Author Archives: Portals Journal

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.

Works Cited

Bani-Khair, Baker. Gothic Masks in Stevenson’s A Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll

and Mr. Hyde, and Wilde’s the Picture of Dorian Gray. Diss. Texas A&M U, Commerce, 2013. Ann Arbor: UMI, 2014. Web. 9 Nov. 2014.

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

National Literatures 14 (1987): 123-35. Web. 29 Nov. 2014.

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.

Lacan, Jacques, and. “The Mirror Stage as Formative of the Function of the I as Revealed

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.

“Luigi Pirandello.” New World Encyclopedia. New World Encyclopedia, n.d. Web. 1 Dec. 2014.

Magrini, Matteo. “Freud, Wilde e Pirandello…la psicanalisi e la letteratura.”

Odero News. Istituto IPSIA Odero, Genoa, Italy. 19 Jan. 2012. Web. 28 Nov. 2014.

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

Web. 28 Nov. 2014.

Saposnik, Irving S. “The Anatomy of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” SEL: Studies in

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

Shakespeare, Willliam. “As You Like It.” The Norton Anthology. 2nd ed. Eds.

Greenblatt, Stephen, Walter Cohen, Jean E. Howard, and Katherine Eisaman Maus. New York: W.W. Norton, 2008. Print.

Topazio, Virgil W. “Rousseau and Pirandello: A Quest for Identity and Dignity.”

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”].


Works Cited
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Nineteenth-Century American Culture of Mourning and Memorializing.” Order No.
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De Amor Y Una Canción Desesperada.” Hispanófila, 122 (1998): 85-93. Illiad. Web.
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Una Canción Desesperada.” Kañina: Revista De Artes Y Letras De La Universidad De
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Suffolk, UK: Tamesis, 2008. Print.

Narrating the Ghost: Memory, Narrative and Incommensurabilities in and Jamaica Kincaid’s The Autobiography of My Mother and Roberto Bolaño’s Nocturno de Chile1

by Adán Falcón

National memory moves with fragmentary knowledge, formed through different signs to indicate the direction its historical narrative will impose on the nation. However, Homi Bhabha in his article, “The Postcolonial and the Postmodern” states:

In the seizure of the sign . . . there is neither dialectical sublation nor the empty signifier: there is a contestation of the given symbols of authority that shift the terrains of antagonism. The synchronicity in the social ordering of symbols is challenged within its own terms, but the grounds of engagement have been displaced in a supplementary movement that exceeds those terms. (208)

The “seizure of the sign” displaces the temporal and spatial continuity from the “social ordering of symbols” using the tools of those symbols with the added displacement creating the necessary distance to challenge this ordering. However, challenging these symbols comes back to doing so within the social ordering of symbols on its own terms which, in a sense, moves to exceed the movement of the ordering that does not move exactly as those symbols but still exists within its social order. This “contestation of the given symbols” and “grounds of engagement” frame my comparison between Jamaica Kincaid’s The Autobiography of My Mother (1996) and Roberto Bolaño’s Nocturno de Chile [By Night in Chile] (2000). Both works explore their protagonist’s complicated relationship with their memory and respective historical narratives as sites of inscription for a larger national narrative, the grounds of contestation. Yet the instability shown in both stories explores both memory and identity as sites of the selves’ that cannot be held together coherently in this larger narrative. As disjunctive narratives, their memories act more as countermemories, as sites of incommensurabilities, or the seizure of the sign that functions to exceed the movement of larger national narratives. This project will examine the function of memory as a site of divergence from a historical narrative and the tools used to accomplish this, such as Kincaid’s confrontation of Caribbean history through her protagonist’s conflicted relationship with language and its colonial memory in that space, and the confession as a form of atonement in Bolaño’s Nocturno de Chile and its exaggerated relationship with/against Pinochet’s rule.2 The displacement of these narratives reveals both the limits of memory when it is contoured to a specific narrative and the hidden signs that exceed the limits of the specific narrative as a ghost drifting from the social ordering of their world, but still essential within it.

For the political transitions shown in the two novels, the storyteller in their role can either serve the obligation to the nation or accept the distance in their role. In the opening line of Walter Benjamin’s essay, “The Storyteller: Reflections on the Works of Nikolai Leskov” (1936), Benjamin examines the characteristics of the storyteller as a visceral but hidden presence: “Familiar though his name may be to us, the storyteller in his living immediacy is by no means a present force. He has already become something remote from us and something that is getting even more distant” (83). In his description of the author of the novel, the “solitary individual,” who without counsel and unable to express himself, writes the novel that carries “the incommensurable to extremes in the representation of human life” (87). Memory in both Kincaid’s and Bolaño’s novels share this quality of the incommensurable with narrators acting in contention to the formation of identity though the ties of self with nation; in the form of thought, the language used to engage in its construction, also functions within its restrictions. If it is tied to what can be expressed within this language, what can be expressed then is inexpressible unless it is in this “horizon of meaning” (Derrida 562).3

For Bhabha, the notion of time and nation in, “Dissemination: Time, Narrative and the Margins of the Modern Nation”, sets the cohesion offered by nationalism in its narrative as the “arbitrary historical inventions” held together with: “cultural shreds and patches . . . . Any old shred would have served as well. But in no way does it follow that the principle of nationalism . . . is in the least contingent and accidental” (qtd. from Taylor in Bhabha 142).  For the nation to project itself in cultural production, or to project a space where nationalist identities may be thought of, this production of narrative depends on the “pedagogical and the performative” (146). For the pedagogical, the nation’s people are in a predestined historical plane, part of a patriotic body politic, rooted in the past. In the performative, the nation’s people must be in a state of forgetting in their enforcement of this past narrative as its “subjects” in a process of both validating and reproducing it ambivalently through obtaining and practicing this knowledge. In this space and movement is a loss of reflection by being validated in the sphere of “people-as-one” (150). The ambivalent movement between the two acts of the pedagogical and the performative, in past and present, becomes important for the continuity of a national identity. In Bhabha’s reinterpretation of Benjamin’s “incommensurability” from the “margins of modernity” toward a cultural difference counter, or disjunctive, from the national historical narrative, the borderline of both “history and language, on the limits of race and gender”, the storyteller positions the reader “to translate the differences between them into a kind of solidarity” (170). The hidden storyteller illuminates the extremity of this border into a space of solidarity where the presence of differences furthers its incommensurable quality digressive from the linearity of national narratives.

As sites of disjunctives and cultural differences through their incommensurable qualities, both Kincaid and Bolaño’s novels shift memory from its unity towards its fragmentation held together as an assemblage; it shares the quality of the rhizome as it increases “in the dimensions of a multiplicity that necessarily changes in nature as it expands its connections. There are no points or positions in a rhizome such as those found in a structure, tree, or root. There are only lines” (Deleuze 31).  As attempts for the nation to maintain power through a unitary movement, the notion of unity is only a site of power through regulatory signifiers to encompass and maintain the multiplicities of fragmentations as norms within the nation. To present both novels with an emphasis on the instability of memory as the “arbitrary historical inventions” that nationalism has defended through “cultural shreds and patches” the lines towards an origin becomes a site revealing the vulnerability of these practices and make it possible to digress from national narratives in its reliance on memory.

Kincaid’s protagonist, Xuela Claudette Richardson, utilizes language as a digressive site in exploring its long history as a contested issue for people of color in the Americas.4 After various political and social campaigns in the Caribbean, those who were colonized had turned from the stigmatization associated with colonization and employed Creole as a symbol of resistance, making linguistic action a supremely political action. The stigmatization, though, did not completely disappear in day-to-day life, as Creole was still conventionally perceived as “bad or broken” English, Dutch, Spanish, or French. The function of language is “to name and give voice to the experience and image and so house the being” (Philip 276), but the negative connotations of Creole as apart from the accepted norm invalidates the Creole cultural reality and alienates its speakers from their experiences. But Xuela charts the developing anti-colonial attitudes in the Caribbean through her relationship with language, instead as a function of unbecoming through the memory of her own past, a non-being that disappears and counteracts against the self and womanhood in the colonial narrative. Like Caliban in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Xuela enters into the “master” discourse to condemn her colonizer through the pain inherent in it, but never relinquishing to exist in it: “That the first words I said were in the language of a people I would never like or love is not now a mystery to me; everything in my life, good or bad, to which I am inextricably bound is a source of pain” (7). Ironically, Xuela is immersed in Creole from the time almost immediately after her birth and the death of her mother, but her alienation from her biological mother results in her rejection of or alienation from her “true” mother tongue, or its larger connotation. A literal connection to biological mother connotes an immediate connection to the mother tongue, and certain connections to culture and homeland inextricably bound to each other. Since no direct communication is made with the biological mother of the protagonist, her obligation to blood relations, or continuing to exist within the bounds of its terms, leads instead to reinterpreting the bonds of gender beyond blood relations.

With no identity formed through her mother or the father who abandons her after birth, Xuela’s self becomes the formation of colonial language, logic, figures, and identities inscribed on her. Moving forward, she has only two choices: she can live in the language of the colonial story or she can refuse it. The rest of the story follows her reflection of choosing the latter in a mode of narrative moving through the instability memory provides against a normative form of reflection informed by the terms of blood relations. She further describes her reflections as:

. . . if they were happening in a very small, dark place, a place the size of a dollhouse, and the dollhouse is at the bottom of a hole, and I am way up at the top of the hole, peering down into this little house, trying to make out exactly what it is that happened down there. And sometimes when I look down at this scene, certain things are not in the same place they were in the last time I looked: different things are in the shadows at different times, different things are in the light. (33)

In what she can bring to light, there is a negotiation between what can be present and what will be forgotten. What she can see or invoke through the spoken word and the subject’s positionality brings forth in her memory the historical moment of colonialism in which she negotiates the political dynamics of this phenomenon.

When Xuela is offered to move back in with her father and his new wife, a new dynamic begins to form in how she and her father’s wife negotiate the spatial relationship with language in their home. Xuela’s stepmother speaks to her in French Patois when they are alone, and in English when they are in the presence of Xuela’s father; this routine constructs a feeling of resentment against Creole as the relationship between space, language and gender informs her father’s wife that Creole is “an attempt . . . to make an illegitimate of me, to associate me with the made-up language of people regarded as not real–the shadow people, the forever humiliated, the forever low” (30). Xuela realizes the intricate struggle for power that occurs on the level of the spoken word–a reminder, once again, of how words can serve as “a source of pain” (7). Yet as a form of detaching herself from the patriarchal attitudes of the household, Xuela speaking Creole allows her to shift her self in the realm of her father to those who are cast aside for speaking in Creole. Throughout the book, neither her father nor the reader ever hears these conversations. Could it be she is hiding as well from the reader’s own gaze to interpret thoughts and actions that could be reduced or diminished through translation? Creole in the household serves as a specifically cultural ground used to break from social propriety and the self under the colonial gaze. In this conflict to negotiate this space in a specific language, she instead grows to identify the possibility of losing speech as “delicious” (51).

Her growing acceptance of Creole points toward hesitation to fully accept its possibilities since its meaning for her shifts towards a more constricted signification. When Xuela turns fifteen, her father—recognizing the need to remove his daughter from his second wife’s presence and to further her English education—sends her to the capital city of Roseau to live in the home of Jacques and Lise LaBatte. In exchange for her room and board, Xuela performs household tasks for “Monsieur” and “Madame.” Here again, this space must be negotiated through language as Lise and Xuela communicate with each other in Patois, but in English around Jacques. Creole, as the illegitimate language, is also named the “the language of the captive” by Xuela (74): Lise is held captive to a man she loves but he does not love back due to her inability to bear any children; Xuela resides in their home as a boarder/servant, a young black woman with no financial means of independent survival and no influence in society. Spoken language is one of the means by which the two women bond; however, Xuela and Lise eventually attain such a level of familiarity and understanding that they experience a form of silent communication seemingly akin to “preverbal” communication. Xuela comments: “To communicate so intimately with someone, to be spoken to silently by someone and yet understand more clearly than if she had shouted at the top of her voice, was something I did not experience with anyone ever again in my life” (69). The growing idealized mother figure as the “preverbal” in Lise, however, is disrupted by remembering the disconnection with either the biological mother or the mother tongue to shape the idea of a mother since, according to Xuela: “I do not know in what language she would have said such a thing. I did not know her; she died at the moment I was born” (198).

Kincaid’s explorations of the connections between language, gender, and nationalism take on the starkest political connotations in her representation of Xuela’s affair with Philip Bailey. Xuela works for, seduces, and then marries a white British physician later in her life. Their relationship upholds the gendered notions of language as Xuela speaks the Creole “mother tongue” while Philip speaks English. In taking care of and forming her self through this relationship, the “mother tongue” or the “mother” shifts away from the limitations of the biological link of the mother. The relationship she takes on with Bailey does not place any submission on one another through language, but Xuela holds the power and inverts the traditional hierarchy in which the white male colonist is viewed as the superior communicator, and thus the superior being. Philip, instead of Xuela, will be the foreigner in their home, as Xuela asserts: “He now lived in a world in which he could not speak the language, I mediated for him, I translated for him . . . I blocked this entrance into all the worlds he had come to know” (224). The space she was born into, with predetermined signifiers to structure herself within, changes into a space where she occupies a position of power to determine the access of language and the movements she would have otherwise moved ambivalently through.

Although she lived on the island of Dominica for her entire life, she does not recognize having reached the land of “true” belonging until she moves back to the mountains, the place where, very symbolically, her mother and her mother’s people were born. In Dangerous Liaisons: Gender, Nation, and Postcolonial Perspectives, Aamir Mufti and Ella Shohat introduce the book by interrogating the false opposition of home and exile, inside and outside. They claim that for the migrant:

Home, that place and time outside place and time, appears to mingle promiscuously with its opposite–exile, the outside, elsewhere. Hence its attraction for a critical practice that seeks to undo such binaries as belonging/unbelonging, loyalty/disloyalty, to unpack their ideological baggage, to make visible the multifarious ways in which they participate in the production of social relations as second nature. (Mufti and Shohat 8)

Xuela’s implicit condemnation of the often essentializing relationships to biological motherhood, mother tongues, and motherlands undercuts the rigid boundary between “authentic” and “inauthentic” in language, gender norms, and national subjectivity. Even though the novel ends with Xuela’s achievement of a metaphorical maternal connection, Kincaid’s destabilization of the mother tongue and mother love tropes causes the reader to question the implications of this conclusion. As for Bolaño, destabilization through the reliance on confession as the site of memory, or the testimonio, instead of the figure of the mother reflects vulnerability through deterioration in its exaggerated trajectory

Through the 1970’s and 1980’s, the champions of testimonio flourished in Latin America as a body of literature with the aesthetic functions to denounce “literature tout court as an institution coextensive with authoritarian power and essential to the maintenance of social exclusion” (O’Bryen 475).5 Chile’s transition from dictatorship under Pinochet into democracy required it to fit into an idealized neoliberal landscape of rebirth, sanitization, and transparency. In Cultural Residues: Chile in Transition, the “transition” from Pinochet’s paradoxically imposed rule (the 1982 restoration of electoral rule which ensured Pinochet’s rule for another eight years, and his position as head of the army for another sixteen), to Patricio Aylwin’s election in 1990, set a desire to “de-narrate” Chile’s historical past to cleanse it of any Third World “detritus” likely to impede the flow of deregulated global capital as a tabula rasa to rewrite a new story for the rebirth of nation from years of systematic abuses.6 This framework formed larger gaps that never resolved many of the ongoing issues post-Pinochet, such as the Commission for Truth and Reconciliation Rettig Report of 1991. In this attempt to reconcile and unify the country under a rhetoric in which the truth will resolve the distrust between citizen and nation, it failed to bring those responsible for terror before justice. One example was the failure to prosecute General Contreras due to an illness and unsuitability for jail when charges were brought up against him for his involvement with the government’s kidnapping and disappearances of Chilean citizens.

Utilizing the aesthetic function of the testimonio (similarly to the aforementioned Luz Arce) in Bolaño’s protagonist, Sebastian Urrutia Lacroix, priest and literary critic, problematizes the self-justification and guilt he attempts in his deathbed to appropriate the confessional for atonement. His guilt, however, is tinged by the added physical pain felt through the movement of his confession:

Ahora me muero, pero tengo muchas cosas que decir todavía . . . . Hay que ser responsable. Eso lo he dicho toda mi vida. Uno tiene la obligación moral de ser responsable de sus actos, si, de sus silencios, porque también los silencios ascienden al cielo y  los Dios y sólo Dios los comprende y los juzga, así que mucho cuidado con los silencios, Yo soy responsable de todo. Mis silencios son inmaculados . . . A veces me sorprendo a mí mismo apoyado en un codo. Divago y sueño y procuro estar en paz conmigo mismo. Pero a veces hasta de mi propio nombre me olvido. (11-12)

I am dying now, but I still have many things to say . . . . One has a moral obligation to take responsibility for one’s actions, and that includes one’s words and silences, yes, one’s silences, because silences rise to heaven too, and God hears them, and only God understands and judges them, so one must be very careful with one’s silences . . . . My silences are immaculate. Let me make that clear. Clear to God above all . . . . But what am I talking about? Sometimes I surprise myself as I find myself propped up one elbow, rambling on and dreaming and trying to make peace with myself. But sometimes I even forget my own name. (1)

Lacroix’s story drifts and digresses uncontrollably with indications of past traumas leaving him in tatters, mentally and physically, as he invokes bursts of memories of his actions and immaculate silences. The silences he addresses (even though they are given the quality of being immaculate) depict the uncertainty in entering into them with an obligation towards God, which may mean a determination towards an idealized confession above what may have actually occurred. But, his physical trauma cuts himself midway through, along with his poor memory, from properly portraying these silences in his final moments. The access to these silences is not limited by trauma and passive forgetting, but an exaggerated recycling in the hands of power.

Bolaño’s choice of a priest with the role of a literary critic as a narrator makes his political motivations more apparent as reading entertains a disavowing not so much with the pastness of the figures that choke his often breathless delivery, but their haunting presence in his attempt to narrate his confession. Instead of immersing himself into the political changes in Chile, he withdraws instead into the church of his literature, the holy shelter he retreats to immediately after the triumph of Allende’s Unidad Popular in the comfort of his home, first by burying himself in the Greek Classics:

Empecé con Homero, como manda la tradición, y segui con Tales de Mileto y Jenófanes de Colofón y Alcmeón de Crotona y Zenón de Elea (que bueno era), y luego mataron a un general del ejército favorable a Allende y Chile restableció relaciones diplomáticas con Cuba . . . y yo leí a Tirteo de Esparta . . . y el gobierno nacionalizó el cobre y luego el salitre y el hierro . . . y yo leí a Esquilo y a Sófocles . . . y después vino el golpe de Estado, el levantamiento, el pronunciamiento militar, y bombardearon La Moneda, y cuando terminó el bombardeo el presidente se suicidó y acabo todo. Entonces yo me quede quieto, con un dedo en la página que estaba leyendo, y pensé: que paz. (97-99)

Respecting the tradition, I started with Homer, then moved on to Thales of Miletus, Xenophanes of Colophon, Alcmaeon of Croton, Zeno of Elea (wonderful), and then a pro-Allende general was killed, and Chile restored diplomatic relations with Cuba . . . and I read Tyrtaios of Sparta . . . and the government nationalized the coppermines and the nitrate and steel industries . . . and I read Aeshylus and Sophocles . . . and then came the coup d’etat, the putsch, the military uprising, the bombing of La Modeda and when the bombing was over, the president committed suicide and that put an end to it all. I sat there in silence, a finger between the pages to mark my place, and I thought: Peace at last. (81-82)

In simulating Lacroix’s reading, the text condenses three years of Chilean history—between Allende’s election in 1970 and the coup of 1973—into three pages. By doing so, it dwarfs that history by framing it within a sequence of classical texts he reads until he achieves peace in Allende’s death. His reading of classical texts removes himself as far away as possible from his involvement in transition from Allende to Pinochet; the world of myths and early philosophy occupy the same terrain in his memory as the ongoing violence around him that very quietly shelters him from the onslaught of history. In his analysis of history, he instead chooses a method of disjunction to avoid his own interpretation of this transition through an immersion of a different kind of history. But, in silencing the historical ghosts with literature and muffling their raging torments, slowly a growing voice within the text of his confession appears.

Hermeneutics and shadows also come together during a conversation at a café between Farewell, another literary critic and Lacroix’s mentor, over a rumor about a Guatemalan painter and the feelings this provokes for Farewell about his own mortality. As the two of them sit together, observing the rush of the crowd around them, their observations parallel Plato’s myth of the cave, with Lacroix assuming the crowd was not noticing them “como haciendose los distraidos, a la chilena, las figuras chinescas que aparescian y desaprecian” (62) [“in that typical Chilean way, watching the shadow play” (42)]. Eventually the function of literature and people begin to merge together when Lacroix asks Farewell: “¿ . . . de qué sirve la vida, para qué sirven los libros, son solo sombras . . . . Y yo: qué le dicen esas sombras, Farewell, cuénteme? Y Farewell: me hablan de la multiplicidad de las lecturas. Y yo: multiples pero bien miserables, bien mediocres” (64) [“What’s the use, what use are books, they’re shadows, nothing but shadows . . . . And I: What are those shadows telling, Farewell, what is it? And Farewell: They are telling me about the multiplicity of readings. And I: Multiple, perhaps, but thoroughly mediocre and miserable” (45)]. Farewell, under duress of his own mortality as his life is filled with the shadows of literature, attempts to redeem his own role as a literary critic by democratizing his role with those around him, to bring them all out of the shadow. He then feels overwhelmed by Lacroix’s cold transformation and detachment from the social world into a world where everyone is kept in the shadows with a set of strict values as opposed to bringing them out with their multiplicitous interpretations.

The condition for the voice forms further after Pinochet completes a course with Urrutia Lacroix on Marxist theory and asks what his motivations were to take the course. He feeds into the nationalistic motivation of Pinochet of better serving the country. Pinochet confirms this, but also includes his commitment towards preparations against his enemies; he states: “Siempre hay que estar preparado para aprender algo nuevo cada día. Leo y escribo. Constantemente. Eso no es algo que se pueda decir de Allende o de Frei o de Alessandri, ¿verdad?” (118) [“One should aim to learn something new every day. I’m always reading and writing. All the time. Which is more than you could say for Allende or Frei or Alessandri, isn’t it?” (89)]. Compared to this mimetic analysis in which to “read” the enemy can be a form of understanding and proceed with recognition, his reading and analyzing of his enemies does not diverge too far from Marxist analysis itself to understand capitalism and recognize its means and ends. Gareth Williams in his study on Bolaño observes,

In the parallel lives Bolaño creates there is plenty of fraternity and equality. However, for there to be freedom he would have to engage actively in the narrative deconstruction of the inherited trenches and fortifications of the friend/enemy divide, rather than recurring to its melancholic reassembly time and time again, in an eternal return of the same with only a nominal difference. (Williams 139)

Through the novel, the truth is never brought to light since the atrocities of what happened remain hidden within the silences and shadows that Lacroix constructs, but in this binary of light/dark, he also constructs a friend/enemy divide to instead reflect the inherent compliance in the narrative. Before meeting Pinochet and his advisors, Lacroix reflects on his presence there, and regretfully catches his distorted reflection in a cup of tea, from which he realizes that this moment is the lowest point in his life. Yet his feelings shift instead towards ambivalence: “Permanecí hierático, inexpresivo. Puse cara de aburrimiento. Revolví la taza y probé el té. Bueno. Buen té. Bueno para los nervios” (108) [“I remained hieratic and expressionless. I put on a bored look. I stirred my tea and tasted it. It was good. Good tea. Good for the nerves” (81)]. The tension and guilt crystallized in the solid sugar is dissolved and forgotten once it silently disappears in the sweet taste of peace he feels after the first sip of his tea. The body is relieved from its pangs and hesitation and relaxes enough to move forward to Lacroix’s first session with Pinochet.

In this structured worldview, however, crumbling under the weight of pain and guilt is the taunting of the spectral, the growing voice, the multiplicitous force, “el joven envejecido” [“wizened youth”]. “El joven envejecido” and his poets thwart all forgetting. He links the sound of haunting screams to the “los chillidos lejanos de una bandada de pajaros” (68) [“screeching flock of birds” (55)] that Lacroix attempted to suppress through the church’s plan to have him learn falconry.  The screams are aligned with the remnant of what Lacroix resists in his confinement of the past. “El joven envejecido” laughs at him, mocking his digressions in fondly idealizing his memory of the meeting spot for artists that the government eventually uses as a site to torture political prisoners (Bolaño 124). More importantly, this rattling alter ego also denounces Lacroix’s last-ditch recourse to the cynical view that literary culture will always pay lip-service to the machinations of state power. When Lacroix learns of the torture-chamber concealed in the basement of Maria Canales’ house, a writer and wife of another acclaimed writer in Chile, in an effort to appease his guilt he quips, “Asi se hace la literatura en Chile . . . asi se hace la gran literatura de Occidente” (147-148) [“That’s how literature is made in Chile . . . that is how the great works of literature are made” (126-128)]. In Ignacio López-Vicuña’s work on Bolaño’s Chilean literature, he finds echoes of Benjamin’s “there is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism”, and of Adorno’s view that to write poetry after Auschwitz is an act of barbarity (Lopez-Vicuna, 2009: 163). This view acquires an aura of dirty pragmatism in Lacroix’s hands in him justifying literature’s complicity with state violence as “business as usual” under Benjamin’s interpretation of history and Adorno’s criticism of literature. “Me tetelo en la cabeza, le digo” (148) [“You better get used to it” (128)], he says to silence “el joven envejecido.” Notwithstanding, in his final apparition, Lacroix sees his response: “El Joven envejecido lo que queda de él, mueve los labios formulando un no inaudible” (148) [“The wizened youth, or what is left of him, moves his lips mouthing an inaudible no” (128)], shaking his head as if to rouse the reader from the tone of the confession with a cynical worldview. The apparition, even under suppression, breaks away from complicity in the narrative of the dictatorship’s justification of its actions, to shake the ambivalence in the temporal and spatial movement of progress from Chile’s transition. The wizened youth rises out of the exaggerated notions and extremities in the dichotomy of guilt/innocence and barbarity/progress in both an understanding of history and a digression away from it to no longer hide away from the light of it.

In Nocturno, “el joven envejecido” haunts within the unconscious of Lacroix, a negative space breaking from the progressive narrative of Chile’s transition to reveal his complacency to his crimes, as well as a bigger implication of many individuals complicit with the crimes that the government carried out under Pinochet. Creole silently escapes the gaze of the reader and patriarchal forces under a colonizing language to break away from the progress of independence under complicity with a continuing colonial presence. These negations through the ghosts imbibed in the language of the novels form a critical relationship with power, haunting within. Their ghosts voiced the protagonists’ ability to observe and point out the limits of power and its discourses to show where “something else begins its presencing” (Heidegger 46). This something else for these novels would be the narratives thought to have disappeared, only to be continued under a different form of discursivity.



  1. For this project, I will be using the translation of Nocturno de Chile done by Chris Andrews.
  2. The impetus to place these two works against each other has to do with the two author’s relationship with fictionalizing their own respective country’s past, but also the trajectory of their narrator’s life as a roman à clef. Both stories also utilize the form of autobiographical narratives in order to illustrate a historical period between the 1960’s to the early 90’s reflecting the major transitions happening in the America’s in the midst of the Cold War. Given these two novels are against a backdrop of Cold War politics between a Neoliberal ideology against a Communist or Socialist ideology, they break away from these binaries situated in an ironic distance from either an extremely exaggerated involvement in the development of national narratives to an insular world detached from its norms.
  3. Derrida in, “The Supplement of the Copula,” argues how both the structure of language and thought in western metaphysics have been separate entities since Aristotle to form an ontology based on “being”, as opposed to what the linguist Émile Benviniste argues linguistics unite. However, in creating this taxonomy, and a series of taxonomies built on top of this, language itself becomes restricted to those categories based in metaphysics, where our grammar has been constructed in a way so we can only bring into “being” through the copula. Yet it also means, the copula functions as a supplement as opposed to a determinant, the grounding of “being” then can begin to loosen the grips it has on language.
  4. The distinctive ways in which women have been involved in these linguistic struggles however are often overlooked. Prior to the European invasion of the Caribbean, Carib Indians raided Arawak Indian settlements for women, known for their agricultural skills. Language played into the strict sexual division of labor practiced by the Caribs: men spoke one language, and women another” (Reddock 28). Literary critic Eric Cheyfitz details how European explorers subsequently arrived in the islands and subjected Amerindian peoples not only to “linguistic colonization” but also to the feat of “rhetorical acrobatics” that constructed them as human-flesh-eaters in the European popular imaginary. Columbus’s translation of his Arawak guides’ descriptions of the Carib Indians merged “carib” and “cannibal” and brought the image of the flesh-eating West Indian savage to Europe (939).
  5. George Yúdice, in his study on testimonios as a form of social activism, had noted the heterogeneous characteristic of the genre functioning to bring communities together or at least for individuals to share their stories by the urgency brought on by a situation such as war, oppression, or revolution (Yúdice 17). A specific quality though which addresses its presentation helping to constitute a narrative going beyond purposes of self-defense or survival included “ . . . the subjects of the testimonial discourse rework their identity through the aesthetic” (19). This aesthetic, however, in the course of this paper will be appropriated though as those prosecuted for human rights violations invoke the aesthetic in order to portray their own abuses. The analysis of Nocturno del Chile emphasis he exaggeration of the supposed apolitical connotation of the protagonist’s confession.
  6. Some of the narratives arising from this move came from ex-militants-turned informers and others involved in the dictatorship, such as confessional tales by Luz Arce and Marcia Alejandra Merino who raised guilt and repentance into a “framework of narrative atonement” (Richard 37). The tone in many of these confessions were oftentimes imitations of religious confessions as the confessors sought atonement by repaying one betrayal (informing on their comrades) with another (confessing the names of victims and victimizers).


Works Cited

Anatol, Giselle Liza. “Speaking in (M)Other Tongues: The Role of Language in Jamaica Kincaid’s The Autobiography of My Mother.” Callaloo 25.3 (2002): 938-53. Print.

Benjamin, Walter, trans. Harry Zohn. “The Storyteller: Reflections on the Works of Nikolai Leskov.” Illuminations. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1968. 83-109. Print.

Bernard, Louise. “Countermemory and Return: Reclamation of the (postmodern) Self in Jamaica Kincaid’s The Autobiography of My Mother and My Brother.” Modern Fiction Studies 48.1 (2002): 113. ProQuest. Web. 07 Dec. 2014.

Bhabha, Homi K. “Dissemination: Time, Narrative and the Margins of the Modern Nation.” The Location of Culture. London: Routledge, 1994. 139-70. Print.

“The Postcolonial and the Postmodern: The Question of Agency.” The Cultural Studies Reader. Ed. During, Simon. London: Routledge, 1999. 189-208. Print.

Bolaño, Roberto. Night in Chile. Trans. Chris Andrews. New York: New Directions, 2003. Print.

Bouson, J. Brooks. Jamaica Kincaid : Writing Memory, Writing Back to the Mother. Ithaca, NY: State University of New York Press, 2005. ProQuest ebrary. Web. 07 December 2014.

Burgos Jara, C. (2009). Violencia y Memoria: Una Aproximación a la Obra de Roberto Bolaño (Order No. DA3395828). Available from MLA International Bibliography. (855193280; 2011650232). Retrieved from

Deleuze, G., Trans. Constantin V. Boundas. “Rhizome Versus Trees.” The Deleuze Reader. New York: Columbia UP, 1993. 27-36. Print.

Derrida, Jacques. “The Supplement of the Copula: Philosophy Before Linguistics.” The Georgia Review 30.3 (1976): 527-64. JSTOR. Web. 09 Sept. 2014.

Heidegger, Martin. Poetry, Language, Thought. New York: Harper & Row, 1971. N. pag. Print.

Jansen, Yolande, Besser, Stephan, and Baronian, Marie-Aude, eds. Thamyris /Intersecting: Place, Sex and Race, Volume 13 : Diaspora and Memory : Figures of Displacement in Contemporary Literature, Arts and Politics. Amsterdam, NLD: Editions Rodopi, 2006. ProQuest ebrary. Web. 01 December 2014.

Kincaid, Jamaica. The Autobiography of My Mother. New York: Plume, 1997. Print.

Mufti, Aamir, and Ella Shohat. “Introduction.” Dangerous Liaisons: Gender, Nation, and Postcolonial Perspectives. Ed. Anne McClintock, Aamir Mufti, and Ella Shohat. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota, 1997. 1-12. Print.

Nasta, Susheila. Motherlands: Black Women’s Writing from Africa, the Caribbean, and South Asia. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 1992. Print.

O’Bryen, Rory. “Memory, Melancholia and Political Transition in “Amuleto” and “Nocturno De Chile” by Roberto Bolaño.” Bulletin of Latin American Research 30.4 (2011): 473-87. JSTOR. Web. 08 Dec. 2014.

Philip, Marlene Nourbese. “The Absence of Writing or How I Almost Became a Spy.” Out of the Kumbla: Caribbean Women and Literature. Ed. Carole Boyce Davies and Elaine Savory. Trenton, NJ: Africa World, 1990. N. pag. Print.

Richard, Nelly, Alan West, Theodore Quester, and Jean Franco. Cultural Residues: Chile in Transition. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota, 2004. Print.

Williams, Gareth. “Sovereignty and Melancholic Paralysis in Roberto Bolaño.” Journal of Latin American Cultural Studies 18.2-3 (2009): 125-40. Print.

Yúdice, George. “Testimonio and Postmodernism.” Latin American Perspectives 18.3 (1991): 15-31. Print

Cannibal Violence: Reformulation of Dominant Masculinity in the Ibero-American Avant-Garde

By Alexandra Becker

With the advent of F.T. Marinetti’s “Manifeste du futurisme” [“Futurist Manifesto”1] and the first international literary avant-garde movement in 1909, a set of concerns were inaugurated for literary as well as national cultural modernization, whose blueprint would prove applicable in the non-European context as well. Futurismo [futurism] pointed, on the one hand, to a celebration of the technical accomplishments of modernity. On the other, however, it also resorted to a complex ideology of primitivism, violence, and misogyny in its attempt to inaugurate the latecomer Italy to the world stage. Among the various avant-garde literary movements spawned in the early 20th century, all more or less indebted to futurismo and its literary form, are Manuel Maples Arce’s estridentismo [stridentism] in Mexico and Oswald de Andrade’s antropofagia [cannibalism] in Brazil. Both countries, situated at the poles of Latin or Ibero-America, shared Italy’s concerns with national modernization and global international relevance, expressing them in manifesto form with Maples Arce’s “Actual No. 1” (1921) and “Manifiesto estridentista” [“Stridentist Manifesto”] (1923) and de Andrade’s “Manifesto da poesia pau-brasil” [“Manifesto of Pau-Brazil Poetry”] (1924) and “Manifesto antropófago” [“Cannibalist Manifesto”] (1928). They also contended with their own interplay of dominant and minoritarian identity paradigms, from the hyper-masculine standard of machismo [chauvinism] to the acknowledgement of the “savage” native past. Estridentismo closely followed futurismo in many respects, but broke with its fascist turn. Antropofagia constitutively acknowledges its cultural borrowings while ironically emblematizing seemingly historical and evolutionary backwardness. Taken together, these case studies represent two possible reformulations in the history of futurismo’s associations with misogyny and primitivism that complicate and challenge its continuing legacy. In their cultural adaptations and appropriations of Marinetti’s aesthetic and ideological principles, Maples Arce and de Andrade illuminate the ways in which Latin America as a cultural sphere came to terms with modernity in the 20th century through the negotiation of masculinity and its dominantly accepted traits of aggression and violence.

F.T. Marinetti’s “Manifeste du futurisme” arose out of a complex aesthetic response to the political and historical situation of Italy at the turn of the 20th century, inaugurating the international literary-artistic avant-garde period as one closely allied to negotiating the industrial and technological age, especially from the viewpoint of underdevelopment. The manifesto itself, attaining fame when published in French as the language of greater cultural capital in 1909, is composed of eleven main points followed by a nearly theatrical tirade against the aesthetic tastes of the past. Among the most important is point six, insisting that “il faut que le poète se dépense avec chaleur… pour augmenter la ferveur enthousiaste des éléments primordiaux” (3) [“the poet will have to do all in his power… to increase the delirious fervor of the primordial elements” (14)], which provides a basis for futurismo’s focus on the ingenuous truthfulness of primitivism. Lucia Re provides an insightful comment on how this aesthetic works for Marinetti’s futurismo:

Although certainly colonial and imperialist, [Marinetti’s] aggressive imaginary hybridization of Italy with Africa comes, in a sense, out of Africa (Italy itself having [been] largely construed as part of Africa, and vice versa), and embodies the complex and stratified give-and-take of the colonial encounter and of colonial discourse rather than a binary opposition between the imperialist colonizer and the colonized. (361)

Italy’s impulse to break with the past, in addition, came about partially due to being perceived almost as an outdoor museum frozen in time by the omnipresent weight of classical Western civilization, which Marinetti saw as a dusty relic. Italy had to appropriate the Industrial Revolution from Northern Europe even more so than African primitivism.

Turning from primitivism to militarism and technology, point nine of the “Manifeste du futurisme,” perhaps the most controversial, asserts, “Nous voulons glorifier la guerre,—seule hygiène du monde—le militarisme, le patriotisme, le geste destructeur des anarchistes… et le mépris de la femme” (1) [“we wish to glorify war—the sole cleanser of the world—militarism, patriotism, the destructive act of the libertarian… and scorn for women” (14)], displaying futurismo’s alignment with misogyny and political fascism. Perhaps unintuitive, this point can coexist with the earlier point six, as Marinetti’s and the Futurists’ brand of barbarism eventually came to co-exist in Fascist Italy in an uneasy and ambiguous tension with another form of self-proclaimed barbarism: “…right-wing rural primitivism…” (Re 361). Finally, point eleven of Marinetti’s “Manifeste du futurisme” describes futurismo’s most well-known and titular feature, the fascination with technology, by proclaiming that “Nous chanterons… les gares… les usines… les ponts… les locomotives au grand poitrail…. et le vol glissant des aéroplanes…” (3) [“we shall sing… of railway stations… of workshops… of bridges… of broad-breasted locomotives… and of the lissome flight of the airplane…” (14)]. A far cry from Roman architecture, these technologies of travel and their infrastructures aimed to connect Italy with the rest of the world as the latest cosmopolitan nation. These three general principles, along with the manifesto form, contributed to the inspiration of a host of descendent avant-garde movements worldwide in the decades following 1909, which adhered to certain of Marinetti’s aesthetic and ideological elements more or less closely.

Marinetti’s “Manifeste du futurisme,” understood by its author to operate within the same system of cultural history as pre-20th century literature and art, in fact provided a ready-made response to all foreseen aesthetic inheritors. Taking a decidedly un-hypocritical stance and following his conclusions to their logical end, Marinetti professed an anticipatory satisfaction at his own movement’s being outmoded and replaced:

Quand nous aurons quarante ans, que de plus jeunes et plus vaillants que nous veuillent bien nous jeter au panier comme des manuscrits inutiles! . . . Ils viendront contre nous de très loin, de partout . . . . Mais nous ne serons pas là. Ils nous trouveront enfin . . . en train de chauffer nos mains sur le misérable feu que feront nos livres d’aujourd’hui . . . . [S]’élanceront pour nous tuer, avec d’autant plus de haine que leur cœur sera ivre d’amour et d’admiration pour nous. (4)

When we reach forty, other, younger, and more courageous men will very likely toss us into the trash can, like useless manuscripts. And that’s what we want! Our successors will rise up against us, from far away, from every part of the world . . . . But we won’t be there . . . . Eventually, they will find us . . . warming our hands around the flickering flames of our present-day books . . . . [T]hey will hurl themselves upon us to kill us, driven by a hatred made all the more implacable because their hearts overflow with love and admiration for us. (15-16)

While revealing by analogy the debt that Marinetti may feel to literatures of the past that he otherwise appears to scorn, his expectations for the rise and fall of futurismo are prescient. In predicting that “nous avons donc au moins dix ans pour accomplir notre tâche,” (4) [“we have at least ten years in which to complete our task” (15)], Marinetti approximates the dates of the advent of estridentismo twelve years after and antropofagia fifteen years after the publication of the “Manifeste du futurisme.” He also expects his successors to arise from places perhaps as far across the Atlantic as Latin America. Maples Arce in estridentismo similarly espoused the type of patricidal violence that Marinetti advocates, along with the ideals of the Mexican Revolution that also temper his aesthetic; de Andrade, for his part, appears with antropofagia to take Marinetti’s metaphor a step further than originally envisioned.

Within the Futurismo movement founded by Marinetti, it is a curious and contentious point that adherent associate and British author Mina Loy’s “Feminist Manifesto” reproduces the professed ideology of misogyny. Contrary to expectations, Marinetti and futurismo not only admitted the possibility of female authors being associated with the group, but, in actuality, some willingly accepted the role of publicizing the controversial Futurist views. Considering that Loy was a native of a dominant world nation, far-removed from Italy’s self-conscious image, her genuine participation in Marinetti’s concerns could be puzzling, but perhaps her subordinate status as a woman allows a complicated identification. Loy’s idiosyncratic “Feminist Manifesto” reads like a long prose poem or polemical rant that introduces difficulties into Futurist misogyny but ultimately appears to uphold it through its conception of feminism as an acknowledgement of female inferiority, at least under the conditions of feminine development as of the 20th century. One of the early shocks comes when Loy writes on the manifesto’s first page “be Brave & deny at the outset—that pathetic clap-trap war cry Woman is the equal of man—She is NOT!” Further problematic statements that appear to place the woman at the mercy of male dominance, this time near the end of the manifesto, include the exhortation that “every woman of superior intelligence should realize her race-responsibility, in producing children in adequate proportion to the unfit or degenerate members of her sex” and the admonition “women must destroy in themselves, the desire to be loved—The feeling that it is a personal insult when a man transfers his attentions from her to another woman” (155-156). While Loy eschews the technological propensities and overtly political overtones of Marinetti’s brand of futurismo, she certainly discharges the threat of violence when she proposes, midway through the manifesto, the “unconditional surgical destruction of virginity through-out the female population at puberty” (155). References to primitivism are also not as clear, unless Loy’s elevation of the status of the prostitute or mistress can be defined as such. She advises that “the woman who is so completely evolved as to be un-self-conscious in sex, will prove a restrictive influence . . . the woman who is a poor mistress will be an incompetent mother—inferior mentality . . .” (154), thereby reversing the expected results of civilization and granting superiority to engagement in polyamorous or subterranean practices of the uncouth. Ultimately, Loy exemplifies futurismo’s feminist and misogynistic nuances even more than her own apparent contradictions, as both she and Marinetti use theatrical shock tactics to indicate despising femininity but not necessarily the female.

If a self-proclaimed British feminist could also be a Futurist, the movement’s reach with the nascent romance-language avant-gardes of North and South America was hardly out of the question. Influenced by Marinetti’s Futurist thought and art, Manuel Maples Arce inaugurated his estridentista movement in Mexico in 1921 with the manifesto “Actual No. 1: Hoja de vanguardia / Comprimido estridentista” [“Avant-Garde Broadsheet / Stridentist Pill”], in which he explicitly makes homage to Marinetti’s glorification of technology while also dispensing with him in true imitative fashion. Maples Arce published all of his work in Spanish, but his poetry indicates his increasing employment of English-language phrases over the course of his literary movement; due to geographical proximity to the U.S. and the passage of a decade, French is not, in fact, as it was for Marinetti, Maples Arce’s strategically chosen lingua franca. Similarly formatted to the “Manifeste du futurisme,” “Actual No. 1” consists of fourteen lengthy statements followed, not by a polemic denunciation, but by a “directorio de vanguardia” (2) [directory of the avant-garde] listing forerunners and contemporary inspirations. Accordingly, Maples Arce claims “A esta eclatante afirmación del vanguardista italiano Marinetti . . . [yuxtaponer su] apasionamiento decisivo por las máquinas de escribir, y [su] amor efusivísimo por la literatura de los avisos económicos” (1) [to this striking affirmation of the Italian vanguard Marinetti . . . [to juxtapose his] decisive passion for writing machines, and [his] super-effusive love for the literature of economic ads], in section three, only to fulfill the prophesy of rejection in section twelve with the succinct injunction “nada de futurismo” (2) [nothing of Futurism]. If Maples Arce reincorporated the latter half of Marinetti’s “Manifeste du futurisme” in his formation of a Mexican avant-garde aesthetic, the former half is evident as ideological inspiration for estridentismo’s next manifesto, although crucially without the political turn to fascism.

The “Manifiesto estridentista” of 1923 demonstrates the important inheritance of Marinetti’s brand of primitivism that would come to inform not only estridentismo but also de Andrade’s entire antropofagia aesthetic, while also developing a particular image of dominant masculinity. In this much shorter manifesto, consisting of four main points and three tirades against individual persons, Maples Arce’s first point admits of “un profundo desdén . . . [encendido] pugnazmente en un odio caníbal para . . . todos los deseos renovadores que conmueven la hora insurreccional de nuestra vida mecanística” (1) [a profound disdain . . . burning pugnaciously in a cannibal hatred for all of the . . . reformist desires that excite the insurrectional hour of our mechanistic life]. Taken in de Andrade’s sense as inflected by Marinetti, this metaphor may intend both to show respect for and to assimilate the reformist spirit pervading Mexico just after the Revolution (1910-1920). The “Manifiesto estridentista,” however, also reveals its particular valuation of masculinity and ties to Futurist misogyny more than “Actual No. 1” had made clear. One of the closing lines insists that “Ser estridentista es ser hombre. Sólo los eunucos no estarán con nosotros” (1) [To be stridentist is to be man. Only eunuchs will not be with us], simultaneously excluding from its hegemonic masculinity not only women, but indeed all those who cannot give proof of the requisite genital paraphernalia. The linkage of virility and artistic or ideological viability also disqualified homosexuals, as the estridentistas were wont to use the term derogatorily. The estridentista task of cultural renewal thus found itself limited mostly to the specific class of heterosexual male individuals.

In some senses, aesthetic primitivism and ideological misogyny can go hand in hand, although in other contexts the two principals have an ambivalent relationship. The “primitive” art that inspired many of the European avant-gardes, such as African fertility statuary, clearly linked pre-modern and non-industrial peoples with enhanced masculine abilities. On the other hand, this threat can lead, as in Edward Said’s orientalist hypothesis, to the dominant white male masculinity’s stereotyping of the Other as effeminate. In any case, futurismo’s origins in Italy may inflect it slightly differently in this regard than the principals it passes on to Mexican estridentismo and Brazilian antropofagia. All three nations appeared as latecomers to the world order, making the blustery and modern, yet primal, aesthetic of the Futurist-inspired 20th-century avant-garde so appealing. Italy, however, held different political valences, especially with respect to colonialism. Whereas Italy belatedly attempted to claim its status as a colonizer and assert itself through fascism, Mexico and Brazil were instead targets of colonialism themselves. Thus, while Italian “fascism promoted new images of hegemonic masculinity, glorifying irrationality (the ‘triumph of the will,’ thinking with ‘the blood’) and the unrestrained violence of the frontline soldier” (Connell 193), the Mexican and Brazilian avant-gardes incorporated related but politically contrary messages. The machismo demonstrated by the closing sentiments of the “Manifiesto estridentista” may result from the “familiar suggestion that Latin American machismo was a product of the interplay of cultures under colonialism. The conquistadors provided both provocation and model . . . . Catholicism provided the ideology of female abnegation, and economic oppression blocked other sources of authority for men” (Connell 198). Thus, futurismo, although identifying as part of the Global South of the 20th century, acted in reality as an oppressive model of misogyny that was ideologically necessary for different reasons on the part of Mexican estridentismo and Brazilian antropofagia, as inculcated in their historical encounters with Spain and Portugal.

De Andrade’s “Manifesto da poesia pau-brasil” and “Manifesto antropófago” effect an even stronger re-figuration and turn within the aesthetics of futurismo than estridentismo had, challenging the interpretations of masculinity that the avant-garde in the 20th century could encompass. Consisting of anumerical paratactic statements, neither manifesto is as strictly organized as Marinetti’s and Maples Arce’s. The “Manifesto da poesia pau-brasil” does perform, however, the same initial gestures as the Italian and Mexican works, indicating its debt to futurismo as precursor while setting it aside, this time more gently, to make way for new theories. De Andrade honors technological advancement similarly to Marinetti and Maples Arce:

Como a época é miraculosa, as leis nasceram do próprio rotamento dinâmico dos fatores destrutivos.

A síntese

O equilíbrio

O acabamento de carrosserie

A invenção

A surpresa

Uma nova perspectiva

Uma nova escala (2)


As the age is miraculous, laws were born from the dynamic rotation of destructive factors.



Automotive finish



A new perspective

A new scale (186)



This theme continues in the later “Manifesto antropófago” with the line “A fixação do progresso por meios de catalogos e aparelhos de televisão. Só a maquinaria. E os transfusores de sangue” (1) [“The determination of progress by catalogues and television sets. Only machinery. And blood transfusers” (41)]. De Andrade makes, however, in the “Manifesto da poesia pau-brasil” the typical avant-garde move of disposing of past influences by writing, “O trabalho da geração futurista foi ciclópico . . . Realizada essa etapa, o problema é outro” (3) [“the labor of the Futurist generation was cyclopean . . . this step realized, the problem is other” (187)]. De Andrade thus begins anew the avant-garde cycle in Brazil.

De Andrade’s 1924 “Manifesto da poesia pau-brasil” prefigures the development of antropofagia somewhat in reverse, by attempting to take the raw materials of Brazilian culture and transform them into worthy objects of international aesthetic contemplation instead of passively following cultural developments abroad. Both of de Andrade’s manifestoes were written in Portuguese, indicating their nationalist pride, although like Maples Arce, de Andrade employs occasional English interruptions. Leslie Bary, in her introduction to the English translation of de Andrade’s later “Manifesto antropófago,” explicates de Andrade’s aim for beginning the avant-garde project with the Pau-Brazil aesthetic:

Oswald had announced an “export-quality” poetry that would not copy imported esthetic models but find its material in Brazilian history, popular culture, and everyday life . . . . Opposing avant-garde notions of poetry as “invention” and
“surprise” to the erudite, imitative art he associates with the colony and the Brazilian empire (1822-1889), Oswald unites the search for national identity with the modernist esthetic project . . . . In this schema, Brazilian cultural production becomes both native and cosmopolitan. Brazil’s “wild wilderness,” far from generating second-rate copies of Continental models, will give rise to an “agile and candid” modern poetry. Brazilwood [Pau-Brazil] poetry thus offers a solution for Brazil’s perceived cultural inferiority, and at the same time injects new life into the international cultural arena. (35)

The beginning of Brazil’s avant-garde here proves to have a fascinating connection to capitalist economic metaphors, a tactic that neither futurismo nor estridentismo adopt. Rather, certain of Maples Arce’s poems, especially “Urbe: Súper-poema bolchevique en 5 cantos” [“Metropolis: Bolshevik Super-Poem in 5 Cantos”], display a candid affiliation with Leninist Communism. The avant-garde, then, is not unilaterally concerned with applications to a specific economic system, but can vary widely among regions and movements in the same way that politically Italian Fascism formed no part of antropofagia or estridentismo. De Andrade’s initial avant-garde formulations in the “Manifesto da poesia pau-brasil” developed out of unique national circumstances and perhaps uncritically used the familiar tropic (in the sense of both literary tropes and “banana republics”) language that cast Brazil as a net exporter of goods and importer of culture, a position that would be nuanced by the “Manifesto antropófago.”

Antropofagia strengthened the depth and shock-value of Brazil’s avant-garde theory yet fascinatingly maintained figurative capitalist overtones, modifying the terms of exchange from strict Pau-Brazil exportation to the active appropriation and regurgitation of European models. Antropofagia thus proves to be less of a reversal of the Pau-Brazil aesthetic formulation than it may seem at first glance:

“Law of the cannibal” is in fact the law of the capitalist, who concerns himself only with what he does not already possess . . . . The difference between a cannibalist aesthetics and a monocultural economics is thus not to be located in their respective underlying metaphysics, for the . . . law of devouring and appropriation… underlies them both. (Noland 415-416)

Given that the expression of capitalism in the terms of cannibalism and appropriation have distinctly negative overtones, de Andrade’s choice to transform the Pau-Brazil aesthetic into its incarnation in antropofagia may appear surprising. The logic of this rhetorical move, however, is expressly that of playfully engaging the distinctive bases and means of the arrogant, powerful nations of the world and effectively beating them at their own game. The “Manifesto antropófago” speaks of its value in terms of goods, insisting “Tínhamos a relação e a distribução dos bens físicos, dos bens morais, dos bens dignarios” (1) [“we had the allocation of tangible goods, moral goods, and royal goods” (41)]. Just as Marinetti supported Italy’s colonialist ambitions in order to put his nation on a par with those that had long overshadowed it, de Andrade aligns Brazil with aggressive capitalist enterprise. He does so, nonetheless, in a spirit of self-awareness that redeems his metaphorics of appropriation more than Futurist political support of colonization could hope to be redeemed in the view of posterity.

Although futurismo celebrated irrationality through its primitive, Fascist masculinity, the complementarity of these attributes is ambiguous. Certainly, the “Manifesto antropófago” also claims a strong current of irrationality, in keeping with its defiant symbolism of the reclamation of cannibalism and Western European ideas for the storied cultural history of the New World. The rationale behind the label for the movement runs as follows:

Brazil’s first indigenous avant-garde invention was based on a recuperation of the previously pejorative term “cannibal” to refer to the active assimilation and transformation of foreign aesthetics by Brazilian-born Portuguese-speaking writers . . . . Cannibalism is an appropriate metaphor for this positively valenced mode of “appropriation”; it suggests the gesture of incorporation (otherwise known as pastiche, collage, grafting, or sampling) and exemplifies such an incorporation, a parodic recycling of a pejorative term that displaces the term’s previous value . . . . Intertextuality or literary cross-fertilization is the major theme… and de Andrade makes no attempt to disguise the fact that his own particular brand of avant-garde poetics is largely a cannibalization of previous European models . . . . However, it soon becomes evident that cannibalism is a practice that unites not simply Brazilian writers and artists in search of a historically resonant, indigenous aesthetic; rather, cannibalism is a practice that unites the entire human race . . . . (Noland 414-415)

Or, as the translator of the manifesto herself, Leslie Bary, puts it in her introduction, also partially quoted by Noland:

The [“Manifesto antropófago”] challenges the dualities civilization/barbarism, modern/primitive, and original/derivative, which had informed the construction of Brazilian culture since the days of the colony. In the MA, Oswald subversively appropriates the colonizer’s inscription of America as a savage territory which, once civilized, would be a necessarily muddy copy of Europe. The use of the cannibal metaphor permits the Brazilian subject to forge his specular colonial identity into an autonomous and original (as opposed to dependent, derivative) national culture. Oswald’s anthropophagist—himself a cannibalization, not of Rousseau’s idealized savage but of Montaigne’s avowed and active cannibal[—]neither apes nor rejects European culture, but ‘devours’ it, adapting its strengths and incorporating them into the native self. (35-36)

Specifically, the manifesto quips, “mas nunca admittimos o nascimento da logica entre nós” (1) [“we never permitted the birth of logic among us” (39)]. Logic and rationality, however, are most often associated with masculinity, while irrationality and sentiment are associated with femininity. Indeed, “with masculinity defined as a character structure marked by rationality, and Western civilization defined as the bearer of reason to a benighted world, a cultural link between the legitimation of patriarchy and the legitimation of empire was forged” (Connell 186-187). Futurismo’s self-defined alliance with irrationality, patriarchy, and empire thus seems specious; perhaps this foundational movement is not, in fact, a sturdy base. Antropofagia, conversely, remains ideologically sound, insisting on none of the political ends of futurismo.

With the “Manifesto antropófago ” and the advent of the antropofagia movement proper, de Andrade also distinctly complicates the Futurist project as it relates to hegemonic masculinity. Instead of preferring masculine qualities in the ushers of the modern age, the manifesto complains, “estamos fatigados de todos os maridos catholicos suspeitosos postos em drama” (1) [“we’re tired of all the suspicious Catholic husbands who’ve been given starring roles” (38)]. Women appear to have a legitimate place in antropofagia. Indeed, as opposed to estridentismo’s lack of female literary contributors and futurismo’s uneasy relationship between the misogyny introduced by Marinetti and its recurrence in Loy’s “Feminist Manifesto,” antropofagia incorporated respected female leaders, such as painter Tarsila do Amaral and author Patrícia Galvão, popularly known as Pagu. Galvão’s devout Communist sentiments, as displayed in her Parque industrial [Industrial Park: A Proletarian Novel], clash with the apparent coincidence of antropofagia and capitalism even as they clearly correspond to Maples Arce’s ideological leanings and those of many artists worldwide during the early 20th century. While the women of Brazilian antropofagia appear to have more independent intellectual contributions to their national avant-garde movement and also increased relevance as native founders of their aesthetic, their personal lives once again challenge the effects of their artistic merit to the elevation of women and femininity as opposed to hegemonic masculinity. Critically, one biographical anomaly that links both do Amaral and Pagu is that they both were, at different points, married to or else otherwise romantically involved with de Andrade. For the same reason that Loy’s injunction to women to suppress their feelings of attachment and self-importance in romantic or sexual relationships is troubling, especially given her advice that appears to support the “harem” conception of masculine rights over women, de Andrade’s ability to enjoy the company of both do Amaral and Pagu while retaining them as part of his literary circle, and the negative terms on which these relationships ended, can have strongly misogynist overtones. Despite de Andrade’s professed inclusion and equal acceptance of women into antropofagia, the ideological tenets of his movement and his individual actions may reveal an irreconcilable hypocrisy that undermines the distance from hegemonic masculinity that his embodiment of the Futurist avant-garde legacy appeared to innovate.

Still, the valences of this masculinity remain, and even more problematically, the violence of the cannibalistic metaphor cannot claim any more civility than war and conquest. Antropofagia perhaps must be understood as an avant-garde with claims on both hegemonic and subordinated, effeminate masculinity, in contrast to the limited perspectives of futurismo and estridentismo. The contradiction hinted at by the questionable ethics of his romantic relationships with the women in antropofagia’s inner circle becomes clear when de Andrade’s own social status is considered in relation to the primitivism claimed for his nationalist aesthetic project:

Although de Andrade . . . was a Europeanized Brazilian and a member of the ruling elite, he attempts to speak in the ‘Cannibalist Manifesto’ as a descendent of the Tupi, not of the Vieira, as a son of the Great Snake, not of the [civilized] Bad Mother . . . . As a member of the oligarchical elite . . . he was appropriating a cannibalist identity from a race to which he did not belong. The politics of de Andrade’s gesture are thus a little less clear than they have been assumed to be . . . . Because of [his] debt . . . to European modernism in general . . . de Andrade can only with difficulty claim to speak from the position of the indigenous Brazilian cannibal. (Noland 416)

As a function of the aesthetics of technology and violence in his writing, as well as of his personal biography, then, de Andrade embodies a dominant hegemonic masculinity that undercuts his simultaneous attempt to recuperate subordinated masculinity to a position of respectability. Loy analogously occupied the otherwise contradictory position of feminist championing women by encouraging their masculinity, and of privileged British subject speaking from a place of cultural authority through a minority culture movement. Indeed, as evidenced by the purposes of Italian fascism and colonial expansion, the original demand to which futurismo responded was a sense of national backwardness and weakness in the hierarchy of the world order. If de Andrade could claim a position of superiority within his own nation, his identification with the primitivism of the Futurist avant-garde could only have been in regards to an international outlook. Identities of masculinity, even identities in general, thus appear more fluid than they are often thought to be. Dominant traits in one sphere can signify inferiority in a broader context, adding a new dimension to the interpretation of the avant-gardes. These movements appeared both as the venerated, privileged heights of their respective domestic cultures and as provocative parvenus when they introduced themselves internationally.

The fairly straightforward identification of the Italian Marinetti’s aesthetic and ideological principles, as outlined in list format in his “Manifeste du futurisme,” are undoubtedly anything but simple when taken in light of their complex motivations as well as refigurations later in the 20th century literary avant-garde through Maples Arce’s Mexican estridentismo and de Andrade’s Brazilian antropofagia. The exaltation of modern technology clearly recognizable under the label of futurismo in truth is only the tip of an iceberg composed of bravado, intended to raise Italy’s international cultural status while ensconcing pride in primitivism and reactionary concepts of governmental and sexual politics. This formula, however, proved effective enough to appeal to Ibero-American nations under similar degraded circumstances, yet their crucial experiences of colonialism firsthand may have helped to modify and naturalize Marinetti’s influence to apply to the New World. Particularly the political professions of futurismo became reshaped into leftist and social reformist modes for Maples Arce and de Andrade, although without being able to deny their dependence on the movement they outswept. Notwithstanding some of the possible improvements that estridentismo and antropofagia may have made to Marinetti’s controversial program, they too also combine strands of hegemony and heterogeneity into paradoxical amalgamations of power structures. The inherent project of the avant-garde may be an effort to negotiate power not just among nations, but in a metaphorically related struggle, also between genders. The cannibalistic impulse identified and brought to its culmination by de Andrade with antropofagia was evidently a quality of futurismo all along, coming to force successively within contexts that gave meaning not only to its pragmatic artistic effects, but especially and uniquely to its superbly apt metaphor.












  1. Quotations and titles taken from the French, Italian, and Portuguese refer to the original editions given in the works cited list. The translations of Manuel Maples Arce’s Spanish-language works are my own, from my forthcoming MA thesis entitled “Introduction to the Complete Early Works of Manuel Maples Arce: 1921-1927.” More information about my translation practices can be found therein.



Works Cited

Andrade, Oswald de. “Cannibalist Manifesto.” 1928. Trans. Leslie Bary. Latin American Literary Review 14.27 (1986): 35-47. PDF file.

—. “Manifesto of Pau-Brazil Poetry.” 1924. Trans. Stella M. de Sá Rego. Latin American Literary Review 14.27 (1986): 184-187. PDF file.

—. “O manifesto antropófago.” Ed. Gilberto Mendonça. Vanguarda européia e modernismo brasileiro: apresentação e crítica dos principais manifestos vanguardistas. 3rd ed. Petrópolis: Vozes, 1976. Print.

Connell, R.W. “The History of Masculinity.” Masculinities. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 1995. PDF file.

Loy, Mina. “Feminist Manifesto.” The Lost Lunar Baedeker: Poems of Mina Loy. Ed. Roger L. Conover. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1996. PDF file.

Maples Arce, Manuel. “Actual No 1: Hoja de Vanguardia. Comprimido Estridentista,” Dec. 1921. Museo Nacional de Arte, Mexico City.

Maples Arce, Manuel and Germán List Arzubide, et. al. “Manifiesto estridentista.” Puebla: Ediciones de Horizonte, 1923. Francisco Reyes Palma Archive, Mexico City.

Marinetti, F.T. “Futurist Manifesto.” Critical Writings. Ed. Günter Berghaus. Trans. Doug Thompson. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006. Print.

Marinetti, Filippo Tommaso. Manifeste Du Futurisme : (Publié Par Le “Figaro” Le 20 Février 1909). s.n., (Poligrafia italiana). PDF file.

Noland, Carrie. “The Metaphysics of Coffee: Blaise Cendrars, Modernist Standardization, and Brazil.” Modernism/Modernity 7(3) 2000: 401-422. PDF file.

Re, Lucia. “‘Barbari civilizzatissimi’: Marinetti and the Futurist Myth of Barbarism.” Journal of Modern Italian Studies 17(3) 2012: 350–368. PDF file.

volume 12: Call For Papers

Whether we speak of historical exodus or contemporary trends of gentrification and economic inequality, acts of displacement influence and shape our engagement with human rights and the world itself. For the upcoming 2015 volume, Portals is seeking papers that explore displacement in diverse literary and linguistic traditions.

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 displacement will be featured prominently, though all will be considered.

Submission Deadline: February 27th, 2015

Send your original and previously unpublished submission as a .doc or .rtf attachment to submissions at portalsjournal dot com with “Portals Submission” in the subject line.

Authors will be contacted within 2 – 3 months 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.
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All inquiries can be directed to our editors at: submissions at portalsjournal dot com

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.

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Post-Holocaust Poetry and the (In)efficacy of Language

by Heather Pujals

How can we begin to talk about the Holocaust and its resulting literature, especially now when some of us are personally so far removed from that time and place in history? I could start with a reminder of some of the innumerable horrors or express an impossible empathy—impossible because empathy requires understanding—for the survivors and victims. Instead, through examining some of the poetic works of Paul Celan (1920-1970) and Charlotte Delbo (1913-1985), I aim to shed light on what I have found to be a common message in the genre of post-Holocaust poetry: that somehow the Holocaust has fractured the system of language, making communication for survivors difficult, if not impossible, and that certain experiences during and surrounding the Holocaust can be literally indescribable because they are part of an unprecedented horror for which language has no words.

       Celan’s “Keine Sandkust Mehr” [“No More Sand Art”] is a characteristically sparse and difficult poem from late in his career. Delbo’s untitled poem (which I will henceforth identify by its first line “Vous voudriez savoir” [“You’d Like To Know”]), originally written in French, comes from Mesure des Nos Jours [The Measure of Our Days], which was published in 1971 and later became the final book translated into English by Rosette C. Lamont for Delbo’s prose-poetry trilogy Auschwitz and After. In these poems, the two writers echo each other as they address the inability of language to convey their experiences as Holocaust survivors, though they take different approaches: Celan’s point ironically seems, at least initially, lost in the general incomprehensibility of the poem, while Delbo’s claim is posed more directly. However, the claim they make—that language cannot effectively be used to convey anything meaningful to both readers and listeners—at least partially disproves itself simply because it is possible to extract meaning from their poems.

       In the fragmented first line of Celan’s “Keine Sandkunst mehr,” references to Jewish heritage in a religio-cultural sense and Germanic heritage in an artistic and academic sense run parallel: “Keine Sandkunst mehr, kein Sandbuch, keine / Meister” [“No more sand art, no sand book, no / masters”] (Paul Celan 1-2). Through the loaded signifiers “sand,” which conjures images of the desert (i.e., the region of Israel and the Jewish homeland), and “book”(likely refering to none other than the most holy book within Judaism, the Torah), he invites the German-speaking Jewish community, or whatever is left of it, to bear special witness to the claims he makes in this poem. With “No more…sand book,” Celan is insinuating religion itself, at the very least Judaism, cannot exist after the Holocaust, a claim reminiscent of Theodore Adorno’s famous statement from Kulturkritik und Gesellschaft [Cultural Criticism and Society] (1951) about how writing poetry after Auschwitz would be barbarous. Of course, this statement is often taken out of its context within Adorno’s discussion of the dialectic of culture and barbarism; but if we were to take it literally, or even interpret “barbarous” as synonymous with “lacking civilization,” then we might say that nobody could write poetry after Auschwitz in any civilized manner, or possibly that the poetry itself might be uncivilized. With this and Celan’s claim in mind, poetry and organized religion can be seen as markers of civilization on a large scale; and if those markers are “no more,” then Celan and Adorno are effectively in agreement that the Holocaust has de-civilized the world.

       The last word of the first line is just as heavily freighted. With meister, which in German can be singular or plural depending on surrounding grammar, Celan references a rich collection of German Classical and Romantic “masters” of music, literature, and philosophy; such as Beethoven, Goethe, and Kant, respectively, who represent high points in German culture. He does this more directly in his well-known and earlier poem “Todesfuge” [“Death Fugue”] when he references Margarete, a character from Goethe’s Faust. However, Celan is not claiming that the memory of these masters has been erased, but rather that the Nazis of the Third Reich have taken sole custody of this heritage, even using it against their victims who would have previously considered it their heritage as well. At Auschwitz, for example, SS officers would force prisoners who had training with musical instruments to perform and dance to well-known national German songs for hours on end while guarded via gunpoint and snarling German Shepherds. They turned playing Bach—noble, familiar Bach—into a form of torture. Celan alludes to these occurrences directly in “Todesfuge” when the speaker of the poem quotes his SS master: “ihr andern singet / und spielt…spielt weiter zum / Tanz auf” [“you others sing / and play…play on for the dance”] (Celan, Paul Celan 24-25, 28-29). Through the Nazis’ systematic appropriation of the works of these masters for their own sadistic purposes, the masters no longer belong to a broader European audience, especially not to Jews. Furthermore, “Todesfuge” asserts that “Tod ist ein Meister aus Deutschland” [“Death is a master from Germany”], a phrase which has at least a double meaning: the masters of death camps were from Germany in a literal sense, while the iconic meister of Germany played an indirect role in aiding Nazi malevolence. Together, “Keine Sandkunst Mehr” and “Todesfuge” reveal that the process of a vast cultural heritage being taken away from German-speaking Jews began as soon as the meister became affiliated specifically with torture at the hands of the Nazis.

       As I mentioned before, Celan’s “Keine Sandkunst Mehr” also suggests that the Holocaust resulted in a loss of the ability for the survivors to convey meaning through language, i.e., not only the loss of cultural heritage, but of linguistic heritage as well. The speaker asks, “Wieviel / Stumme?” which Michael Hamburger translates to “How many / Dumb ones?” (Celan, Paul Celan 3-4). I think, however, that “How many / struck dumb?” conveys the German meaning better since stumme has more of a verbal rather than simply adjectival force, which then suggests that at a certain place in time some number of people have been passively made mute as opposed to always having been so. Trying to make the lines into a sentence (“How many have been struck dumb?”) would probably be most appropriate. The Holocaust—the systematic extermination of European Jews and others deemed undeserving of life—has caused this muteness. When faced with something so impossible to explain, let alone justify, there can and never will be a clear explanation since mere signifiers, individual letters and phonemes, do not have the capability to convey that which cannot be signified—the uniquely horrible occurrences that make up the Holocaust.

       The last three lines of “Keine Sandkunst Mehr” further attempt to show (because they cannot explain) the concept that, after the Holocaust, the system of language, at least for the survivors, is broken.

              I—i—e. (Celan, Paul Celan 8-10)


At first read, these three short lines appear to be utter nonsense, and in a way they are. Although German readers may be accustomed to seeing words combined in a similar manner, it produces extra confusion for those reading the English translation. That the words are so crowded calls to mind the train cars, which were used to transport masses of Jews and other victims throughout Europe to work and death camps; and as “Tiefimschnee” suggests, those trains did not stop during winter.

       Incidentally, “snow” further acts as a replacement for the earlier mention of “sand” and its connotations, which were lost at the beginning of the poem. It hints that as an already displaced people, and originally from a desert region, Jews stuck in the snows of Europe are both literally and figuratively “out of their element.” Both within the train cars and the poet’s words there is no breathing room, no room for coherence or understanding. The following downgrade to “Iefimnee,” which at least still maintains a resemblance to the preceding triple-word, and finally to the mere phoneme string “I—i—e” is a metaphor for the dissolution of language as a means for communication. These vowel sounds are reminiscent of the babbling of infants, or perhaps that of a dying person, suggesting that the survivors’ ability to communicate has fallen out of their own conscious control.

       Furthermore, in Hebrew (Celan chose to write in German, but he knew Hebrew as well) vowels are generally not signified at all, and therefore this final line becomes even more powerful. If, let’s say, this poem were translated into Hebrew, we would be left with nothing at the end; the whole line composed only of vowels would vanish, as many Jews themselves did. The signifiers, which usually carry meaning, are reduced to, at least in German and in English, the most basic forms of utterance that signify nothing besides, perhaps, the absence of something signified. This is where we run into a paradox, though. If those isolated letter groupings (or a blank line if in Hebrew) mean nothing, then how am I here interpreting them (or it)? At this point, the only way to make sense of Celan’s poetry is to conclude that as far as language goes, it is not lost, not like the masters anyway, but it is fractured—fractured enough that there is a disconnect between survivor and “other,” and perhaps between survivors themselves as well.

       Charlotte Delbo also tackles the issue of post-Holocaust communication in her poem “Vous voudriez savoir” from her memoir Mesure des Nos Jours. While not as seemingly nonsensical as the closing lines of “Keine Sandkunst Mehr,” Delbo’s poem still does not conform to any typical poetic form or stanza organization. The most notable point to make about the format is that the entire poem is posed as one long run-on sentence with a capital letter beginning it and a period ending it. Otherwise, there are no other punctuation marks, and the grammar is incidentally difficult to follow, forcing readers to make assumptions about where a comma or set of quotation marks might have gone. This very act, though—making assumptions and filling in what we deem necessary additions to Delbo’s seemingly incomplete expression—may be exactly what she and other survivors warn us against. She writes, “et nous ne savons pas répondre / nous ne savons pas répondre avec vos mots à vous / et nos mots à nous / vous ne les comprenez pas” [“and we don’t know how to answer / not with the words you use / our own words / you can’t understand”], which suggests that survivors are operating in an entirely different language system than the rest of us (Delbo 10-13). Survivors cannot use our words to describe their experiences, nor can we understand the words they would use to do so. Our vocabularies do not overlap since there are no extant words to describe her experiences.

       Delbo presents patience as a solution to this conundrum. Since survivors are only capable of using language a certain way at this time, inquirers are the ones who must remain patient as survivors attempt to answer their questions. Conversely, Delbo maintains that without patience this conundrum of communication will remain so:

alors vous demandez des choses plus simples
dites-nous par exemple
comment se passait une journée
c’est si long une journée
que vous n’auriez pas la patience
et quand nous répondons
vous ne savez pas comment passait une journée
et vous croyez que nous ne savons pas répdondre. (Delbo 14-21)
[so you ask the simpler things
tell us for example
how a day was spent
a day goes by so slowly
you’d run out of patience listening
but if we gave you an answer
you still don’t know how a day was spent
and assume we don’t know how to answer.]

These lines indicate that even if a survivor were asked “simpler things,” their answer would produce enough boredom, confusion, or frustration that the inquirer would give up trying to understand. Out of impatience, the inquirer would not wait to have their question sufficiently answered and would then write off the survivor as indefinitely incapable of doing so, effectively eradicating any chance of future communication.

       In “Keine Sandkunst Mehr” with the line “Deine Frage—deine Antwort” [“Your question—your answer”], Celan agrees with this disconnection (Paul Celan 6). Firstly, it is important to note that deine is an informal pronoun and therefore carries certain implications, for instance, that the speaker is on familiar terms with the listener, as if Celan himself (or the poem’s fictional speaker) is affectionately reaching out to us, or that this is a dialogue he (or, again, the speaker) is having within his own mind, or, more pessimistically, that the speaker simply does not have respect for the listener. Regardless, the hyphen is of paramount importance. It physically implies there is a certain unbridgeable gap between question and answer, and perhaps between questioner and answerer as well. Does this, along with Delbo’s concern, mean that, despite patience and time, post-Holocaust communication may never improve?

       Upon receiving the Literature Prize of the Free Hanseatic City of Bremen in 1958, Celan said,

It, the language, remained, not lost—yes, in spite of everything. But it had to pass through its own answerlessness, pass through frightful muting, pass through the thousand darknesses of deathbringing speech. It passed through and gave back no words for that which happened; yet it passed through this happening. (Selected Poems 395, emphasis mine.)

Celan’s comment suggests that since language did, in fact, survive the Holocaust, perhaps there is hope for communication to improve. It argues for language as an enduring apparatus, one that was not destroyed, but damaged, and therefore might be repaired. With this claim, Celan may be borrowing a concept from Kabbalah, an oft-misunderstood tract within the umbrella of Jewish mysticism, in hinting at a possible tikkun [repair] for language. Furthermore, arguing that the Holocaust has destroyed the capacity for survivors to communicate in any meaningful way creates a paradox and this paper is proof: here we have two survivors effectively conveying emotions and ideas, and although we can never know exactly what the survivors experienced, we can appreciate their efforts, though often fragmented and fractured, to reach out and, through patiently hearing and appreciating their accounts, we can facilitate the repair of the system of post-Holocaust communication.

       To some extent, communication is and may remain broken, however, simply because effective communication is based on a necessary identification, a perception of common ground, between the speaker (or writer) and the listener (or reader). The nature of the Holocaust, i.e., the impossibility to replicate it (and who would want to?), ensures that listeners and readers will never be able to have that moment of identification, of recognition, with the speakers and writers.

       So what can we take away from this dismal situation? Celan’s “Keine Sandkunst Mehr” laments that somehow certain aspects of culture, like artistic and academic heritage, along with language itself, have been lost indefinitely, while Delbo’s “Vous voudriez savoir” suggests that people are asking the wrong questions and not listening with enough patience to connect with survivors. Both are certainly valuable points, but actively addressing Delbo’s more tangible one may be the most productive path toward improving communication. Imre Kertesz intrepidly speaks for us all with the question, “How should the world free itself from Auschwitz, from the burden of the Holocaust?” He justifies that despite its seemingly “dishonest motives,” the question expresses a natural longing possessed by survivors and outsiders alike, and answers it thusly:

The decades have taught me that the only passable route to liberation leads us through memory. The artist hopes that, through a precise description, leading him once more along the pathways of death, he will finally break through to the noblest kind of liberation, to a catharsis in which he can perhaps allow his reader to partake as well. (Kertesz 268)

Kertesz suggests that as outsiders our choice of action should be to hear, in more than just a literal sense, what the survivors have to say. Surely there will remain facets of culture indefinitely tarnished, certain experiences may never be able to be put into words, and maybe post-Holocaust poetry is itself “barbarous,” but following the survivors’ written trajectory is the only way we can hope to tikkun olam, repair the world. By narrowing the gap between us and them we can begin to transcend the burden of the Holocaust, which, as citizens of the world regardless of temporal or regional origin, we all inherit.

Works Cited

Celan, Paul. Paul Celan: Poems, a Bilingual Edition. Trans. Michael Hamburger. New York: Persea, 1980.

Celan, Paul. Selected Poems and Prose of Paul Celan. Trans. John Felstiner. New York: W.W. Norton, 2001.

Delbo, Charlotte. Auschwitz and After. Trans. Rosette C. Lamont. New Haven: Yale UP, 1995.

Delbo, Charlotte. Mesure des nos jours. Paris: Les Éditions de Minuit, 1971.

Kertesz, Imre. “Who Owns Auschwitz?” Trans. John MacKay. The Yale Journal of Criticism 14.1 (2001): 267-72.

“Keine Sandkunst Mehr” by Paul Celan

Keine Sandkunst mehr, kein Sandbuch, keine

Nichts erwürfelt. Wieviel

Deine Frage—deine Antwort
Dein Gesang, was weiß er?


“No More Sand Art” translated by Michael Hamburger

No more sand art, no sand book, no master.

Nothing won by dicing. How many
dumb ones?

Your question—your answer.
Your song, what does it know?


An untitled poem by Charlotte Delbo

Vous voudriez savoir
poser des questions
et vous ne savez quelles questions
et vous ne savez comment poser les questions
alors vous demandez
des choses simples
la faim
la peur
la mort
et nous ne savons pas répondre
nous ne savons pas répondre avec vos mots à vous
et nos mots à nous
vous ne les comprenez pas
alors vous demandez des choses plus simples
dites-nous par exemple
comment se passait une journée
c’est si long une journée
que vous n’auriez pas la patience
et quand nous répondons
vous ne savez pas comment passait une journée
et vous croyez que nous ne savons pas répdondre.

Charlotte Delbo’s poem translated by Rosette C. Lamont

You’d like to know
ask questions
but you don’t know what questions
and don’t know how to ask them
so you inquire
about simple things
and we don’t know how to answer
not with the words you use
our own words
you can’t understand
so you ask the simpler things
tell us for example
how a day was spent
a day goes by so slowly
you’d run out of patience listening
but if we gave you an answer
you still don’t know how a day was spent
and assume we don’t know how to answer.

And the Women Shall Inherit the Earth: Late Victorian Over-Population and the Condition of England on the Threshold in George Gissing’s The Odd Women

by Carroll Clayton Savant

“‘But do you know that there are half a million more women than men in this happy country of ours?[…] Something like that, they say. So many odd women—no making a pair with them. The pessimists call them useless, lost, futile lives…I look upon them as a great reserve…’” (Gissing 44). Rhoda Nunn’s concern for the future of the “odd women,” who far outnumber the population of men and remain unmarried, is one of the many undercurrents found throughout George Gissing’s 1893 novel The Odd Women. Set in the overcrowded, industrial, and overwhelming late-Victorian London, Gissing’s pessimistic novel of decay and devolution investigates the anxieties facing Victorian society, brought about by overpopulation. The Odd Women portrays the plight of the New Woman within the context of this changing paradigm, as Gissing’s hysterical “odd women” negotiate their way through London in a deluge of people and technology. The tone of Gissing’s novel creates a pervasive sense of melancholic anxiety that is indicative of the late-Victorian devolution/degeneracy debates that dominated the 1890s. Noting this pervasive tone, Nicholas Shrimpton argues that the nineteenth century saw a series of philosophical and psychological waves of pessimism, which culminated in the pessimism at this time. He writes that

Christians, positivists, and Hegelians continued to insist that the world was essentially a good place, and that the pattern of history was progressive. Pessimists responded with a view of existence summed up by one of the aphorisms in Schopenhauer’s Parerga und Paralipomena of 1851: ‘No rose without a thorn. But many a thorn without a rose’…the contest between optimism and pessimism was a prominent feature of the intellectual life of the late nineteenth century. (42-43)

Gissing’s The Odd Women adds to this debate on pessimism and decay by setting the tone of the interaction between the disenfranchised “odd women” and the overpopulated and dehumanizing city of London. The goal of this project is to investigate the social and philosophical functions of Gissing’s novel and show that by addressing the anxieties of his day about the future place of the individual within the overpopulated, industrial city, his text contributed to the growing hysteria facing the late-Victorian period. By placing Gissing’s text within the context of the degeneration/devolution novels of the 1890s, I intend to show that Gissing’s novel allows him to draw on and contribute to the philosophical and intellectual debates of his time by illustrating the philosophical/psychological impact of the industrial city and its overpopulation on the individual.

       In a New Historicist reading of Gissing’s The Odd Women, I intend to look at Gissing’s representation of overpopulation in order to show that the anxiety and “hysteria” seen in Gissing’s novel is an extension of the devolution and degeneracy debates of the 1890s. In looking at the way Gissing addresses the “population problem,” I intend to show, in a Malthusian vein, that the “odd women’s” misery is symptomatic of the miseries of overpopulation. In looking at the historical population statistics of Victorian England, I aim to show that Victorian Britain, spurred by the industrial and technological advances brought about by the Industrial Revolution, effectively avoided the Malthusian population “checks,” but that these very technological advances produced the misery seen in The Odd Women. By investigating the population “boom” of the mid-to-late Victorian period, I plan on showing that Gissing’s overpopulated and over-stimulated London is the genesis of the many social and industrial problems addressed in his novel.

       The fin de siècle marked a turning point in Victorian society and was illustrated in a new trend in literature, which attempted to understand this social, economic, and industrial paradigm shift. Shrimpton argues that the pessimistic philosophies that began circulating in the mid-nineteenth century had spread to the literary discipline by the century’s end. In particular, Shrimpton writes that it was the “second wave” of pessimism, dominated by the Romantic movement, and exacerbated by Matthew Arnold, that was a driving force in the Victorian “anxieties” about technology, population, and, most importantly, the future. He writes that “[i]t was an economist rather than a poet, however, who provided the most influentially pessimistic statement of the Romantic period. Thomas Robert Malthus’s Essay on the Principle of Population (1793) was an empirical study of the way in which population outstrips food supply” (51). For Shrimpton, the authors of the 1890s caught on to this “climate” of pessimism and sought to express it in their works. He writes that “English writers in the late nineteenth century [and notes Gissing in particular] were feeling the effects of the third of the three great—and increasingly powerful—waves of modern philosophical pessimism” (49). The pessimism of which Shrimpton writes was illustrative of the artistic and literary Aesthetic movement, as artists turned to artistic disciplines in order to try to come to terms with the anxieties concerning social devolution and degeneration.

       According to degeneration and devolution theorists and writers, late-nineteenth century civilization had evolved as far as possible and risked devolving back into its more “primitive” state. As early as 1880, Edwin Lankester attempted to place the “problem” of degeneration [1] in its connection to Darwinian evolution and the ability of humanity to adapt to the evolving environment.[2] He writes that “[d]egeneration may be defined as a gradual change of the structure in which the organism becomes adapted to less varied and less complex conditions of life…” (3). For Lankester, the threat of degeneration lay in the possibility that humanity, having reached its pinnacle of “civilization,” could no longer adapt to changing environmental conditions; in this instance, environmental conditions were becoming more and more industrial, as an overpopulated society turned to technology in order to assuage the problems of population. In this way, the individual was becoming unable to “adapt” to the evolving conditions of life, thereby risking “devolving” into a more primitive state. Lankester writes that “[t]he traditional history of mankind furnishes us with notable examples of degeneration. High states of civilisation have decayed and given place to low and degenerate states. At one time it was a favourite doctrine that the savage races of mankind were degenerate descendants of the higher and civilised aces” (4). In a similar line, science fiction and science writer H.G. Wells takes Lankester’s concept further, as he notes the social ramifications of biological devolution of the individual. Using the metaphor of zoological species degradation to reinforce the anxieties facing human devolution, Wells writes that

[i]t has decided that in the past the great scroll of nature has been steadily unfolding to reveal a constantly richer harmony of forms and successively higher grades of being, and it assumes that this ‘evolution’ will continue with increasing velocity under the supervision of its extreme expression—man. This belief, as effective, progressive, and pleasing as transformation scenes at a pantomime, receives neither in the geological record nor in the studies of the phylogenetic embryologist any entirely satisfactory confirmation. (6)

For Wells, the threat of devolution and degeneration is clear: one species can only progress so far before it begins to regress on its evolutionary path of progress. And for Gissing’s late-Victorian world, this is seen in the overreliance on technology and industry in order to “survive” in the overpopulated and congested city. Wells writes that “…degradation may perhaps suffice to show that there is a good deal to be found in the work of biologists quite inharmonious with such phrases as ‘the progress of ages,’ and the ‘march of mind.’ The zoologist demonstrates that advance has been fitful and uncertain; rapid progress has often been followed by rapid extinction or degeneration” (12). For Lankester, Wells, and Gissing alike, this hysterical anxiety about the trajectory of mankind and mankind’s ability to survive (and thrive) in an overpopulated and industrial world dominated the aesthetics of the late nineteenth century. The various trends that marked the late-nineteenth century Aesthetic movement captured the hysterical pessimism of these debates on devolution and degeneracy and illustrated them through their various art forms.

       The rise of the Aesthetic movement offered a new literary form in which to voice and illustrate the anxieties facing late-nineteenth century England, in particular, the pessimistic debates on devolution.[3] Tracing the rise of “The Decadent Movement in Literature,” Arthur Symons [4] writes that

[t]he most representative literature of the day [for Symons, 1893]…is certainly not classic, nor has it any relation with that old antithesis of the Classic, the Romantic. After a fashion it is no doubt a decadence: an intense self-consciousness, a restless curiosity in research, an over-subtilizing refinement upon refinement, a spiritual and moral perversity. If what we call the classic is indeed the supreme art…then this representative literature of today, interesting, beautiful, novel as it is, is really a new and beautiful and interesting disease. (105)

This degenerate and “diseased” literature of which Symons writes is the aesthetic fulfillment of the degeneracy/devolution debates of which Wells and Lankester were warning, and one might add, predicting. This highly decadent, over-the-top literature relies, according to Symons, on “la nervose” and is a product of the “maladie fin de siècle”, which contributes to the hysteria of the collapse and devolution of society (105). This, as Joyce Carol Oates argues, is the “Aesthetics of Fear.” Though tracing the historical/aesthetic function of the role of horror and fear in literature, Oates writes that “[w]e can presume that the aesthetic fear is not an authentic fear but an artful simulation of what is crude, inchoate, nerve-driven and ungovernable in life; its evolutionary advantage must be the preparation for the authentic experience, unpredictable and always imminent” (176). This “diseased” and decadent literature of the late-nineteenth century is the fear-mongering fruition of the “pessimistic” debates on devolution (and, as will be pointed out later, the culmination of the late-Victorian debates on population, overcrowding, and, inherently, industrialization). Symons writes that

…this literature is certainly typical of a civilization grown over-luxurious, over-inquiring, too languid for the relief of action, too uncertain for any emphasis in opinion or in conduct. It reflects the moods, all the manners, of a sophisticated society: its very artificiality is a way of being true to nature: simplicity, sanity, proportion…how much do we possess them in our life, our surroundings, that we should look to find them in our literature—so evidently the literature of a decadence? (106)

This decadent literature highlights all of the social, political, and economic ills of the late nineteenth century. Studying the social, and one could further, devolutionary, effects of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Oates writes that “Stoker was dramatizing the clash of Darwinian evolutionary theory with traditional Christian-humanist sentiment…In the austere Darwinian model of our beleaguered Earth, the individual counts for virtually nothing; only the species matters, the replication of DNA” (184). For Oates, though she chooses not to call it such, Stoker’s novel is a “degeneracy” novel, illustrating and highlighting the anxieties of Stoker’s time, in this instance, the “progressive march,” of society. Though Oates attempts to place Stoker’s novel within a historical/theological context, if we eliminate any discussion of theology and investigate Stoker’s novel as a historical artifact, we begin to see the Aesthetic function of literature as an illustration of the social and cultural anxieties of its day. Similarly, this is the function of George Gissing’s The Odd Women.

       From the very beginning of his novel, Gissing’s The Odd Women is illustrative of the degeneracy and devolutionary tone infiltrating society during of the 1890s. Robert Selig notes this tone throughout Gissing’s novel, noting that

[t]he first seven chapters and scattered later ones depict the sufferings of ‘The Odd Women’ [sic] with both sympathy and authentic social detail. The six Madden sisters provide the central examples of unfortunate single females. Their father has given them genteel educations but dies without leaving them a large enough income to support genteel ways. Within 10 years three have suffered early deaths, and three struggle on ill-paid and degrading work[…] (62)

This tone is the undercurrent for the entire novel and Gissing introduces the reader to it from the very beginning. The novel opens with an introduction to the Madden family, as Alice Madden remembers her mother while she speaks with her father, Dr. Madden, about the family’s precarious future. Gissing writes:

Mrs. Madden, having given birth to six daughters, had fulfilled her function in this wonderful world; for two years she had been resting in the old churchyard that looks upon the Severn sea…A sweet, calm, unpretending woman; admirable in the domesticities; in speech and thought distinguished by a native refinement, which in the most fastidious eyes would have established her claim to the title of a lady. She had known but little repose, and secret anxieties told upon her countenance long before the final collapse of health. (5-6)

What is interesting to note in Gissing’s description of the late Mrs. Madden is her temperament; in this way, the Maddens embody the “anxieties” of the future that we see in figures like Symons, Wells, and Lankester. Though the Maddens hail from the remote coastal town of Clevedon, it is clear that Mrs. Madden, described as a “sweet, calm” woman, lacks the evolutionary ability to “adapt” to her surroundings, even in the remote countryside, and therefore declines, devolves, and dies away. As if to reiterate the melancholic anxious tone of the novel and press his point further, by the end of the first chapter, after Dr. Madden has run an errand to escort home a family friend, Rhoda Nunn, news of the Doctor’s trip alters the Madden sisters’ futures irreparably. Gissing writes:

[…]Dr. Madden, driving back from Kingston Seymour, had been thrown from his vehicle, and lay insensible at a roadside cottage[…]For some time the doctor had been intending to buy a new horse; his faithful old roadster was very weak in the knees. As in other matters, so in this, postponement became fatality; the horse stumbled and fell, and its driver was flung head forward into the road. Some hours later they brought him to his home, and for a day or two there were hopes that he might rally. But the sufferer’s respite only permitted him to dictate and sign a brief will; this duty performed, Dr. Madden closed his lips forever. (10)

Dr. Madden’s death throws the family into a tailspin as sister after sister dies as they venture into the “maddening,” overwhelming city of London in an attempt to survive. Gissing chronicles the various sisters’ fates as they slowly dwindle in numbers. He writes that “Gertrude and Martha were dead; the former of consumption, the other drowned by the over-turning of a pleasure boat[…]Alice plied her domestic teaching; Virginia remained a ‘companion.’ Isabel, now aged twenty, taught in a Board School at Bridgwater, and Monica, just fifteen, was on the point of being apprenticed to a draper at Weston, where Virginia abode” (15). Once the sisters reach a point of “stability,” the struggle for survival catches up with them, overwhelming them in an age of overpopulation and over-industrialization. Gissing writes that “Isabel was soon worked into illness. Brain trouble came on, resulting in melancholia. A charitable institution ultimately received her, and there, at two-and-twenty, the poor hard-featured girl drowned herself in a bath” (emphasis added, 16). It is quickly obvious that life in the overcrowded, industrial, and “maddening” city has its effects on the individual. Gissing’s novel picks up with the three remaining sisters struggling, where their other sisters could not adapt (in a Malthusian and Darwinian sense), for survival. The fact that Gissing introduces the reader to an entire family, only to end up with over half of the family dead within the first two chapters sets up the tone for the entire novel. Throughout the novel, one begins to see how Gissing’s London affects the individual on an “organic” level.

       As if anticipating the “pessimism” debates that marked the 1890s hysteria of devolution and degeneracy [5], Malthus’ 1798 essay on population examines the unstable trajectory of the future—and the theoretical warning in which Gissing and the Victorians, found themselves one century later: an overpopulated land plagued with dwindling resources (and over-industrialization as society worked, through machines, in order to survive). In language that anticipates the Darwinian struggle for survival, Malthus writes “[…]that the power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man. Population, when unchecked, increases in a geometrical ratio. Subsistence increases only in an arithmetical ratio” (4). For Malthus, population booms are contributed to by increased human industry that allows the population to increase unchecked; however, he argues that the natural resources available for humanity will always dictate the population trajectory. Malthus writes that “[t]he reason that the greater part of Europe is more populous now than it was in former times, is that the industry of the inhabitants has made these countries produce a greater quantity of human subsistence” (17). However, Malthus argues that no matter how many technological and industrial improvements society has made, there are only so many resources physically available in order to sustain a growing population. Similarly, this is the problem we see in Gissing’s London: an overpopulated city has turned to an overreliance on technology to attempt to meet the demands of survival (and Gissing shows us the “cost” of this overreliance throughout his novel). According to Malthus, and one could argue later, in Darwin, the scarcity of resources promotes competition among individuals in order to survive.[6] For Malthus, this struggle for survival is rooted in the trajectory of population, which, when continued unchecked, outstrips all available resources, creating miserable living conditions. He writes that “[…]the superior power of population cannot be checked without producing misery or vice, the ample portion of these too bitter ingredients in the cup of human life and the continuance of the physical causes that seem to have produced them bear too convincing a testimony” (11). Thus, as sustenance dwindles, population numbers come in check due to the lack of available resources, essentially creating the “misery” that effectively puts a damper on population growth.[7] The anxieties and hysterics that Malthus forewarns of are exactly part and parcel of the problem that Gissing’s “odd women,” and to a greater extent, the Victorians, faced in the late nineteenth century.

       Late-Victorian Britain marked a turning point in British population growth, as economic and foreign affairs affected the population “boom” made possible by the advances of the Industrial Revolution. In a study of the population demographics of Victorian Britain, Robert Woods notes that “[…]the Victorian period was so important as a [population] turning point in England” (4). For Woods, this “turning point” was marked by a lower mortality rate and higher fertility rates. The implication, as Jeremy Black and Donald MacRaild suggest, is that increased technological and industrial advances allowed such a population boom and prevented the traditional Malthusian checks to population.[8] Black and MacRaild write that Victorian Britain saw a population boom on the scale of which Malthus warned. They write that “[p]opulation grew dramatically in this period without famines[…]in other words, without the ‘positive checks’ on population which were seen as so vital by the Reverend Thomas Malthus[…]” (59). Black and MacRaild argue that the “checks” Malthus warned would produce misery and vice were relatively minimal, due to the technological and industrial gains that produced such a boom. Black and MacRaild state that though Malthus’s “prophesies of a population crisis never occurred,” this population boom clearly put a strain on the new urban-centered English societies (59). What is interesting is that Black and MacRaild focus on the “relief valve” of emigration as a way to help assuage the pressure resulting from the booming population in the absence of Malthusian population checks (59). Historical consensus indicates that the Victorian period marked a break with Malthusian population theory and altered the shape and geography of Britain, resulting in a new “debate” on the population trajectory of British society.

       The population boom that dominated the Victorian period, made possible by the technological and industrial advances spurred by the Industrial Revolution, altered the very geography of Victorian society. Woods notes that population growth was spurred by an increasingly urban culture (27). Tracing The Population History of England in their seminal study, E.A. Wrigley and R.S. Schofield claim that h, h,istorically London was the epicenter of all population booms and declines. They write that “[i]t was the very size and untypicality [sic] of London that made it seem advisable to make separate estimates of the numbers of ecclesiastical [population] events occurring there and to incorporate them explicitly in the estimated national totals of events[…]” (170). Similarly, Black and MacRaild note that the population growth that dominated Victorian Britain was overshadowed by that which was seen in London, specifically. They write that “[b]etween 1861 and 1911, it [London] burgeoned from 2.8 m[illion] to 4.5 m[illion] inhabitants. While much of this was due to net immigration, natural increase accounted for 85 per cent of all growth by the end of the century” (81). According to Wrigley and Schofield, London’s population “boom” began to take hold at the beginning of the nineteenth century when London comprised 3.6% of the entire total population of England (168). For Wrigley and Schofield, as for Woods, the nineteenth century marked a turning point in London’s population trends, which continued to grow exponentially throughout the rest of the century. Black and MacRaild write that the total population of England in the mid-nineteenth century was 17.93 million, booming to 29 million by the end of the century. While the urban population made up 50.2% of the total population of 17.93 million in 1851, by 1891, the urban population comprised 72% of the 29 million residents of England. Black and MacRaild, similar to Wrigley and Schofield, argue that London, due to its immense size, made up the majority of this “urban population” (80). While the traditional Malthusian checks to population increase were greatly reduced in the new highly-industrialized Victorian England, particularly in London the Victorian population boom produced an overtly new form of society, one that was just as miserable as Malthus’ “lower orders.” As Woods argues, overcrowding and dwindling resources did have an effect on London society. He writes that

[t]he crowding together of people affected disease patterns, especially those of infectious diseases; it created a more lethal sanitary environment; and it also led to new, higher and more concentrated levels of air pollution. These hazards were faced by all those living in cities, but there were other problems—those associated with poverty and type of employment, with housing and diet—whose effects were borne differentially depending on one’s social group or class. (27-28)

This is exactly the society that Gissing and his fellow Aesthetes attempt to illustrate in their late-Victorian novels.

       The London that Gissing’s Madden sisters inhabit is crowded and over-stimulating, an indication of the overpopulation seen at the end of the nineteenth century. This overcrowding has a clearly visible effect on the individual. After the death of her father, Virginia Madden finds herself living in London with her sister Alice in a small, single-room apartment, struggling to survive. Gissing writes that

Virginia (about thirty-three) had[…]an unhealthy look, but the poverty, or vitiation, of her blood manifested itself in less unsightly forms[…]For she was rapidly ageing; her lax lips grew laxer, with emphasis of a characteristic one would rather not have perceived there; her eyes sank into deeper hollows; wrinkles extended their net-work; the flesh of her neck wore away. Her tall meagre body did not seem strong enough to hold itself upright. (14)

It is clear that the mix of the overpopulated London and lack of resources has taken a toll on Virginia’s health. As she sits down for lunch with her sister, we see the extent of their problem. Gissing writes:

[t]hey were preparing their mid-day meal, the substantial repast of the day. In a little saucepan on an oil cooking-stove was some plain rice, bubbling, as Alice stirred it. Virginia fetched from downstairs[…]bread, butter, cheese, a pot of preserve, and arranged the table[…]at which they were accustomed to eat. The rice being ready, it was turned out in two portions; made savoury with a little butter, pepper, and salt, it invited them to sit down. (17)

The Madden sisters at once illustrate the Malthusian population problems facing London at the end of the nineteenth century: an overpopulated, overcrowded city, struggling (in a Darwinian way) for resources and survival.

       We see the full effect of the city on the individual when Virginia ventures out to buy a present for her other surviving sister, Monica. Gissing writes that

“[a] very long walk was before her. She wished to get as far as the Strand book-shops, not only for the sake of choice, but because this region pleased her and gave her a sense of holiday. Past Battersea Park, over Chelsea Bridge, then the weary stretch to Victoria Station, and the upward labour to Charing Cross. Five miles, at least, measured by pavement. But Virginia walked quickly[…]. (22)

Throughout her “quick walk,” the fast pace of London life takes a toll on Virginia. Gissing makes references to the “anxiety” and “clamorous life” that she finds throughout London. Ultimately, it is this “anxiety” that causes Virginia to turn back from her “holiday.” As she approaches the railroad in order to return home, Gissing writes that “[a]t the entrance [to Charing Cross Station] again she stopped. Her features were now working in the strangest way, as though a difficulty of breathing had assailed her. In her eyes was an eager, yet frightened look; her lips stood apart. Another quick movement, and she entered the station. She went straight to the door of the refreshment room…” (23). Virginia’s movements, like the technologically-driven London environment, become quicker and more mechanical, as she becomes “one” with the industrial, “maddening” city. In the refreshment room, Virginia seeks out solace and begins to establish a pattern and a means of coping with life in the overpopulated and over-stimulated London. Gissing writes that “[b]ending forward, she said to the barmaid in a voice just above a whisper: ‘Kindly give me a little brandy.’ Beads of perspiration were on her face, which had turned to a ghastly pallor. The barmaid, concluding that she was ill, served her promptly and with a sympathetic look” (23). It is clear that the cacophonous city has had an effect on Virginia. By the end of the novel, the extent of Virginia’s drinking problem is clear, as she strives to find a way to survive in London. After the “scandal” of Monica’s “affair,” we see Virginia alone in the room she shares with Alice and Monica, turning once again to gin and water for respite. Gissing writes that this was “[t]he last, the very last, of such enjoyment; so she assured herself[…]If she abstained from strong liquors for three or four days it was now a great triumph; yet worthless, for even in abstaining she knew that the hour of indulgence had only been postponed. A fit of unendurable depression soon drove her to the only resource which had immediate efficacy” (333). Invocative of the vice of which Malthus warned would envelop the working classes, overwhelmed by the overpopulated city and their struggle to survive there, Virginia turns to drink in order to calm her nerves. Gissing writes that

[h]er bottle was almost empty; she would finish it to-night[…]To sit comfortably at home, the bottle beside her and her novel on her lap, was an avoidance of the worst shame attaching to this vice[…]Brandy had first of all been her drink, as is generally the case with women of the educated classes. There are so many plausible excuses for taking a drop of brandy. But it cost too much. Whiskey she had tried, and did not like. Finally she had recourse to gin, which was palatable and very cheap. (333-334)

Virginia turns to alcohol to calm her nerves from the over-stimulation wrought by the crowded, fast-paced city. What is clear in Virginia’s alcoholism is that the overpopulated city has had an effect on her, biologically and psychologically.

       Just like Virginia Madden, the few men who populate Gissing’s London are altered radically, essentially devolved, by the influences of the overpopulated city. The first man (of the few) we encounter in the novel is clearly altered by his surroundings. As Monica wanders in the park on her birthday, contemplating her precarious fate, her future husband, Edmund Widdowson, approaches her as she sits in the grass.[9] Gissing writes that

[t]he gravity of his appearance and manner, the good-natured commonplace that fell from his lips, could not alarm her; a dialogue began, and went on for about half an hour. How old might he be?[…]His utterance fell short of perfect refinement, but seemed that of an educated man. And certainly his clothes were such as a gentleman wears. He had thin, hairy hands, unmarked by any effect of labour; the nails could not have been better cared for. (38)

Edmund’s appearance indicates, other than his class, that he is “soft” and not used to working with his hands, contrary to the industrial male laborer. The men who populate industrial London are effeminate and weak in this way. As Edmund “courts” Monica, he essentially stalks her, manipulating her through his fits of heightened emotions, effectually bullying her into a miserable marriage. Similarly, Mary Barfoot’s cousin, Everard, is portrayed just as effeminately. After returning to London from his journeys around the world, Everard dines at Mary’s house. Gissing writes that

[h]e had a tall, muscular frame, and a head of striking outline, with large nose, full lips, deep-set eyes, and prominent eyebrows. His hair was the richest tone of chestnut; his moustache and beard[…]inclined to redness. Excellent health manifested itself in the warm purity of his skin, in his cheerful aspect, and the lightness of his bearing[…]On sitting down, he at once abandoned himself to a posture of the completest [sic] ease, which his admirable proportions made graceful[…]he had a soft voice, and used it with all the discretion of good-breeding, so that at times it seemed to caress the ear. (88)

Though Everard appears physically healthy and masculine, one could argue that his healthy demeanor is derived from his time abroad[10] and is undermined by his speech and mannerisms. Everard and Edmund are the inverted effete “new men” who counterbalance the populous “new women,” and who take up the traditional “masculine” roles in order to survive in an increasingly effeminate world.

       The industrial late-Victorian city was overrun with people; however, the people who overran this city were predominantly women, as Gissing’s novel illustrates. This indicates a drastic shift in the population demographics that marked the Victorian population boom. Many factors contributed to the evolving demographic changes in the Victorian industrial city. Black and MacRaild state that “[t]hroughout the century, women outnumbered men. Industrial accidents and wars took a heavier toll on men and accentuated the statistical fact that live female births were anyway more numerous than male” (57). By the time Gissing’s novel appeared in 1893, the population ratio of women to men was 106 to 100 (Black and MacRaild 57). At heart in Gissing’s The Odd Women is the way these women view their function and place within this new, overpopulated, predominantly feminine world.

       The state of marriage seen in The Odd Women is indicative of the predicament in which late-Victorian women found themselves: outnumbering men proportionately, women in the late-nineteenth century had to turn to other means in order to support themselves. Though one of the population checks for which Malthus advocates is the postponement of marriage, particularly among the “lower orders,” Gissing’s “odd women” do not have that luxury; instead, they are the very women left over after all of the “available” men and women have been “matched.” Poole writes that “[t]he theme of the novel is explicit. The ‘odd women’ are the unwanted, unmarried minority, being quietly crucified on the social fiat that a woman’s role is marriage and motherhood” (186). In lieu of marriage, Gissing’s “odd women” turn to other means in order to survive: education and the professional workforce. This alternative echoes one of Malthus’s positive checks to population growth; however, in Gissing’s novel, this alternative is not simply an alternative, but a means of survival. Emma Liggins writes that “[b]y the early 1890s the female desire for greater economic independence, produced by the lack of financial support available from fathers and the increasing surplus of single women, ensured that more women than ever before felt compelled to enter the labour market” (ix). This “viable solution” appears quite early in Gissing’s novel. When she visits the Madden sisters to “recruit” them, Rhoda Nunn lays out the new mode of survival for women in this overpopulated, industrial society. She states that

I went to Bristol to learn everything I could that would help me out of school-life. Shorthand, book-keeping, commercial correspondence—I had lessons in them all, and worked desperately for a year [responding to a job offer, Rhoda leaves Bath and moves to London]. It was a move towards London, and I couldn’t rest till I had come the whole way. My first engagement here was as a shorthand writer to the secretary of a company. But he soon wanted some one who could use a type-writer. That was a suggestion. I went to learn type-writing, and the lady who taught me [Mary Barfoot] asked me in the end to stay with her as an assistant. (27)

Rhoda’s practical education serves as a means of survival in the absence of marriage. As an assistant to Mary Barfoot, Rhoda’s career in life is to help train and educate the unmarried “odd women,” so they may survive outside the economic and social institution of marriage. She says that Ms. Barfoot “makes it her object to train young girls for work in offices, teaching them the things that I learnt in Bristol and type-writing as well” (27-28). Ms. Barfoot’s school, in training the “odd women” in the skill of typewriting, allows the unmatchable women to enter the workforce, attempting to support themselves in the absence of eligible bachelors. By taking up traditionally “masculine” white-collar careers, the “odd women” effectively invert their own gender paradigms and “devolve” in the social hierarchy of industrial London society. Outpaced and outstripped of resources, these “odd women” cling to whatever means for survival.

       Gissing’s “odd women” negotiate their way through the increasingly industrial, overpopulated London in an attempt to survive in a period that witnessed a population boom on the scale of which Malthus had warned. Through looking at the “debates” surrounding the late-Victorian population boom, we can see how the Victorians themselves were concerned about the overpopulation of the industrial city, in particular, how the dwindling resources (in a Malthusian and Darwinian vein) available to urban residents occupied a special place in Victorian thought and created a sense of social “hysteria.” We see this in the devolutionary/degeneracy debates of the 1890s, as figures like Wells and Lankester debated the ability of mankind to survive life in an (overly-industrialized) overpopulated Victorian (mega) city. Gissing’s novel illustrates these anxieties circulating throughout late-Victorian society concerning futurity, population, sustenance, and cultural progress. While The Odd Women has conventionally been investigated through the feministic cultural work that it performs, when one looks at the philosophical history in which the novel is rooted, it is clear that Gissing’s novel is an approach to the “hysteria” facing late-Victorian England amidst the concerns about the overpopulation of the industrial city, and in particular, the individual’s ability to “adapt” (Darwinistically) to life in this overpopulated, over-industrialized city.

Works Cited

Black, Jeremy and Donald M. MacRaild. Nineteenth-Century Britain. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003. Print.

Bowler, Peter. “Malthus, Darwin, and the Concept of Struggle,” Journal of the History of Ideas 37:4 (Oct.-Dec. 1976): 631-650. JSTOR. Web. 21 March 2013.

Gissing, George. The Odd Women, reissue, Patricia Ingham, ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008. Print.

Heilbroner, Robert L. The Worldly Philosophers: The Lives, Times, and Ideas of the Great Economic Thinkers, revised seventh edition. New York: Touchstone, 1999. Print.

Lankester, Edwin Ray. “Degeneration: A Chapter in Darwinism.” The Fin de Siècle: A Reader in Cultural History, c. 1880-1900, Sally Ledger and Roger Luckhurst, eds. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000. Print.

Liggins, Emma. George Gissing, the Working Woman, and Urban Culture. Hampshire: Ashgate, 2006. Print.

Malthus, Thomas. An Essay on the Principle of Population, as it Affects the Future Improvement of Society with Remarks on the Speculations of Mr. Godwin, m. Condorcet, and Other Writers. <> Web. 3 September 2012.

Maltz, Diana. “Practical Aesthetics and Decadent Rationale in George Gissing,” Victorian Literature and Culture 28:1 (2000): 55-71. JSTOR. Web. 21 March 2013.

Nordau, Max. “Degeneration,” in Literature and Science in the Nineteenth Century: An Anthology, Laura Otis, ed. Oxford University Press, 2002. Print.

Oates, Joyce Carol. “The Aesthetics of Fear,” Salmagundi 120 (Fall 1998): 176-185. JSTOR. Web. 21 March 2013.

Poole, Adrian. Gissing in Context. Totowa, N.J.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1975. Print.

Selig, Robert. George Gissing, revised edition. New York: Twayne Publishers, Simon & Schuster, 1995. Print.

Shrimpton, Nicholas. “‘Lane, you’re a perfect pessimist’: Pessimism and the English Fin de siècle,” The Yearbook of English Studies, From Decadent to Modernist: And Other Essays 37:1 (2007) 41-57. JSTOR. Web. 23 March 2013.

Spencer, Kathleen. “Purity and Danger: Dracula, the Urban Gothic, and the Late Victorian Degeneracy Crisis,” ELH 59:1 (Spring 1992): 197-225. JSTOR. Web. 23 March 2013.

Stiegler, Bernard. Technics and Time, 2: Disorientation, Stephen Barker, transl. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2009. Print.

Symons, Arthur. “The Decadent Movement in Literature,” in The Fin de Siècle: A Reader in Cultural History, c. 1880-1900, Sally Ledger and Roger Luckhurst, eds. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000. Print.

Walasek, Helen, ed. The Best of Punch Cartoons: 2,000 Humor Classics. New York: Overlook Press, 2009. Print.

Wells, H.G. “Zoological Retrogression,” in The Fin de Siècle: A Reader in Cultural History, c. 1880-1900, Sally Ledger and Roger Luckhurst, eds. Oxford:
Oxford University Press, 2000. Print.

Woods, Robert. The Demography of Victorian England and Wales. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Wrigley, E.A. and R.S. Shofield. The Population History of England 1541-1871: A reconstruction. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1981. Print.


[1] Here, “devolution” and “degeneration” are interchangeable terms, as both concepts are interested in humanity’s evolutionary progress.

[2] We could posit that the “evolving environments” in which humanity now found itself was the overpopulated city, overrun with technology as mankind attempted to find his place in this new overpopulated landscape, in this instance, through the mediation of technology.

[3] The late-Victorian Aesthetic movement had many currents. Diana Maltz writes that Gissing participated in all forms of the Aesthetic movement, whether the Decadence of Gissing’s early formative years or the anti-Aestheticism, advocated by Walter Pater, in Gissing’s later texts, in particular, The Odd Women.

[4] It is interesting to note that Symons’ treatise on literary decadence was published in the same year as Gissing’s novel.

[5] Malthus’ voice sounds remarkably similar to the “doom-and-gloom” pessimists of the late nineteenth century. Very early in his Essay, he writes that “[i]t has been said that the great question is now at issue, whether man shall henceforth start forwards with accelerated velocity towards illimitable, and hitherto unconceived [sic] improvement, or be condemned to perpetual oscillation between happiness and misery, and after every effort remain still at an immeasurable distance from the wished-for goal” (1).

[6] Peter Bowler makes the correlation between Malthus and Darwin in tracing the two types of struggle. He writes that “[…]the competition between the different individuals of the same species to see which of them shall survive and reproduce[…]” is the very root of the Darwinian, and one could claim, Malthusian, struggle for survival.

[7] Bowler writes that “[s]ince the supply of food can never be increased at the same rate as the population, the number of births must be artificially limited if misery is to be avoided. But Malthus classed birth control as a vice, and hence came to feel that the only solution lay in teaching the whole population the need for moral restraint” (642).

[8] Yet the industrial technologies that allowed the Victorian population boom exacerbated the very miseries of life in an overpopulated and over-industrialized world that we see in Gissing’s novel.’

[9] Widdowson’s audacity to approach a “lady” sitting alone in the park should be a marker for Victorian readers. This is indicative of an imbalance seen in Widdowson, one that is characteristic of his behavior and heightened emotions.

[10] Everard, who Gissing notes has spent his time traveling the world, in Egypt, Turkey, Spain, and Japan, lives a life of effeminate luxury, the very life denied to the Madden sisters.

“The Omnipotence of Simulacra”: Tracing the Evolution of the Simulacrum Throughout the History of Theory, Criticism, and Human Subjectivity

by Joshua Commander


“The dissimulation of the woven texture can in any case take centuries to undo its web: a web that envelops a web, undoing the web for centuries; reconstituting it too as an organism, indefinitely regenerating its own tissue behind the cutting trace” writes Jacques Derrida in his pivotal book La Dissémination — an observation which proves especially germane when endeavoring to dis-simulate the woven and (perhaps inextricably) entangled texture of simulation as well as the simulacrum’s role throughout the history of human subjectivity and literary theory (Derrida 1697). While Jean Baudrillard notes in “The Precession of Simulacra” that “the precession of simulacra” is now “here, everywhere[…] in a world completely catalogued and analyzed and then artificially revived as though real, in a world of simulation,” such a world has nonetheless been with us since antiquity” (1562). From Plato’s Idea of God to Donna Haraway’s cyborg, the silent precession and procession of simulacra has accompanied the evolution of Western civilization and literary theory for millennia — a procession that has only gained momentum over the centuries, a procession that is forever-present despite its tendency to signify only absence. By using Baudrillard’s theoretical framework to reveal the masked presence of simulation in Plato’s Ideal Forms, Augustine’s interpretation of biblical scripture, the mirror stage of psychosexual development, constructions of the “Other,” mimicry and metonymy of presence, and the persistent human desire for a (mythic) visible past in literary theory and criticism, we will find that simulacra has not only evolved along with us in our cultural development, but perhaps that we too are nothing other than simulacra ourselves. Indeed, to believe otherwise would be tantamount to dissimulation.

       According to Plato, “any given plurality of things which have a single name constitutes a single specific type”—an Idea or Form—in which “God” is the creator of its original, perfect, and transcendent form, and any subsequent earthly reproductions are but imperfect imitations of that “Ideal” (65). In Book X of the Republic, Plato’s dialogue between Socrates and Glaucon serves to establish the Platonic order of things, but also anticipates the first two phases of the image that Baudrillard identifies in “The Precession of Simulacra” (Baudrillard 1560). Using a bed as an example, Socrates explains to Glaucon its three manifestations: first is the “real” one, the “product of divine craftsmanship”; second is the physical manifestation of the bed here on earth—the one the joiner produces; and lastly is the artistic reproduction of the bed, fashioned by a painter (Plato 66). Socrates and Glaucon move on to classify “God” as the bed’s “progenitor” (because it is God who produced the only “real bed”), the joiner as its “manufacturer,” and the painter as its “representer” (a label extended to all painters, playwrights, and poets) since s/he [2] “deals with things which are, in fact, two generations away from reality” (66). If we take Plato’s theory at face-value, his second classification of a thing—in the given example, the joiner’s bed—also fulfills Baudrillard’s criterion for the first order of simulation: a “reflection of a basic reality”; his third category, the product of a representer, then fulfills the second phase of the image since a “low-grade mother like representation” is not only “far from the truth,” but also “masks and perverts a basic reality”—both Plato and Baudrillard would agree with its classification of “an evil appearance” which belongs to “the order of malefice” (Plato 72; Baudrillard 1560). Plato and Baudrillard’s agreement ends there, however, for while the former considers his Idea of God an irrefutable reality, the latter considers it to be little more than an anthropocentric phantasm, a specter of tradition and a culturally-constructed illusion (1559). Indeed, according to Baudrillard’s subsection of his treatise titled “The Divine Irreference of Images,” the purportedly “real” Platonic Forms created by “God”— including “the Platonic Idea of God”—amount to nothing other than their own pure simulacra since they reference (in text, speech, or other images) things that do not exist and therefore mask only absences and bear “no relation to any reality whatever”—in short, they “dissimulate that there is nothing” (1559-60).

       Far from confining the “simulacrum of divinity” to Platonic Ideals, however, Baudrillard holds that “[a]ll of Western faith and good faith was engaged in this wager on representation: that a sign could refer to the depth of meaning, that a sign could exchange for meaning and that something could guarantee this exchange—God, of course” (1559, 1560). The vessel through which Augustine of Hippo grounds his theories of how signs function—his interpretation of (and evident belief in) biblical scripture—is a case in point. In On Christian Teaching, Augustine instructs the gentle reader on the proper method of dealing with “the ambiguities of metaphorical words” in texts: first and foremost, one must take especial care not to mistake a figurative expression for a literal one lest that expression be “understood in a carnal way” (160). He exemplifies such a spiritual oversight by relating that when an individual hears the word ‘sabbath’ and literally construes it as merely one of the calendar days of a week instead of taking into account its figurative significance (as a day commemorating the resurrection of Christ), s/he is subject to “a miserable kind of spiritual slavery” and is “incapable of raising the mind’s eye above the physical creation so as to absorb the eternal light” (160). Augustine equates the inability to recognize figurative language to “spiritual slavery” because what is at stake here is not merely a misunderstanding of meaning, but the possibility that the reader might not recognize the ‘divine truth’ of “the word of God” in his/her interpretation of scriptural text (157). As Baudrillard explains, “[t]o simulate is to feign to have what one hasn’t. [It] implies[…]an absence”—but simulation is not merely limited to feigning; like an individual who simulates sickness and generates psychosomatic symptoms, the biblical advocate (Augustine) also unconsciously simulates belief in “the word of God” and in so doing generates conviction based on “an uninterrupted circuit without reference,” thereby threatening “the difference between ‘true’ and ‘false,’ between ‘real’ and ‘imaginary’” (Baudrillard 1558-60; Augustine 157). Not unlike Plato’s Idea of God, Augustine’s “invisible attributes of God” have been “volatized into simulacra”—biblical texts—“which alone deploy their pomp and power of fascination,” therein masking the devastating truth “that ultimately there has never been any God, that only the simulacrum exists, indeed that God himself has only ever been his own simulacrum” (Augustine 157; Baudrillard 1559).

       The simulacrum’s role in human subjectivity is not limited to its manifestations as religious texts, however; indeed, its grasp first takes hold on an individual level the very moment an infant approaches the gateway to the imaginary order: the mirror stage. As Plato illustrates via Socrates and Glaucon’s dialogue:

Socrates: [G]et hold of a mirror and carry it around with you everywhere. You’ll soon be creating everything.

Glaucon: Yes, but I’d be creating appearances, not actual real things. (Plato 65)

So too does a young child create merely an appearance during its initial méconnaissance of itself, an appearance s/he mistakes for the real thing. In “The Mirror Stage as Formative of the Function of the I,” Jacques Lacan describes the transformation that a subject undergoes when s/he first (mis)recognizes her/himself in the mirror: the infant jubilantly identifies with the seeming wholeness of its specular form, but this form only serves to situate “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[…] of the subject asymptotically” (1164-65)[4]. Thus, the child’s reflection occupies the second phase of Baudrillard’s “successive phases of the image”: as an image [5] forever in “discordance with [the subject’s] own reality,” it is of the second order of simulation in that “it masks and perverts a basic reality” by depicting a figure of wholeness while simultaneously representing only an “exteriority in which this form is certainly more constituent than constituted” (Baudrillard 1560; Lacan 1165). In this way, the specular image can also be read as a text, just as a text can also be read as a second-order simulacrum: according to Jacques Derrida, “[a] text is not a text unless it hides from the first comer, from the first glance, the law of its composition and the rules of its game. A text remains, moreover, forever imperceptible”(1697)[6].

       And yet, “the spectral light of ethnology” can at times appear to illuminate some of the darker passages of texts, but in reality this “fourth dimension[…]of the simulacrum” only serves to further obscure them—as Edward Said so ably demonstrates in his groundbreaking work Orientalism (Baudrillard 1562). Not unlike the incomplete image that a reflection provides a subject, Edward Said writes that “Orientalism is premised on exteriority, that is, on the fact that the Orientalist, poet or scholar, makes the Orient speak, describes the Orient, renders its mysteries plain for and to the West”; indeed, the Western conception of the Orient is so thoroughly composed of a continuous series of Western representations repeatedly mapped onto each other that Said contends that “[t]he Orient was almost a European invention” in that the latter’s culture was able to produce the former “politically, sociologically, militarily, ideologically, scientifically, and imaginatively during the post-enlightenment period” (1882, 1866, 1868). The Orient is therefore less an Eastern reality and more a Western fantasy, an endless succession of signs, images, texts, and representations that defines the East on the West’s terms—a phantasmagoric simulacrum that at once distorts, perverts, and masks the real presence of the East. The means by which this Oriental simulacrum is fashioned, of course, is via a sub-branch of ethnology—Orientalism—by a specialist of that ethnological field: the Orientalist. According to Said, the Orientalist is “[a]nyone who teaches, writes about, or researches the Orient[…]either in its specific or general aspects,” whose work in turn produces seemingly scientific discourses that only result in the continued conquest and subjugation of the Orient (1867). In other words, “the Orient was not (and is not) a free subject of thought or action”: in order for “ethnology [and Orientalism] to live, its object [the East] must die” (Said 1868; Baudrillard 1561).

       This ethnologically induced death also manifests itself in the form of what Homi Bhabha calls “mimicry” in his essay “Of Mimicry and Man: The Ambivalence of Colonial Discourse”; this death, however, is exacted as if it were administered via a double-edged sword without a hilt, simultaneously wounding its wielder as it dispatches its object—all the while generating its very own precession of simulacra. As Bhabha relates, “colonial mimicry is the desire for a reformed, recognizable Other, as a subject of a difference that is almost the same but not quite” (126). To achieve its end, though, mimicry must not cease producing the said difference—what Bhabha calls “its slippage”—but it is that difference in itself which is also “a process of disavowal” that ironically “ensure[s] [the] strategic failure” of colonial appropriation, resulting in mimicry simultaneously functioning as both “ resemblance and menace” (127). The latter is self-evident and undeniable in the visible [7] aspect of mimicry: the colonized is “[a]lmost the same but not white,” which effectively unveils the inherent “ambivalence of colonial discourse” as well as undermines its narcissistic authority, therein furnishing itself with the inadvertent means to its own destruction (130). In the meantime, however, colonial mimicry’s “strategic production of conflictual, fantastic, discriminatory ‘identity effects’” produces a mimetic Other with “no essence, no ‘itself’”; in brief, “mimicry conceals no presence or identity behind its mask” (130-31). The resultant byproducts are colonized simulacra of the colonizers: individuals whose visible aspects mask an absence of self. On the other hand—and here can be descried the colonizers’ unconscious brandishing of yet another dual-edged blade without a hilt—the apparent ease with which colonized Others may perform the cultural codes of the colonial authority reveals precisely how hollow that authority’s claim to cultural superiority really is: not unlike the replica made just five-hundred meters away from the original caves of Lascaux, “the duplication is sufficient to render both artificial” (Baudrillard 1563). Both colonized and colonizer are reduced to simulacra by the latter’s counterproductive, and ultimately ineffective, strategic objectives to maintain power.

       Moreover, those self-serving strategic objectives also take shape in yet another form: the “inappropriate signifiers of colonial discourse” that Bhabha calls the “metonymy of presence” (130). These include, according to Bhabha, “the difference between being English and being Anglicized[…]the discriminatory [stereotypical] identities constructed across traditional cultural norms and classifications, the Simian Black, the Lying Asiatic”—and also, as Edward Said has identified, the Oriental (Bhabha 130). Bhabha styles such racist sweeping generalizations as metonymies of presence because these stereotypes represent a presence in part, a part that is intended to masquerade as a whole. In other words, these stereotypes are third-order simulacra: each stereotype “plays at being an appearance,” each “masks the absence of a basic reality”—the absence of an accurate representation of the Other (Baudrillard 1560). Consider the Occident’s stereotypical depiction of the Oriental: the Oriental female is represented as being strikingly exotic and overly eager for domination; the Oriental male is portrayed as feminine, weak, but also oddly threatening in that his untamed sexuality places Western white women in apparent jeopardy; and the West’s sweeping personification of the Orient “exhibits supine malleability and feminine penetrability” and is viewed as eccentric, backward, silently different, passive, sensual, despotic, and cruel (Said 1868; Said 2, 206). Said stresses the importance of viewing such representations as precisely that: re-presentations. According to Said, “[i]n any instance of at least written language, there is no such thing as a delivered presence, but a represence, or representation” (1883). Indeed, written accounts depicting Western stereotypes of the Oriental therefore depend very little on actual individuals; “on the contrary,” Said writes, “the written statement is a presence to the reader by virtue of it having excluded, displaced, [8] made supererogatory any such real thing as the Orient[al]” (1883). Said’s classification of the West’s “represence” of the Orient and the Oriental testify to the legitimacy of Baudrillard’s claim that “simulation envelops the whole edifice of representation as itself a simulacrum,” since such stereotypical representations have progressed from masking and perverting a basic reality, to masking the absence of a basic reality by virtue of excluding and displacing it, and then finally to bearing very little relation to any reality whatsoever in its policy of simultaneous exclusion and alteration; in other words, such a stereotypical depiction of the Oriental is but the simulacrum of the highest order (Baudrillard 1560).

       “We need a visible past, a visible continuum, a visible myth of origin to reassure us as to our ends, since ultimately we have never believed in them” (Baudrillard 1563). Donna Haraway, in her critical essay entitled “A Manifesto for Cyborgs,” would qualify Baudrillard’s disillusioned observation with the need for novelty: we need a new past, “retold stories, versions that reverse and displace hierarchical dualisms of naturalized identities”; and indeed, she answers her own clarion call by constructing her own “ironic faith, [her] blasphemy,” in “the image of the cyborg” (2215, 2190). Unlike the central myths of origin that masquerade as divine histories, the cyborg embraces its existential indeterminacy as “a creature of fiction” and “a creature of social reality”—a creature after our own hearts, for the cyborg’s very composition mirrors our own: we too are part fiction, part social reality, the latter being nothing more than “lived social relations, our most important political construction, a world-changing fiction” (2190)[9]. Cyborgs, like ourselves, “are the illegitimate offspring of militarism and patriarchal capitalism,” and there is a certain legitimacy to be had in recognizing one’s own illegitimacy: in recognizing the illegitimacy of the origin myths that have colonized our minds and governed our existence for millennia, we liberate ourselves from believing that the fictional dictates we have always lived by are facts—and can now live a fiction of our own choosing (2192). For whether we persist in believing that we were created in a fictional “god’s” image, or if we choose to re-create ourselves in the cyborg’s image, or if we abandon the question entirely, the end result is the same: we are all of the highest order of simulacra, images that bear no relation to our real origins whatsoever simply because those origins are unverifiable, which leads us to instead forever construct ourselves on the basis of a simulated reality, a woven texture forever entangled with our subjective experience. Indeed, to believe otherwise would be tantamount to dissimulation.

Works Cited

Augustine of Hippo. “From On Christian Teaching.” The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch. 2nd ed. New York: W.W. Norton &, 2010. 154-62.

Baudrillard, Jean. “The Precession of Simulacra.” The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch. 2nd ed. New York: W.W. Norton &, 2010. 1556-566.

Bhabha, Homi. “Of Mimicry and Man: The Ambivalence of Colonial Discourse.” October 28. Discipleship: A Special Issue on Psychoanalysis (Spring, 1984): 125-33. JSTOR. The MIT Press. Web. 19 Aug. 2013.

Derrida, Jacques. “From La Dissémination.” The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch. 2nd ed. New York: W.W. Norton &, 2010. 1697-734.

—. “From Of Grammatology.” The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch. 2nd ed. New York: W.W. Norton &, 2010. 1688-696.

Haraway, Donna. “A Manifesto for Cyborgs: Science, Technology, and Socialist Feminism in the 1980s.” The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch. 2nd ed. New York: W.W. Norton &, 2010. 2190-220.

Lacan, Jacques. “The Mirror Stage as Formative of the Function of the I as Revealed in Psychoanalytic Experience.” The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch. 2nd ed. New York: W.W. Norton &, 2010. 1163-169.

Plato. “From Republic.” The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch. 2nd ed. New York: W.W. Norton &, 2010. 45-77.

Said, Edward W. Orientalism. London: Penguin, 1977.

—. “From Orientalism.” The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch. 2nd ed. New York: W.W. Norton &, 2010. 1861-888.


[1] “The Omnipotence of Simulacra” appears in Baudrillard, 1559.

[2] I employ the gender-neutral, and more egalitarian, pronoun not out of ignorance—I understand that during the Hellenic era women were not as likely as men to be “representers” (painters, poets, tragedians, etc.)—but out of preference. This same usage will follow throughout.

[3] This is the reason why Baudrillard attributes his epigraph—“The simulacrum is never that which conceals the truth—it is the truth which conceals that there is none. The simulacrum is true”—to Ecclesiastes; not because this epigraph is found in the Old Testament book of that name, but because that is what a preacher (what “Ecclesiastes” means in Ancient Greek) as an alleged representative of “God” on earth is: a simulacrum, a signifier that has no corresponding signified (1556). By extension, the church (what “ecclesia” came to mean in Greece when Christianity was introduced), as the house of God, is also its own simulacrum: its existence is based on the object of its faith—a mythic object that does not exist.

[4] My emphasis.

[5] Which Lacan calls the Gestalt (1165).

[6] My emphasis.

[7] Bhabha brilliantly plays off the layered meanings of terms—reminiscent of Derrida’s development of the linguistic concept of the “trace” in his analysis of Rousseau’s use of the term supplement—when he notes that “the visibility of mimicry is always produced at the sight of interdiction. It is a form of colonial discourse that is uttered inter dicta,” because the Latin phrase “inter dicta” means “between,” but when combined to one term, “interdicta,” it means “forbidden” (Derrida 1691; Bhabha 130). Both meanings, of course, at once apply to his usage and highlight the characteristic ambivalence of mimicry.

[8] My emphasis.

[9] My emphasis.

Is Doctoral Study Right for You?

Presented by Ellen Peel
Professor of English and Comparative & World Literature

Thursday, September 11
4:30–5:55 p.m.
HUM 587

All graduate and undergraduate students considering applying to a Ph.D. program are invited, especially those with a major in the College of Liberal & Creative Arts.

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