibo becomes a mentor figure who challenges Oiseau de Cham, which results in a narrative that manages to compromise between orality and writing and is a collective memory of the residents of Fort de France, featuring Solibo as Oiseau de Cham originally had planned. In fact, Perret claims, “Chamoiseau devient donc lui aussi Magnifique à travers cette hyperbole narrative, non seulement grâce à sa ‘belle parole’ mais aussi dans le sens étymologique du terme (qui fait de grandes choses)” (829) (“Chamoiseau himself becomes also Magnificent through this narrative hyperbole, not only due to his ‘beautiful word’ but also in the etymological sense of the term (someone who does great things)”). Nevertheless, the narrator evokes the sense of loss at the end of his narrative when he expresses, “il était clair désormais que sa parole, sa vraie parole, toute sa parole, était perdue pour tous—et à jamais” (226) (“it was clear now that his words, his true words, all of his words, were lost for all of us—and forever” [159]). Even if Oiseau de Cham finally comprehends that to write down the oral is merely a substitution and not a true representation of orality, he nevertheless feels that an essential part of his identity has been lost with the death of Solibo—the one person he knew who embodied orality.
By contrast, the Peruvian narrator never reaches a point where he understands Zuratas due to the latter’s unpopular view of nonintervention in the Amazon. However, his narratives do not merely present his interpretation of the mystery surrounding Zuratas and his belief that nonintervention in these indigenous groups is impossible. Misha Kokotovic asserts that the importance of the hablador’s role in the Machiguenga tribe parallels that of the writer and intellectual in South America (456). Because of modernization and the appearance of visual media, however, writers and intellectuals no longer held their previous social status, and Kokotovic contends that the narrator’s concentration on the role of a “hablador” reveals a need to achieve the kind of social standing the “hablador” has among the Machiguenga (456). He further claims, “Vargas Llosa does not attempt to represent the Machiguenga. Rather, he represents, and responds to, a crisis of his own intellectual authority by inventing the hablador, who serves as a projection of the writer’s desired role and status in late twentieth-century Western society” (456). Granted that Kokotovic refers to the author rather than the Peruvian narrator, the latter nonetheless also needs to invent Zuratas in the role of the storyteller to produce the novel. However, even prior to his decision to write about Zuratas, the Peruvian narrator was consumed with thoughts of the Machiguengan storytellers. Given his fascination with these figures and not necessarily with Machiguengan culture in general, Kokotovic’s claim can also be applied to the Peruvian narrator, whose final words of the novel are, “Pero esta noche iría adonde fuera en vano. Sé que . . . seguiré oyendo, cercano, sin pausas, crepitante, inmemorial, a ese hablador machiguenga” (268) (“But tonight I know wherever I might wander . . . I would still hear, close by, unceasing, crackling, immemorial, that Machiguenga storyteller” [245]). This haunting voice of the Machiguenga storyteller serves as a reminder of his uncertain identity as a Peruvian writer. Just as Zuratas recounts the Kafka story to his audience as an attempt to overcome his marginalized past due to his birthmark, the Peruvian narrator writes about the Machiguenga because he cannot forget the important role of a “hablador” in the Machiguenga tribe.
In Solibo Magnifique and El hablador, Oiseau de Cham and the Peruvian narrator are ultimately driven to write about Solibo and Zuratas not only as an attempt to remember and represent these storytellers, but also as a way to handle the multifaceted cultural aspects of their identity. In doing so, the narratives present Solibo and Zuratas as reflections of their own struggles with their identities as they navigate these same culturally diverse societies, where what is absorbed into and what is forgotten in an already complex culture is constantly changing. Even as Oiseau de Cham appears to create a text that embodies a Creole identity, both he and the Peruvian narrator are eventually thrown into further uncertainty due to loss—the vanishing of an oral tradition in Martinique, the mystery surrounding Zuratas’ transformation, and the waning status of intellectuals in the Americas.

1. While the title refers to Saúl Zuratas’ role as a storyteller, “hablador” can also be translated directly as “speaker.”
2. The narrator Oiseau de Cham is also known throughout the text as Chamzibié, Ti-Cham, and like the author, Patrick Chamoiseau. In the interest of clarity, the name “Patrick Chamoiseau” will only be used to refer to the author of the novel.
3. All bracketed English translations of Solibo Magnifique with page citations come from Rose-Myriam Réjouis and Val Vinokurov’s translation, Solibo Magnificent. Further bibliographic information of this work is listed under Chamoiseau in the Works Cited.
4. Benarbé et al. contend that “orality is our intelligence; it is our reading of this world,” therefore emphasizing its importance in Creole identity, because it stems from the days of slavery and plantations in the Caribbean (895). It is a form of resistance and survival that carries through to its post-colonial history.
5. All bracketed English translations of El hablador with page citations come from Helen R. Lane’s translation, The Storyteller. Further bibliographic information of this work is listed under Vargas Llosa in the Works Cited.
6. The Spanish word “converso” also alludes to the Spanish Inquisition in the 15th century, when Jews and Muslims were forced to convert to Christianity. The Peruvian narrator’s use of this word becomes notable then, as there is an implication that Zuratas’ transformation has veered towards the reverse direction.

Works Cited
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Kokotovic, Misha. “Mario Vargas Llosa Writes Of(f) the Native: Modernity and Cultural
Heterogeneity in Peru.” Revista Canadiense de Estudios Hispánicos 25.3 (2001): 445-67.
Moran, John F. “Finding One’s Way between Descartes and Zombis: Making Sense of the World in
Patrick Chamoiseau’s Solibo Magnifique.” Torre: Revista de la Universidad de Puerto Rico 9.32 (2004): 219-29.
Ndiaye, Cheikh M. “Marronnage, oralité et écriture dans Solibo Magnifique de Patrick Chamoiseau.”
Nouvelles Études Francophones 22.2 (2007): 112-21.
Perret, Delphine. “La Parole du conteur créole: Solibo Magnifique de Patrick Chamoiseau.” French
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Hispanic Studies of the University of Auckland and La Trobe University 1 (1988): 190-200.
Vargas Llosa, Mario. El hablador. 1987. Madrid: Santillana Ediciones Generales, S.L., 2010.
—. The Storyteller. 1987. Trans. Helen R. Lane. New York: Picador, 1989.

  1. While the title refers to Saúl Zuratas’ role as a storyteller, “hablador” can also be translated directly as “speaker.”

Fairytale Rejection: Female Agency and the Refutation of “Happily Ever After” in Haruki Murakami’s “The Little Green Monster” and Angela Carter’s “The Erl-King”

by Megan Kwong

In the fairytale tradition, specifically romance-oriented fairytales, there are often two main identifying components: the interspersion of magic and a “happy In the Western fairytale tradition, specifically romance-oriented fairytales, there are often two main identifying components: the interspersion of magic and a “happy ending” involving either reward through marriage or the punishment of social transgressions. In these stories, magic helps create conflict in the tale, while the story’s ending of heterosexual marriage between the protagonist and another party or its punishment of characters for social transgressions (e.g. lying, theft, premarital sex, etc.) help to underscore the fairytale’s moral function in society (Hixton 155). A consequence of this need for cultural stabilization through storytelling is that female agency is often overlooked. As emphasis is placed on resolving the conflict created by magical intrusion and restoring harmony through the reinforcement of cultural norms, the women in these stories and these marriages are no longer characters, but merely models of the virgin-whore paradigm and a means to marital end. Modern retellings of fairytales call attention to this problematic trope of silencing women for the sake of maintaining social norms through the introduction of female interiority and by offering alternatives to “the fairytale ending.”
In Haruki Murakami’s story, “The Little Green Monster,” a housewife is intruded upon by a lovesick, mind-reading green lizard, but what seems to be another animal-groom tale reminiscent of “The Frog Prince” ends in the retention of the housewife’s original marriage and the destruction of the monster. In Angela Carter’s “The Erl-King,” the female protagonist enters a sexual relationship with a wood spirit who may eventually turn her into an animal. Rather than creating a story punishing female sexual precociousness through magic, however, it is the Erl-King that is punished as the protagonist kills him in his sleep and frees the transformed girls in his keeping. Through the injection and intrusion of magic in “The Little Green Monster” and “The Erl-King,” the stories become primed for a fairytale ending, but as Murakami and Carter show, women do not need magic to determine their happiness; rather, they only need themselves.

“The Little Green Monster” and the Fairytale Tradition
In order to understand how “The Little Green Monster” fights against the fairytale tradition, one must first understand how “The Little Green Monster” relates to the fairytale tradition.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines fairy tales as “a tale about fairies; a tale set in fairyland; esp. any of various short tales having folkloric elements and featuring fantastic or magical events or characters” and “Something resembling a fairy tale in being unreal or incredible, or in having an idealized happy ending” (OED). While “The Little Green Monster” neither involves fairies nor takes place in fairyland, it does contain fantastic elements that could never be attributed to the genre of realism. This can be seen in its titular character—a green long-nosed lizard monster that comes out of the ground (207, 153 )—and the story’s climactic telepathy battle (209, 155).
Yet, Matthew Strecher notes that “in virtually all of his fiction, with the one notable exception of Noruwei no mori [Norwegian Wood], a realistic setting is created, then disrupted, sometimes mildly, sometimes violently, by the bizarre of the magical” (267). Murakami is characterized by his use of the bizarre in his fiction, ranging from a story about lederhosen to the aforementioned titular lizard and telepathy battle seen in “The Little Green Monster.” Though Murakami’s fiction often uses magical elements, Stretcher’s decision to categorize Murakami as a magical realist speaks to why “The Little Green Monster” is not immediately a fairytale. In his article, Stretcher defines magical realism as “In a very simple nutshell … what happens when a highly-detailed, realistic setting is invaded by something ‘too strange to believe’” (267), and it is this meticulous sense of detail that separates this genre from fairytales. While magical realism injects itself with fantasy and the strange, the author’s attention to details of everyday life attempts to ground the story in reality, to maintain a sense of normalcy, and therefore a sense of removed plausibility. With fairytales, this attention to detail is much more lax, not only because of the tales’ mutability given its origins in a changeful and changing oral tradition, but because morality, not realism, is the main goal of these stories. The vagueness and lack of character-dimensionality in fairytales exist because they exist as allegories and ways of enforcing cultural values through the exaggerated means of magic and fantasy. As such, “The Little Green Monster” would not qualify as a fairytale solely based on its inclusion of the fantastic.
Though the inclusion of magic in itself is not enough to view “The Little Green Monster” as playing on and with the fairytale tradition, its specific use of the “animal groom” trope places it in conversation with “The Frog Prince” and the fairytale genre, becoming an exploration of the classic fairytale themes of love and marriage. Martha Hixton defines animal groom stories as “…stories in which the lover first appears in an undesirable form, typically as a beast of some sort, or is otherwise unable to serve as a fit husband or lover for the girl” (154). The criteria of the partner being “undesirable” and “unable to serve as a fit husband” are both met in Murakami’s story, not only through the housewife’s repulsion of the creature when it first emerges from the ground (207, 153), but also the larger social implications in the story. As she is already married, to engage romantically with the monster is to engage in bigamy; as it is unknown whether or not the creature is enchanted, she runs the risk of bestiality. The sudden interaction of a woman and a magical creature parallels the scenario raised in “The Frog Prince,” raising reader expectations of a fairytale end; however, in order to fulfill those expectations, the housewife must engage in social taboos, and it is in negotiating these opposing, contradictory ideas that Murakami creates an alternative to the “fairytale ending.”

“The Little Green Monster”
In his short story, “The Little Green Monster,” Murakami deliberately uses fairytale tropes and narrative dissonance as a way of raising awareness of reader complicity in female powerlessness in the pursuit of “a happy ending.” The story’s opening echoes that of “The Frog Prince” with a female character engaged in idle activity. Where the protagonist of “The Frog Prince” needed help retrieving a ball, the protagonist of Murakami’s story is much older and has a more abstract problem: her boredom as a wife stuck at home while her husband is at work. This monotony is broken by the intrusion of the monster in her life and in her garden, but it is Murakami’s framing of this magical invader that creates narrative dissonance with the fairytale tradition this story borrows from. When the monster is first introduced as a removed, unknown sound, the female narrator states, 「でも音は鳥肌が立つくらい気味の悪い響きを持っていた。」(206) [“But [the sound] made my flesh creep” (153)]. It is an understandable sentiment given the ominous circumstances she experiences this in: alone with an unknown entity moving ever closer to her, but this is not merely an emotional reaction; her flesh creeping shows a bodily reaction, a physical ramification to their interaction, all before she even sees the creature. Even after she sees it, this revulsion is maintained. Though she admits to no longer being disgusted by its physical appearance despite its long nose and human-like eyes (207, 153), it is the prospect of the monster’s ability to read her mind that repulses her. She complains,「私は誰かに勝手に自分の心を読まれたりするのは我慢できない。とくに相手が訳のわからない気味の悪い獣であるような場合には。私は体中にじっとり冷たい汗をかいていた。」(208) [“I hate to have anyone know what I’m thinking—especially when that someone is a horrid and inscrutable little creature like this. I broke out in a cold sweat from head to foot” (154)]. Here, it is not the monster’s physical traits that repulse her but, rather, its mental capacity, and more specifically, its ability to invade her thoughts. Though this plays on the idea of open communication and the value of honesty common in fairytales, the idea of telepathy here is made to feel unsettling and disgusting because it is nonconsensual. The narrator is unable to protect herself from being mentally laid bare to the creature, from its penetration of her thoughts, and it is through this forced vulnerability in combination with the evil aura of the creature that makes the fairytale elements of the story begin to feel oppressive.
The oppressive nature of the creature’s mental invasion does not stop with its ability to mind-read as the creature uses its telepathy to reframe and reclaim the narrator’s disgust. When the creature first breaks into her home, it seems to laugh at her when she thinks of defending herself with a knife against the home invasion (207,153), and in its long love confession to her, the lizard prioritizes its struggles over hers (208-209, 154-155). Though it argues that it came up to the surface because it could no longer be apart from her, its confession is always framed either in terms of how painful their separation was for hit or how gratifying this must be for her and how she should be grateful to have such a love in her life. It says,
[They all tried to stop me, but I couldn’t stand it anymore. And think of the courage that it took, please, took. What if you thought it was rude and presumptuous, for a creature like me to propose to you? (154-55).]
In the English translation, this proposal seems mundane. Out of context, it could belong to any nervous lover. However, the original Japanese text contains repetition of 「ですよ」/ “desu-yo”, a grammar particle used to provide emphasis. Though emphasis is not negative in itself, given the strength of the particle in Japanese, the monster’s frequent use of this to a stranger is not only rude, but also highly condescending to the female narrator because it is telling her what to think. The monster is trying to rewrite the narrative of their interaction, telling her how to interpret its actions correctly, all while in her house and her head.
Given that this is their first time interacting, here Murakami plays with the fairytale ideas of “love at first sight” and “true love,” contrasting these tropes with the monster’s unpleasantness and forcing readers to confront their own expectations of the fairytale form. As the narrator has just been confronted with the creature’s ardent love confession in detail, this would be the point in the story where she would return the creature’s affections, having been swayed by its passions and now rewarding it for its struggles in reaching her. In recognition of its efforts to give her its love, it would be rewarded with her love in return. Yet the story makes it clear how distasteful and problematic that concept is by fleshing out its narrator. The first line in the story establishes her background: the narrator is married; she already has a home. By fairytale standards, the narrator has already achieved her ending, and to gratify the creature’s love with the narrator’s is to destroy her life to this point. To reward the creature is to place the needs and feelings of a potentially socially-disruptive interloper over those of a woman who—though bored—is content with her marriage, condoning the notion that a woman is not a person, but an object. A prize. More glaring is the lack of input allowed to the narrator during this confession despite the story’s framing as a first-person narrative. In a frame that should and has allowed for full interiority of its speaker, the fact that the narrator is forced to remain silent during this phase of the story speaks more to the lack of agency experienced by women in fairytales.
This lack of agency is quickly reversed though as the narrator loses her fear of the monster, restoring power to herself through the literal use of her voice. Immediately after the previously quoted confession, the housewife throws a verbal barb shouting, 「だって本当にその通りじゃないのと私は心の中で思った。私に求愛するなんて、まったくなんて厚かもしい獣かしらと私と思った。」(209) [“But it is rude and presumptuous, I said in my mind. What a rude little creature you are to come seeking my love!” (155)]. Here, the housewife is asserting her own opinion of the situation concerning the behavior of the monster, angrily berating its presumptuousness not only for being dismissive about breaking into her home and terrorizing her in the name of love, but also for attempting to degrade her by entertaining the idea that she would leave her husband to engage in bestiality with it. The way the housewife goes about this assertion is interesting too in the sharp contrast it provides with the previous paragraph. While the monster’s confession is a single paragraph spanning two pages, the woman’s rebuke is only a line and a half. It also notably lacks the monster’s uncouth use of 「ですよ」/“desu-yo,” but this is because she does not need it. The housewife is frank and is confident in what she has to say. She does not have to tell people how to think, because the message is clear enough in itself, and in the face of this, the monster begins to weaken in its resolve.
As the monster’s confidence begins to weaken, the housewife uses this emotional currency to empower herself, exchanging fear for confidence and moving from defense to offense. Upon discovering that the monster reacts negatively to her counterclaims to its fairytale reading of the two of them, the woman begins to assault the monster with her resentment for it, stating 「私はもう獣を怖いとは思わなくなっていた。私は試しに思いつく限り残酷な場面を頭に思い浮かべてみた。」(209) [“I wasn’t afraid of the monster anymore. I painted pictures in my mind of all the cruel things I wanted to do to it” (155)]. Now liberated from the emotional tyranny of the monster who has tried to implicitly control her thoughts, the woman is free to seek her revenge. While this may seem cruel and explosively exaggerated, the woman makes explicit what she has suffered, retorting when the monster pleads its case,
[But I refused to listen. In my mind, I said, Don’t be ridiculous! You crawled out of my garden. You unlocked my door without permission. You came inside my house. I never asked you here. I have the right to think anything I want to. And I continued to do exactly that—thinking at the creature increasingly terrible thoughts (155-156).]
The woman’s rage is derived from the monster’s presumption that she would want to leave her husband and run away with a strange creature of unknown origin, as well as from its utter invasion of privacy and its attempts to intimidate her. Its genesis in the garden violates her private space to think, while its genesis from under the tree she regards as a dear friend violates the mental associative relationship she shares with it (now unable to divorce the monster and the tree from each other). Additionally, by breaking into her home, the monster violates her physical privacy as its intrusion into her thoughts violates her mental privacy. It is not because the monster’s physicality is upsetting to her that she is so malicious in her attack; it is because the monster has attempted to coerce and control her thoughts and actions through a campaign of fear. It has attempted to ransack all vestiges of her life in order to overlay its own interpretation of how her life should be lived—with it—with little concern for the life she already has. Though this has all the trappings of a grand romantic tale—a fantastic creature, a female protagonist, passionate and ardent love that literally moves the earth (the monster having had to dig itself out of the ground to see her)—this is not a case of a hero coming in to sweep a maiden off her feet. The creature is not a knight or a poor but virtuous villager. It is an intruder and a bully. What attempts to be heroism is actually barbarism as the monster uses coercion and fear tactics to create the story it wants in the name of love.
The dissonance between the fairytale the monster desires and the reality of the female protagonist’s situation exists not because of any outright misogyny on the monster’s part, but its mistake in reading the narrator and her life as a prize narrative. Rather than viewing the narrator as an autonomous entity with thoughts, feelings, and a life of her own, the monster views the narrator as an object, something that has no responsibilities or social ties outside of its own existence as well as something to be retrieved or won (Sheets 649). As such, it pursues the narrator in forms of the fairytale tradition and the prize narrative: breaking into her home (storming the castle), the narrator’s initial terror (the narrator as the chaste maiden protecting her virginity), and finally, the lack of the narrator’s response to its affections (wooing the maiden). While these actions require physical engagement with the narrator, all of these actions are emotionally one-sided, placing the monster as the active hero and relegating the female narrator to the passive recipient of these actions. However at the climax of her attack, the narrator tells the monster,「ねえ獣、お前は女というもののことをよく知らないんだ。そういう種類のことなら私にはいくらだっていくらだって思いつけるのだ。」(210) [“See, then, you little monster, you have no idea what a woman is. There’s no end to the number of things I can think of to do to you” (156)]. The woman has severely weakened the monster in telepathic battle following her rejection of its affections, leaving it on the verge of death. When it looks to her for mercy and explanation, it receives the above quote, the narrator explicitly stating what the monster’s mistake was. Here the narrator implies that the monster underestimated the possible extent of female cunning and malice, but she also points out the monster’s mistake in understanding the role of women in narratives in general. Having read women as the prize in a prize narrative, where women are not agents of action but passive objects of conquest, the monster does not expect dissent, nor does it expect an agency rivaling its own. The monster fails to read women beyond their function as object in the prize narrative, and in failing to do so, pays for this with its eventual demise.
Having played with the fairytale tradition to show its glaring problems when it comes to overwriting female agency, Murakami’s decision to give the female narrator the last word—combined with the impotency of the lizard-creature—offers alternatives to female representation and male narrative in the fairytale tradition. In Hixton’s analysis of “The Frog Prince,” she argues, “Feminist critics have rightly deplored the subtext which exists in these storylines, that such a desire can only be granted to exceptionally self-sacrificing women or only after tremulous retribution is made for wanting to know the truth” (161). This generalization of feminist attitudes on “The Frog Prince” speak to a tradition of “deserving women being rewarded” and/or “female curiosity being mildly punished.” No word is made on male relations to the truth, and while oftentimes male pursuit of the truth is rewarded, I would like to posit that a similar failure to do so leads to punishment through impotence, death, or both. The creature standing in for the unwanted male suitor pursues the female narrator without attempting to gain awareness of the intimate aspects of her life, focusing instead on the surface relationship of how she may gratify it by returning its affection. As a result of this failure to know her, it underestimates her, allowing her to reverse the power-dynamic and destroy it. Watching it disappear, the narrator comments on the futility of the monster’s dying gaze:
[That won’t do you any good, I thought to it. You can look all you want, but you can’t say a thing. You can’t do a thing. Your existence is over, finished, done. Soon the eyes dissolved into emptiness, and the room filled with the darkness of night (156).]
Upon defeat, one of the first distinct features to disappear is the monster’s mouth and therefore its ability to communicate and assert its own narratives. As a result, this allows the female narrator to use her own voice, which is relevant in terms of asserting her agency. In announcing these feelings rather than letting them exist as a mental projection, the extent of her agency’s effectiveness is more widespread and less likely to be ignored. The fact that the female narrator is the one left alive in the end also speaks to her narration’s overall use and effectiveness. In following antiquated modes of male-female interaction in the fairytale tradition, the monster fails to recognize the female narrator’s needs. In failing to take her happiness and agency into account, it is punished with destruction while the female—left standing at the end of the story—is rewarded for championing against coercion and preserves her own values with survival and the last word.

“The Erl-King,” Scopophilia, and Feminine Narrative Liberation
Where “The Little Green Monster” plays on the function of fairytale morality condoning romance for a marital end, Angela Carter’s “The Erl-King” is a treatment of and against the chaste maiden’s fairytale opposite: the sexually precocious woman. The tale begins with an unknown narrator’s meditation on the woods. As the tale goes on, a sense of physicality eventually emerges through the use of pronouns, but not before the narrator notes that “The trees stir with a noise like taffeta skirts of women who have lost themselves in the woods and hunt round hopelessly for the way out” (84-85). This is a bit of foreshadowing on Carter’s part as the narrator eventually becomes mired in the metaphorical woods of her romantic relationship with the Erl-King, but the description also comments on the nature of the woods in the fairytale tradition. The woods are a staple for the fairytale not only given the traditional roots in small, isolated villages nestled in the woods, but the woods have always symbolized the deep, menacing unknown of nature. Out in the woods, one was removed from human society and at the mercy of the elements and predators, imagined or otherwise. To be lost in the woods was to be lost from society; to be placed there was at once a punishment and a death sentence. In following the moral function of fairytales, for a woman to enter the woods was a metaphor for sexuality. For a woman to enter and exit the woods unscathed meant that she had successfully maneuvered through interactions with the opposite sex with her chastity intact. Alternatively, the taffeta-skirted women trapped in the woods speak to those who had failed, who lost their virginity and were punished with alienation and death (Sheets 649). The narrator, upon entering, risks becoming another one of those taffeta-skirted women, but the richness of the fabric in the description creates a tenuous underscoring against the punishment. Yes, to engage in premarital sex can lead to and possibly encourages death in the fairytale tradition, but the lush sensuality and hedonism implied in those skirts are tantalizing enough to ignore the danger.
To engage in the fairytale tradition, Carter retains the “sex as danger” metaphor through the Erl-King’s promised harm as well as his consuming gaze. Just before the unnamed narrator meets her romantic captor comes the statement, “Erl-King will do you grievous harm” (85). There is no obvious source for this information: it could be the narrator’s observation, an authorial interjection, an inference from a collective social value, or even the disembodied warning from the taffeta-skirted ghosts of yore. Lacking a source, the credibility of this statement is dubious. Its succinctness is at odd with the previously smooth-flowing prose, offering a warning, but no suggestions for how to avoid the danger. There is a threat in the message, but with little definition as to what that harm is and how to avoid it, the sentence ends up sitting like a rock in the forest, too large to completely ignore, but ultimately too small to hinder the path of the narrative. Equally foreboding and more concrete however is the narrator’s statement: “There are some eyes that can eat you” (86). Eyes have no mouths, no digestive systems, so read literally, the sentence makes no sense: eyes cannot consume. As a metaphor for the male gaze, the consuming gaze speaks to the nature of the objectifying sexual appetite, especially when read in relation to the other stories in The Bloody Chamber, the collection this story originates. Caleb Sivyer matches a term to this idea of the consuming gaze: “scopophilia,” defined as “…pleasure in looking, and is characterized by both voyeurism and fetishism” (2). This analysis relates to a reading of another Carter fairytale-adaptation, “The Bloody Chamber,” but the concept of scopophilia can also be applied in “The Erl-King.” There is sexual gratification to be gained from garnering the Erl-King’s gaze, but with it also comes the physical threat that comes to all his lovers—being turned into a bird and placed in a cage of his keeping—as well as the social threat of being ostracized, objectification, and death.
The narrator engages in sexual, romantic relations with the Erl-King, but rather than blindly submit to the death promised to unwed virgins, Carter offers an alternate fate by creating a character just as avaricious and deadly as her male counterpart. The relationship between the two lovers begins in the summer, but quickly sours as the dead of winter approaches (88-89). Early in the story, the narrator tells the audience of the feasts the Erl-King provides her. At that time, it is fall, a time of agricultural harvest and the bounty of nature and his generosity are welcome. However, when the same bounty is offered to her in winter, the narrator calls it “a goblin feast of fruit for me, such appalling succulence” (89). Having consumed half a year of his generosity, the narrator is beginning to become aware of the sinister dangers lurking in his goodwill, while the contrast of the plentiful food against the cold seasonal death around them only serves to emphasize the utter falsity of their relationship. On the surface, the relationship with the Erl-King is nourishing and bountiful, but it is built on a foundation of falsities—mischievous and malicious as the goblins she compares his generosity to—that will almost certainly doom her in the end. However, doomed as she may well be, she finds herself conflicted, stating,
When I realized what the Erl-King meant to do to me, I was shaken with a terrible fear and I did not know what to do for I loved him with all my heart and yet I had no wish to join the whistling congregation he kept in his cages although he looked after them very affectionately, gave them fresh water every day and fed them well. His embraces were his enticements and yet, oh yet! they were the branches of which the trap itself was woven. But in his innocence he never knew he might be the death of me, although I knew from the first moment I saw him how Erl-King would do me grievous harm. (90)
Here, the narrator makes explicit her problem: to submit to the Erl-King means that she is able to pursue her heart in true fairytale fashion. Conversely, to submit also means she will be punished in true fairytale fashion: she may have her love, may retain his reciprocated love and attention, but must lose her freedom for engaging in sexual behavior outside a coded social norm. This loss of freedom is literalized by the imagery of caged birds–the fate of all the Erl-King’s lovers–which the narrator likens to death. Worse still is the Erl-King’s lack of sympathy in her narrative demise, but as the role of sexual punishments is a firmly female sphere, he is unable to aid in her problem because he is so wholly unaware of it. To him, the caging of birds and women is simply not problematic. Thus, the solution to a singularly-female issue lies with the narrator who must now choose between disavowing her love for the Erl-King and the loss of her freedom. Both choices promise to break her heart, echoing the earlier-stated promise of harm from the Erl-King, but also open the possibility for the narrator to regain and assert her own agency. If the Erl-King cannot and will not save her, she will have to save herself.
The threat of narrative punishment and the narrator’s desire for freedom come to a head in the final scene as she ultimately chooses to kill the Erl-King, refusing her promised death for a fate she determines alone. The decision comes as the Erl-King lays his head on the narrator’s lap in an intimate moment. It is here that Harriet Linkin argues that the narrator “. . . carves a path to another ending where the female is no longer sacrificed for the male poetic vision” (318) for “. . . if there is to be no collaboration and no nurturing, she will not inhabit a resentful silence but will gain her own voice by silencing his” (319). While Linkin asserts that the narrator is fighting against the Romantic poets that Carter mimics in this story, this idea can also apply to the larger oppressive workings within classic fairytales. Rather than submit to punishment as a result of the narrator asserting her own sexuality, it is here that she chooses to determine her own fate, to regain control of her life by choosing to preserve it. The sentences preceding this moment describe the oppressiveness of his gaze and her desire for more autonomy in the relationship. The narrator is unable to free herself from the forest, from her fate, and from her regard for him as long as he lives, and while she enjoys his love, she enjoys her freedom more. However, in order to gain her freedom, she is careful to avoid his gaze, telling him, “Lay your head on my knee so that I can’t see the greenish inward-turning suns of your eyes any more” (91). This is partially due to her regard for the Erl-King–her feelings for him possibly evoking guilt or remorse should he watch her kill him –but also due to the paralyzing, objectifying nature of scopophilia. For him to look upon her with those eyes is to invalidate all the agency she has struggled with in coming to this decision and acting upon it, instead relegating her once more to an object for his pleasure and delight.
Thankfully for her, the Erl-King does not look, does not fight his death because he probably never expected one of his girls to kill him. Thus, the narrator is allowed to assert her own will, shown as she immediately “let the [caged] birds free; they will change back into young girls, every one, each with the crimson imprint of his love-bite on their throats” (91). The narrator refuses to submit to the cycle of punishment for early sexual liaisons, breaking the cycle for herself, although her decision to free the other girls act as a metaphor for the larger ramifications of this sort of story. By immediately freeing the other girls after her own release, she is able to break this cycle of punishment in the narratives of other women as well. Though she has killed the object of her affections, she gains so much more from retaining her freedom, and in doing so for herself, is able to continue that trend in the lives of other women, liberating them from fates of shame, degradation, and death.

Fairytales have always functioned as a moral compass in society, strengthening social institutions while policing bad behavior. This can be most strongly seen in romantic fairytales that end in either marriage or severe punishment. By ending in marriage, the tale helps reinforce the idea that good deeds are recognized and rewarded, but it also reinforces the cultural values of marriage and family as institutions. Similarly, by ending with a character’s punishment, the tale aims at curbing bad behavior by showing its negative consequences. However, in their attempts to be allegorical representations of male-female interactions, the representations of the sexes are often unbalanced, containing reductive portrayals of women. As women are rarely determiners of their own fates in these tales, their narratives generally working towards marriage as pursuers of marriage or as part of the hero’s reward, these women are rarely fully fleshed out. Instead, they operate as idealized stock images of the female form. The lack of female voices and female representation in these tales lead to the dangerous readings of women by others. In “The Little Green Monster,” the monster does not view his violent intrusion into the life of the housewife as burdensome or antagonistic, because he does not view her as an entity capable of thoughts different from his own. In “The Erl-King,” the king is at once an active agent for the punishment of sexually precocious women (turning them into birds) but also complicit in his inability to recognize his own potential role in the narrator’s demise. Unable to read beyond the fairytale narrative, the women in their stories suffer and must take it upon themselves to assert their voices, leading to the deaths of their male counterparts. This is not always out of a feeling of hatred towards men, as seen by the love the narrator shows the Erl-King, but as a result of narrative need. As long as competing male voices exist, female voices will continue to be overwritten and suffer. As such, the destruction of the male voice and male fairytale reader is an unfortunate but necessary consequence in these texts as women pursue the desire to make themselves heard and have their needs recognized in romantic fairytale models.

Works Cited

Carter, Angela. The Bloody Chamber. New York: Penguin Books, 1979. Print.
“fairy tale, n. and adj.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, December 2014. Web. 16 December 2014.
Hixon, Martha Pittman. “Awakenings and Transformations: Re-Visioning the Tales of ‘Sleeping Beauty,’ ‘Snow White,’ ‘the Frog Prince,’ and ‘Tam Lin’.” Order No. DA9727089 U of Southwestern Louisiana, 1997. ProQuest. Web. 14 Dec. 2014.
Linkin, Harriet Kramer. “Isn’t it Romantic?: Angela Carter’s Bloody Revision of the Romantic Aesthetic in ‘the Erl-King’. “Contemporary Literature 35.2 (1994): 305-23. ProQuest. Web. 9 Dec. 2014.
Murakami, Haruki. 象の消滅.Tokyo: Shinchosha, 2005. Print.
—. The Elephant Vanishes: Stories. Trans. Alfred Birnbaum and Jay Rubin. New York: Vintage International, 1993. Print.
Sheets, Robin Ann. “Pornography, Fairy Tales, and Feminism: Angela Carter’s ‘the Bloody Chamber’.” Journal of the History of Sexuality 1.4 (1991): 633-57. ProQuest. Web. 9 Dec. 2014.
Sivyer, Caleb. “A Scopophiliac Fairy Tale: Deconstructing Normative Gender in Angela Carter’s “the Bloody Chamber”.” Gender Forum.44 (2013): 1. ProQuest. Web. 16 Dec. 2014.
Strecher, Matthew C. “Magical Realism and the Search for Identity in the Fiction of Murakami Haruki.” Journal of Japanese Studies25.2 (1999): 263-98. ProQuest. Web. 9 Dec. 2014.

The Monstrous Eye: Digression as Aesthetic in Un Chien Andalou

by Adan Falcon

“Although paintings began to be publicly exhibited in galleries and salons, there was no way for the masses to organize and control themselves in their reception. Thus the same public which responds in a progressive manner toward a grotesque film is bound to respond in a reactionary manner to surrealism.”
-Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”
Published in 1936, Walter Benjamin’s essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” linked a relationship between the work of art and the mediated reception an audience received it through the space it may be exhibited in. From the medieval era, according to the history he outlines, the audience had been limited to the aristocracy and the clergy to receive the work before it could be received by a smaller mass—a pattern continuing through the development of galleries exhibiting paintings and other forms of art. However, with the rise of cinema, the relationship between a broader masses and mediators such as critics had changed drastically as the cinema provided a democratic outlet in shaping its aesthetic. Surrealism’s place in this ever changing dynamic posed a problem in this with the early advent of cinema as a movement intent for meaninglessness. What kind of issues exists in bringing representation—“varstellung” in Benjaminian analysis—to the masses through a form challenging the audience with destabilized shapes and forms? Director Luis Buñuel placed this challenge early on as the most prominent—and reluctant—director through his first film with painter Salvador Dalí in Un Chien Andalou with its attack on the love story through its fragmented presentation to their viewers: the identity of each character deteriorates further into precarious modes of movement through their desires and their failure to fulfill them; the failure to reach a form of catharsis (or climax) transforms the temporal and spatial movements in a narrative with predetermined teleological movements. As the bodily experience of the characters undergoes severe transformations (decomposition, mutilation, etc.) the narrative in the story undergoes temporal and spatial rearrangement by utilizing the language of the film to shift its stability in linear narrative towards episodes of questioning of what has been and what may become. As the process develops, the aesthetics of both directors diverge in providing a schism ideologically in their pursuit of art within and away from the surrealist movement.
Parodying Time
Buñuel pointed towards the failure of the positive responses in the initial screening of Un Chien Andalou years after its release to elicit a more negative reaction from intellectual and general audiences of his film. There had been an initial goal to attack what both Dali and Buñuel felt were the bourgeois sensibilities of the French art and avant-garde scene, and its ties to reason and logic in the high canon of art. Buñuel scathingly remarked of the evening of both his powerlessness and the adoration the film drew: “What can I do about the people who adore all that is new, even when it goes against their deepest convictions, or about the insincere, corrupt press, and the inane herd that saw beauty or poetry in something which was basically no more than a desperate impassioned call for murder?” (31). What was an attack on French avant-garde became an invitation from the elite themselves, such as the leader of the French Surrealists, Andre Breton, who claimed the film as meeting the criteria of the movement.
Buñuel instead sought to emulate dreams by associating seemingly unrelated visuals as symptoms of deeper or repressed psychological desires, anxieties, and impulses. The technique he used to create distance from himself away from the film itself was “a CONSCIOUS psychic automatism” (Buñuel 101). It would be free from “artistic sensibility and to the reason of the spectator, with its play of light and shadow, its photographic effects, its preoccupation with rhythmic montage and technical research, and at times in the direction of the display of a perfectly conventional and reasonable mood” (101). The film focused on the process of “illumination” than on the aura of the final product. The rhythm of the narrative will point towards how the temporal aspect of the film plays with its progressions towards a cohesive narrative and ending with an ambiguous characteristic to thwart expectation away from catharsis and instead with sustained interruptions and digressions to follow a different pattern in pacing.
One year before the initial screening of Un Chien Andalou, Benjamin had submitted his Habilitation to qualify him as a university lecturer: it was an extensive study on the German tragic drama which included a prologue on representation in philosophy in relation to the idea of the whole and fragmented. It attempted to bring into question what philosophy had supposedly had the task of carrying out with its incorporation of high humanistic ideals through a didactic tone, or the “didactic authority of doctrine” (Benjamin 28) The whole, or the doctrine, shapes thinking within hierarchical values in which its standing as whole must be all-encompassing. As humanistic pursuits in its progression past the enlightenment began to shift its focus on the sciences to obtain complete mastery over the human subject and the world, philosophers and artists are forced, as Benjamin contextualizes, to place the higher authority in the scientist. Representation could no longer be in the realm of philosophy as it no longer held the same empirical authority as the sciences and its forms of writing:
“There has been a tendency to place the philosopher too close to the scientist and frequently the lesser kind of scientist; as if representation had nothing to do with the task of the philosopher. The concept of the philosophical style is free of paradox. It has its postulates. These are as follows: the art of the interruption in contrast to the chain of deduction; the tenacity of the essay in contrast to the single gesture of the fragment; the repletion of themes in contrast to shallow universalism; the fullness of concentrated positivity in contrast to the negation of polemic.” (32)
Philosophy could potentially put to question the greater truths of the sciences not only in its questions but its forms. The given forms of the essay has its stylistic differences, but in emphasizing a systemic approach to representation, the language and its placement in the treatise are “obedient” to the whole form. “Method is digression”: this short sentence shifts the meaning towards an opening instead of possibilities in other forms, whereas the treatise, in this mode of thinking, has language form its meaning and interpretation according to an all-encompassing ideological whole; the fragment has no ending, allowing the written form to express thought not at a sustained length but at different pauses and continuations, to continually leave thought open for movement. In a bodily comparison of this method, Benjamin frames the ideal of the digression as a “continual pausing for breath…the mode most proper to the process of contemplation. For by pursuing different levels of meaning it is examination of one single object it receives both the incentive to begin again and the justification for its irregular rhythm” (28). This irregular rhythm goes forward, stops, but under no obligation needs to continue with a singular thought—it can go back or diverge into another stream of thought at various lengths.

When Sergei Einsenstein had theorized the possibility of creating a montage in cinema, he believed that the images overlapping and juxtaposed with each other could make an impact beyond the individual image. Instead, it could create a “tertium quid” (third thing) to form a whole greater in its sum as opposed to individual juxtapositions of images. This third thing has the ability to shorten or expand the time period of an event, interchange between different subjects to arouse an emotional and ideological consciousness for the viewer of the film. The montage as a whole could evoke a specific reaction from the audience, and with Einsenstein, it would be revolutionary. The unity visuals and their timing in Un Chien Andalou together utilized and parodied the montage effect from its intended effect. Buñuel’s own rhythm and pace to the montage would act as a negation of a “rhythmic montage,” towards a parody of the kind of poetic montage that dominated much of the filmmaking in the twenties.
Continuity editing is preserved to create a seamlessness in time and space through the span of the movie, but the juxtaposition and free association of each image in Un Chien refers towards a signified deferred from the linearity of logic. After the prologue of the film, the film shifts eight years later to a man riding a bicycle in a nun’s outfit crosscut with a woman in the domestic interior, suggesting to the viewer that they are temporally simultaneous, a hint that is confirmed when she looks down from the window and sees once more a point of view shot: a high angle of the man in the street. The high-angle shot, linking the inner domestic world with the outer world (similar to the Vermeer painting in the book the heroine is looking at directly referencing her own actions of sitting quietly and reading). This is usually motivated by some form of revelation that the filmmaker wishes to dramatize. But Buñuel uses shooting angle and cutting so that they turn against themselves, serving only to underscore the absurd revelation of a cyclist who gratuitously falls on his head. The number of dissolves and superimpositions during this sequence of events parallel the painterly Impressionist conventions for the representation of movement and the passage of time, which endows the bizarre cyclist with the aura of a cinematic epic hero as he falls from his bike to his death. Buñuel next gives us an equally traditional match on action, as he cuts from the woman exiting the front door to her reaching the man, now lying in the gutter. Further in to the movie, he exploits a well-known editing technique known as the Kuleshov effect, in which images juxtaposed with one another to derive more meaning out of the two images together as opposed to focusing on one single shot. This technique shows up in a close up of the woman staring intently at the clothes she has laid out on the bed, until, suggested,her look has somehow materialized the man into her flat.
Whereas the Kuleshov effect would have emphasized the pairing of these images to invoke some kind of longing or despair for the emptiness of the bed, the leap from this juxtaposition with the transformation of the space from the emotional to the illogical parodies what may be a control of the director over the audience’s emotional response, or the representation of truth. Following the appearance of the man in her bed, the young woman must react to the moment in shock to convey a moment of psychological realism to set a conventional affect in the unusual event. One might also see an attempt to create another surrealist figure in the following images where a close-up of a sun-bathing woman’s armpit dissolves into a close-up of a sea-urchin. The bodily interaction between the man and woman in which the armpit hair dissolves to a sea urchin is purely associative or poetic, distanced from a logical connection to convey a specific reaction beyond shock. The scene leaps again from the domestic setting of the woman’s desire disrupted by the rotting of the apparition’s hand to the the Parisian streets, in which the contrast to the domestic shifts to an androgynous woman picking up a severed hand. The hand connects these two scenes only in its presence and its concrete symbol of death in the domestic sphere and outside of it, with the other woman momentarily mourning the hand and tragically dying in a montage sequence displacing a box in her hand and the position she stands in the streets. In the end, her body laid out in the same spot as the man in the nun outfit, the morality of death is taken away, with only the tragedy sustained through the music of the prelude to Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde.
The Specters of Surrealism
The techniques Buñuel addresses in the film to criticize an oriented comprehension of linearity disorients the experience of the story for the viewer to observe the actions in the film as exaggerated enough to illuminate the processes in which the visual narrative has been constructed. Aspects of the visual, and the impact of the camera’s gaze on the story and the audience on the film, are a few of the main themes in the Surrealist movement. In his article “Oxymoronic Games in the Blink of an Eye, the Prologue to Un Chien Andalou as Precursor to the contemporary Poetics of Antivisuality and Blindness,” film scholar, Javier Herrera, compares ideas of antivisuality from Georges Bataille’s examination of surrealism in revealing the transcendental import given to artists in obtaining their inspiration from a higher ideal inaccessible to anyone else. With Surrealism, the emphasis on seeking inspiration internally contradicts the traditional notions of classical art in which the “ascent” towards a higher transcendent entity seeks it from the outside from a divine inspiration. When Buñuel brings up the idea of the “COUNSCIOUS psychic automatism” for inspiration, here he falls in with the aesthetics of the surrealists in countering the naturalness of art towards an understanding of technique to deconstruct the intentions associated with them, to divert the narrative away from transcendent and cathartic conclusion towards an inward reflection disconnected in the subconscious. The tone of this resonates through the film beginning with the infamous opening sequence in which the eye of the passive female character is sliced open by a male character played by Buñuel himself, juxtaposed with the image of a cloud moving across a moon: the visceral action of cutting slices open the corporeality and naturalness of this setting. This moment disorients the viewer, cutting through the loss of self in the story to a consciousness of the experience of viewing a film, cutting into the authoritative gaze of the director or author.
Benjamin had been aware of the possibility surrealism had in exploring the artistic and political potentiality the movement attempted to address. In titling his essay, “Surrealism: The Last Snapshot of the European Intelligentsia” he acknowledges a conception of an artistic movement to challenge the didactic mode of language in politics or the aesthetics of art, but the limited capacity it would have before the politics would signal its own end. He cites a line from the French poet, Arthur Rimbaud, which included a message in his personal copy of Saison en Enfer: “In the margin, beside the passage ‘on the silk of the seas and the arctic flowers’, he later wrote, ‘There’s no such thing’” (178). Benjamin cites Rimbaud’s work and its liminality in language where it could be read as the beauty of the landscape, but Rimbaud’s comment takes away the idyllic associations of nature. Whether Benjamin actually viewed the movie, Un Chien, is uncertain, however the essay, like the film, acknowledges the precarious position in which the movement found itself at the time of its publication. Whereas Buñuel had looked to dismiss the movement altogether, Benjamin continues to explore the possibility in the extremities Surrealism explores in language and images, and what this could potentially mean politically in confronting the materiality of language against the illogical sphere of dreamscapes, the exploration internally as opposed to externally. In the philosophical realism of the Middle Ages, Benjamin cites Andre Breton from Introduction au discours sur le ‘peu de realite’, to reaffirm aspects of the thought through its ability to reevaluate what language could do:
“…always very quickly crossed from the logical realm of ideas to the magical realm of words. And it is as magical experiments with words, not as artistic dabbling, that we must understand the passionate phonetic and graphical transformational games that have run through the whole literature of the avant-garde for the past fifteen years, whether it is called Futurism, Dadaism, or Surrealism” (74-75).
Words as “magical” displaces the authority of the objective notion and progressive narrative from a coercion into a specific set of meanings. Representation of language then can have the same wondering effect as explored in Benjamin’s prologue on early modern German literature to explore the myriad ways language could be used to explore a multiplicity of thoughts as opposed to a linear sequence in prosaic writing.
However, to go back to the title of Benjamin’s essay, emphasizing on the aspect of “the Last Snapshot,” the title nods towards a finality in the movement as well as a speed in which the artistic movement would be captured. As Breton had mentioned, the magical is displaced, to only have language to work with whether this finds itself in the text itself or in images for the artist to work with, an ambiguity these artists, or the intelligentsia, could possibly grasp as a form of critique against traditional notions of art, language, and politics. A component of the movement’s exploration with materiality includes what could be be seen or what we may be allowed to be seen. The subjectiveness of surrealism limits the sights of the viewer in visuals or texts not only in its unusual placement of materials but also having them interact with each other to constantly multiply the interpretation of the work. This notion then of what can be seen, what cannot be seen, begins to deconstruct the notion then of what could constitute the work of art when the teleological path it has been canonized with comes under scrutiny. Jacques Derrida notes this specific moment in his interviews with Bernard Stiegler, in the collection, Echographies of Television, as the form of a specter existing in the image:
A specter is both visible and invisible, both phenomenal and nonphenomenal: a trace that marks the present with its absence in advance. The spectral logic is de facto a deconstructive logic. It is in the element of haunting that deconstruction finds the place most hospitable to it, at the heart of the living present, in the quickest heartbeat of the philosophical. Like the work of mourning, in a sense, which produces spectrality, and like all work produces spectrality. (117)
When working within the material world and its displacement of meaning in everyday life, what do we have left? What becomes left behind does not necessarily imply a presence, but it does not constitute a non-presence either as we can still recognize familiarity in the image of the text. The remainder of what becomes alludes to a series of specters still haunting the space with its directed meaning. With this strange space of opening and closing, other visible and invisible forms begin to inform (or deconstruct) the representation of the visible/invisible. The “last snapshot” then offers a flash of the constructiveness of what has been a given set of meanings to quickly become overtaken by the specters of those meanings.
The otherworldly associations with surrealism and its interaction with the material world could potentially express the mechanics producing the ideals in which canonization (or the whole ideal) orients the language and thought of the work of art to function within the limits of what may be considered the “truth” of the work. This “truth” relies on its representation of a systematic or transcendental aura to distance the audience from the work of art. The aura and its relations with the rise of industrialization in “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” focuses on film as a tool to question the distance of the work of art between the audience and the authority figures to shape this reception. With film, it could possibly change the hierarchy of the critic towards the reception of the work in the hands of the audience, or the masses, to give a glimpse of illumination as opposed to a further reification of the aura. The aura as nonhuman in its attachment to former transcendental ideals may confront the actuality of the reproduction of the work of art from the non-human, the otherworldly, to a crisis of renewal:
And in permitting the reproduction to meet the beholder or listener in his own particular situation, it reactivates the object reproduced. These two processes lead to a tremendous shattering of tradition which is the obverse of the contemporary crisis and renewal of mankind. Both processes are intimately connected with the contemporary mass movements. Their most powerful agent is the film. Its social significance, particularly in its most positive form, is inconceivable without its destructive, cathartic aspect, that is, the liquidation of the traditional value of the cultural heritage. (Benjamin 225)
In its traditional form, catharsis would have reaffirmed a moralistic stance in line with prevailing ideology to create the satisfaction the audience will feel in the concluding moment. What comes out of Benjamin’s analysis of catharsis reorients instead as a destructive moment instead, digressing from the pattern of the moralistic intent towards a “liquidation of the traditional value of the cultural heritage” (221). Reproduction in film puts forward its form constantly in its presentation for viewers anywhere to experience the work in an accessible space to formulate their own form of engagement with the work away from authoritative spaces and gazes. The gaze then in the prologue to Un Chien Andalou holds a greater significance in the viscerality of the act of cutting open the eye as it delineates from the real in its close-up of the action exposing the liminality of vision into the reproduction of the product of film and the reproduction of the bodily experience in each frame of the film. Even though Buñuel intended this attack on the sensibility of bourgeois aesthetics, he digressed from the prescriptive notions of the surrealists as well as to produce the specters haunting their work and their aesthetics they aimed to have broken off from, towards a form of art touching on more expansive thematics that could resonate with a wider audience (or masses) in contempt of “with perfectly conventional reason and humor” (Buñuel 30).
The “Putrefactos” Aesthetic
The convention of reason and humor in film does not necessarily reflect itself in the narrative but in the psychological attempting to come up with some understanding of how the mind functions, where the trigger points of memory and desires happen. In some sense, this attempt to excavate the workings of the mind had been a limitation of surrealism, relying on Cartesian notions of the mind and body functioning to convey a sense of rationality in consciousness. Even though the criticism of this line of logic appears through surrealism, it also makes it stuck in a binary between the Cartesian and the non-Cartesian, a modernist notion that a critique of representation must per force be anti-realist. In 1928, Buñuel had published in La Révolution surréaliste, a preface to Un Chien Andalou which acted as an infamous manifesto decrying surrealism but also acknowledging its importance to his work. The first paragraph states: “The publication of this screenplay in La Révolution surréaliste is the only one I have authorized. It expresses, without any reservations, my complete adherence to surrealist though and activity. Un Chien andalou would not exist if surrealism did not exist” (31). Buñuel may not have succeeded in creating a work that functions as radical, but it does put into question the implicit hierarchy in holding the movement as having answers to address the issues of modernity and the mind. Along with Buñuel, Benjamin posed this issue as well, especially with the eventual failure of the group to fall in line with more conservative politics as they grew to misinterpret many of the left-leaning politics they had grown to inhabit the movement. Buñuel writes in his autobiography, My Last Sigh (1982):
The movement was successful in its details and a failure in its essentials. Breton, Eluard, and Aragon are among the best French writers in this century; their books have prominent positions on all library shelves. The work of Ernst, Magritte, and Dali is famous, high- priced, and hangs prominently in museums. There’s no doubt that surrealism was a cultural and artistic success; but these were precisely the areas of least importance to most surrealists. Their aim was not to establish a glorious place for themselves in the annals of art and literature, but to change the world, to transform life itself. (123)
Even though Buñuel did not necessarily prevail in transforming life itself in his work, his reliance on examining desire did raise skepticism of the function of Eros in. Film traditionally based itself in presenting mimesis and representational realism, relying on character development, along the lines of the representational novel. Character development served the same function in representational films as it did in the representational novel, “to conserve and habituate” (Bayley 225).
The film Un Chien utilizes this criticism in the second half of the movie after the androgynous woman is killed by a truck as the rest of movie travels along a trajectory of the desirous chase for the other: the female character inside of the apartment is chased after by the man whose hands have ants crawling out of them; a stranger then attempts to go after the man who appears in the woman’s bed in a nun’s outfit; the stranger is shot by male nun, and displaced from the apartment to the outside world with a final deathly grasp on the fantasy of the woman’s bare back; the woman confronted by the man in the nun’s outfit escapes the apartment to the outside world where she meets a handsome man she wonders a shore endlessly until their death in spring. In each of these sequences, the desirous faces a form of interruption from their amorous subject. Several studies on the film have continued to attribute some form of psychoanalytical examination of what these interruptions and digressions may indicate, and how they parallel with the aesthetics of the surrealists. The common argument that comes from these arguments ultimately fall in the expectations of the audience, to challenge the trajectory of what may be expected in the love story as the desirous fulfills their subjectivity in obtaining the other, but ultimately this film fails to do so. Yet, one scene in particular is worth examining in its removal of the psychological and the surrealist implications to have a better understanding of the challenges Buñuel presented in this work that eventually informed his aesthetic in the course of his career that distinguishes him from the other surrealists.
A leap in the narrative presents a man in the woman’s apartment who is haunted by the ants crawling from a hole inside of his hand, which initially fascinates the woman, but then disturbs her as he chases after her. When he finally has her cornered, he leans down to pick up some rope lying on the floor attached to the following items: “un tapon de corcho, luego un melón, dos hermanos de las escuelas cristianas y, finalmente, dos magníficos pianos de cola” (a cork, then a melon, two brothers of the Christian schools and, finally, two magnificent grand pianos) (Dalí, Obra 1042). A dead donkey appears in the midst of this, and becomes paradigmatic of the aesthetic Buñuel will play with to address a significant moment in his childhood in Calanda, Spain, in which he makes the connection between death and sexuality. Buñuel observes in this experience: “I stood there hypnotized, sensing that beyond this rotten carcass lay some obscure metaphysical significance. My father finally took hold of my arm and dragged me away” (19). With the mixture of the personal and generational, the intimate and the social, Buñuel reenacts this action of closeness and being pulled away in utilizing the dead donkey in the grand pianos. Combined with this was the recurring image of rotting to describe, along with Dalí and Federico García Lorca, not only the imminent and desired death of decrepit values the generación del 27’s held in contempt, but also a fascination with contemplating and recording the bourgeois material decay and scatology. This debris of bourgeois value would be called, “putrefactos,” or putrid. Yet in the midst of this, another poet associated with this generation of artists, Juan Ramón Jiménez, had glorified the image of the donkey in an aestheticized southern Spain. In response to this, Buñuel and Dalí sent a letter condemning the poem for its perceived hysteria in sentimentality. A year later, the rotting donkey appears in a grand piano, being pulled along with the Jesuit school teachers. However, the appearance of the donkey marks a distinction between the direction in which not only Dalí and Buñuel would take, but the paths that would make Buñuel distinctive as an artist. During the shooting of the pulling sequence, in the set up of the scene before shooting, Dalí removed the donkey’s eye sockets and filled it with tar. The detail in in this moment immediately draws the viewers to the eyes of the corpses, but also renders the aesthetic of putrefaction developed by both Buñuel and Dalí as a final and statuesque representation, somewhat diminishing the possibly disturbing effect of the corpse’s presence in the film. As Dalí later ventured into further exploration of using the world for his interpretive delirium, Buñuel will focus more in unmasking the fetishism of the rational bourgeois world. Whereas Dalí happily explores the deeper recesses of the inward, Buñuel reaches out to the social and political to the very end of his career.
Conclusion: From Revolt to Interruption
In 2015, the Institute of Contemporary Arts in the UK held a retrospective of Luis Buñuel’s films, which included an appearance from his grandson Diego Buñuel, and leading academics on his work such as Maria Delgado, Jo Evans, Peter Evans, and Rob Stone. To coincide with the event, a series of video essays were assembled by filmmaker and academic Cristina Álvarez López, who grouped together Buñuel’s filmography based on specific themes and locations in his career. Two in particular connect very closely as they delve into his initiation into film to his reemergence late in his career towards experimental films. The first video essay, titled “Buñuel and Surrealism: Revolt in Love,” groups together his first feature films made in Spain, and includes clips from Un Chien Andalou. As for the second essay, titled “International Buñuel: Interruption as Method,” it places together his final trilogy of films made in France during the 70s before his death. As linearity, representation, and artistic movements came under scrutiny from both Benjamin and Buñuel, the relevance of these movements became questionable in the growing artistic movements that either criticized the esoteric and deeply misogynistic works of these artists, or were appropriated in a siphoned version of its aesthetics. Yet in the 1970s, Buñuel won his first Oscar for Best Foreign Film for his late work The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. As explored in Benjamin’s essays, the liminality of representation had been a cornerstone of surrealism, in putting forth this issue in relation to their political environment that continued to depend on idealistic moral rhetoric, and how the linearity of logic had itself restricted the potentiality of language. Even though Benjamin had grown in his scholarship to explore more of the minutiae of societal constructs, such as his intensive study on the French arcades, the indication of this work was to evaluate the relationship between the ideology of capitalism in constructing the everyday and the spaces in which this could be seen. Buñuel expanded in the same direction as well with his views from its focus on the everyday in small locations towards a more international perspective still rooted in the everyday. This expansiveness narrowed his focus on the social and political as his films explored the limitations of resources, class disparity, and how terrorism served instead as a function of digression. This focus on terrorism, despite his morbid fascination with it became scrutinized in his film, as it almost parodies his early attempts to use this same tool of digression and interruption to confront linearity. Instead, in its misuse of interruptions through terrorism, Buñuel confronts the ideology of not only the bourgeoisie in distancing themselves from these political actions, but radical ideologies as well utilizing reactionary strategies to raise attention to their causes. It is difficult not to dissociate the echoes of terrorism as a tool then and now, which makes both his early work and later work have some resonance as interruptions in the from of Eros grows towards the misuse of it in the world. Despite the antagonism he conveyed or which was directed against him, the reception of his work left an illumination of potentiality of what could possibly be derived from it from its displacements of meaning.

Every once in a while, I come across a sentence that doesn’t seem to be saying anything — be sure to make the subjects of your sentences very clear so that the meanings of the sentences can also be very clear.

The conclusion feels a bit random. Come back to your initial argument and focus more on the film at hand than on Buñuel’s film career as a whole in this last paragraph, I think.

1. Any translations not done by the published translators were done by myself.
2. Breton had famously written the first Surrealist Manifesto (Manifeste du surréalisme) in 1924, in which he also included the term “pure psychic automatism.” However, as Breton had attempted to bring together the political and the artistic temperament of surrealism to the wider public in joining the French Communist Party in 1927, he could not accomplish this task and was eventually expelled from the party in 1933. In 1935, he was eventually expelled from the first “International Congress of Writers for the Defense of Culture,” as a representative of the surrealists. What resulted in this was a confrontation between himself and writer Ilya Ehrenburg after he called the group “pederasts.” Breton had already been antagonistic toward Ehrenburg and a few other surrealists from this period affiliated with the communist party for their homosexuality.
3. In My Last Sigh, Buñuel reflects on his fascination with terrorism: “(The symbolic significance of terrorism has a certain attraction for me: the idea of destroying the whole social order, the entire human species. on the other hand, I despise those who use terrorism as a political weapon in the service of some cause or other–those who kill people in Madrid, for instance, in order to focus attention on the problems in Armenia.) No, the terrorists I admire are those like Bande à Bonnot; I understand people like Ascaso and Durruti who chose their victims carefully, or the French anarchists at the end of the nineteenth century–all those, in other words, who tried to blow up the world (and themselves along with it) that seemed to them unworthy of survival. Sometimes there’s a profound abyss between reality and my imagination–not exactly an unusual discrepancy, I’m sure; but I’ve never been a man of action. I’m simply incapable of imitating those people I so admire” (126).

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Sandro, Paul. Diversions of Pleasure: Luis Buñuel and the Crises of Desire. Columbus: Ohio State UP, 1987. Print.
Un Chien Andalou. Dir. Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí. Les Grands Films Classiques, 1960. DVD.

Rebels with a Cause: Alberto Caeiro and Heidegger in the Search of Being Through Poetic-Philosophy

by Margarida Duque de Castela Downhour

This paper is an attempt to understand Heidegger’s propositions concerning Being’s rupture from metaphysical models through the poetry of Alberto Caeiro, Fernando Pessoa’s heteronym.

Alberto Caeiro, a poet moved by philosophy, and Martin Heidegger, a philosopher who philosophizes poetically, write in the same period about the same subject-matter: the rupture from traditional modes of thinking that restrain the sense of self and that condition the ways in which one dwells in and perceives the world. Their resistance to -isms separates them from a western humanist tradition constructed on dualisms and skeptical of language, which, for Heidegger, is the epistemology and the very fabric of Being. Heidegger’s philosophy and Pessoa’s fragmented poetry echo each other in a compulsion to grasp the meaning of things. Pessoa throws himself into the world, resisting the limits of the self and unfolding himself in heteronyms (not pseudonyms, but autonomous authors that emerge from Pessoa himself and exist through language), and also the constraints of language through poetry. Though considered the master poet by other heteronyms, Caeiro does not see himself as a poet but a mere “Keeper of sheep” – the sheep are his thoughts. This is an allegory of his ek-sistence and, coincidentally, the poetic rendition of what Heidegger calls, “Shepherd of Being”, an approach to existence that allows one to live more authentically before Being and the event of clearing that allows being to be closer to Being’s essential truth.

“I have ideas and reasons,
Known theories in all their parts,
and never reach the heart.”
Fernando Pessoa

Rebels with a cause: Alberto Caeiro and Heidegger in the search of Being through poetic-philosophy

Pessoa was not a philosopher, rather, a poet moved by philosophy. For Pessoa, poetry is an expression of the self that is fragmented and, therefore, a mode of existence. Alberto Caeiro, one of Pessoa heteronyms expressed in his poetry a mode of being close to what Heidegger wrote and lectured about the Dasein (Being in the world). Alberto Caeiro’s existence as expressed through his poetry presents itself as a very close reflection of Heidegger’s philosophy.
Like Heidegger’s philosophy, Caeiro’s poems resist dualisms, logic, grammar and other metaphysical-based disciplines. Disciplines that, in their attempt to understand the world, separate the abstract from the real and categorize it. Scholars have read Caeiro under the light of many “-isms”: Mysticism, Platonism, Anti-Christianism and Naturalism, but all of these theories and philosophies seem to still confine Alberto Caeiro’s work to the very things he breaks way from, metaphysical-disciplines. Heidegger’s thought, on the other hand, seems to what best compliments Caeiro’s work and highlights the ways in which his poetry frees itself from the constraints of grammatical analysis and rational interpretations.
Heidegger’s philosophy presented in his essay Letter on Humanism and Alberto Caeiro’s poetry reflect each other. What Heidegger does with the philosophical text, Alberto Caeiro does in poetry: they both propose a rupture with metaphysical models and a return to an original understanding of the things themselves, an original mode of being. With this paper I analyze the role poetry plays for Fernando Pessoa, his heteronym Alberto Caeiro and Heidegger. Underlying the poets’ and Heidegger’s thoughts there is a strong attempt to break away from traditional modes of thinking: Pessoa breaks himself up and explores his multiple identities through poetry. Caeiro, one of those identities, questions the –isms that Heidegger criticizes while poetically embodying Heidegger’s interpretation of Being-in-the-world: a being who is neither subject nor object, but one whose existence is enmeshed and engaged in the world.

Until Heidegger’s influence, the traditional Western humanist tradition, had been founded on metaphysical assumptions and formatted to philosophize within the same dualist tradition that experienced the sharpening of its dualist contours with Descartes’ cogito ergo sum; in the process, language, as a way of constructing the world, was devalued and deemed cryptic, paradoxical and inconclusive. Suspicious of the false rhetoric of the Sophists and even of the fallible meanings of the written word, Plato defended the idea that the speech act is the way that the philosopher uses to make his ideas present in the material world, hence Plato’s insistence on the conversational approach to concepts, where one can question and be questioned, and the subject of the conversation can be cross-examined. From Plato’s perspective, this epistemological exercise is more fruitful than reading, for reading leaves the inquirer alone with the text, questioning it but with no possibility of receiving a response back from its author; there is no dialogue and no active participation in the meaning-making process. It is because language, at the service of philosophy, is an intermediary between the world of ideas and the world of manifestations and it renders visible (or audible) what comes from the philosopher’s intellect/soul. Plato is afraid of the potential of the language to be an unreliable and untrustworthy art form that veils more about reality than it reveals.

Platonic dialogues privilege participation in the shared construction of truths using making use. There is then a sharp contrast between technical language (the language of reason) and poetic and everyday language. In order to make sense of the world’s phenomena, the technical language has been regarded by Western humanists as the most reliable tool to explain a divine, transcendental or metaphysical will. This world-building and organizing will can thus be interpreted as an instrument that one can use to learn about the world through various sciences, which make the world intelligible. The Enlightenment project of demystifying the world with technical language and the use of empirical knowledge to understand how things work, what they are and why, rationalizes the world thus allowing humans to tinker with it on behalf of progress and betterment of human existence. The Enlightenment rationale is that if the world is intelligible through the language of reason therefore not only the creative force(s) can be understood by it but also the truth of reality, including being. The other two forms of language, poetic and everyday on the other hand, are ever evolving languages that, due to their resistance to categorization and fixed meanings, have been stripped of their legitimacy as meaning making devices. Skepticism surrounding the project of the Enlightenment ideals, however, gave rise to an alternative perspective on the properties of language, such as the one proposed by the 18th century Italian historian and philosopher Giambattista Vico. Vico stands out from the very persuasive collective of progressives who, inspired by the power of science, trusted and highly advocated for the scientific method as the “master key” to acquire knowledge. Vico, in contrast to ideas about the use of language to drive progress and understand the nature of being, defends the idea that language is the actual origin of man’s creationist drive and not mathematical formulas. He argues that before unknown natural phenomena, the primordial man first used metaphor to imagine the unintelligible reality, thus triggering the beginning of history and populating the meaningful world with “languages, gods, social practices … sciences and philosophies”. Vico acknowledges poetic language as a valid epistemology that educates man in the understanding of human existence as well as inquiring skeptically the progressive and hegemonic future advocated by positivist rationalists.

Heidegger: Ek-sistence and Being
A century later, in the early 1900’s, the German philosopher Martin Heidegger picks on a similar idea about language and expands it in order to investigate the nature of being, and in the process, redefines a whole western humanist tradition. Heidegger set himself with the gargantuan task of revolutionizing centuries-long western thought, which has since influenced every sphere of knowledge from politics to science, from psychology to linguistics. Man was regarded as the subject and the world around it was the object of his inquiry; man could be separated into body and mind, body and soul and the world was divided into visible and invisible, material and ideal, sensorial and reason, or earthly and divine. Heidegger, suspicious of western philosophical tradition deeply rooted in metaphysics, adopts an alternative perspective that breaks away from the so-called humanist tradition thus far and defends the idea that the world and its beings cannot be fixed and separated, that beings participate in the world as Beings and not as categorical and metaphysical entities/things. Heidegger debunks the humanist dualist tradition by privileging the use of poetic language over technical reasoning. For Heidegger, existence (Dasein – being there) does not predicate the separation between subject and world and that Being-in-the-world (Dasein) and understanding one’s existence in a primordial way and outside of the restraints of metaphysics, is only possible through poetic language. For Heidegger, the poetic being is the being closest to be in the clearance, that is, closest to have knowledge of himself and of the world and poetic language, the event that both conceals being itself from experiencing that clearing but also, what enables being to come close to his/her essential truth.
Heidegger wants to contradict Cartesian dualisms by proposing that man is conceived not as a conscience separated from the world (transcendental to it) but as “Dasein” whose original mode of being is the participation in that world. Furthermore, Heidegger suggests that science has not been able to determine what the human essence consists of, for it was not discovered in atomic energy, not discovered in brain chemistry or psychoanalysis. Instead, Heidegger suggests that the essence of human beings is hidden from the technical/rational mind. In order to step away from dualist traditional school of thoughts charged with static concepts as existencia and essencia, Heidegger introduces the concept of ek-sistence. He explains that Man ek-sists and is always in a relationship between the ek-sistence, the dwelling of Being or the “Da” (there) in the “Da-sein” and, existencia, the realm of beings. Ek-sistence is the primordial realm where the truth of the self shines and provides clearing to oneself; ek-sisting is prior to a mode of thinking that is representational (the realm of existencia). Given that for Heidegger existencia does not actually address being’s relation to Da-sein (the place of clearing and where Being resides), then the concept of essencia, which is defined in relation to existencia, is insufficient to examine the truth of Being. The essence of Being thus lies in its ek-sistence and not in essencia. In order to reconstruct the western humanist thought, Heidegger reframes concepts and reverses the focus of knowledge from the search for definitions to the search for meaning; Heidegger does not ask “what is the meaning of being?” but rather, “what is being?”.
Heidegger, seeks to liberate language “from grammar into a more original essential framework [that] is reserved for thought and poetic creation.”(240) He writes in a way that reflects the intimate relationship among man (being), Dasein (Being), and language. Hence Heidegger’s poetic writing style and his high praise of the poets, who are the guardians of language, for “their guardianship accomplishes the manifestation of being insofar as they bring this manifestation to language and preserve it in language through their saying.”(239) Poets, through language, render visible what Heidegger defines as the ek-sisting of the human being, because poetic language resists being instrumentalized and formatted by scientific language, thus opening a more authentic dimension of language that is potentially purer and closer to the original place of Being.
But, while Heidegger dwells in philosophical text and poetic language in order to collapse metaphysics and escape from its structures, a Portuguese poet of the name Fernando Pessoa attempts to do a similar thing through poetry.
“Poetry, for Pessoa was more than life, or rather something different, capable of providing a relief from his daily routine. If poets merely dish out to the reader what they really feel in their day-to-day life, then they are giving too little, according to Pessoa.” (Zenith 4). A poet who is truly a poet cannot be otherwise. Writing is an involuntary necessity. Pessoa’s being compels him to do so as means of self-preservation. Poetry thus cannot be understood as anything but the manifestation of the poetic self who is delivered in the form of a poem. The poet nears ek-sistence through the poetic language; he gives himself through his writing thus allowing the reader to participate in the poet’s ek-sistence. In his poem, Autopsicografia (Autopsychography), Pessoa writes:
The poet is a faker
Who’s so good at his act
He even fakes the pain he feels in fact

And those who read his words
Will feel in what he writes
Neither of the pains he has
But just the one they don’t O poeta é um fingidor.
Finge tão completamente
Que chega a fingir que é dor/ a dor que deveras sente

E os que lêem o que escreve,
Na dor lida sentem bem,
Não as duas que ele teve

Pessoa demonstrates how the poet, making use of an art form which is commonly disregarded as mimetic, cannot but express an authentic pain which, in Pessoa’s poem, “he feels in fact”. Traditional thinkers could read the first stanza of the poem and agree that both the poet and his art form are nothing but a poor imitation of reality. However, the second stanza rebounds from that assumption, and though still following the conceptual idea of ‘fakeness’ associated to poetry, And because the Poet fails so badly at being a faker and comes through as a truthful being, those who read cannot help but feel the pain of the poet. Poetry is indeed fake, because it not only gives what the poet is but it discloses the possibilities for what the readers are or could become, before they they realize it. This poetic design and intention intercepts Heidegger’s fundamental ontology of being and the role of language in that process.

Fernando Pessoa’s birth was one year shy of Heidegger’s. He was born in Lisbon in 1888 but two and half years after the death of his father at the age of 5, Pessoa moved with his family, mother, stepfather and siblings to South Africa, where he spent his adolescence studying at an English school. As a child, he was already a fantastic student and writer and began demonstrating a propensity to write under various pen names. This disposition of multiplying himself in his writing gained a greater dimension as Pessoa incessantly unfolded himself in multiple heteronyms whose identities are so distinct from each other and from the creator that they should be regarded as autonomous authors. Fernando Pessoa’s heteronyms represent different worldviews, modes of being and distinct humanistic traditions. They are entities with their own biographies, personality traits, astrological maps and they most definitely cross the threshold of fiction and reality, of imagination and reality, for they even know each other, have met “in person”, exchanged correspondence and, on occasion, even crossed paths with Pessoa himself. One anecdote in regards to his lack of control over his self-multiplication, tells that Pessoa’s
“only romantic liaison, largely epistolary, was prevented from going forward by the constant interference of Álvaro de Campos [a heteronym], who so exasperated the beloved Ophelia Queiroz, that she finally declared she hated him. Pessoa in the end, preferred to remain with Álvaro and the other literary characters he had spawn single-handedly” (Zenith 5)
This somewhat comical episode in the life of Fernando Pessoa highlights his extreme need for a multiplicity and a rupture from traditional modes of being and of relationship with others. Through these heteronyms, Pessoa manifests hidden philosophies and actions that he, himself, wouldn’t say or do explicitly, such as annoying Ophelia to the point of breaking up. Despite his acute personality fragmentation, Pessoa was lucid about himself and not entirely lost in his fragmented personality. This, in fact, made Pessoa very sensible and in tune with the world; his being could not be contained in one single identity and the knowledge of the world through the knowledge of one single identity was not possible for Pessoa to encapsulate. In one poem Pessoa writes:
I don’t know how many souls I have
I’ve changed at each moment
Continuously a stranger.
I’ve never seen or completed myself
From being so much, I have only soul Não sei quantas almas tenho
Cada momento mudei
Continuamente estranho
Nunca me vi nem acabei
De tanto ser só tenho alma.

Through various poetic personae, Pessoa himself breaks away from the self that he lived with throughout his life and that others know as Pessoa. His fragments or masks in the form of poems, manifest multiple ways of understanding the reality in relation to himself. Writing through the various heteronyms becomes an exercise of self-contemplation, self-exploration and an urge to grasp meaning or even come to terms with a seemingly meaningless life. Perhaps we can see Pessoa’s compulsion to unfold himself in multiple personae as an act of throwing himself onto the world. According to Heidegger, “the human being is ‘thrown’ by being itself into the truth of being”, as someone who has become estranged from the world and from himself, Pessoa throws himself out of himself. One can say he did not plan to do so, just like “Humans beings do not decide whether and how beings appear” (Heidegger 252). Instead, this movement of throwing into a place of clearing is rather involuntary and uncontrollable.
A reflection of such movement outside of himself is Fernando Pessoa’s exploration of the self by constantly resisting an unfixed identity that transpires onto other individualities, each expressed in different kinds of writing. Scholars have found seventy-two heteronyms, but three are especially prolific and well defined by Pessoa: Alberto Caeiro, ‘The Unwitting Master”; Ricardo Reis, the Neo-classical Epicurean, and Álvaro de Campos, the globe-trotting Sensationalist turned Existentialist. Of all these three heteronyms, I would like to pay particular attention to Alberto Caeiro, for his poetry reflects clearly his way of “being-in-the-world”, and thus approaches what Heidegger sought through philosophy and his theory about Dasein. As Caeiro’s cognomen, “The Unwitting Master”, suggests, he is perceived has the master poet in Pessoa’s universe but, curiously, Caeiro didn’t even know he was a poet, much less a master of poetry and philosophy. Caeiro’s “occupation” is that of a keeper of sheep; his disregard for metaphysics, his simplicity of thought and poetic spontaneity echo the “Shepherd” that Heidegger wishes man will become. There seems to be a proximity between Heidegger’s philosophy and Caeiro’s poetry, both still rocking the world and creating an impact, or rather, the sort of clearing or nearness to Dasein, in the reader.

Alberto Caeiro, an ingenuous, unlettered countryside man, says he does not believe in God, or rather, he does, if he is to assume that everything that exists is His creation and manifestation, such as the trees, the moon, the sun and the stone. At first sight, Caeiro seems to identify himself as a mystical individual and an Anti-Christ when in fact he merely does not conceive of any kind of separation between himself and the others, between the earth and heaven or between the visible and the invisible world. Pessoa says that “He [Caeiro] sees things not with his mind but with his senses”. Inadvertently writing poetically and inadvertently philosophizing, Caeiro’s poetic being becomes Heidegger’s aspiration for man’s ek-sistence in the world. In his poetry and in particular in poem number five from The Keeper of Sheep, Caeiro criticizes the notions of metaphysics: transcendent reality; opposition between appearance and essence; subject and object. He also rejects rationalism and accuses metaphysics and even poets of veiling man from the real world.

To not think of anything is metaphysics enough
What do I think of the world?
Who knows what I think of it!
If I fell ill then I would think of it.
What’s my idea about things?
What’s my opinion about causes and effects?
What have I been meditating on God and the soul
And the creation of the World?
I don’t know. To think about such things would be to shut my eyes
And not think. It would be to close the curtains
Of my window (which, however, has no curtains).
The mystery of things? What mystery?
The only mystery is that some people think about mystery.
If you’re in the sun and close your eyes,
You begin not to know what the sun is,
And you think about various warm things.
But open your eyes and you see the sun,
And you can no longer think about anything,
Because the light of the sun is truer than the thoughts
Of all philosophers and all poets.
The light of the sun doesn’t know what it does,
And so it cannot err and is common and good.

Metaphysics? What metaphysics do those trees have?
Only that of being green and lush and of having branches
Which bear fruit in their season, and we think nothing of it.

We hardly even notice them.
But what better metaphysics than theirs,
Which consists in not knowing why they live
And in not knowing that they don’t know?
Há metafísica bastante em não pensar em nada.
O que penso eu do mundo?
Sei lá o que penso do mundo!
Se eu adoecesse pensaria nisso.
Que idéia tenho eu das cousas?
Que opinião tenho sobre as causas e os efeitos?
Que tenho eu meditado sobre Deus e a alma
E sobre a criação do Mundo?
Não sei. Para mim pensar nisso é
fechar os olhos
E não pensar. É correr as cortinas
Da minha janela (mas ela não tem cortinas).
O mistério das cousas? Sei lá o que é mistério!
O único mistério é haver quem pense no mistério.
Quem está ao sol e fecha os olhos,
Começa a não saber o que é o sol
E a pensar muitas cousas cheias de calor.
Mas abre os olhos e vê o sol,
E já não pode pensar em nada,
Porque a luz do sol vale mais que os pensamentos
De todos os filósofos e de todos os poetas.
A luz do sol não sabe o que faz
E por isso não erra e é comum e boa.

Metafísica? Que metafísica têm aquelas árvores?
A de serem verdes e copadas e de terem ramos
E a de dar fruto na sua hora, o que não nos faz pensar,
A nós, que não sabemos dar por elas.
Mas que melhor metafísica que a delas,
Que é a de não saber para que vivem
Nem saber que o não sabem?

The first verse of the poem succinctly states Heidegger’s main opinions on traditional forms of humanism thought from which he wants to break away: a metaphysical thinking whose technical language prevents us from experiencing the truth of things. Caeiro starts his poem by precisely criticizing a thought governed by metaphysical grids, designed to explain the world in a given manner but that also prevent us from nearing Dasein, hiding us from Being. For Caeiro, this sort of thought is burdensome and steers us away from participating in things as they are: “to think about things is to shut my eyes“, and blind oneself to the world. Caeiro also says that to think (metaphysically) is to “close the curtains Of my window (which, however, has no curtains)”; the truth of his being and of the world, the primordial essence of Being has no curtains, no interpretations and it just is. Hence the absence of mystery. What makes things mysterious is one’s attempt to filter ek-sistence through metaphysical thought (-isms). As Heidegger writes in Letter on Humanism, “Every humanism is either grounded in metaphysics or is itself made to be ground of one. Every determination of the essence of the human being already presupposes and interpretations of beings without asking about the truth of being, whether knowingly or not, is metaphysical” (245). As Caeiro points out in the poem, the trees do not occupy their lives trying to find out why they live, they just do and simply are and that is why he wishes to be like a tree or a sunflower, because it meant that his understanding wouldn’t have to be limited to metaphysical categories that force humans to decide between dualisms and assumptions; this way of experiencing the world establishes a dualistic understanding of the it and pushes humans to choose between things and engaging in conflicts within themselves. By not thinking, or rather, by not reading scientifically into the things around him, Caeiro is able to rid himself of the structures of knowledge that bind beings to a worldview that prevents humans from participating in the most original experiences of Being with the world. In other verses Caeiro questions directly the validity of those who think metaphysically:
“The inner makeup of things…”
“The inner meaning of the Universe…”
All of this is false and it doesn’t mean anything.
It’s incredible that anyone can think about such things.
It’s like thinking about reasons and objectives
When morning is breaking, and down the trunks of the trees
A faint glimmer of gold is dissolving darkness.
“Constituição íntima das coisas”…
“Sentido íntimo do Universo”…
Tudo isto é falso, tudo isto não quer dizer nada.
É incrível que se possa pensar em coisas dessas.
É como pensar em razões e fins
Quando o começo da manhã está raiando, e pelos lados das árvores
Um vago ouro lustroso vai perdendo a escuridão.
Caeiro does not explicitly say it, but his poetic criticism reveals how absurd he thinks metaphysics is as frequently as Spinoza in his “which is absurd” to unscientific prepositions. The poet debunks metaphysics through writing; rebellion from traditional modes of being comes to him naturally and honestly. His poetry immerses us in the poet’s experience. Reading Caeiro is often like taking a stroll around the countryside, where he lives and writes; there, things are not organized using logic and his verses lead our attention from flowers to trees, back to flowers, and then to the sun and the hills—just as our gaze and steps would wander if we were in the country. It is with a nonchalant endeavor and simple mindedness that Caeiro evades rational structures that codify reality with hidden meanings and mysteries. Unlike Platonists, for whom the real world is accessible through thought and reason, such a dualist attitude does not seems to correspond to Caeiro’s mode of being in the world. On the contrary, the manifested world (not only the metaphysical one) is the real world; what Caeiro feels and sees are not signs for something outside of themselves. With a passive and simple demeanor rendered in poetry, Caeiro rebels against the traditional ways of producing meaning using logic, and thus he introduces an alternative way of understanding the world, and of living in it.
As mentioned earlier, Caeiro is seen by the other heteronyms as the master. Because Caeiro suggests that one’s notion of the self and the world does not have to be restrained and constantly negotiated according to a categorized worldview and a fixed identity. Thus, inspiring other to follow a path devoid of suffering. For Fernando Pessoa, Caeiro also offers a glimpse of a salvation from his pain of living. In another episodic anecdote about Pessoa’s encounters with the heteronyms, Richard Zenith, a scholar and translator of Pessoa, writes on how Fernando Pessoa and Alberto Caeiro met and about the impact of this encounter that was recounted by Àlvaro de Campos, another heteronym:

they met for the first time on March 8, 1914, and Pessoa, completely shaken up on hearing Caeiro reading poems from his Keeper of Sheep, immediately went home to write verses of a kind he never could have produced otherwise. For Fernando, afflicted by an ‘overly keen sensibility’ coupled with an ‘overly keen mind’, the direct and ingenuous poetry of Caeiro acted like a ‘vaccine against stupidity of the intelligent’. It is Àlvaro de Campos [the same heteronym who broke up Pessoa with his beloved Ophelia] who recounts the meeting of these two men (Zenith 41)
Writing Caeiro is a hypothetical remedy for Pessoa’s existential and fragmented relationship with the world and himself, and a way to get to “the heart of the truth he did not believe in or to get to the heart of himself, which he also did not believe in” (Zenith 13). Instead of getting anywhere, however, the self-analysis merely accrued, filling in an internal void in Pessoa, taking the place of the self he might have had he’d been more adept at living in the world” (Zenith 13). Pessoa could not swallow his heteronyms and take in the totality of their being because he so strongly resisted the idea of absolutism, thus what is left for Pessoa is to follow them, that is, to be guided by the parts of himself that are themselves complex, conflicting and flawed. Alberto Caeiro, the master, shows the way out of the heteronyms existential angst but, unfortunately for them, he dies at the early age of 26 of tuberculosis. He left, however, his true self manifested in his works.
Like Pessoa’s urge to write, Caeiro’s poetry is also quite involuntary, in the sense that it emerges spontaneously as if Caeiro’s thoughts were merely pouring onto the paper and taking the shape of letters and words. In Caeiro’s work, poetry is not a mediator between reality and perception, it’s spontaneous, like a photographic language: natural, simple with no abstractions used to portray the world as it is. By rendering his experiencing of the world in his poems, the poem opens itself to us and through the poem, we learn of how the poet sees the world, or rather, how he experiences it with all of his being. Caeiro writes his thoughts freely on paper, unmediated by a metaphysic or technical language. His ideas flow from himself onto the paper in the form of poetry. He is not a subject writing poetry about an object; Caeiro’s writing is a manifestation of his being, an expansion of his self that occurs spontaneously in stanzas such as the following, which do not abide to a rigorous poetic form:
When I sit down to write verses
Or while I walk along roads and pathways,
I jot verses on a piece of paper that is in my mind
I feel a staff in my hand
And see my own profile
On the top of a low hill
Looking after my flock and seeing my ideas,
Or looking after my ideas and seeing my flock,
And smiling vaguely, like one who doesn’t grasp what it is said
But wants to pretend he does. Quando me sento a escrever versos
Ou passeando pelos caminhos ou pelos atalhos,
Escrevo versos num papel que está no meu pensamento
Sinto um cajado nas mãos
E vejo um recorte de mim
No cimo dum outeiro
Olhando o meu rebanho e vendo as minhas idéias,
Ou olhando para as minhas idéias e vendo o meu rebanho,
E sorrindo vagamento como quem não compreende o que se diz
E quer fingir que compreende.

He is a poet because he doesn’t know how not to be one, Caeiro writes: Saúdo todos os que me lerem (…) E ao lerem os meus versos pensem/Que sou qualquer cousa natural/ “I salute all who may read me (…) And as they read my poems, I hope/ They think I’m something natural”. Caeiro is his poetry and his poems are a most truthful reflection of his Being. He is a being in the world or, as Heidegger would say, he is Dasein.
Thinking, for Pessoa, is a problematic activity but not one that is entirely rejected, only when it dwells in metaphysics. Fernando Pessoa found relief in the poetry of Caeiro precisely because it resisted thinking too much, too categorically and analytically; something that Pessoa himself did to the point of exhaustion and self-alienation. Heidegger is not against thinking, but only the perspective of a form of order that passes for thinking but hides Being. He differentiates between different kinds of thoughts, one that is technical and that belongs to the realm of metaphysics, and another that is irrational. The latter mode of thinking is the common denominator among humans and the link that “accomplished the relation of being to the essence of the human being.” (Heidegger 239) According to Heidegger, our ability of thinking outside of the “technical-theoretical exactness of concepts” allows humans to participate in the world of things, of beings and near Dasein. Participation in this world is possible through language, the dwelling place of humans. Without throwing themselves out of the metaphysical grid that pulls them away from the primordial dwelling of Being, humans become homeless; homeless to their own true self. Heidegger insists that there has not been a separation of the soul from a Divine superabundance, nor a fall from heaven; there was and there is an alienation of humans from their own humanity result of the predominance of metaphysical thought.
Alberto Caeiro’s labels of master, pure mystic, antichrist, the poet of nature and anti-metaphysical correspond partially to his mode of being in the world, Caeiro, however, sees himself simply as a Shepherd. This nomenclature might be deceiving, for Caeiro did not have a profession, he lived in the country with his aunt but “fancied himself a shepherd, with thoughts instead of sheep for his flock” (Zenith 39). The Keeper of Sheep is Caeiro’s metaphorical occupation and also the name of his first collection of poems. Both of these interconnected aspects of Caeiro – the allegory for his philosophy and his poems as the rendition of his identity – coincides with Heidegger’s metaphor that suggests that “the human being is the shepherd of being” (Heidegger 252). As the shepherd of being, humans ought to guard their ek-sistence, their humanity from going astray, like sheep following mindlessly whatever epistemological systems that govern one’s language and taints one’s understanding of the their being in the world. “Thinking conducts historical ek-sistence, that is, the humanitas of homo humanus, into the realm of the upsurgence of healing” (Heidegger 252). For Heidegger, this kind of thinking brings being into language and it is through thought that being overcomes metaphysics and abandons the region of homo animalis, ascending then to the primordial realm of Being, a “fundamental ontology” where the truth of being emerges. One of Caeiro’s poems explores the above mentioned idea of a way of thinking that is different from the traditional metaphysical thought and the poet’s coming into the reality through his nearness to the reality and to the true meaning of Being.
I am a keeper of sheep.
The sheep are my thoughts
And each thought, sensations.
I think with my eyes and my ears
And with my hands and feet
And with my nose and mouth.
To think a flower is to see and smell it,
And to eat a fruit is to know its meaning.

That is why on a hot day
When I enjoy it so much I feel sad,
And I lie down in the grass
And close my warm eyes,
Then I feel my whole body lying down in reality,
I know the truth, and I’m happy.
Sou um guardador de rebanhos.
O rebanho é os meus pensamentos
E cada pensamento são todos sensações.
Penso com os olhos e com os ouvidos
E com as mãos e o pés
E com o nariz e a boca.
Pensar uma flor é vê-la e cheirá-la
E comer um fruto é saber-lhe o sentido.

Por isso quando num dia de calor
Me sinto triste de gozá-lo tanto,
E me deito ao comprido na erva,
E fecho os olhos quentes,
Sinto todo o meu corpo deitado na realidade,
Sei a verdade e sou feliz.
Caeiro inverts the idea of “thought” just like he does with the traditional concept of God: Mas se Deus é as flores e as árvores/E os montes e o sol e o luar/Então acredito nele?”But if God is the flowers and trees/And hills and sun and moon/Then why should I call him God?”. Caeiro does not care of the pre-existent definitions and signifiers attached to these words. For him, thoughts are sensations and that kind of thought is the truth, because he can experience reality with more certainty and assurance than a physics’ formula could communicate. For the keeper of sheep, the sheep are his thoughts and he keeps them from seeking meaning in metaphysics, in language, in religion and in reason, because those are things that distract him from being in the world and from valuing his experience of the present that is ever changing. For the poet, writing is like walking; Caeiro does not submit these movements to the scrutiny of mechanics and processes. He does it as casually as he experiences the rain falling over him. Without the instrumentality of metaphysics, Caeiro lives in a primordial existence, like that of a child, as if he was born into the world at each moment. As every human being, Caeiro is born into a world, of oneness and unity. He lives in the womb, in a world that presents itself to him as the “eternal novelty”. Someone who lives as such doesn’t acknowledge things as intrinsically separated from each other. And because his mode of being hasn’t been separated from this moment of birth, for Caeiro there is no other reality, there is no Christian creator, no Freudian triplicity (id, ego and super-ego) nor Lacan’s three orders of being. Caeiro is aware of how others see the world and that is why he is able to comment on that:
Hello keeper of sheep
There on the side of the road.
What does the blowing wind say to you?

That it’s wind and that it blows,
And that it has blown before,
And that it will blow hereafter.
And what does it say to you?”

Much more than that.
It speaks to me of many other things:
Of memories and nostalgias,
And of things that never were.”

You’ve never heard the wind blow.
The wind only speaks of the wind.
What you heard was a lie,
And the lie is in you. Olá guardador de rebanhos,
Aí à beira da estrada,
Que te diz o vento que passa

Que é vento, e que passa,
E que já passou antes,
E que passará depois,
E ti o que te diz?

Muita coisa mais do que isso
Fala-me de muitas outras coisas.
De memórias e de saudades
E de coisas que nunca foram.

Nunca ouviste passar o vento.
O vento só fala do vento.
O que lhe ouviste foi mentira,
E a mentira está em ti.
Translation by Richard Zenith
Clearly, because Caeiro does not feel the same way and does not condition his existence to metaphysical schools of thought, he cannot express himself differently than how he participates in the world. Caeiro doesn’t know deceit or dishonesty; his language and poetry are as authentic and as truthful as he is capable of being. Caeiro is already doing what Heidegger aspires man to do, that is, to return to his primordial abode, to a purer use of language that does not predicate the instrumentalization and formatting of the technical-theoretical language. For Heidegger, poetry is the rendition of the authentic mode of being he is advocating. Poetry offers itself to interpretation, unpredictability and open meanings – just like the world, where there is no fixed beginning or end, where everything is in a process of becoming, everything is dynamic, interactive and so is poetry.
By uniting poetry to philosophy, Caeiro and Heidegger invite us to meditate on the original questions of being: that there is Being beyond the metaphysical thought and the rigor of language and that there are other ways of perceiving the world and oneself.

Works cited

Heidegger, Martin. Letter on “Humanism”. Translated by Frank A. Capuzzi. Pathmarks. Ed. William
McNeil, Cambridge University Press, 1998

Pessoa, Fernando. Fernando Pessoa & Co. – Selected poems. Edited and translated by Richard Zenith.
New York: Grove Press, 1998

Pessoa, Fernando. Arquivo Pessoa. May 8th, 2016.

Works consulted

Descartes, René. Discourse on Method and Meditations on First Philosophy. Translated by Donald A.
Cress. Indiana/Cambridge: Hacket Publishing Co, 1998

Luft, Sandra. The divinity of human making and doing in the 18th century. – A companion to
Enlightenment Historiography. Edited by Sophie Bourgault and Robert Sparling.
Leiden/Boston: BRILL, 2013

de Spinoza, Benedict. The Ethics and other works. Edited and translated by Edwin Curley. A Spinoza
Reader. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1994

Reflections of Kafka and Gilman: The Significance of Social Reflection in “Die Verwandlung” and “The Yellow Wallpaper”

by Christopher Sheehan

The work of the two orders of men is at the bottom the same, – a criticism of life. The end and aim of all literature, if one considers it attentively, is, in truth, nothing but that.

–Matthew Arnold, Essays in Criticism

In the epigraph, Arnold’s coupling of literature and truth refers in particular to those who Arnold describes as men of genius and men of ability. In consideration of “The Yellow Wallpaper,” I extend Arnold’s literary vision in Essays in Criticism to Charlotte Perkins Gilman as well, as a reflection of her demonstrated ability to satirize. In this respect, both Kafka and Gilman have written stories that criticize life in their distinctive societies. “Die Verwandlung” [“The Metamorphosis”[i]] and “The Yellow Wallpaper” benefit, therefore, from consideration of their historical context, which attributes importance to the way both authors represent their respective societies and cultures. The events of both stories contain fantastic elements, which does not elicit the response of literal representation, but rather, reflects a particular interpretation of society’s interaction with those who do not participate in the social ideology – voluntarily or involuntarily. Through the representation of the family dynamic in terms of the respective transformations of both protagonists, the veil of das Unheimliche [the Uncanny] obscures them to their families and relegates them to the margins of society.

The corporeal transformation that both protagonists experience requires them to reinterpret and alter their once-adequate environments. Gregor’s physical body is transformed beyond recognition, though (as far as the reader may apprehend) his consciousness remains intact. Despite this, Gregor’s family is not able to recognize him through his transformation, nor is Gregor able to conduct himself in any recognizable way. Likewise, by the end of “The Yellow Wallpaper,” the narrator’s actions no longer reflect the sense of patience and trust for John (the narrator’s husband and physician) that allows her to conform to society’s view of the role of women, according to the governing ideology. As an indication of mental deterioration, she affects a style of posture that she refers to as “creeping” (“Wallpaper” 38). This serves as an indication of her altered mental state, resulting in her physician-husband fainting when he sees her creeping around the room and (subsequently) over his unconscious body. The narrator, of course, expresses her confusion towards his reaction.

The foregrounding of the protagonists’ transformations reflects Michel’s Foucault’s analysis of madness and asylum in Madness and Civilization, which explores the way convention has shaped our reaction to mental instability, as well as alternatives to that convention. I extrapolate this to a more general sense, in terms of Foucault’s idea as applied to those who are marginalized by society for lacking the ability or means to be a “productive” member of society. In terms of asylum, the physical spaces inhabited by the protagonists and their families exist as representations of Kafka’s and Gilman’s interpretations of late-19th to early 20th century Austrian and affluent American culture, respectively. Within these representative spaces, Kafka’s Gregor Samsa and Gilman’s unnamed narrator assume an unheimlich[ii] role within their families. As a result, they are falsely interpreted and experience incarceration within once-familiar surroundings. This incarceration redirects the unheimlich effect that these protagonists have on their families, whereby their surroundings progressively reflect their families’ response to their transformations. Thus, the families further alienate the protagonists from the ideological basis of their respective societies, which precludes the protagonists’ productive participation in society.

Freud describes the unheimlich object as “nothing new or alien, but something which is familiar and old-established in the mind and which has become alienated from it only through the process of repression” (Freud 944). Though the connotations of Freud’s concept of repression typically involve a subconscious mental process, in these texts I also associate “repression” with the intentional denial of significant transformation – most notably from the families’ point of view John, the husband of Gilman’s narrator, denies that the rest cure is ineffective against her ailment. His insistence only exacerbates her condition and leads to her embodiment of the identity that she associates with the woman[iii] behind the bars of the wallpaper. Gregor’s family refuses to believe that the creature in Gregor’s room has any connection to him, even though they initially exhibit some sense of responsibility to take care of him. The families’ responses result from their inability to interpret the protagonists outside of an unheimlich context, which partially arises from their conflicted recognition of the protagonists as familiar, yet unfamiliar enough to treat differently.

The families’ inability to reconcile new and old information precludes the possibility of a working re-interpretation and improvement of the condition of Gregor and Gilman’s narrator. This failed process mirrors the act of interpretation that readers engage in when reading a text. A commonly taught strategy of interpretation concerns an apprehension of the author’s intentions, which can also be said of Gregor’s family and the husband of Gilman’s narrator. Their failed attempt to create a faithful interpretation, and the detrimental side-effects of it, reflect the inadequate nature of this strategy. The author’s purpose in writing the text, or their projected context for it, may help the reader understand the climate of the times in which it was written, but it does not necessarily need to influence the reader’s interpretation of the text. Oftentimes, the ideas readers have about these intentions are conjecture formed under the influence of autobiographical information. In that context, both families have their own ideas of how the protagonists normally act, as well as how they should act based on social conventions. When the protagonists’ transformations alter this idea, their families’ inability to reconcile the differences problematizes the protagonists’ positioning in their own households, as well as society – insofar as their households create a microcosmic resemblance of society’s governing ideology.

In her essay “Writing,” Barbara Johnson summarizes Jacque Derrida’s ideas of how readers create significance from texts. Through an interpretation of Derrida’s ideas, she communicates a view that presents authorial intention as more of a façade than we might acknowledge: “When one writes, one writes more than (or less than, or other than) one thinks” (46). An author cannot have reasonably conceived of all the responses that readers will have to his/her writing. One reader may interpret the father in “Die Verwandlung” as an authority figure, interacting with Gregor as an enforcer and warden, while another may view him with the connotations of the Oedipal Father that Sigmund Freud describes. A reader of “The Yellow Wallpaper” may likewise view the narrator’s husband/physician as an authority figure. A more feminist reading of the text, however, may produce an interpretation of John as a symbol of male dominance and perpetrator of female oppression. On these grounds, Johnson claims that the reader has the ability to pursue significance outside of any attempt to discern what the author meant by writing the text: “The reader’s task is to read what is written, rather than simply attempt to intuit what might have been meant” (46). At the same time as this idea vindicates the families for “misinterpreting” the protagonists’ intentions, it also complicates the idea of an ideologically-based interpretation, through which a person may attempt to create understanding through a restricting frame. In a typical deconstructionist way, Johnson’s reading of Derrida’s separates the words on the page from their author, and attempts to derive significance from how these words are strung together, allowing them to reveal connections that are outside of that text’s particular context. In both “Die Verwandlung” and “The Yellow Wallpaper,” the families’ consistently contextualized interpretations prevent them from connecting the protagonists’ actions with positive intent.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman perfectly exemplifies the distinction between the strategies of reading words versus reading intentions in her short essay “Why I Wrote the Yellow Wallpaper.” Readers don’t often get the straightforward explanation that Gilman provides for her audience. She tells her readers that her conscious decision to work – “in which is joy and growth and service, without which one is a pauper and a parasite” (54) – allowed her to regain power and save herself from the brink of madness. While she does not attempt to tell us what “The Yellow Wallpaper” means, she does tell us that she wrote it for a specific reason: “to save people from being driven crazy” (55). According to Johnson’s reading of Derrida, readers should not let their interpretation of a text be driven by the author’s vision of it, which constitutes only one potential facet of understanding a text.

How does this affect our reading of “The Yellow Wallpaper?” Does Gilman give us the definitive closure that most authors cannot offer us? Johnson finds a resounding no through Derrida. While Gilman offers a unique insight into her story, it cannot stop a reader from reading the story through the lens of personal significance. Though Gilman has stated her purpose, the meaning of the story is not fixed. In a way, Gilman simply offers another interpretation of a story that perhaps belongs no more to her than to any of its readers who have formed their own interpretations and conceptions of it.

In his essay “Interpretation,” Steven Mailloux also acknowledges the inability of one particular interpretation to serve every purpose that one may look for it to fill. He states that the varied usage that different readers have for the same text creates the need to make choices when translating a text: “the interpreter mediates between the translated text and its new rendering and between the untranslated text and the audience desiring the translation” (121). The idea of “translation” for Mailloux indicates a greater range of literary meaning than translating a work from one language to another. The idea, and practicality, of translation entails moving a text between languages of understanding, of which linguistic difference constitutes just the traditional understanding. Even if the language of a text is the reader’s own, it may be used in such a way that is unclear to the reader, and so the reader must translate to understand (like code-switching).

In this sense, the language of “The Yellow Wallpaper” is deceptively graspable. Because the story chronicles the protagonist’s descent into madness, her choice of language illuminates her condition better than she might consciously (or purposely) articulate. She personifies the yellow wallpaper in her room with a particularly sinister disposition: “This paper looks to me as if it knew what a vicious influence it had!” (29). By perceiving the wallpaper’s influence, she presents an interpretation of her environment that acknowledges the way it has begun to reshape her. Her interpretation of the yellow wallpaper performs an unheimlich transformation upon herself, which drives her towards insanity. By the end of the story, the narrator is found creeping around the room, completely identifying with the woman from the wallpaper, in whom she initially saw none of herself: “‘I’ve got out at last,’ said I, ‘in spite of you and Jane. And I’ve pulled off most of the paper, so you can’t put me back!” (58). Aside from the fact that she has aligned herself with the woman she perceived behind the wallpaper, her language indicates that a change has taken place. Her use of “said I” sounds incongruous with sanity in this context, especially when we take into account her previous formulations of language that adhere to conventional linguistic practices. At the beginning of the story, before the influence of the yellow wallpaper, she frames an interaction with John as “I said” (44). Additionally, when she says “in spite of you and Jane[iv],” the wording recalls an earlier point in the story, when she begins to become accustomed to the wallpaper: “I’m really getting fond of the room in spite of the wallpaper. Perhaps because of the wallpaper” (48). This earlier use of “in spite” places her in opposition to the wall. As she creeps around the room at the end of the story, however, “in spite” vilifies Jane and John. This demonstrates her reinterpretation of herself through the unheimlich lens she discovers through her seclusion in the room, which is sanctioned by accepted medical practices and magnifies the wallpaper’s influence.

Even though she assigns positive and negative connotations to various expressive pieces of furniture, we do not see madness in these interpretations of her environment – only within her descriptions of the wallpaper’s effects on her. Though seemingly contradictory, the other instances of the narrator personifying furniture actually elicit the reader’s complicit identification. She asserts, “we all know how much expression [inanimate objects] have” (29; emphasis added). This assertion evokes the readers’ sympathies through the frame of unembarrassed confession, which masquerades as the telling of a basic truth about the interpretation of one’s environment, reminiscent of childhood and innocence. We do not necessarily need to agree with her or identify with her characterizations in order to experience her endearment to the reader through her projection of a particular idea of sanity onto her audience.

In connection with my above argument about her significant use of “said I” instead of “I said,” I also argue that an unheimlich process is at work in this mode of confession. The narrator writes her thoughts in her journal; therefore, epistolary connotations frame “The Yellow Wallpaper” as a conversation with herself. Her previously-mentioned change of syntax mirrors the comparative change in her mental state between the beginning and the the end of the story. Therefore, her idealization of the reader’s perspective can be viewed as the beginning of her transformation into the unheimlich part of herself that serves to normalize her feelings towards the household furniture. She does not need the reader to reassure her of their similar experiences. Rather, she presents it as a necessary tie to the reader through her conception of the reader as coming from a similar state of mind, which she desires to label as normal[v]. A rejection of this idea of sanity – and insight into the narrator’s transformation – depends on the reader’s willingness to indulge in the self-deprecating identification with the signs of instability that she progressively reveals through whimsical and paranoid interpretation.

Her use of language voices her desire to find validation – in a misery-loves-company way. Initially, she is able to mask the deviance of her thoughts by seeking affirmation in the reader. Her instability becomes immediately clear, however, when she characterizes herself by the same language that she has formerly used to characterize the movement of the woman that she sees behind the wallpaper: “I always lock the door when I creep by the daylight” (38). She communicates this message without any apprehension, and indeed it is presented to the reader nonchalantly. Beyond the obvious indication that she “creeps” – a word she previously used to characterize the movement of the woman behind the wallpaper – her confession utilizes an “always . . . when” structure. This communicates to the reader, almost as subtly as she indicates that a transformation has taken place, that creeping is regular behavior; she does it often enough to have adopted a pattern of behavior regarding it.

My reading of “The Yellow Wallpaper” emphasizes how the narrator’s specific arrangement of words dictates the interpretations that are available to the reader. Translation introduces another concern to the act of interpretation. The connotations of the text are altered because the words of a different language tradition can only create an approximation of the original text. As this is a concern for an English-speaking reader attempting to read “Die Verwandlung,” so it is also a concern for Gregor’s family, as he is unable to communicate with them through a common language tradition after his transformation. Because they cannot rely on his own assertion of his intentions, Gregor’s family must form their own interpretations. In a similar fashion, each of the many translations of “Die Verwandlung” reflects the particular literary or linguistic aim of the translator. The popular conception of Gregor as a cockroach reflects this idea of the subjectivity of translation. Kafka describes Gregor as an “Ungeziefer” (56), which has ambiguous connotations in German that the vague word vermin captures better than the more specific cockroach that is often associated with descriptions of Gregor’s form.

Gregor’s form at the onset of the story does indeed share some affinity with a cockroach’s: “Er lag auf seinem panzerartig harten Rücken und sah, wenn er den Kopf ein wenig hob, seinen gewölbten, braunen, von bogenförmigen Versteifungen geteilten Bauch . . .” [He lay on his armored back and saw, if he held his head up, his curved, brown stomach, segmented with arched supports . . .] (56). The text alludes to the overall appearance of Gregor through partial descriptions like this, but his form is never described (or identified) as a whole. The explicit identification of Gregor with the cockroach represents a distinct translation and interpretation, as well as a strategy of understanding. It conceives of Gregor in terms of a rational connection to our own world, based on viewing him as an amalgamation of the partial descriptions of his body. This restricts the vision of the piece, despite its attempts at sense-making, as well as its potential to create a more coherent representation of the story from vague details. The term Ungeziefer is purposely ambiguous, enforcing the idea that Gregor’s transformation is less important than the fact that he undergoes a transformation that compels his family to subsequently interpret him as ungeheuren [“monstrous”]. The vagueness of Ungeziefer provides the reader with the opportunity to grapple with the text; it challenges the reader to accept Gregor’s humanity in spite of his ungeheuren appearance.

As a way of interpreting a text, Mailloux describes historicizing as “a strategy of placing the text in the historical context of its production” (124). It works in conjunction with the text to clarify information, but not necessarily to indicate its meaning; just as knowing the author’s intention – as we know Gilman’s – does not restrict the possible meanings that we may derive from the text. Discussing “The Yellow Wallpaper” and “Die Verwandlung” in terms of their ability to represent historical societies, entails an examination of how these depicted environments reflect the framing social milieu. This entails looking at Gilman’s and Kafka’s experience to derive some sense of how their respective stories reflect, but do not necessarily depict, biographical information.

As I briefly examined above, by writing “The Yellow Wallpaper,” Gilman hoped to communicate that the rest cure was potentially more dangerous than the sickness that it was intended to treat. She tells the reader that she finally decided to work after she “came so near to the border line of utter mental ruin that I could see over” (“Why I Wrote” 52). The mental illness that Gilman experienced undoubtedly sets the scene for “The Yellow Wallpaper.” Jonathan Crewe addresses the implications of this in his essay “Queering ‘The Yellow Wallpaper?’ Charlotte Perkins Gilman and the Politics of Form.” Crewe asserts that this association “drastically reduces the story’s field of implication” (277). For Crewe, the identification of Gilman’s narrator through Gilman’s own sphere of experience limits potential interpretations of the story. Just as Gregor is not specifically identified as a cockroach, however, neither is Gilman’s narrator identified as suffering from postpartum depression – any assertion of the validity of those two reflects a particular interpretation. This is not to say that the autobiographic elements are pure coincidence[vi]; certain details are integral to Gilman’s professed purpose in writing the story. The narrator must be female and suffering from some kind of mental affliction[vii] in order to be prescribed the rest cure, so that her subsequent madness could communicate the method’s ineffectiveness and advocate for change. We need not read the story as Gilman’s soapbox for advocating the disuse of the rest cure. Nevertheless, the dynamic between Gilman’s narrator and her husband/physician reflects the historical climate during which the pathologization of hysteria popularized the rest cure.

In her essay, “New Feminist Socialism – Community in the Writings of Charlotte Perkins Gilman,” Catherine Kalish addresses the issue of embracing the story’s biographical relevance. She points out that the readers’ desire to view “The Yellow Wallpaper” as a better depiction of Gilman’s life than her autobiography[viii] is “not the best solution that readers can employ” (130). Though Gilman addresses aspects of her life through “The Yellow Wallpaper,” Kalish argues that interpreting the story as a metaphor for her life over-simplifies the matter. Her argument involves Gilman’s preoccupation with and dependence on community: “In her autobiography, Gilman presents her own hybrid of feminism, socialism, and humanitarianism. Hence, community emerges as an answer to the struggles that Gilman faced as a woman scholar in the early 20th century” (130). For Gilman, “community” entails the company of like-minded women: “If only I could recall the names of all the kind and friendly women I have met! Women from all over the world, fine women, thoughtful progressive women” (qtd. in Kalish 132). In “The Yellow Wallpaper,” however, the only woman that the narrator interacts with is her sister-in-law Jennie[ix], who does not create the same sense of community for the narrator that Gilman expresses. Instead, the narrator approaches Jennie as a challenger in her attempt to unravel the secret of the wallpaper: “But I know she was studying that pattern, and I am determined that nobody shall find it out but myself!” (35). This does not suggest an inherent inability to create a community on Jennie’s part, but rather the narrator’s perception of Jennie as unable to participate in her refutation of ideological dependence. The process of the narrator’s identification with the woman she perceives behind the wallpaper reinforces her sense of both Jennie’s and John’s repressive force. Additionally, John’s strategy for treating her precludes any instance of the narrator reaching out to Jennie, as the insistence upon confinement directs her interpretation and identification solely to the wallpaper. Rest is undoubtedly a solitary activity, unless one attributes any meaning to interactions within one’s dreams, which the narrator might, in light of her perception of the women behind the wallpaper.

The alienation of Gilman’s narrator reinforces the idea of autonomy that Foucault attributes to the strategy of Samuel Tuke, a philanthropist who ran the “Retreat” (243), in his chapter entitled “The Birth of the Asylum” from Madness and Civilization. The strange and unheard-of gesture that Tuke is said to have extended to “a maniac” (245), was to allow him to move about the Retreat free of confinement: “He had no sooner arrived than all his shackles were removed, and he was permitted to dine with the keepers; his agitation immediately ceased” (245). This gesture indicates the sense of community afforded to Tuke’s guests. His gesture allows the guest to interpret the surroundings through association with the men who were free to move around, and also because of the actual sense of community afforded by a shared meal (which both Gregor and Gilman’s narrator are deprived of). Foucault’s example emphasizes the ability of community to relieve the tension that may cause or exacerbate mental illness, saying of the patient: “At the end of four months, he left the Retreat, entirely cured” (246). Tuke’s actions normalized the patient’s illness by allowing him to dine as an equal amongst his caretakers. This is in direct opposition to the narrator’s confinement and solitude in “The Yellow Wallpaper,” which reinforces the idea that she requires coddling and special treatment that diminishes her sense of self-worth and competence – perhaps even more so since she is not entrusted with the care of her child[x].

Although she has just given birth, the narrator mentions very little about the baby; it even eventually falls to Jennie to assume the role of mother. By preventing the narrator from fulfilling this role herself, John’s treatment unwittingly ostracizes her from the rest of the family, as well as the ideology that compels her participation in this role, which she is prevented from filling. As this process of ideological disenchantment progresses, her former conception of the reader as confidant collapses. The narrator begins to conceive of the reader as another potential competitor, like Jennie: “I have found out another funny thing, but I shan’t tell it this time! It does not do to trust people too much” (39). In addition to indicating her distrust of the reader, it also serves to establish the reader as someone other than herself, despite the use of epistolary form through her journal entries. By isolating her from the rest of her potential community, the narrator’s husband facilitates her fixation on the wallpaper, thereby producing the identification with what is initially das Unheimliche. Her subsequent unwillingness to collaborate with anyone other than the women behind the wallpaper reinforces her disconnection with society, and allows the reinterpretation of herself in terms of the solitary and further confined existence of an individual stripped of the autonomy that ideologically-based society attributes to conventional behaviors[xi].

Gilman tells the reader that she escaped the fate that awaits the narrator in “The Yellow Wallpaper” by disobeying her physician’s orders for fear that she would suffer the same fate that she projects onto her protagonist. Gilman’s explanation thus provides a perspective through which a reader may glimpse her interpretation and translation of the social climate during the time she was living and writing. The idea of rest as a treatment for hysteria informs not only the medical discourse of the time, but also the skewed relationship between men and women. As a facet of this, Gilman’s representation of family dynamics indicates the inferior position of women, through her representation of the twofold authority that John has in relation to the narrator as her physician and husband. A feminist reading might argue that this duality foregrounds the idea of men as the primary oppressive force over women, as the relationship between the narrator and her husband can be extrapolated in terms of the relative positions of men and women in society, as per Gilman’s depiction of medical discourse as an extension of the governing ideology that she depicts.

Jonathan Crewe addresses this idea through the medical discourse at the time, focusing on how women were diagnosed with hysteria, and the particular implications of it. Crewe asserts that “The Yellow Wallpaper” “confirms the importance of distinguishing carefully between depathologization and the wholesale denial of pathology” (288), which is to say that he views hysteria as the pathological creation of male-dominated medical discourse, particularly during the time of the rest cure’s popularity. Now that medical practices have moved past the classification of hysteria as pathology, however, Crewe urges the reader to recognize the difference between denying pathology altogether, and depathologizing hysteria. The former rejects the idea of disease and its implications, while the latter entail a reexamination of the practices associated with the diagnosis of hysteria. He also identifies Gilman’s position on this topic as a “polemical redetermination of her protagonist’s ailment as a purely sociological condition arising from female unemployment and incapacitation” (288). Gilman’s opinion is communicated by the turn of events with her protagonist, which allows her to address the idea of pathology through John’s treatment of the narrator and its increasingly negative effects on her. According to Crewe, his treatment is ultimately ineffective because it participates in the formerly-prevalent idea that hysteria was a disease and needed to be treated. This reflects the similarly unnecessary and detrimental pathologization present in “Die Verwandlung” through Gregor’s struggle to be understood by his family.

Although “Die Verwandlung” does not reflect autobiographical influence as strongly as Gilman’s story, Kafka’s life does share some similarities to the position in which Gregor finds himself. In The Kafka Problem, Kate Flores tells us that after Kafka received his “doctorate in jurisprudence . . . he continued to live with his parents, where he had his own room and the solicitous care of his mother, but there could be no thought of accepting further support from his father” (6). This dynamic makes an appearance in “Die Verwandlung” as well, only the roles are initially reversed, so that the father (indeed the entire family) is supported by Gregor: “Wenn ich mich nicht wegen meiner Eltern zurückhielte, ich hätte längst gekündigt, ich wäre vor den Chef hingetreten und hätte ihm meine Meinung von Grund des Herzens ausgesagt” (57) [If I did not have my parents to think about, I would have resigned long ago; I would have gone before my boss and told him just how I feel]. Like Gilman, who wrote in “embellishments and additions to carry out the ideal” (“Why I Wrote” 52), Kafka’s portrayal of Gregor does not necessarily represent his own position in real life. It nonetheless reflects the necessary complacency of someone on whom people are dependent, which entails the performance of a role according to an ideology, for the sake of maintaining the relationship between productivity and living a comfortable/prosperous life.

The role that Kafka was most reluctant to fill seems to be the role of father – in terms of both supporting a family and possessing authority. In Kafka: A Very Short Introduction, Ritchie Robertson provides us with an excerpt from Kafka’s Brief an den Vater [Letters to my Father], in which he writes about his father’s influence over his ideas of marriage: “marrying is the greatest thing and gives the most creditable independence, but at the same time it is most closely connected to you [Kafka’s father]” (qtd. in Robertson 8). Robertson concludes from this statement a conception of Kafka’s relation to his father as a reflection of their power struggle: “what Kafka formulates here is the classic oedipal relationship” (8). “Die Verwandlung” presents Gregor’s attempted mimesis of his father through his assumption of the roles that were typically identified with a father figure. The family, however, remains under his father’s patriarchal authority. Gregor’s actions, therefore, indicate an instance of borrowing conventional, ideologically-based behavior, rather than identification and replication, as the Oedipal Father requires.

As a reflection of this patriarchal struggle, Gregor’s father is his biggest source of anxiety once he has transformed, at which point Gregor relinquishes the power he held over his father through his supporting income and his help with their debt. Post-transformation, Gregor’s father reestablishes authority by frightening Gregor and attempting to control his movements: “Unerbittlich drängte der Vater und stieβ Zischlaute aus, wie ein Wilder” (69) [the father advanced relentlessly and hissed like a savage]. In “The Yellow Wallpaper,” Jennie is dismissed for consideration in the narrator’s community, based on the narrator’s clouded perspective and her assumptive judgment that they have disparate goals. Gregor’s dismissal from his family community reflects this assumptive judgment, based on his “monstrous” appearance, as well as his actual inability to be productive in social-ideological terms. When Gregor was providing the income of the family, the father was forced to take a secondary role in decisions concerning the family. As an indication of this, the event of Gregor’s death reveals his influence over the family’s lifestyle: “sie wollten nun eine kleinere und billigere, aber besser gelegene und überhaupt praktischere Wohnung nehmen, als es die jetzige, noch von Gregor ausgesuchte war” (99) [they would take a smaller and cheaper, but better situated and overall more practical apartment, than the current one that Gregor had chosen]. The story portrays the family as coming out from under the huge burden of Gregor’s influence, which stands in contrast to their former dependence upon his willingness to support them and their complacency with the lifestyle that he afforded them.

The irony of their rejection of Gregor is that three people grow tired of supporting one non-contributing person, whereas Gregor previously supported three people who did not work, additionally paying for a maid and a cook. This is not to say that Gregor did not complain, for he certainly seems aware of the bitterness he is entitled to feel for the non-negotiable part he must play in reducing his parents’ debt. The task itself paying off their debt does not annoy him – only that he must do so in the service of the man from whom his parents happened to borrow money – a man who Gregor finds unbearable. He reveals the satisfaction he would get from telling this man how he feels: “‘. . . habe ich einmal das Geld beisammen, um die Schuld der Eltern an ihn abzuzahlen – es dürfte noch fünf bis sechs Jahre dauern –, machte ich die Sache unbedingt’” (57) [once I have the money to pay off my parents’ debt to him – it should take five or six more years – that is exactly what I will do]. Despite this, he accepts his role gracefully, and only when he is physically unable to work does he abandon his role – despite his sense of obligation to continue fulfilling it, reflected by his desperation to explain the situation to the chief clerk and his family alike.

His family’s inability to recognize/utilize his desire to fulfill his role leads them to view him only through their impulse to confine him. With Gregor listening, Grete tells her parents that she cannot think of the “Untier” [monster] in the other room as Gregor: “‘Ich will vor diesem Untier nicht den Namen meines Bruders aussprechen und sage daher bloβ: wir müssen versuchen es loszuwerden’” (94) [I will not speak of this monster with my brother’s name, and therefore I say plainly: we must try to get rid of it]. The family member for whom Gregor has the most affection – though sometimes compromised by his territorial desire to keep her in his room – has turned on him, just like his father who pelted him with apples. But even the father is not in complete agreement with Grete. She must persuade him and her mother that the monster that they have been thinking of as Gregor is not their concern: “‘Du must bloβ den Gedanken loszuwerden suchen, dass es Gregor ist. Dass wir es so lange geglaubt haben, das ist ja unser eigentliches Unglück’” [You must try to give up the idea that it is Gregor. That we believed it so long is our real misfortune] (95). Gregor’s inability to continue fulfilling his role as the provider for their household necessitates a restructuring of their lives because they can no longer depend on him. They view him as a burden, and ultimately relieve themselves of any obligation to look after him. They initially seem to feel that the Ungeziefer in Gregor’s room is still Gregor on some level. After his transformation forces them to assume the roles that he can no longer fill, however, Gregor is simply a hanger-on and cannot be tolerated.

Perhaps the most tragic aspect of Gregor’s reverence for his parents and his complicit participation in reducing their debt is that he feels that he has chosen this career: “‘Ach Gott,’ dachte er, ‘was für einen anstrengenden Beruf habe ich gewählt!’” [“Oh God,” he thought, “what a stressful career I have chosen!] (56). This speaks to the power of the ideological influence of society, as reflected through Gregor’s positioning in his environment. The sense of obligation is so strong within Gregor that he sees the fulfillment of his role as something he has freely chosen to do, rather than something in which he has been enlisted.

Encapsulated in Gregor’s attachment of agency to the role that his family’s needs have thrust upon him was his desire to earn enough money to send Grete to the conservatory. At the end of the story, after noticing Grete’s lively behavior, Gregor’s parents content themselves by thinking about how appropriate it would be for Grete to look for a partner: “. . . dachten sie daran, daβ es nun Zeit sein werde, auch einen braven Mann für sie zu suchen” [they thought that it would soon be time to find a good man for her] (99). The parents’ idea serves to reestablish Grete in terms of the conventional roles that her society’s ideological basis would put her in – that of the wife and mother. Gregor’s intentions for sending her to the conservatory, however, stand in direct conflict with his parent’s designs for her. He wishes to give her the chance to transcend the roles that (based on his own experience) he knows she will be forced to accept otherwise: “es war sein geheimer Plan, sie, . . . nächtes Jahr, ohne Rücksicht auf die groβen Kosten, . . . auf das Konservatorium zu schicken” [It was his secret plan to send her . . . next year, without regard for the great cost . . . to the conservatory”] (75). This type of work differs from the work of a housewife, and also reflects the intellectual work that Gilman’s narrator initially endeavors to do. It would allow Grete to transcend the conventional role that she would necessarily inherit through the position of women in society, as reflected by the small-scale representation of it through their household. Without Gregor’s encouragement and investment capital, however, Grete does not have the opportunity or the proper subversive lens to realize her potential.

The undoing of Grete’s subversive potential communicates a different loss for Gregor and Gilman’s narrator, both of whom ultimately experience a complete disassociation from the ideology, rather than incorporation back into it. Building on the catalyst of Gregor’s transformation, Grete’s professed apathy allows for further mistreatment and neglect of him, which leads to his death. Similarly, as a result of her layered subversion of ideology through triumph over her medical treatment, Gilman’s narrator creates the possibility of literal institutionalization. The intensification of the narrator’s condition as a result of her confinement communicates Gilman’s idea that “work . . . is joy and growth and service” (Why I Wrote” 52). In this sense, the narrator’s condition creates the same subversive power that Gilman herself claimed by refusing her physician’s treatment method. Through her altered perception, Gilman’s narrator wields the power to frighten authority in the form of her husband/physician John, and thereby the medical and patriarchal authority that they represent: “Now why should that man have fainted? But he did, and right across my path by the wall, so that I had to creep over him every time!” (“Wallpaper” 42). In this sense, the narrator’s dismissal of social behavior codes upsets the ideological conformity that John has attempted to establish through her treatment.

The disparity between the narrator’s behavior and the way this is presented through the text reflects Jonathan Crewe’s assertion about Gilman’s maintenance of literary form, which he describes in terms of her observance of the “constructed literary, discursive, aesthetic, or behavioral codes through which social propriety is ordained and regulated” (274). In relation to “The Yellow Wallpaper,” this presents a twofold subversion that challenges the twofold authority that the story attributes to John. The narrator, unlike Gilman, does not adhere to any standards of “social propriety” outright. Rather, the narrator’s transgression of social propriety allows her to obtain power that subverts societal pressure. Working through (rather than against) the oppressive governing ideology that provides a basis for her literary form, however, Gilman effectively communicates the metaphorical madness of the story, about which “a Boston physician[xii]” said “it was enough to drive anyone mad to read it” (“Why I Wrote” 52). Gilman achieves power for herself (and others in her position) by adding the role of author onto her conventional role as mother – a balance which Catherine Kalish speaks of in terms of Gilman’s recognition of her position: “in practice, this duality is difficult” (132). Gilman writes of Weir S. Mitchel: “the great specialist had admitted to friends of his that he had altered his treatment of neurasthenia since reading “The Yellow Wallpaper” (“Why I Wrote” 53). This was Gilman’s goal in writing the story. We need not acknowledge this particular autobiographical influence within the story to form a productive interpretation, but it does inform her presentation of the ideologically-based social role that she rebels against.

Ultimately, the problem of ideological translation and interpretation falls upon the two protagonists, as well as the readers of their stories. Both Gilman’s narrator and Gregor interpret their respective environments in ways that affect how they understand their transformed bodies. Gregor is initially content with the physical space of his room because he still interprets his environment through a human lens. Once his perspective becomes synchronized with his transformed body, he begins to realize the limitations presented by a space that was meant for human inhabitance: “kreichen konnte er aber auf den paar Quadrametern des Fuβbodens auch nicht viel . . .” [he could not crawl around too well on the few square meters of the floor] (78). Interestingly enough, the German word kreichen can be translated into English as “to creep.” In light of Gilman’s narrator, it seems that these two protagonists have more in common than their transgression of roles imposed upon them by their households’ ideological reflection of society.

The physical necessity for Gregor to creep, and the mental compulsion for Gilman’s narrator to likewise creep, present the idea of abnormal movement, which transgresses the idea of good form that Crewe mentions in terms of Gilman’s literary merit. Especially within the idea that there are certain qualities that garner merit, and as far as these qualities may be said to conform to some idea of polite and accepted society, the figures of Gilman’s narrator and Gregor are well outside the realm of social propriety. Though he attempts to comport himself with the sociably acceptable behavior that he was familiar with as a human, his gestures do not translate through his transformed body. Gregor attempts to put his family and “der Prokurist” [chief clerk] at ease, but he only succeeds in creating more tension with his incoherent message: “‘Hast du Gregor jetzt reden hören?’ ‘Das war eine Tierstimme,’ sagte der Prokurist, auffallend leise gegenüber dem Schreien der Mutter” [“Did you hear the way Gregor spoke?” “That was the voice of an animal,” said the chief clerk, noticeably quiet against the cries of the mother”] (64). The families are unable to productively assimilate the transformed protagonists into their ideologically-reflective environments – only in terms of an unheimlich and unproductive resemblance to their former roles. The protagonists are thus presented to the families through madness, which acts as a generalizing and dehumanizing force. This strategy of treatment represents the antithesis of Tuke’s treatment of his patient at the Retreat, and focuses on punishment of behavior rather than rehabilitation, which is the ultimate result of Tuke’s strategy. Consequently, through their treatment as outcast of society, Gilman’s narrator and Gregor are confined to certain areas of their respective environments. This restricts their involvement with the rest of society by limiting physical interaction as well as ideological identification – an improvised version of institutionalization.

Characters in “Die Verwandlung” and “The Yellow Wallpaper” use interpretation as a personal and situational activity. Before Gregor reveals his transformed self, Grete interprets Gregor’s situation with sympathy: “‘Ist dir nicht wohl? Brauchst du etwas?’” [“Are you unwell? Do you need anything?”] (58). The frame of madness through which Grete comes to view Gregor, and the imprisonment to which the family subjects him, makes it easier for them to strip him of his humanity, especially as she must devote more of her increasingly precious time to him. Unlike Gregor, Gilman’s narrator is not suddenly transformed at the beginning of the story. Because Gilman writes her narrator into a social climate that pathologizes the neurasthenia behind the classification of hysteria, the narrator’s family is also initially sympathetic. We do not see the process of her family viewing her more and more critically through the frame of madness because she keeps most of her thoughts to herself and mimics the behavior that would indicate John’s successful treatment. The narrator’s creeping, however, eventually elicits the same response from her husband that Gregor’s transformation elicits from his family. This informs the presentation of bodies in both “Die Verwandlung” and “The Yellow Wallpaper,” especially in the context of transcending the dominant social ideology. While we may view Gilman’s narrator simply as a madwoman and Gregor simply as an “ungeheuren Ungeziefer” (56) [monstrous vermin], these ideologically-driven designations implicate the compromise of individual freedom through their basis in social and familial obligation, which reflects the narrators’ inability to conform.

The interaction between the protagonists and their respective families challenges the ideology that punishes those who transgress their social roles by virtue of the interpretive approach encouraged by that same ideology. As a facet of this problem and the ideologies that these stories criticize, the depiction of pathologization in terms of the protagonists’ conditions condemns the recourse to disease as an explanation for anti-ideological behavior, rather than an examination of the ideology that ostracizes those whose conditions are pathologized. “Die Verwandlung” and “The Yellow Wallpaper” depict societies that ostracize those who do not productively apply the governing ideology to their lives. For both protagonists, this indicates the paradoxical pressure for them to fill conventional roles, even though their conditions also entail their exclusion from society. By constructing the reader’s perspective through the protagonists’ conflict with their society’s governing ideology, the protagonists are vindicated in their search for alternative interpretive strategies that embrace their new perspective. These stories thus problematize ideologies that marginalize those who cannot embody them, as well as identification through them.


End Notes


Works Cited

Arnold, Matthew. “Joubert.” Essays in Criticism. London: Macmillan, 1895. 214-52. Print.

Crewe, Jonathan. “Queering ‘The Yellow Wallpaper?’ Charlotte Perkins Gilman and the Politics of Form.” Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature 14.2 (1995): 273-93. Print.

Flores, Angel, ed. The Kafka Problem. New York: Octagon, 1963. Print.

Foucault, Michel. “Passion and Delirium.” Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason. Trans. Richard Howard. New York: Vintage, 2006. 85-116. Print.

Freud, Sigmund. “The “Uncanny”” Trans. Alix Strachey. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. By Vincent B. Leitch. New York: Norton, 2001. 929-52. Print.

Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. “The Yellow Wallpaper.” The Captive Imagination: A Casebook on The Yellow Wallpaper. Ed. Catherine Golden. New York: Feminist at the City U of New York, 1992. 24-42. Print.

Kafka, Franz. “Die Verwandlung.” Sämtliche Erzählungen. Ed. Paul Raabe. Frankfurt Am Main: Fischer-Taschenbuch-Verlag, 1992. 56-99. Print.

Kalish, Catherine. “The New Feminist Socialism: Community in the Writings of Charlotte Perkins Gilman.” Eureka Studies in Teaching Short Fiction 9.1 (2008): 127-36. MLA International Bibliography. Web. 27 Nov. 2013.

Mailloux, Steven. “Interpretation.” Critical Terms for Literary Study. Ed. Frank Lentricchia and Thomas MacLaughlin. Chicago [u.a.: U of Chicago, 1995. 121-34. Print.

Oakley, A. “Beyond the Yellow Wallpaper.” Reproductive Health Matters 5.10 (1997): 29-39. Print.

Robertson, Ritchie. Kafka: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2004. Print.


[i] All translations from the original German are my own, except in cases of an established translation for titles and concepts.

[ii] The proper name of the concept is “das Unheimliche,” but to match its syntactical usage, in instances of its use as an adjective, I change this to the corresponding German usage of “unheimlich.”

[iii] Initially, Gilman’s narrator describes the wallpaper as being shaken by one woman. As the story progresses, however, she begins to sense more women behind the wallpaper. For convenience I will refer to a single figure behind the wallpaper as the source of the identity that the narrator begins to embody. Her perception of multiple women, however, lends itself to Catherine Kalish’s discussion of community, which I explore on page 12.

[iv] It should also be noted that “Jane” is mentioned for the first and only time in this context. As a sign of the complete disassociation of the protagonist from her former self, I propose that “Jane” is the previously unnamed narrator. In this sense, she seems to hold herself accountable for the lack of freedom that she experienced before her rejection of “Jane” as her identity. This also indicates her disassociation with the ideological underpinnings that reinforced her identity as “Jane.”

[v] This can also be read in terms of Catherine Kalish’s ideas about Gilman’s relationship to community, in which case Gilman’s narrator attempts to establish a community with the reader as a means of support. Her subsequent distrust of both the reader and Jennie (a change from her initial ambivalence towards her) indicates her regression towards instability.

[vi] In terms of the autobiographical aspects of “Die Verwandlung,” the designation of Gregor as a cockroach implies metaphorical relevance in terms of the power struggle between Kafka and his father, which will be explored further on page 16. Through the frame of autobiographical relevance, the connotations of depicting Gregor as a cockroach emphasize the sense of powerlessness and oppression that Kafka felt in terms of his actual relationship with his father.

[vii] A physician would have interpreted this as “hysteria” at the time.

[viii] The Living of Charlotte Perkins Gilman

[ix] “The Yellow Wallpaper” initially features a nurse named Mary, but her presence in the story is relegated one mention, and her duties are eventually assumed by Jennie, which may be viewed as the limitation of the narrator’s potential community. In terms of the husband’s influence, Jennie’s assumption of this role (as well as the role of housekeeper) may be viewed as a widening of John’s influence, as the narrator may only interact with him or his relatives.

[x] This aspect of the story reflects Gilman’s own struggle with post-partum depression.

[xi] Ultimately, this autonomy is an illusion, as the person whose actions are based in an ideology is restricted to behavior accepted under that ideology. Through her transformation, Gilman’s narrator reveals the illusory nature of autonomy in an ideology by breaking transgressing codes of accepted behavior.

[xii] This is a reference to Weir S. Mitchel, who “treated” Gilman.

Of Statesmen and Guerrilleros: Yevgeny Yevtushenko and Roque Dalton’s Divergent Poetics of Revolution

by Jon-David Settell

“I remember a laughing Roque Dalton. Skinny, pale, his bones sticking out, big-nosed like me, and always laughing. I don’t know why I always remember you laughing, Roque Dalton. A laughing revolutionary.” – Ernesto Cardenal

Roque Dalton, Central America’s laughing revolutionary, defies the stereotype of the Marxist revolutionary, that of the stern, angry young man without grace and humor. With his sardonic wit, irreverent jokes and sarcasm, and the ease with which he made fun of himself and others, Dalton made humor a critical part of his revolutionary aesthetics, one he used without hesitation in the struggle for a socialist El Salvador. And yet, humor has long played a role in political subversion. Mikhail Bakhtin, in Rabelais and His World, made this observation a central part of his concept of the carnivalesque in the novel. In this essay, I explore the role of humor in two distinct poetic traditions linked by a shared commitment to Marxism. I do this through a comparison of the carnivalesque in Dalton’s irreverently revolutionary poetry, and the cautious humor used by post-revolutionary Soviet poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko.

Humor has a long history of subversion, both politically and socially. Sigmund Freud has described humor as “not resigned, [but] rebellious,” as Michael Billig notes in his article on the language of humor. “Jokes, like dreams and slips of the tongue,” Billig writes, “bear the traces of repressed desires. Sexual and aggressive thoughts, which are forbidden in polite society, can be shared as if they are not serious. Humor then becomes a way of rebelling against the demands of social order” (452). Mark Weeks, writing on the history of humor, notes that “at least since Freud humor has been commonly equated with a release from repression, the liberation of energies . . . . Humor . . . is typically imagined as a reaction against containment, against a monolithic and comparatively fixed structure by ideally irrepressible libidinal energies” (134).

The role of humor as a release from repression, specifically in the sense of “rebellion” against political repression, is the central thesis of Bakhtin’s Rabelais. He notes that:
a boundless world of humorous forms and manifestations opposed the official and
serious tone of medieval ecclesiastical and feudal culture. In spite of their variety,
folk festivities of the carnival type, the comic rites and cults, the clowns and fools,
giants, dwarfs, and jugglers, the vast and manifold literature of parody – all these
forms have one style in common: they belong to one culture of folk carnival
humor (4).
For Bakhtin, the humor of the carnival actively subverts authoritative discourse and the fear it engenders. He goes on to observe that “fear is the extreme expression of narrow-minded and stupid seriousness, which is defeated by laughter…Complete liberty is possible only in the completely fearless world” (47).

Bakhtin’s concept of the carnivalesque as a comic form of resistance provoked controversy at the time of its writing in 1940, in the midst of World War II and Stalinist Russia; his work would not be published until 1965. In Rabelais, Bakhtin finds the corporal, at times scatological, humor of the carnival employed as a mechanism of resistance. The principle of degradation at work in the carnivalesque, specifically in its distinction between the “classical body” and the “grotesque body”, as Simon Dentith has argued, shifts focus from one of completion, to one of becoming, inherently linking to material realities and signifying an “openness to the world” (68). Bakhtin himself recognized the topicality of his radical theory of comic resistance, writing that “a new and powerful revival of the grotesque took place in the twentieth century…The second line [of this revival] is the realist grotesque (Thomas Mann, Bertold Brecht, Pablo Neruda, and others). It is related to the tradition of realism and folk culture and reflects at times the direct influence of carnival forms, as in the work of Neruda” (46). Neruda, a Communist and long-time party member, was instrumental in the rise of democratically elected Communist, Salvador Allende, in Chile in 1970. Though Dalton publicly rejected Neruda’s notion of the “fellow traveler of the revolution,” opting instead for armed resistance as a guerrillero poet (Beverly 74), the link between Bakhtin’s theory and a poetics of revolution in the legacy of Spanish American poetry is one that Bakhtin himself prophetically envisioned.

With his writing, Bakhtin attempted to “mobilize the…rumbustious popular life of the carnival against the official but murderous pieties of church and state” (Dentith 71), which made his writing on carnival “some of his most exciting and controversial” (65). And yet, his concept of mobilizing the carnival as a form of resistance to the state is undermined by two factors, according to Dentith. The first factor he notes is that humor and the grotesque in carnival forms have also been used by Church and State in an appropriated form. Many, if not all of the carnivals Bakhtin references, were state or church-sponsored. Specifically, Dentith points to the concept of the “allow’d fool” as one way the “anarchic and anti-authoritarian energies of carnival [can] be simply deflected” (73). The second factor undermining Bakhtin’s concept is the association of the novel with the carnival; Dentith calls this an “intractable difficulty” (85), in that the novelistic form rose to prominence as the carnival declined. Despite these two factors, Dentith concludes that Bakhtin’s carnival plays an important role in understanding the de-centering of authority, because “it liberates the sign…into the specific freedoms won for it by the rituals and festivities of carnival” (87). Both areas of difficulty, the “allow’d fool” and Bakhtin’s idealization of the novel as the best vehicle for his concept, are addressed here through the application of the carnivalesque, as analytical framework, to two divergent poetics of revolution.

By comparing two poems by Yevtushenko, “Поэзия” (Poetry) and “Юмор” (Humor), with Dalton’s “Historia de un pueta” (History of a Poet) and several shorter poems, I will show first how their poetics of revolution were dialogically engaged, through Yevtushenko and Dalton’s time in La Habana at Casa de las Américas1 and the cultural influence of the Soviet Union. Next, I focus on the divergence of their poetics, through Dalton’s transition into a guerrillero poet, and Yevtushenko’s to statesman poet. The rapid decline of Yevtushenko’s literary reputation and his use of mediated humor stand in stark contrast to Dalton and his increasingly carnivalesque and grotesque poetry. Though Dalton was killed in a grim incident of internecine revolutionary strife, his reputation as guerrillero poet continued to increase; his poetry would be widely reproduced in FMLN2 posters, educational materials, and magazines, and go on to shape the revolution in El Salvador for years to come (Cardenal xiii). In this way, Dentith’s argument of fatal flaws in Bakhtin’s theory is, on the one hand, borne out by Yevtushenko’s literary decline. I argue here that Yevtushenko’s evolution into the role of “approv’d fool” precipitated this decline. On the other hand, Dalton’s remarkably successful use of carnivalesque humor, and specifically grotesque realism, contributed to a legacy of revolutionary poetics that lingers in the triumphs of the Central American revolutions, substantiating Bakhtin’s view of the carnivalesque as a mode of resistance and, ultimately, liberation.

Yevtushenko, often described as the civic tribune of the Soviet Union, was until the 1970s a highly regarded and popular poet. Boris Dralyuk notes that Yevtushenko first became famous as the poet of Soviet youth (25). He was originally considered a dissident writing against Stalinist repression in the early years of Khrushchev’s post-Stalinist thaw, as Peter Rudy observed in his review of the Soviet literary scene in 1961 (254). Yevtushenko’s dissidence endured him to young Russians; partly because of this popularity, after being expelled by the Komsomol in 1956, he was reinstated in 1958 as Secretariat of the Writers’ Union, as Merle Fainsod notes (434). Fainsod points out, however, that this promotion may have been intended to “tame him into conformity.” Nevertheless, his 1961 poem, “Бабий Яр” (“Babii Yar”), a “markedly personal poem of protest,” decried anti-semitism in the USSR and memorialized a massacre of Jews in the Ukraine (Drayluk 26).

As he gained popularity, Yevtushenko focused on developing a “civic-minded” poetics, one that would allow him, as a Communist Party member and avowedly loyal Soviet citizen, to liberalize the nation by working within the party and governmental system. Robert Conquest, writing for The New York Times in 1973, described his dilemma as the “the sad case of Yevgeny Yevtushenko”, writing about how he had come to be seen, in his overtly “public” role, as part of a “batch of third-rate intriguers,” going on to describe how Yevtushenko had grown to be considered a “petty political marauder and literary huckster” (2). He was accused by many Soviet writers, especially dissident writers unable to publish or forced into exile, of “selling out and betraying his comrades” for the comfort of his role as head of the Writers’ Union. Guy Houk notes that Yevtushenko was brutally mocked in Venedikt Erofeev’s poem, “Moscow-Petushki,” observing that “Erofeev mocks Evtushenko’s personal life, his art, and his beliefs, but saves his most vicious attacks for what he perceives to be Evtushenko’s most profound act of betrayal – the prostitution of his talent in exchange for the privileged life of the obedient lapdog” (190). In describing the decline of Yevtushenko’s literary reputation, Dralyuk writes:

It is clear that Evtushenko’s status as a civic tribune, a mouthpiece of the youth, discredited him as a serious poet…Furthermore, [his] political stance as a moderate dissident who turned his poetic sails whichever way the ill wind of authorized expression happened to blow, has contributed to the impression that the poet was at best a hack, and at worst a lackey of the regime (25).

As a Communist poet writing in an ostensibly Communist state, his work engenders a larger question about the value of a revolutionary aesthetic in a post-revolutionary context. I turn here to two poems; first, his poetic manifesto on the role of poet as soldier in “Поэзия” (“Poetry”3), and second, his use of humor as “approv’d fool” in “Юмор” (“Humor”).

As dialogic mechanism informing Dalton’s poetics, Поэзия is especially important: “Поэзия — не мирная молельня. Поэзия — жестокая война. В ней есть свои, обманные маневры. Война — она войною быть должна. Поэт – солдат . . .” (152) [“Poetry / is no chapel of peace. It has its own maneuvers of deception. War / must be war. A poet / is a soldier . . .” (153)]. Written at the height of his literary fame and popular acclaim as the “poet of the youth” in 1962, Поэзия lays out a poetics of revolution that itself resonates with over forty years of revolutionary aesthetics. Mayakovsky’s poem, “Во весь голос” (“At the Top of My Voice”) illustrates this aesthetic legacy: “Я, ассенизатор / и водовоз, / революцией / мобилизованный и призванный, / ушел на фронт / из барских садоводств / поэзии — / бабы капризной” (220) [“I, a latrine cleaner / and water carrier, / by the revolution / mobilized and drafted, / went off to the front / from the aristocratic gardens / of poetry – the capricious wench” (221)]. Like Mayakovsky, Yevtushenko envisions poetry as revolutionary: “Поэт – солдат” [“A poet is a soldier”]. In Russian, with no present tense for the verb “to be,” the verse becomes a powerful statement of equivalency. A literal translation of the verse reflects this: “poet – soldier.” A poetics of revolution, then, is Yevtushenko’s heritage as a Soviet citizen and poet. The poem ends with a militancy that, in light of Dalton’s death in 1975, is uncanny: “Ну а когда поэт – он погибает, / и мертвый / он внушает им испуг. / Он погибает так, / как подобает, / оружия не выпустив из рук” (153) [“Well, when a poet . . . / a poet perishes, even in death / he inspires them with fear. / He perishes as behooves him – / without dropping his weapons” (154)].

Echoes of this revolutionary legacy, so eloquently described in Yevtushenko’s “Поэзия,” resonate in Dalton’s poetry. He deeply believed in Yevtushenko’s notion of “Поэт – солдат”; it is perhaps no coincidence that Dalton and Yevtushenko were both in La Habana in 1961, shortly after the victory of the Cuban revolution. Marío Rosa Mencal has noted Dalton’s extensive involvement with Casa de las Américas, “donde tantas veces estuvo Roque Dalton no como huésped o simple forastero, sino como hijo predilecto (350) [where Roque Dalton had been so many times, not as a guest or foreigner, but as a favorite son].” Yevtushenko, in turn, visited Cuba in 1961, the same year Dalton came to Cuba as an exile, having recently escaped, by one day, a sentence of death, according to the Academy of American Poets. While it has not (yet) been possible to document contact between Dalton and Yevtushenko, given Yevtushenko’s fame at the time, his role in writing the screenplay for “Я Куба” [“I am Cuba”] in 1964, the publication of the poem, “Поэзия” [“Poetry”] in 1962, and the fact that Dalton stayed in Cuba until 1965, it is entirely possible that he would have been at least notionally familiar with his work. As additional circumstantial evidence, I note that a collection of Yevtushenko’s poetry, translated in Spanish as No he nacido tarde [I was not born late], was published by La Rosa Blindada in 1963.

Heberto Padilla, an intimate of Dalton (“Así lo describe” [“How he describes him”] n. pag.), was friends with Yevtushenko and attended the famous sessions at the National Library where Fidel Castro gave his “Speech to the Intellectuals,” according to José Manuel Prieto (142). Padilla traveled extensively throughout the Soviet Union with Yevtushenko, who advised Padilla to “keep a low profile,” because of what he described as the instability of post-revolutionary periods (143). He would go on to describe the revolutionary writer’s role as that of “[one] who, never ceasing from being a revolutionary and from declaring himself as one, sought to be critical of that very revolution by establishing himself from within it as a dissident voice.” Though purely speculative, it is possible Padilla may have repeated this advice to Dalton; Dalton would go on to become a revolutionary writer, the “Поэт – солдат” of Yevtushenko’s manifesto. He would not, however, “keep a low profile”; nor would he focus on working within the revolution as a dissident voice. Instead, Dalton embraced the full legacy of revolutionary aesthetics as originally laid out by Mayakovsky.

Yevtushenko, for reasons already described above, would take a different route. Dentith’s notion of the “allow’d fool” in relation to the Bakhtinian notion of the carnivalesque, is particularly relevant here. In his poem “Юмор” [“Humor”], Yevtushenko lays out a “low profile” vision for humor, one that maintains a revolutionary stance:

Цари,                                                             Tsars,

короли,                                                 kings,

императоры,                                                 emperors,

Властители всей земли,                         sovereigns of the all the earth,

Командовали парадами,                        have commanded many a parade,

Но юмором –                                                 but they could not command

не могли. (96)                                                humor. (97)

This first stanza aligns Yevtushenko’s conceptualization of humor with Bakhtin’s concept of the comic, specifically as resistance to “ecclesiastic and feudalistic culture” embodied here as “Цари, / короли, / императоры” [“Tsars, / kings, / emperors”]. Yevtushenko’s poem is written with the same stepladder techique pioneered by Mayakovsky, and uses a rough, unmetered, at times lyrical Russian. The similarites end there, as humor is personified in the text as “В потрёпанном куцем пальтишке” [“in an overcoat, shabby and short”]; a “преступником политическим” [“political criminal”]; a man who submits, “Всем видом покорность выказывал,” [“He appeared to submit in every way”], but deviously so, “Как вдруг / из пальтишка / выскальзывал, / рукою махал / и – тю-тю!” (98) [“of a sudden / he wriggled out / of his coat, / and, waving his hand, did a bolt!” (99)]. In this sense, humor in the text is a small, infinitely devious person, one who represents not the danger of resistance or revolution, but instead that of the court jester, or, in a Bakhtinian sense, a carnival fool.

And yet, the subversive power of humor emerges here as a kind of mediated resistance, in the sense of outwitting, escaping, and parodying. In a post-revolutionary context, this becomes a challenge for Yevtushenko, since humor, one might argue, has nothing to outwit or escape in a workers’ state, one ostensibly free of what in this context might be called the tyranny of Capitalism. The poem is itself post-revolutionary, in that it describes humor in the final stanzas as escaping from prison and joining the Russian Revolution:

Откашливаясь простужено,             Coughing from the lungs

как рядовой боец                                     like any man in the ranks,

шагал он                                                 He marched

частушкой-простушкой                              singing a popular ditty,

с винтовкой на Зимний Дворец.               rifle in hand upon the Winter Palace.

Привык он к взглядам сумрачным, He’s accustomed to frowning looks,

Но это ему не вредит,                         but they do no harm;

И сам на себя                                     and humor at times

с юмором                                                      with humor

Юмор порою глядит (100).                         glances at himself (101).

With the grounding of the revolutionary force of humor in an event several decades in the past, there is no modern context in the poem; in fact, the fool in this poem laughs at himself. Elements of the grotesque and the materiality of the body surface in the poem, in the coughing, and “Его голова отрубленная” (98) [“His hacked-off head” (99)], but apart from these elements, the poem itself is less grotesque than jovial, in a peculiarly self-deprecating sense. Reading the verses about storming the Winter Palace, one cannot help but notice an awkwardness; there has been no reason offered in the poem, apart from imprisonment, to motivate personified humor’s march on the Palace. The verse seems stilted and incongruous, almost as if inserted in a fillip to the revolution.

Max Oppenheimer notes that “[Y]evtushenko is neither pro-Western nor anti-Soviet. Expressed bluntly, he knows where his bread is buttered. He remains consistently apolitical; when commissioned to produce a few pro-Soviet or anti-Western propaganda items, he discreetly intersperses them among his lines” (4). It is precisely this sense of textual incongruity, of a “discreet interspersing” of strategic praise of the revolution, that positions this poem as a paean to civic-minded jocularity, or, put another way, as an example of humor in the service of the State. Taken together with the stylized elements of the grotesque, the self-deprecation, and the multiple allusions to humor as small, shabby, and devious, the poem exemplifies the role of the “approv’d fool.”

The final verses substantiate this, especially as humor is glorified: “Итак – /

да славится юмор. / Он – / мужественный человек” (100) [“So – / glory be to humor. / He – / is a valiant man” (101)]. In the process of making humor into a hero, Yevtushenko uses the language of the State, specifically, glory and valor, in similar ways to the sloganeering of the Soviet state. One is reminded of the slogan, Великому Ленину слава [Glory be to the great Lenin!]. Though it could be argued that the verses contain a subtle parody of sloganeering, they locate humor well within the confines of the State, in their possibly devious, but glaringly earnest use of the language of the State.

Yevtushenko, as a Communist living within a notional workers’ state, is in quite the bind, as this poem shows. His evolution from dissident to “approv’d fool,” raises the question of whether a poetics of revolution, as envisioned by Mayakovsky and articulated by Yevtushenko in “Поэзия,” can survive the revolution. In this sense, the poem appears to substantiate Dentith’s assertion of a fatal flaw within Bakhtin’s central thesis of the subversive power of the carnivalesque.

Dalton’s poetry, on the other hand, offers wholly different lessons. In his work, we see a poet struggling to live by what Mayakovsky and Yevtushenko conceived of as the role of the poet soldier; in this role, he employs the Bakhtinian mechanism of the carnivalesque as resistance. In the short poem, “Poeticus eficacciae” (Latin, “An Effective Poetics”), he lays out the case for humor as satire: “Podréis juzgar / la catadura moral de un regimen politico, / de una institución política, / o de un hombre políltico / por el grado de peligrosidad que otorguen / al hecho de ser observados / por los ojos de un poeta satírico” (10) [“You can judge / the moral quality of a political regime / or a political institution / or a political man / by the degree of danger they detect / in the act of being observed / through the eyes of the satirical poet”]. For Dalton, humor, in this case as satire, is a most “effective poetic.”

He further refines his conceptualization of the function of poetry in the three-line poem, “Arte poética 1974” [“The Art of Poetry 1974”]: “Poesía, / perdóname por haberte ayudado a comprender / que no estás hecha solo de palabras” (25) [“Poetry / forgive me for having helped you to understand / that you are not made of words alone”]. In 1970, as John Beverley has pointed out, Dalton left the Communist Party to found the Ejército Revolucionario Popular, a Marxist revolutionary group that focused primarily on armed resistance; the group would later join with the FMLN in 1980, together with the Communist Party of El Salvador. At the time he wrote this poem, Dalton was preparing to return to El Salvador to fight as a guerrillero in the Civil War. This poem, then, is his own manifesto of the poet soldier described by Mayakovsky and Yevtushenko. In “A la poesía” [“To Poetry”], he thanks poetry for its role in resistance: “Hoy también puedes mejorarme / ayudarme a servir / en esta larga y dura lucha del pueblo” (23) [“You can make me better today, too / help me serve / in the people’s long and hard struggle”].

Among the most well-known of Dalton’s poems, “Como tú” [“Like you”], deepens his conceptualization of the role of poetry, as both resistance and nourishment:

Creo que el mundo es bello,                                     I believe the world is beautiful

que la poesía es como el pan, de todos.            and that poetry, like bread, is for everyone.

Y que mis venas no terminan en mí,                         And that my veins don’t end in me

sino en la sangre unánime                                     but in the unanimous blood

de los que luchan por la vida,                                     of those who struggle for life,

el amor,                                                             love,

las cosas, el paisaje y el pan,                                     little things, landscape and bread,

la poesía de todos (27).                            the poetry of everyone (Hirschman n.pag.)

In Dalton’s linking of poetry to eating and sustenance, in his use of blood and veins to proclaim solidarity, echoes of Bakhtin’s grotesque realism begin to emerge. In his later poems, as a guerrillero and organizer of an armed Marxist revolutionary uprising, irreverence and the grotesque merge together to create a uniquely powerful poetics of revolution. Bakhtin notes the subversive potential of the grotesque:

The grotesque body, as we often stressed, is a body in the act of becoming. It is never finished, never completed . . . . Moreover, the body swallows the world and is itself swallowed by the world…Eating, drinking, defecation and other elimination… all these acts are performed on the confines of the body and the outer world, or on the confines of the old and new body (317).

In Dalton’s work, the grotesque body takes on particular importance, as the revolutionary potential of a new body, a new Marxist state to be fashioned out of the materiality of working people in all their glorious eating, drinking, and shitting. In “Como tú”, Dalton locates poetry within the grotesque, specifically within the act of consumption. It is “como el pan, de todos” [“like bread, for everyone”]; he situates himself within this materiality as poet and part of the revolution, a man whose veins end only in the “la sangre unánime / de los que luchan por la vida” [“in the unanimous blood / of those who struggle for life”].

Grotesque realism becomes a constant in Dalton’s later poetry, both as part of an irreverent use of humor and, more importantly, as celebration of the materiality of the body. I return here to what Dentith calls that the principle of degradation at work in the carnival, the distinction between the “classical body” and the “grotesque body,” and the shift in focus from one of completion, to one of becoming (68). We see this process at work in the short poem, “El Salvador, país con corazón” [“El Salvador, country with a heart”]: “Claro que un poco decapitado. / Y (según el gobierno / y la oligarquía) / sin estómago” (75) [Of course a little decapitated. / And (according to the government / and the oligarchy / with no stomach”]. In the classical body, the head was the source of enlightenment and reason; in the sardonic wit of the text, that body is decapitated, shifting focus to the grotesque body, with its heart and the absurd absence of a stomach.

“Historia de una poética” [“History of a Poetics”] continues this shift, describing the radicalization of “un pueta” (a play on words combining the Spanish slang for slut, puta, and poet, poeta, in a nod to the El Salvadoran dialectical pronunciation of the word “poet”). The poem uses the language of El Salvadoran dialect and slang, a kind of carnivalesque, situating it from the very start as a poem of the people, and turning this language on the poet in a jovial and grotesque manner: “Puesiesque esta era un pueta / de aquí del país / que no era ni bello ni malo como Satanás / (como él soñaba que era) / sino mero feyito y pechito y retebuena gente” (100) [“Well and there was this poet / from right here in the country / who wasn’t handsome or really so bad as Satan / (like he was in his dreams) / but just a little ugly and skinny and just really good people”]. By locating the poet firmly with the grotesque (“mero feyito y pechito”) he becomes a poet of the people, no greater than you or I. The physical characteristics of his body, gently ridiculed, shift the focus from a classical narrative of completion, to one of becoming; his process of becoming is the theme of the poem.

At the start of the poem, the poet, “retebuena gente” [“really good people”], “amaba a la justicia y a las muchachas / (tal vez un poquito más a las muchachas que a la justicia)” (100) [“he loved justice and girls / (maybe he loved girls just a little bit more than justice)”]. The poet (recalling Dalton’s play on words with “pueta”) embraces the grotesque realities of the carnival, from sex to laughter. In the textual process of becoming, for Dalton a process of radicalization, the poet abandons classical poetic tradition when “subío hasta las nubes el precio de papel” (101) [“the price of paper rose sky high”], and begins writing on walls and streets. Dalton satirizes classical poetics, because “frases que antes le embriagaban tanto / como «oh sándalo abismal, miel de los musgos» / se miraban todas cheretas en las paredes descascaradas” [“phrases that until then had intoxicated him so / like, ‘oh abysmal sandal, honey of the moss’ / looked all beat up on the peeling walls”]. In a nod to the humor of the grotesque, Dalton describes the poet as intoxicated by his own words.

The evolution of this “pueta,” in his move from a classical to a revolutionary poetics, is described again in grotesque terms: “De ahí que el pueta agarrara vara de una vez / y se metiera a guerilla urbana” (102) [“From there the poet gathered up his courage / and joined the urban guerilla”]. Significantly, the word vara in formal use means a measuring stick, though in Central American slang it can be understood as gathering strength or convictions. As a stick, though, the words hint at a phallic symbology, and imply power through a grasping of the phallus, in another nod to the grotesque body.

The “pueta’s” classical poetics are replaced by revolutionary ones, such as “viva la guerrilla” [“long live the guerrilla”] and “lucha armada hoy – socialismo mañana” [“armed struggle today – socialism tomorrow”]. And yet, this revolutionary aesthetic exuberantly embraces the grotesque, as the final stanza shows: “Y si alguien dice que esta historia es / esquemática y sectaria/ y que el poema que la cuenta es una / tremenda babosada ya que falla / «precisamente en la magnificación de las motivaciones» / que vaya y coma mierda” (102) [“And if anyone says that this story is / schematic and sectarian / and that the poem that tells it /is a tremendous stupidity because it fails / ‘precisely in the magnification of the motivations’ / well, they can go and eat shit”]. In one single stanza, Dalton uses three functions of the body, spitting (“babosada” is derived from the Spanish verb babosear, to drool or slobber), shitting, and eating, to satirize those who might call into question the poetics of revolution he is endorsing. As a mechanism of becoming, the verses gleefully illustrate Bakhtin’s notion of the grotesque body swallowing and being swallowed by the world. “Historia de una poética,” in its grotesqueness and process of becoming, with its crass humor and El Salvadoran dialect, is an exemplar of Bakhtin’s carnivalesque in poetry.

As a final note on the grotesque body and the process of becoming, I turn to Dalton’s poem about headaches: “Es bello ser comunista, / aunque cause muchos dolores de cabeza…/ Bajo el capitalismo nos duele la cabeza / y nos arrancan la cabeza…/ En la construcción socialista / planificamos el dolor de cabeza…/ El comunismo será, entre otras cosas, /Una aspirina del tamaño del sol” (El adversario cubano n. pag.) [“It’s great to be a communist / although it gives you many headaches…/ Under capitalism our heads hurt / In the construction of socialism / we plan for the headache / which doesn’t alleviate it – quite the contrary. / Communism will be, among other things, / an aspirin the size of the sun” (Beverley 84)]. With humor and the carnivalesque driving his poetics of revolution, Dalton has found a cure for the closed-ness of the classical body, starting with the head: “el comunismo, una aspirina del tamaño del sol.”

I have sought here to explore the applications of Bakhtin’s theory of the carnivalesque to the poetics of revolution. Earlier I described how Yevtushenko, the civic tribune of the Soviet Union, uses humor with the permission of the State. In his poetry, humor and aspects of the grotesque serve as release valves for political dissent, effectively maintaining hegemonic power structures. His willing participation, while perhaps ideologically motivated, earned him a great deal of scorn. In this sense, he embodies Denith’s “approv’d fool,” substantiating his criticism of Bakhtin’s concept.

Dalton, in contrast, uses his poetry to disrupt hegemony, in this case, the oligarchy of El Salvador. As the poet soldier Mayakovsky and Yevtushenko envisioned, he appropriates sarcasm, irreverence, and grotesque realism to overcome the second difficulty Dentith described in Bakhtin’s theory, his reliance on the novel as the most suitable form for comic resistance to hegemony. Dalton has shown that poetry, even more than the novel, can give voice to the folk humor of the carnival; with its carnivalesque humor and grotesque realism, his work illustrates its subversive power in precisely the way Bakhtin envisioned.

Because Dalton was killed before the end of the El Salvadoran Civil War, the question of the relevance, and even feasibility, of a poetics of revolution in post-revolutionary contexts lingers. María Josefina Saldaña-Portillo and David Sartorius allude to this in the concluding remarks to their article on revolution, noting that “we respond to obituaries for revolution dating from the 1990s with Beverley’s — and Dalton’s — resolve: to continue to make revolution a useful political and aesthetic concept for the future. Revolution will be an aspirin the size of the sun” (229). Similarly, I find an answer in the final stanzas of a poem by Ernesto Cardenal, “Ofensiva final” [“Final Offensive”] ostensibly dedicated to Leonel Rugama: “La luna era la tierra. El pedazo nuestro de la tierra. / Y llegamos. / Ya empieza Rugama, a ser de los pobres; / la tierra ésta / (con su luna)” (2). [“The moon was the earth. Our piece of the earth. / And we got there. / Now it begins, Rugama, to belong to the poor; / this earth / (with its moon)” (3)]. This poem could have been written for Roque Dalton. His poetics of revolution led to the moon – “our piece of the earth” and the construction of socialism. The revolution may or may not have been won in Central America, but the work of becoming has only just begun. It is always beginning; as Bakhtin observed, the process of becoming is never complete.

End Notes

1 According to their website (, la Casa de las Américas is “concebida como un espacio de encuentro y diálogo de distintas perspectivas en un clima de ideas renovadoras, la Casa de las Américas fomenta el intercambio con instituciones y personas de todo el mundo. Cuando todos los gobiernos de la América Latina, con la excepción del de México, rompieron relaciones con Cuba, la institución contribuyó a impedir la destrucción total de los lazos culturales entre la Isla y el resto del continente. La Casa difundió la obra de la Revolución y propició la visita a Cuba de intelectuales que se pusieron en contacto con la nueva realidad del país [“conceived as a space of encounter and dialogue with different perspectives en a climate of innovative ideas, la Casa de las Américas fosters exchange with institutions and people from all over the world. When all of the governments of Latin America, with the exception of Mexico, broke off relations with Cuba, the institution contributed to the preservation of cultural ties between the Island and the rest of the continent. La Casa has disseminated the work of the revolution and supports visits to Cuba by intellectuals to put them in contact with the new reality of the country”]. Translation mine.

2 Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional, or Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front.

3 All English translations of Yevgeny Yevtushenko and Vladimir Mayakovsky come from George Reavey’s translation and bilingual editions. Bibliographic information can be found in the Works Cited. For Roque Dalton and critical texts in Spanish, all translations are mine, except where noted with a parenthetical citation and page number.

                                                Works Cited

“Así lo describe el poeta cubano Pablo Armando Fernández.” Roque Dalton Archivo Digital. 15 October 2013. Web. 10 December 2013.

Bakhtin, Mikhail. “Rabelais and His World.” Trans. Helene Iswolsky. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The M.I.T. Press, 1968.

Beverley, John. “Poems: Roque Dalton, John Beverley, Edward Baker.” Social Text 5 (1982): 74-85.

Billig, Micheal. “Freud and the language of humor.” The Psychologist 15.9 (2002): 452 – 455. Web. 12 December 2013.

Cardenal, Ernesto. “I remember Roque Dalton.” Trans. Hardie St. Martin. In Small Hours of the Night. Willimantic, Connecticut: Curbstone Press, 1996.

—. Vuelos de Victoria. Flights of Victory. Trans. Mark Zimmerman. Maryknoll, New York: Curbstone Press, 1985.

Conquest, Robert. “The Politics of Poetry: The Sad Case of Yevgeny Yevtushenko.” New York Times Magazine 30 Sept (1973): 16, 17, 56, 58-60, 62, 64, 69-70. ProQuest. Web. 7 Dec. 2013.

Dalton, Roque. Historia y poemas de una lucha de clases. Mexico City, D.F.: Ocean Sur, 2010.

—. “Como tú.” Trans. Jack Hirschman. The Kasama Project. n.d. Web. 7 December 2013.

—. “El comunismo, una aspirina tamaño del sol.” El adversario cubano. 30 April 2013. Web. 14 December 2013.

Dentith, Simon. “Bakhtin’s Carnival.” In Bakhtinian Thought. Ed. Simon Dentith. London: Rutledge, 1995. 65 – 87.

Dralyuk, Boris. “Evgenii Evtushenko’s Civic-Minded Lyricism in ‘Babii Yar.’” Toronto Slavic Quarterly 43 (2013): 24 – 39.

Fainsod, Merle. “Soviet Youth and the Problem of the Generations.” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 108.5 (1964): 429-436.

Houk, Guy. “Erofeev and Yevtushenko.” In Venedikt Erofeev’s Moscow-Petushki: Critical Perspectives. Ed. Karen Ryan-Hayes. New York: Peter Lang, 1997. 179-195.

Macal, Mario Flores. “Casa De Las Américas y Roque Dalton.” Anuario De Estudios Centroamericanos 3 (1977): 349-350.

Mayakovsky, Vladimir. The Bedbug and Selected Poetry. Trans. Max Hayward and George Reavey. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1975.

Prieto, José Manuel. “Heberto Padilla, the First Dissident (of the Cuban Revolution).” Trans. Jorge Castillo. In Caviar with Rum: Cuba-USSR and the Post-Soviet Experience. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012: 141 – 154.

“Roque Dalton.” American Academy of Poets. Web. 4 December 2013.

Rudy, Peter. “The Soviet Russian Literary Scene in 1961 – A Mild Permafrost Thaw.” The Modern Language Journal 46.6, 1962: 245-254.

Saldaña-Portillo, María J. and Sartorius, David. “Revolution.” Social Texts 100 27.3, 2009: 223 – 229.

Weeks, Mark. “Milan Kundera: A Modern History of Humor Amid the Comedy of History.” Journal of Modern Literature 28:3 (2005): 130-148.

Yevtushenko, Yevgeny. The Poetry of Yevgeny Yevtushenko, 1953 to 1965. Trans. George Reavey. New York: October House, 1965.

Mirrors and Masks: Identity and Artificiality

by Alessia Mingrone

Personal identity is a recurring theme throughout literature, as in life. Oscar Wilde wrote his only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, in 1890, the nineteenth century fin-de-siècle. Around this time, the Aesthetic and Decadent movements were taking place in Europe. Less than half a century later, in 1926, Luigi Pirandello’s last novel, Uno, nessuno e centomila [One, No One and One Hundred Thousand] was published. Both of the aforementioned texts use the motifs of mirrors and masks in order to emphasize the instability and artificiality of identity. On the surface, these novels may seem to advocate insincerity, but, as one analyzes each protagonist, the question becomes whether their masks act simply as superficial pseudo-identities or whether they reveal something more about the dissolution of the ego.

The Decadent Aesthetic

The Decadent movement set out to make a strong statement regarding cultural degeneration. Traditional notions of beauty and goodness were displaced by aestheticism, which privileged the artificial and the grotesque. In her discussion of ethics and aesthetics, Moriah Hampton explains: “Tracing literary decadence beyond the Victorian fin de siècle, the genealogy reveals the emergence of a decadent aesthetic devoted to artifice, ugliness, and disease in response to the crisis of moral idealism” (iv). Particularly in England, strict, repressive ideals of nineteenth century morality stimulated the literary and cultural Decadent movement. Through his writing, Wilde constructs a Decadent Aesthetic based on Kant’s ideas of aestheticism. In contrast to the notion of moral idealism, Kant contends in the Analytic of the Beautiful that beauty must be experienced aesthetically, and not logically. Therefore, the purposelessness of art relies on a purely sensory experience that is not ruled by morality.

Wilde seems to reflect Kant’s notion that beauty and goodness do not necessarily overlap in the story of Dorian Gray. In addition to his disregard for morality, “Wilde’s version of decadent aesthetics foregrounds artifice and in so doing severs the link between surface and substance as well as appearance and reality” (Hampton 21). With the emphasis on the aesthetic, appearance becomes a substitute, but not equivalent to reality both in art as well as in the social sphere. This may appear superficial and insincere, but it turns out to be the defense mechanism of the Decadent protagonist. As the narrator questions in The Picture of Dorian Gray: “Is insincerity such a terrible thing? I think not. It is merely a method by which we can multiply our personalities” (Wilde 174-75). Deceitfulness typically carries a stigma in society and is regarded as a vice. In Wilde’s novel, however, it is generally a coping mechanism, an inevitable way for the subject to conform to the strict demands of society.

The Ego

On a psychological level, the turn to Decadent Aestheticism can be equated to the ego grappling with the severity of the super-ego. Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis and a contemporary of both Wilde and Pirandello, coined the idea of the ego. According to his theory, the self is composed of the ego, the id, and the super-ego. The id is the repository and expression of basic desires, while the superego is a disciplinary, repressive force. The ego attempts to mediate between these two extremes in order to create a well-balanced individual. A problem arises when the ego is incapable of balancing out the pressures either from the id, which are typically internal, or from the super-ego, oftentimes external.

In The Picture of Dorian Gray, societal pressure is an evident and burdensome presence in individuals’ daily lives. Throughout the novel, Lord Henry, who is by far the most libertine character, decries the prohibition imposed by the super-ego in the Victorian era: “‘People are afraid of themselves, nowadays. They have forgotten the highest of all duties, the duty that one owes to oneself . . . . The terror of society, which is the basis of morals, the terror of God, which is the secret of religion—these are the two things that govern us’” (58). Within the rigid framework of nineteenth-century British society, both historically as well as in the novel, the individual felt a tremendous amount of pressure to play the part of the dutiful citizen and to respect strict moral codes. Lord Henry reprehends the tendency of people to allow society to dictate their behaviors. He contends (likely exemplifying Wilde’s own conviction), that the cohesive façade put on by individuals for the sake of society is really at odds with their fragmented, fearful interior world. The decadent protagonist experiences distress living in society, yet he or she cannot escape its pressures.

Reflecting on his own ego, Dorian Gray readily points out its instability. At the outset of the novel, he is a naïve adolescent who has not had much exposure to sensory pleasures. Once he gets to know Lord Henry, he learns about the Decadent Aesthetic and the philosophy of Hedonism. As a result, he begins to “wonder at the shallow psychology of those who conceive the Ego in man as a thing simple, permanent, reliable, and of one essence. To him, man was a being with myriad lives and myriad sensations, a complex multiform creature that bore within itself strange legacies of thought and passion” (175). Dorian describes himself, and philosophizes man in general, as leading multiple different lives. The rupture of the ego is key to understanding the decadent aesthetic that the text advocates. At this early point in the novel, Dorian feels liberated by this new realization, without truly comprehending its implications. His ability to be and feel so many different affects at once is directly opposed to society’s ideal; the apparent novelty and awareness of sensory experience leaves him awestruck.

Dorian goes from appreciating the sense of freedom afforded by his fragmented ego to discovering a deadly sense of duality within himself. His obsession with his own appearance in the portrait is reminiscent of the myth of Narcissus. Reflecting the same values of the Aesthetic movement, Dorian himself ends up privileging surface over substance, which relegates his understanding of identity to a binary model. The emerging sense of duality is illustrated both in a thematic sense as well as concretely in the portrait. As the novel progresses, it becomes more difficult to compare appearance and reality, since Dorian’s body physically trades places with the ageless image. Dorian becomes paranoid about hiding the picture, while revealing to society only his flawless appearance.


Dorian Gray and the Mirror of the Soul

A prominent psychologist who contributed to the understanding of the fragmented self is Jacques Lacan. He introduced the idea of the mirror stage, during which the ego is formed by a process of objectification. Like Freud, Lacan believes the ego to be a site of conflict. In this case, the conflict occurs between one’s perceived visual appearance and the unconscious, resulting in alienation and fragmentation. When the child sees a reflection of his/her movements in the mirror for the first time, reality appears to be exactly reproduced. As soon as the infant recognizes the mirror image as his or her own, which can occur as early as six months, he/she assumes the self is being reflected as a whole entity. This basic process of identification takes place along the so-called “imaginary axis” up until the age of eighteen months. The unconscious, or “symbolic axis,” on the other hand, is dominated by the repressive authority of language. Upon the individual’s gaining access to society through language, the two axes intersect. Given that language is other to the individual, the unified sense of self from the mirror image is shattered and the child’s sense of bodily unity becomes decentered (Lacan 405). The corporal and the unconscious are in a state of contradiction as the ego begins to take shape.

The mirror stage also develops the Ideal-I, which:

Situates the agency of the ego, before its social determination, in a fictional direction, which will always remain irreducible for the individual alone, or rather, which will only rejoin the coming-into-being (le devenir) of the subject asymptotically, whatever the success of the dialectical syntheses by which he must resolve as I his discordance with his own reality. (Lacan 406)

The term asymptotic here refers to a line that curves toward but never quite reaches the limit, indicating infinity, and therefore the impossibility of realizing the object of desire. This object is in fact the whole mirror image that the child wishes to preserve. Even before the individual consciously acknowledges society’s norms, his or her ego is dependent upon the external force of language. The results are a lifelong alienation from the self and a constant desire for identification. The mirror stage describes the disparity between desire and reality, and demonstrates how one’s self-perception of wholeness becomes dismantled early on in life.

Taking Lacan’s theory into consideration, the mirror as it pertains to unstable human subjectivity is an important symbol in The Picture of Dorian Gray. Throughout the novel, Wilde refers to the portrait as the mirror of Dorian’s soul: “This portrait would become to him the most magical of mirrors. As it had revealed to him his own body, so it would reveal to him his own soul . . . . When the blood crept from its face, and left behind a pallid mask of chalk with leaden eyes, he would keep the glamour of boyhood” (141). At first, the portrait was the image of Dorian’s beauty and wholeness, which is in line with Lacan’s theory that the mirror reveals to the individual an idyllic form of his or her own body. As the narrative progresses, the axes get reversed, and the portrait mirrors Dorian’s soul in light of the super-ego, or along the symbolic axis. This shift ultimately makes sense because Dorian’s portrait (his mirror) is located in the external world, thus inevitably producing a reflection that he cannot reconcile with his interior self.

Moreover, Dorian’s decaying portrait demonstrates the link between ugliness and immorality that society seeks to evince. Over the eighteen years that transpire after the beginning of the novel, Dorian performs many acts that his superego recognizes as sinful, including the murder of Basil Hallward, the artist who had painted his portrait. Each time Dorian commits a sin, the picture manifests a subtle sign of decay, until it eventually becomes hideous. The portrait is supposed to be flawless as his own body decays, but here the roles are reversed. Having this concrete mirror of his soul forces Dorian to face his actions, listen to his super-ego and attempt to modify his behavior toward the end of the novel.

Thus, he comes to terms with his decadent acts by reinforcing moral norms. In the penultimate chapter, Dorian admits to Lord Henry: “‘I have done too many dreadful things in my life. I am not going to do any more. I began my good actions yesterday’” (238). Dorian regrets his lifestyle replete with sensual pleasures and disregard for morality. However, it is too little too late for him; he has strayed so far from the norms of society that he can no longer have any hope of fitting back in. At this point in the novel, it becomes clear that the portrait is an embodiment of moral codes imposed by society, in other words: the super-ego. As Hampton puts it: “Beyond guilt, the superego, at times, turns upon the self cruelly, berating and lashing out against the one who fails to mirror the ideal” (27). This censure is exactly what takes place as the portrait haunts Dorian a little more each time he transgresses moral and civil laws; his super-ego is vying for control over his actions, while he consciously aims only to preserve his beauty.

The severity of the super-ego suggests that the portrait reveals what society deems as truth, which is what ultimately destroys Dorian. Falsehood is, for Wilde, a conscious coping mechanism, which protects the individual from the incessant pressures of society. In Lacan’s terms, it is a “lure” designed to create the illusion of unity. During his last moments, Dorian realizes that his beauty represents artificiality, while the ugliness of his portrait forces him to face reality. As a result: “he loathed his own beauty, and, flinging the mirror on the floor, crushed it into silver splinters beneath his heel…His beauty had been to him but a mask, his youth but a mockery” (Wilde 248). Dorian’s possession of a mirror at this particular moment symbolizes, like Lacan’s mirror stage, the idyllic representation of his body. The act of shattering this mirror represents his awareness of and attempt to rid himself of the Ideal-I, the imaginary axis, the mask he had been wearing to fool society into believing, as he himself wished to believe, that he is a whole entity. When he realizes that he cannot shed his mask, he decides to destroy the portrait, indicating that he wishes to sever his dependence on society. However, because it is impossible to live in the world without the unconscious and language, or as Lacan puts it, the symbolic axis, Dorian ultimately takes his own life by stabbing the picture. His death reveals the inextricable and paradoxical dependence between the imaginary and the symbolic axes. An individual will never be able to reconcile his or her bodily image with the unconscious, yet he or she needs both in order to survive.


The Persona, Playing Parts, and Pirandello

Wilde’s novel was a precursor of early twentieth century psychological and literary ideas, which shifted from a Faustian duplicity to an even more complex notion of the self. Irving Saposnik, a scholar of English literature, claims that the “Victorian man was haunted constantly by an inescapable sense of division. As rational and sensual being, as public and private man, as civilized and bestial creature, he found himself necessarily an actor, playing only that part of himself suitable to the occasion” (716). This passage encapsulates the essence of Wilde’s protagonist, who is unable to reconcile the duplicity of his identity. However, along with the advent of the twentieth century, as Judith Halberstam, theorist, author, and professor at the University of Southern California, affirms, “‘The post-Frankenstein monster emerges at the turn of the century marked by an essential duality and a potential multiplicity’” (qtd. in Bani-Khair 38). A transition begins to take place in literature, which would eventually result in protagonists who experience the multiplicitous fragmentation of the ego, something Wilde only alludes to at certain points in The Picture of Dorian Gray. Prominent Italian author Luigi Pirandello’s Uno, nessuno e centomila [One, No One and One Hundred Thousand] demonstrates the unraveling of the self into countless parts. The novel tells the story of Vitangelo Moscarda, who begins to question the authenticity of his identity as a result of a mundane conversation with his wife.

The first sentence of the novel describes Vitangelo looking at himself in the mirror. His wife comments that his nose is tilted, which leads the protagonist to ponder extensively questions of identity and perception. In Lacan’s terms, Vitangelo has attempted to illude himself that he is a whole entity every time he has looked in a mirror. Up to that moment in his life, he had been convinced of having a decent, if not attractive nose. However, given his wife’s remark, he begins to wonder about the other disparities between his own self-perception and that of others. Thus, “cominciarono le mie incredibili pazzie” (Pirandello 19) [my incredible follies commenced][i] as he begins to conduct a series of social experiments.

First of all, he decides that he must know himself as a stranger from the outside by observing himself repeatedly in the mirror. Vitangelo explains his experience: “Quando mi ponevo davanti a uno specchio, avveniva come un arresto in me; ogni spontaneità era finita, ogni mio gesto appariva a me stesso fittizio e rifatto” (18) [When I placed myself in front of a mirror, I experienced an arrest; all spontaneity was over, my every gesture seemed to me artificial and fabricated]. As he observes himself in the mirror, every one of his movements appears phony and distorted. The mirror turns out to be a crucial element of Vitangelo’s story, as the very word appears thirty-six times in the novel. At one point, he even states that his madness is as clear as a polished mirror and comes to the seemingly obvious realization that, as long as he inhabits his body, he will never be able to see himself as others do.

After having exercised his madness through various social experiments, Vitangelo realizes that every person he has come into contact with has assigned to him a unique identity, none of which matches his private self-understanding. He reflects: “E tanto ormai, fisso in questo tormento, m’ero alienato da me stesso, che come un cieco davo il mio corpo in man agli altri, perché ciascuno si prendesse di tutti quegli estranei inseparabili che portavano in me quell’uno che ero per lui” (124) [By now, fixed in this torment, I was so alienated from myself that, like a blind man, I handed myself over to others, so that each of them could select out of all the inseparable strangers in me, the one I was for him]. Vitangelo reflects on the agony of feeling alienated from his own body. He likens himself to a sightless man surrendering a part of himself to each person he comes into contact with. His alienation is different from Dorian’s because he is not concerned with beauty. He genuinely desires to understand how others view him from the outside, which is impossible given that he inhabits his own body. What Dorian and Vitangelo have in common, though, is that they both desire to be viewed, and to view themselves as whole. Dorian wishes to appear as perfect as his portrait, while Vitangelo seeks to gain a holistic understanding of who he is in every social situation. Throughout the texts, it becomes clear that both ideals are unattainable.

Ironically enough, the more Vitangelo consciously works at constructing a comprehensive understanding of himself, the more he realizes that he has an infinite number of identities. Matteo Magrini, who discusses both Wilde and Pirandello in his article, explains:

“Uno, nessuno, centomila”, di Pirandello, sottolinea la tendenza dell’individuo ad essere “più persone” nei differenti contesti della quotidianità: uno, come egli percepisce l’identità di sé; nessuno, perché al mondo non è che uno tra miliardi, centomila perché nei vari contesti lui ricopre molti ruoli.

“One, No One and One Hundred Thousand” by Pirandello underlines the tendency of the individual to be ‘numerous people’ in different daily contexts: one, as he understands his own identity; no one, because he is one among billions in the world, one hundred thousand because he covers many roles in different contexts.

The significance of the novel’s title, One, No One, and One Hundred Thousand, is revealed through this passage. Vitangelo possesses one understanding of himself as a whole entity as reflected in the mirror at the beginning of the novel. At the same time, he is no one because he is alienated from himself. Without a sense of self-identity, a person is essentially just one of billions, like we perceive ants. Finally, he is one hundred thousand because of the multitude of strangers he interacts with every day, each of whom takes a different aspect of him to be his true identity. The multiplicity of roles he enacts grows each time he is put in a different social context. Given this understanding of identity, it is no wonder why Vitangelo feels so fragmented and miserable; he simultaneously views himself as one, no one, and one hundred thousand.

In the same vein, another prominent psychoanalyst of the twentieth century, Carl Jung, defines the act of playing different parts depending on social context with the word persona. In Latin, this term originally meant the theatrical mask worn by actors to indicate their role in a play. For Jung, it is an arbitrary segment of the collective psyche that feigns individuality in that “our modern notions of ‘personal’ and ‘personality’ derive from the word persona. I can assert that my ego is personal or a personality, and in exactly the same sense I can say that my persona is a personality with which I identify myself more or less” (196). Whereas one might initially assume that the persona is something individual, Jung emphasizes that it is a vehicle through which the collective psyche speaks. The persona mediates between the individual and society, but it is essentially artificial, “a semblance, a two-dimensional reality” (158). While Dorian Gray can serve as a claim for artificiality in the individual, Vitangelo’s case may be extended to make a larger claim for the whole of society, in which individuals fabricate personas for themselves and each other.

When an individual assumes a persona, or adopts a persona that others have imposed on him or her, one of the resulting side effects is identity fragmentation. Jung claims: “The construction of a collectively suitable persona means a formidable concession to the external world, a genuine self-sacrifice which drives the ego straight into identification with the persona, so that people really do exist who believe they are what they pretend to be” (193). If the persona were a completely deployable costume that one could seamlessly put on and take off, it would function exclusively as a mediator between the individual and society. However, even in their multiplicity, different personas are interconnected because they coexist within the same body. Thus, social identities become inseparable from one’s personal sense of identity. These both contribute to forming the ego, and they inevitably end up overlapping and influencing each other, blurring the line between reality and artificiality.

Toward the end of Pirandello’s novel, another character that shares the protagonist’s tragic struggle to understand his “authentic” identity is introduced. Vitangelo explains the findings of his social experiments to Anna Rosa, a friend of his wife’s that he hardly knows, as follows: “‘Lei non può conoscersi che atteggiata: statua: non viva. Quando uno vive, vive e non si vede. Conoscersi è morire. Lei sta tanto a mirarsi in codesto specchio, in tutti gli specchi, perché non vive; non sa, non può o non vuol vivere. Vuole troppo conoscersi e non vive’” (187) [‘You cannot know yourself if not when acting: a statue: not alive. When one lives, he lives and does not see himself. To know oneself is to die. You look at yourself so much in this mirror, in all mirrors, because you do not live; you do not know how, are not able or do not want to live. You want to know yourself too much and you do not live’]. Once again bringing up the mirror, Vitangelo contends that living and knowing oneself are mutually exclusive. If one is constantly looking in the mirror, he or she is attempting to grasp a unified identity, therefore foregoing the act of living. This conclusion is similar to Dorian’s, namely that one will never be able to view himself as whole, yet will constantly attempt to do so, which alienates him from language and society, therefore widening the divide between the imaginary and the symbolic.

There is a somewhat tragic aspect of these characters’ futile attempts to view themselves as whole entities. In an autobiographical letter, published in 1924, the author refers to this work as the “…bitterest of all, profoundly humoristic, about the decomposition of life: Moscarda one, no one and one hundred thousand” (“Luigi Pirandello”). As Pirandello states, and the title of the novel suggests, the protagonist’s ego is a site of contradiction and constant transformation. His identity is torn apart, seeming to result in the absence of all unity or truth. Italian professor Victor Carrabino echoes this sentiment in his interpretation of the novel: “Pirandello’s characters even ‘voluntarily surrender their humanity in order to escape the pain of living by taking refuge in the wooden passivity of marionettes’” (126). Vitangelo’s social experiments literally and figuratively prove that when one sees his own reflection in the mirror, it is not the same reflection others see. Therefore, the image reflected to him in the mirror is just as artificial as the masks he puts on for society. It is painful for the protagonist to realize that he will never be able to pin down a singular comprehensive understanding of who he is. He flounders in desperation for some time, but does not quite completely take “refuge in the wooden passivity of marionettes,” as Carrabino puts it. Vitangelo can be seen to embrace the multiplicity of his identity in the end when he states that he no longer thinks about death “perché muojo ogni attimo, io, e rinasco nuovo e senza ricordi: vivo e intero, non piú in me, ma in ogni cosa fuori” (Pirandello 203) [because I die every instant and am reborn anew and without memories: alive and whole, no longer in myself, but in everything external]. Conceptually, at least, Vitangelo is able to let go of the yearning for a perfect mirror image, and surrender himself to the unconscious. He realizes the potential for wholeness, just not within his own body. Although the ending appears to be rather hopeful, the tragic aspect is that he forgoes being himself, and simply morphs into the outside world.


Mirrors and masks are so crucial in these two novels because they are supposed to act as outward screens that represent individuals as whole entities. However, Dorian’s portrait (his mirror) reflects his image in light of his super-ego, his unconscious; this is in a binary opposition to his actual body, which is the ideal image of himself. Vitangelo’s various masks or personas end up shattering his image of wholeness, as they represent the multiplicity of his identity. One may wonder why it is so difficult for these protagonists to accept that they are not whole. Both novels justify putting on masks and assuming different identities in society as a way to avoid the ugliness and suffering of life. At one point, Dorian states: “‘To become the spectator of one’s own life, as Harry says, is to escape from the suffering of life’” (Wilde 145). This statement is paradoxical because, as Vitangelo demonstrates, it is impossible to escape one’s body and become the spectator of one’s own life. Going back to Lacan’s mirror stage, our unconscious selves are inevitably influenced by society, making it impossible to preserve our perfect mirror image. And, even if it were possible to view oneself wholly, “one of the messages Pirandello seems to impart is ‘that we must not needlessly force one another to undergo the sorry spectacle of seeing what we really are’” (Topazio 1589). One is then compelled to ask: what are these characters so afraid of beneath their masks?

Pirandello confronts this question by using an animal metaphor. In a letter to his sister, he compares human beings to spiders, snails, and mollusks who have webs and shells to protect themselves from the emptiness of the world. By the same token, Carrabino claims: “it is because of man’s effort to avoid his naked encounter with nothingness, that he engages himself in a continuous ‘ballo in maschera’ [masquerade]” (128). For the majority of the novels, Dorian and Vitangelo are so distressed about preserving their artificial identities because they have realized that their “true” identity does not exist. They cling onto their masks and their personas, the most “real” aspects of themselves, because there is nothing underneath. Their search for wholeness is ironically a marker of its lack. Vitangelo is able to accept this lack in the end, but only at the price of losing his humanity and his bodily self.

As Shakespeare once wrote: “All the world’s a stage, / And all the men and women merely players: / They have their exits and their entrances; / And one man in his time plays many parts” (II.vii.138-41). Dorian Gray and Vitangelo Moscarda demonstrate the impossibility of living without acting. Their obsession with mirrors is indicative of their longing to unify their egos, which Lacan explains have been fragmented since infancy. Mirror images and masks are ultimately the only reality for these protagonists because they serve to represent their identities every single day. Indeed, “one never seems so much at one’s ease as when one has to play a part” (Wilde 205).


End Notes

  1. All bracketed English translations are my own.

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Carrabino, Victor. “Pirandello’s Characters in Search of a Mask.” Review of

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Hampton, Moriah. Fallen Beauty: Aesthetics and Ethics in Decadent Literature. Diss.

State University of New York at Buffalo, 2011. Ann Arbor: UMI, 2012Web. 9 Nov. 2014.

Jung, C. G. Two Essays on Analytical Psychology. Pantheon: New York, 1966. Print.

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in Psychoanalytic Experience.” Trans. Alan Sheridan. Contemporary Literary Criticism: Literary and Cultural Studies. Eds. Robert Con Davis and Ronald Schleifer. Longman, 1998. 404-409Web. 25 Nov. 2014.

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Pirandello, Luigi. Uno, nessuno e centomila. Torino: Einaudi, 1994. Liberliber.

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English Literature, 1500-1900 11.4 (1971): 715-31Web. 7 Dec. 2014.

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Ed. Theodore Besterman.Droz, 1967. 1577-1592Web. 9 Nov 2014.

Wilde, Oscar. The Picture of Dorian Gray. Broadview: Ontario, 1998. Print.

The Saddest Lines: Poetic Lost Love

by Ashley Kimura

Both Edgar Allan Poe’s “Annabel Lee” and Pablo Neruda’s “Puedo escribir los versos más tristes esta noche” [“Tonight I can write the saddest lines”] are poetic representations of mourning and lament over lost love. Although the narrators lose their respective loves to different circumstances, each poem channels the narrator’s sorrow to its readers. Within this context, readers can identify similar themes in each poem. Poe’s narrator grieves over the loss of Annabel Lee, the narrator’s young bride. Neruda’s narrator laments the loss of love as well, yet both the name and other identifying characteristics elude the reader. Even though the comparison of these two poems portrays inherent difference in the representation of each narrator’s beloved, these poems aim to have their readers identify universal sentiments of lamentation, mourning, and heartbreak through similar poetic techniques. Therefore, each poet utilizes nature and both physical and figurative distances to situate their readers simultaneously close to and removed from sentiments of grief. As such, readers identify empathetic familiarity in sentiments of losing love while feeling sympathetic awe at each narrator’s sense of losing their individual loves. Despite each poet utilizing nature as a poetic backdrop, their executions vary to portray their respective coping mechanisms in the aftermath of losing their loves.

Analyzing poetry of mourning, in general, situates the readers in the context of the genre. These particular poems employ a dialogue within the narrators, themselves, as well as to the readers directly. Johanna Nadine Schwartz’s dissertation, “Romantic Mourning: Poetry, Gender & Grief” examines mourning poetry in the Romantic period. Even though the following excerpt focuses upon Wordsworth and Coleridge, her analysis is strongly applicable to Poe’s and Neruda’s poems: “Yet, through their dialogical construction, [the poems] . . . stress the significance of compassionate listeners or witnesses whose attentions supply a necessary balm to the mourner’s ache. In this way, both poems link the process of story-telling to grief work, as well as emphasize the necessity of speaking and bearing witness to suffering in order for healing to occur” (34). Indeed, both Poe and Neruda’s poems use this “dialogical construction” in their narratives. Both poets utilize narrators who actively work through their emotions by writing poetry to search for closure over love lost, even though their differing circumstances result in different forms of closure. These narrators not only use their readers as “listeners or witnesses,” but the very act of writing poetry itself as a “balm” in their healing process.

In order to illuminate the individual significance of each poet’s writing, it is necessary to explore their unique historical contexts and traditions. The mournful tone and powerful language exemplified in Poe’s “Annabel Lee” (believed to be a biographical account of his young wife’s death) is also part of Poe’s own historical traditions of mourning, as noted by Adam Bradford, Luz García Parra, and Bradford Booth. Bradford discusses Poe’s connection to mourning in his dissertation, “Communities of Death: Walt Whitman, Edgar Allan Poe, and the Nineteenth-Century American Culture of Mourning and Memorializing.” He explores the historical background of public rituals of mourning, particularly in Poe’s own life. It was commonplace to not only openly mourn those who had passed, but to commemorate their lives and departure into the after-life by wearing articles of the deceased’s clothing or hair (30). As noted by Bradford, after the death of Poe’s wife, Virginia, he wore locks of her hair and had a portrait of her done post-mortem (37). In connecting Poe’s own practice of public displays of mourning to his poetry, Bradford states, “While many question the extent to which Poe’s literature was a screen for a disturbed psyche, there is no question that his literature was constantly in dialogue with an antebellum culture that was intimately concerned with ways of conceptualizing and coping with death” (28). In this context, Poe as an author is positioned as a man who was already accustomed to publicly and unapologetically expressing remorse and grief for a deceased loved one. Since “Annabel Lee” was written shortly before his death (and published shortly afterwards) and not long after the death of his wife, this poem is not just one of true grief, expressed in his historical tradition. It is also the catalyst in which Poe is able to create a distinct, supernatural space to articulate this dialogue of coping with loss.

Hence, Poe’s experience with both a private and public connection to death enabled him to create a poem representing a personal account of mourning. His narrator entreats the reader to empathize with his perspective by creating an intimacy through poignant descriptions of his special and unique love for Annabel Lee, in turn triggering readers’ familiarity with love. Readers understand the universality in these emotions in that they, too, have experienced this kind of special and unique love, and the insurmountable grief of its loss. Bradford touches on this universality by stating, “In short, what these readers ‘saw’ when they looked at Poe’s poem was a speaker driven towards alienation and isolation by an overwhelming grief . . . which the culture of mourning generally sought to ameliorate by consoling the mourner with objects that testified that the mourner was not alone in his grief—which is precisely what these readers’ responses do” (58). Poe, then, carefully structured his poem to establish this sense of solidarity through a crescendo of temporality and distance through (super)natural elements. These elements express his “alienation and isolation” and beg his readers to acknowledge familiarity in this loneliness. The result is that neither the narrator nor the reader continues to feel lonely in the midst of losing love.

Within the focus of historical significance, Neruda’s “Puedo escribir los versos más tristes esta noche” [“Tonight I can write the saddest lines”] is the twentieth of his Veinte poemas de amor y una canción desesperada [Twenty Poems of Love and a Song of Despair]. Unlike Poe, Neruda published this text early in his life, “nearly twenty years old when this second collection was published in Santiago de Chile by Carlos Nascimiento” (Wilson 44). Although not part of Poe’s particular social practices of mourning, Neruda still employs Schwartz’s “dialogical construction” in utilizing his readers as “compassionate listeners.” Neruda’s intentions in writing Veinte poemas were couched in “Verdadismo,” or what Stephen Hart describes as an inclination towards truthfulness (257). This is significant because it ties these two distant poets together across decades. As Poe was accustomed to a tradition of public mourning, he was, consequently, inclined to an unapologetic expression of loss. Similarly, as Neruda’s intentions were towards “Verdadismo,” so he too was poetically inclined to unapologetically expressing his true sentiments concerning love. Descriptions of Neruda’s use of “Verdadismo” are present in Jason Wilson’s book, A Companion to Pablo Neruda: Evaluating Neruda’s Poetry. Discussing the publication of Veinte poemas, Wilson notes the initial criticism Neruda received, expressions of confusion in light of acceptance of his first book. Neruda’s response, however, “answered these early hostile critics in the Chilean newspaper La Nación on 20 August 1924. He defended his ‘expression of my thought’ and his complete ‘sincerity’, and claimed that these poems poured out, without rational control: ‘libremente, inconteniblemente, se me soltaron mis poemas’ [freely, uncontainably, these poems freed themselves]” (Wilson 44-45). This significantly contextualizes Neruda’s relationship to Poe: the latter came from a tradition of public expression of feelings; the former’s personal style of writing echoes this unapologetic sincerity of expression. Further, both Poe and Neruda embed their sincere representation of lamentation in their uses of nature as a backdrop for their lost loves.

Poe’s use of nature, although not as overt as Neruda’s, is present through his imagery of the supernatural. Poe as an author is no stranger to the use of the supernatural, as it is present in much of his work. As stated by Lawrence Dotolo in his dissertation, “Edgar Allan Poe’s Quest for Supernal Beauty,” Poe identified the poet himself as the medium for the reader to obtain a sense of elevated beauty. Early in his discussion of Poe’s poetry, Dotolo states, “The poet, the artist, became for Poe the mediator between the real and the Ideal” (3). Within this context, Poe, as a poet, is the reader’s mediator between the real pain he felt and the Ideal representation of that pain through poetic construction. Within this space of the “real” and “Ideal” lies the supernatural forces which took Poe’s narrator (and, arguably, Poe’s own) love from him, “I was a child and she was a child, / In this kingdom by the sea: / But we loved with a love that was more than love—/ I and my ANNABEL LEE; / With a love that the winged seraphs of heaven / Coveted her and me” (738). This preliminary description of their love exemplifies an “otherness” or celestial connotation in that their love was more than love, more than that which either the narrator or reader can comprehend. This love transcended boundaries allowed or comprehended by earthly recognition and extended to the realm of heavenly desire, causing angels to succumb to mortal jealousy. Whether Annabel Lee dies from illness or a mysterious death, the narrator attributes the end of their supernatural love to that which is out of the narrator’s control. In this instance, the narrator invites the reader to empathize and familiarize himself with this desperate justification of loss to celestial jealousy.

Considering this poem as a constructed literary text helps the reader analyze its use of supernatural elements as an aid for the narrator’s justification of his lover’s death. Luz García Parra discusses these concepts in her article, “Poe: The Concept of Poetry and Poetic Practice with Reference to the Relationship between the Poetic Principle and Annabel Lee.” She discusses the poem’s use of supernatural elements under the umbrella of genre, “The fact that it is a ballad, a genre that allowed the inclusion of supernatural elements and tragic death, only attributable to the fatalism of destiny, enables Poe to idealize death as having been caused by the envy of celestial beings: ‘The angel[s], not half so happy in heaven, / Went envying her and me-’” (58). As mentioned earlier, Poe as poet operates as the mediator for his readers to bridge the gap between his real pain and the Ideal creation of that pain through poetry. Intertwined within this Ideal representation is that he (narrator and historical author) was powerless in preventing Annabel Lee’s (and Virginia’s) death, as it was already predestined. In this context, death, too, is idealized as an unavoidable part of nature.

This employment of nature as a form of the supernatural is evident in the beginning of the poem and repeated throughout. The ever-elusive “kingdom by the sea” operates as a mystical and mysterious place where Annabel Lee lived and died. The poem begins akin to a child’s fairytale, both removing the reader from, and beckoning the reader to, the familiar. Like the typical, “Once upon a time, long ago, in a far away land,” Poe begins his lament with, “It was many and many a year ago, / In a kingdom by the sea, / That a maiden there lived whom you may know / By the name of ANNABEL LEE.” Poe’s narrative structure at the beginning positions his reader in a two-fold distance through the supernatural. First, the reader is removed spatially by naming an elusive and mysterious “kingdom by the sea.” Second, the reader is removed temporally by stating that “It was many and many a year ago.” This dual sense of removal and distance operates to lead the reader to believe that this poem is reminiscent of a grandiose fictional tale. Moreover, this distance also cleverly operates to employ a notion of familiarity and universality, in stating the reader “may know” Annabel Lee; or, the reader may be familiar with this type of loss. García discusses this use of fairytale elements in stating, “Both of them [“Annabel Lee” and “The Raven”] have a distant kingdom situated by the sea and . . . a far-off time is spoken of. This vagueness and lack of definition is very typical also of folkloric narration; the poem begins as if it was a fairy tale . . . . The theme is developed very much to the poet’s taste: a feeling of sadness and melancholy about the death of a beautiful young woman” (58). In this context, this elusive “kingdom by the sea” operates as both a (super)natural backdrop and a representation of distance. This situates the reader in a similar position as the narrator constructs—that this “kingdom” not only represents unexplainable sudden loss, but represents the narrator’s emotional distance of bewilderment.

Similarly, Neruda’s narrator employs nature in his poem, “Puedo escribir los versos más tristes esta noche” [“Tonight I can write the saddest lines”] as a backdrop for his emotions. Much like Poe’s work to represent the Ideal through supernatural representation in poetry, Neruda also believed that the poet’s work was to portray these “sincere” or “true” sentiments to readers. Both Neruda and Poe believed that the poet himself is the mediator between the reader and the poem to portray intimate sentiments of painful loss. Wilson continues in his observations of Neruda’s Veinte poemas: “But Neruda . . . wants to develop his individuality, his aloneness from women, so we can understand how suffering leads to ‘poetry’, for lovers would remain blissfully mute, without need for art. Neruda’s Veinte poemas de amor is as much about love as it is about remaining painfully alone and becoming a poet; soledad [loneliness] drives creativity” (50). Therefore, Neruda’s own beliefs, in the context of “Verdadismo,” portrayed the sheer need for poetry, for representations of the Ideal, to present intimate feelings of loss. As stated by Wilson, Neruda wanted to develop his individuality apart from the women who hurt him, part of which is his individual creation of poetry; for without this catalyst for creativity “lovers would remain blissfully mute.” “Soledad” not only “drives creativity” but is also inherent in his use of the night and its characteristics as a backdrop for his poem. The Ideal position of this “soledad” is in no better place than during the night, when the narrator is alone with nature in the midst of losing love. The reader feels the narrator’s sense of “soledad” in his solitude within the night and understands the circular reflection of loneliness and the night’s characteristics.

The beginning of Neruda’s poem is marked with a sense of urgency that echoes throughout the remaining lines, “Puedo escribir los versos más tristes esta noche” (32) [“Tonight I can write the saddest lines”(33)]. This urgency is marked in this night, tonight, which serves as the perfect time for the narrator to write because the night’s characteristics and his own “soledad” operate as a symbiotic relationship through language. The poem itself serves as a meta-textual example of the process of writing a poem as the next stanza reads, “Escribir, por ejemplo: ‘La noche está estrellada, / y tiritan, azules, los astros, a lo lejos’” (32) [“Write, for example: ‘The night is shattered / and the blue stars shiver in the distance’” (33)]. Suffering has led the author himself to write “los versos más tristes” to employ poetry as a catalyst for his emotions. The narrator tells the reader that this description of the personified night is an example of the saddest lines he can write tonight. In such, he exemplifies “Verdadismo” in his honest representation of “versos más tristes.” As Louise Detwiler suggests, “As applied to Veinte poemas, then, this common sense view translates into the notion that Pablo Neruda is able to express his individual feelings of love for a woman (women) in a way that captures the essence of an unquestioned, universally true, and real human experience. In a word, the reader is able to recognize, for example, Love, Woman, Man, Nature and the like” (86). In this sense, Neruda’s narrator seeks to reach his reader by relaying universal emotions of love lost and the difficulty of describing them. In doing so, he portrays these “universally true, and real human experience[s]” to an understanding and empathetic audience, for they too have felt confusing and difficult emotions surrounding the loss of love. Then, they too can understand Neruda’s employment of nature as a representation of these sentiments of loss and bewilderment. As such, both Neruda and Poe, utilizing nature as a backdrop for their emotions, also use nature to portray physical and figurative distance. These distances also signal their own feelings of incompetency in processing the loss of their respective loves.

Unlike Poe’s “Annabel Lee,” Neruda’s narrator initially presents himself as the victim of an uncertain lover1. He describes their love as tenuous. Reflecting the earlier stanza’s implication of his lover’s uncertainty, the sixth stanza reads, “Ella me quiso, a veces yo también la quería. / Cómo no haber amado sus grandes ojos fijos” (32) [“She loved me, sometimes I loved her too. / How could one not have loved her great still eyes” (33)]. The narrator presents himself as the one who was uncertain of their love, thereby inverting the initial paradigm of victimization of uncertainty. This victimization is also evident in other instances in the poem, as the narrator never points to the woman’s character or personality. Rather, he describes her in fragmented, detached, body parts, presenting her as parts of herself rather than in her entirety. Gilda Pacheco discusses this exact concept in her analysis of Neruda’s Veinte poemas in her article, “A Feminist Perspective on Pablo Neruda’s ‘Veinte Poemas De Amor Y Una Canción Desesperada.’” Though discussing Neruda’s poem “Cuerpo de Mujer” [“Body of a Woman”], her astute concepts are also applicable to this poem. She states, “Addressing not the woman but her ‘body,’ the speaker first points out the woman’s breasts disguised in the image of the ‘white hills.’ Then, he directly refers to her ‘thighs.’ So, by means of a very erotic synecdoche, not even the woman, but the female body is reduced to breasts and thighs” (32). The purpose of this disembodied woman eludes the reader since it is received as a painful representation of nostalgic remorse; the narrator literally grasps for parts of his beloved’s memory through her body. In these instances of memorializing his lost love, the reader is asked to conclude that representations of detached body parts serve to portray the narrator’s own detached emotions. The narrator’s “soledad” enables him to pull at pieces of his lover’s memory as examples of “los versos más tristes.” Since she is gone and their love is over, her body parts are all the narrator has left to reference. As the poem continues, Neruda’s narrator utilizes possessive language to further portray this concept.

Indeed, Neruda’s very next stanza presents this kind of possessive language. After the narrator establishes his oscillation of certainty pertaining to the validity of their love, he moves to use possessive language to further represent his sentiments of temporality and distance: “Puedo escribir los versos más tristes esta noche. / Pensar que no la tengo. Sentir que la he perdido” (32) [“Tonight I can write the saddest lines. / To think that I do not have her. To feel that I have lost her” (33)]. Although he previously presented their love’s certainty as wavering, the narrator now uses possessive language to represent certainty of blame for their love’s end. This possessive language works in two ways, physically and figuratively, similar to the way distance is employed. Physically, her proximity to him is “perdido” [“lost”], as if the narrator’s own responsibility to keep her (“que no la tengo” [“that I do not have her”]) was unsuccessful. Figuratively, her dedication to him (as well as his to her) is also “lost” because of his incompetency to keep her. Moreover, these verbs of possession follow another representation of the narrator’s own anxieties of writing a love poem (“Puedo escribir los versos más tristes esta noche”), thereby portraying sentiments of losing control of writing and representing another. In this moment the narrator has feelings of incompetency because she is lost, and he, therefore, does not get to keep her. So too does the narrator feel emotionally “lost” in his “soledad” without his love. Similarly, Poe’s narrator also presents sentiments of possession and incompetency in light of losing Annabel Lee.

As Poe’s narrator works through the fourth stanza, he utilizes the celestial jealousy already established to reason with both himself and the reader that, indeed, the seraphs are the cause of his tragic and untimely loss. The stanza reads, “The angels, not half so happy in heaven / Went envying her and me— / Yes!-that was the reason (as all men know, / In this kingdom by the sea) / That the wind came out of the cloud by night, / Chilling and killing my ANNABEL LEE” (738). Like the layered nod of familiarity present in the first stanza (“That a maiden there lived whom you may know”), so too does this stanza directly address the reader. This directness breaks the distant poetic language present before and after these lines to emphasize the narrator’s own internal journey of reasoning and closure, using the reader as a “balm” in his healing process. The narrator repeats the sentiment of celestial jealousy to follow with a jarring search for validity through justification (“Yes!-that was the reason”). Moreover, it is a reiteration of external forces working against the narrator presented through: “(as all men know, / In this kingdom by the sea).” These men who also know that Annabel Lee died from supernatural forces reside in the same “kingdom by the sea.” The same kingdom where she is eternally stored away also houses these men who not only know of, but may have also participated in, her death. The kingdom operates not only as the grave site but as a structure of pain in and of itself. Like Neruda’s use of possessive language in losing his love, Poe also employs a sense of possession in that if not for these supernatural forces, she would still be “kept” by the narrator. These instances of the narrators’ thwarted possessions deconstruct their own feelings of incompetency and search for justifications. Furthermore, these instances of possession also tie to anxieties over temporality, portrayed through the figurative distance the narrators present to their readers.

For Neruda, this figurative distance operates under the umbrella of temporality. His narrator, like Poe’s, expresses anxieties over the past, over the love that has been lost. The narrator does so by contrasting words implying both steadiness and change. The twelfth and thirteenth stanzas read, “La misma noche que hace blanquear los mismos arboles. / Nosotros, los de entonces, ya no somos los mismos. / Ya no la quiero, es cierto, pero cuánto la quise. / Mi voz buscaba el viento para tocar so oído” (34) [“The same night whitening the same trees. / We, of that time, are no longer the same. / I no longer love her, that’s certain, but how I loved her. / My voice tried to find the wind to touch her hearing” (35)]. The narrator, as mentioned by Hart, uses simple language not tied down to specific circumstances to allow the reader to insert him/herself into the poem (259). Yet this argument becomes problematic when considering these two stanzas because the word “mismo” [“same”] triggers specificity otherwise not present in the narrator’s memory. Using nature as a backdrop for his emotions, the narrator describes its continuity. The “same” night whitens the “same” trees, just as they do every night. As surely as the moon rises, it will whiten the same trees. However, he and his lover’s solidarity and relationship from before (“los de entonces” [“of that time”]) will no longer be the same (“ya no somos los mismos” [“are no longer the same”]). Although earlier in the poem, the narrator uses nature to reflect his pain, he uses it in these stanzas to perpetuate his “soledad” in showing that the night can no longer echo his pain.

Furthermore, the narrator uses the steadiness of nature to exemplify the pain he feels; showing how his love, unlike nature, is not steady, is not the same as the moon-whitened trees. He emphasizes linking the past and present through nature’s sameness, but in reality, nothing is the same. The thirteenth stanza continues with this instability, beginning with a definitive declaration that he certainly no longer presently loves her, while still reminiscing about the intensity of his love in the past (“Ya no la quiero, es cierto, pero cuánto la quise”). Just when the reader feels the narrator is leading him/her into another poetic description of his emotional connection with the night, he disrupts it by stating that he surely no longer loves her. The narrator does this to further establish this narrative distance; just as he leads the reader to reach a conclusion with him, he disavows it through distanced interruption. Continuing to use vague language, the narrator then portrays both his and her detached body parts to find his lost love (“Mi voz buscaba el viento para tocar su oído” [“My voice tried to find the wind to touch her hearing”]), even though he is certain he no longer loves her. In this instance, the narrator and his beloved are both detached parts of themselves, broken in the aftermath of their love. The reader discovers why, aside from creating a poem, the narrator laments over a woman he no longer loves. Although weaved through wavering emotions and certainty, the narrator begins to conclude his lament through discussion of Ideals of love.

Poe also employs this poetic play with temporality. His poem, like Neruda’s, invites the reader to travel with the narrator through his grieving process. The reader is situated at a physical and figurative distance, believing this is a tale long since concluded, taking place “many and many a year ago.” Yet the poem’s last stanza brings this certainty crashing down by portraying an eternal tale:

For the moon never beams, without bringing me dreams
Of the beautiful ANNABEL LEE
And the stars never rise, but I feel the bright eyes
Of the beautiful ANNABEL LEE;
And so, all the night-tide, I lie down by the side
Of my darling—my darling—my life and my bride,
In the sepulchre there by the sea,
In her tomb by the sounding sea. (738)

Like Neruda’s narrator, Poe’s narrator utilizes imagery of the night to portray continuity in his infinite connection to his beloved, even though it operated to employ distance in the beginning. He will forever be haunted of his love through nature’s constant, unchanging images. As sure as the moon rises, he is reminded of his love for Annabel Lee. He no longer sees the stars in the sky, but Annabel Lee’s own eyes. Even though physically gone, she is re-imagined to inhabit (super)nature through the night sky. Although he tells the reader that it is only during the night-tide (the reader can infer it happens more often), he physically brings their proximity together as he lies by her side in her grave.

Moreover, the narrator brings the reader closer to Annabel Lee herself. The beginning of the poem situated the reader far away from this “kingdom by the sea.” The stanzas bring the reader closer and closer to the promise of the narrator’s closure, only to learn that it has eluded him. In fact, although positioned far away and long ago, the mourning has not ended and may never end. The reader is left with the haunting image of the narrator forever by his young wife’s side, listening to the waves of the sea crashing against him. Although preliminarily located far away from his pain, the reader realizes that the distance never actually existed to begin with. Poe’s poem, his “versos más tristes” [“saddest lines”], are a steady crescendo towards the narrator’s reality, that even if he and Annabel Lee’s souls will never be “dissevered” (Poe 738), he has still lost a love to outside forces, and he will never retrieve it again. To cope with his loss, he brings his physical self as close to her as humanly possible.

Annabel Lee, although physically gone from the narrator, acts as a poetic device in and of herself to portray the poem’s oscillating waves of temporality. Eve Morisi discusses this very stanza and its collision of the past and present in her discussion of Poe’s poetic women in “The Female Figure in Poe’s Poetry: A Rehabilitation.” Remembering the context of the supernatural as a representation of figurative and physical distance, these poetic devices also operate under the representation of temporality. Morisi states that Annabel Lee transcended space, in that she occupies the presentation of the sea itself, of the supernatural representation of nature, which is further evidenced in her eyes replacing the night’s stars. She continues her analysis by discussing this stanza’s temporality: “In her varied relationship with space, from the terrestrial globe to territorial limitation to the investiture of an ideal world, the metaphorical female proves paradoxically multiform. But the heroine’s structural import is not exclusively spatial. It is also temporal, as femaleness, in the poems, defines both chronology and rhythm” (24, emphasis added). Annabel Lee, then, as a pawn in her own poem, is “multiform” in her poetic ability to occupy (super)natural space (“Kingdom,” “sea,” “stars,” “moon”) and time, through the narrator presenting her as both a distant memory and a present manifestation of grief. Annabel Lee’s “femaleness,” or her effect on the narrator, defines the narrator’s sense of temporality, in that it is timeless; both past and present. Although addressing his loss in the past, her memory will never fade as she still affects the narrator in present time. Just as the narrator blames his loss on other-worldly beings, Annabel Lee too is an other-worldly being in her ability to transcend time and space, to exist both in the past and present. It is through nature and distance that both Poe and Neruda’s lost women can doubly exist and affect the narrators’, and consequently the reader’s, sense of temporality.

The conclusion of Neruda’s poem, unlike Poe’s, reaches for closure. After representation of the continuity of nature contradicting the wavering stability of love, Neruda’s narrator ends his poem with reassurance for his reader. Beginning two stanzas before the final stanza, the narrator reiterates sentiments already experienced by his readers: that he certainly no longer loves her (“Ya no la quiero, es cierto” (34) [“I no longer love her, that’s certain” (35)]), how the night reflects the pain he feels from his loss (“Porque en noches como ésta la tuve entre mis brazos” (34) [“Because through nights like this one I held her in my arms” (35)]), and his anxieties over losing her (“mi alma no se contenta con haberla perdido” (34) [“my soul is not satisfied that it has lost her”(35)]). Much in the same manner that Poe’s narrator positions his readers at a distance to abruptly bring them to the present, so too does Neruda’s narrator reiterate his past sentiments to abruptly bring readers to the present. The last stanza of his poem reads, “Aunque éste sea el último dolor que ella me causa, / y éstos sean los últimos versos que yo le escribo” (34) [“Though this be the last pain that she makes me suffer / and these the last verses that I write for her”] (35). This closure, like his poetic device of distance operates two-fold, in that he portrays his own closure while providing closure for his readers. He assures both himself and his readers that, although he oscillated between each lover’s certainties of their love, his nameless woman will no longer cause him pain. Indeed, one of his “versos más tristes” [“saddest lines”]) is that his concluding lines are the last he will write for her. Presently, the narrator will move on and no longer allow his ex-lover to cause him any pain. Unlike Poe’s narrator, Neruda’s narrator will not position his proximity next to his lost love. Rather, both his poetic and figurative proximity to her will remain distant.

Just like the confusion some lovers feel after they part ways, both Poe and Neruda’s poems have narrators who act as mediators to their readers to help guide them through their own experiences of loss and heartbreak. Not only have these narrators felt the same pain of losing love, but their authors have as well. Considering Poe’s own experiences with not only public representations of mourning, but also the death of his own young bride, the reader understands the universal truths he employs in describing his grievance of Annabel Lee. Similarly, considering Neruda’s own adolescence in writing Veinte poemas de amor y una canción desesperada, and the criticism it received, the reader also understands his universal truths of young sincerity and uncertainty in losing the woman he loved. Just like the mixed emotions one feels after losing love, these poems themselves conflate devices to simultaneously employ distance and universality for their readers. Through nature, readers see Poe’s supernatural elements as necessary means to express his own distance from comprehension of losing Annabel Lee. Through nature, readers also see Neruda’s use of relating his emotions and his lost love to characteristics of the night. Within the context of nature, each poet also utilizes both physical and figurative distance to portray wavering temporality. This distance serves to portray the narrators’, and consequently the reader’s, sense of bewilderment over the poems’ respective circumstances of losing love.

Furthermore, these types of distance embody wavering temporality through the narrators’ play with aspects of the past and present. Although both narrators have felt loss and use their poems as catalysts for closure, their concluding senses of loss differ. The readers find themselves surprised by expectations the narrators positioned in the beginnings of the poems to only have the conclusions drastically differ. Therefore, using (super)nature to employ distance and temporality, Poe’s narrator is forever at Annabel Lee’s side, even in death. Conversely, Neruda’s narrator is no longer at the mercy of heartbreak and “soledad.” He assures himself and his readers that he will no longer write for the woman who caused him pain. Each narrator uses his saddest lines to communicate with his reader, to bear witness and aid in healing their broken hearts.


End Note

  1. “Puedo escribir los versos más tristes esta noche / Yo la quise, y a veces ella también me quiso” [“Tonight I can write the saddest lines. / I loved her, and sometimes she loved me too”].


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