Exorcising exoticism: Carmen and the construction of Oriental Spain
Colmeiro, Jose F
“The gaze into the Orient had turned, as in a convex mirror, to reflect the Occident that produced it. . .”
ONE WOULD THINK that everything has already been said about Carmen– the character, the novel, the opera, and her infinite resurrections in the last one hundred years of plenitude-and that we might as well let her rest in peace. However, the persistence in the popular imagination of the notion of Carmen as the ultimate essence of Spanishness is troubling. A recent poll in the European Union revealed that, after Don Quixote and Don Juan, Carmen was the fictional character most identified with Spain. Even more puzzlingly, twenty percent of those surveyed believed Spain to be an “oriental nation” (Pulido 10). Both perceptions have been deeply intertwined in the imaginary construction of the Gypsy as icon of Spanishness. This confusion of cultural identities requires the resuscitation of Carmen in critical discourse, if only to exorcise the demons of exoticism for now.1
Several underlying myths deeply imbedded in the European imagination converge on the construction of Carmen: the orientalization of Spain, or cultural conflation of Spain with the Orient, in the nineteenth century; the romantic mythification of the bohemian as gypsy, or imaginary conflation of Boheme (the region where many Gypsies lived) and Boheme (the “gypsy way of life”); and the conflation of Gypsy, Andalusian, and Spanish identities as mutually interchangeable signifiers. This conflation of national, ethnic, and racial identities created a profound cultural remapping that repositioned both Spain and Gypsies in Europe as exotic internal others .2 It also led to the cultural appropriation of the Gypsies’ mystique, their commodification as embodiments of the exotic, and their ambiguous relocation to the symbolic center as icons of Spanishness.
Contemporary critical readings of the Carmen myth, particularly in cultural studies, follow two contradictory tendencies. Those informed by feminist theory see her as an affirmation of free will, independence, and liberation; those informed by postcolonial theory seek to unmask the misogynist and racist undertones toward the other, which ultimately neutralize those emancipatory impulses. The ambiguous nature of the Carmen myth, as conceived by Merimee and developed in Bizet’s opera, invites both readings. In fact, the key to its continual renewal and adaptability might be its fundamental ambivalence about issues crucial in the construction of our modern consciousness, an ambivalence which reveals cultural anxieties about gender, race, class, nation, language, and sexuality.
The cultural construction of the Gypsy in the modern European imagination is intimately linked to the orientalist discourses of Romanticism as a projection of its ambivalent feelings of fear and desire towards the other. Carmen epitomizes this ambiguity in the white European male consciousness, for she embodies a highly marked racialized other (non-white, non-European, non-male), while displaying a rebellious, subversive, and free spirit. The love/hate scenario replayed in all the versions of the Carmen myth reflects the simultaneous repulsion and attraction toward the other. This ambiguity conforms to the romantic fascination with the marginal, bohemian, exotic, and premodern, but also reveals the need to tame it, to control it, and ultimately to neutralize and destroy it. Because exorcising the exotic other is ultimately a way for European bourgeois culture to exorcise its own demons, Carmen always must die. An analysis of the ideological underpinnings of this most enduring of all Spanish Gypsy myths-in its development from novella to opera and its establishment as an icon of Spanishness-will reveal this same ambiguous impulse driving the exotic construction of oriental Spain.
While the Orient had been a subject of interest to European poets and politicians during the Enlightenment, this interest became particularly widespread during the romantic movement against the backdrop of the industrial revolution and the advancement of modern imperialism. As Raymond Williams has shown, Romanticism rejected industrialism and encouraged an interest and admiration for idealized pre-industrial societies and a desire to return to a pre-modern past. As fugitives from their own time and space, romantic artists were the ultimate escape artists. Their idealization of the Middle Ages, a distinctive romantic trope for the age of innocence, paralleled their idealization of exotic lands and cultures, particularly the Orient. Their anti-industrialism generated a predilection for natural scenery, unspoiled “primitive” societies, and remote landscapes. The new romantic concept of Beauty included the quality of strangeness (uncommon, monstrous, unexplained, and ungoverned by reason). This cult of the exotic explains the romantic fascination with Mediterranean cultures and the Orient, as reflected in the renewed interest in travel books, archeology and anthropology, museum collections, and picturesque paintings of the Oriental such as those by Gros, Gericault and Delacroix. Of course, the embrace of the exotic (the oriental) had the effect of superimposing European values over these other cultures, creating a distorted picture that conformed more with the expectations and fears of Europeans than with reality. As Christopher Miller has stated, “The Orient was an adventure based in realistic acts of description; from a later twentieth-century point of view ‘Oriental’ is a political mythology passing itself off as objective truth” (698).
The exoticization of the Orient was part of the discourse of orientalism governing European perspectives toward the East, a discourse defined by Edward Said as “a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient” (3). As a system of symbolic representation based on bourgeois ideology, orientalism looks at the other from a perspective of intellectual, moral-and frequently legal and political-authority. Literary and artistic orientalism shared this perspective with their colonial counterparts-from the oriental dreams of Napoleon in Egypt to the demise of the Ottoman Empire and the European colonization of North Africa and the East. Unfortunately, because Said’s study is devoted almost exclusively to French and British imperialism in the Middle East, it ignores other European nations involved in orientalist practices, as well as other oriental cultures or peoples whose cultural roots lie in the East (particularly Jews and Gypsies). Thus, Said’s study paradoxically reinforces the sense of hegemonic dominance of the British and French colonial systems under question (see MacKenzie’s summary).
John MacKenzie’s observation that “the building of empire is first an internal process with internalized others … [who] are more likely to be rival Europeans” (35) is for this reason especially relevant to our analysis as it applies both to the European construction of Spain and marginalized others such as the Gypsies. As Dennis Porter has observed in his study of European travel writing: “In the geopolitical imaginary of Europeans… there is a hegemonic geometry of center and periphery that conditions all perceptions of self and the other” (19). The first decades of the nineteenth century saw French imperial power at work in Spain with the Napoleonic occupation, the War of Independence (1808-1814), and the military intervention of 1823 decreed by Chateaubriand in his role as Minister of Foreign Affairs to restore the Bourbon dynasty. Since these events coincided with the loss of the Spanish American colonies, Spain became less threatening as an imperial rival-events that clearly placed France in a position of superiority and situated Spain as a conquered other, literally and symbolically.
Another important aspect neglected by Said is the particular double bind of Spanish culture due to its experience of orientalism from both sides: as a European Christian culture that has repressed a constitutive element of its historical identity and sees the oriental as its cultural and political other, and as a mirror of oriental culture constructed by other Europeans (emphasizing the historical imprints left by several centuries of close contact with Arabic and Jewish culture and highlighting the Gypsies as a symbolic representation of Spanish orientalism). This duality, frequently mediated through the fictional construction of the Gypsy, explains how Spain, like the Gypsies themselves, is constituted in romantic literature as an internal other to European modern identity, the same position of internal alterity that, ironically, the Gypsy has come to hold within modern Spanish culture. The symbolic centrality of Gypsies in Spain’s collective imaginary (as opposed to their actual marginality in society) might be partially explained by their embodiment of a radical difference in Spanish culture-the crucial but repressed non-white, non-European, and non-Christian elements that are the legacy of its Jewish and Moorish past, and that are safely projected onto the figure of the Gypsy, exoticised as outcast. We need to resituate within this complex background of orientalist discourses the ideological ambiguity of the romantic construction of Gypsies and Spain.
It is well known that Spain was a privileged space for the romantic imagination. French imperialism was instrumental in the discovery of Spanish art, as during the occupation French military officers (such as General Hugo, the poet’s father) systematically seized works of art from Spanish churches, convents, and private palaces, and shipped these coveted possessions back to France. The discovery of Golden Age art and literature (Velazquez, Murillo, Ribera, ZurbarAn, Cervantes, Calderon, the roman.cero) and of Goya’s depictions of the picturesque and horrific created a fascination for all things Spanish-culminating with Louis Philippe’s Musee Espagnol (1838)-that rapidly spread through the rest of Europe. The romantic construction of Spain embodied the qualities that writers such as Borrow, Chateaubriand, Hugo, Byron, Irving, Merimee, and many others were looking for: a rich cultural past, a preservation from modernity, a certain quaintness, and a heroic history (from the Medieval hero El Cid to the guerilla resistance in the War of Independence against Napoleon). The romantic imagination exoticised the strange non-Western substrate of Andalusia in particular-its oriental influence, the legends of its Moorish past, and, most importantly, the continuous presence of the Gypsies-blending all these images into a composite oriental Spain.3
This passage offers an essentialist paradigm of the kind “like us” (European, occidental, chivalric) “but unlike us” (Asiatic, exotic, excessive and feminized), bringing to the forefront the issue of cultural mediation. Sismondi’s hegemonic male subject position invites the French reader to breathe, see, and experience the oriental from a safe distance through the language and the mirror of Spanish culture, repeatedly referred to in the feminine form and characterized by feminine traits (perfumes, ornaments, flowery language). This form of mediation enacted through the self-authorizing power of academic discourse-in this case the discourse of literary historiography-redefines Spanish culture as sensual and exuberant with the exotic oriental accent of the other, while constructing an us/them dichotomy that reinforces cultural hegemony. Sismondi’s obsessive insistence on demonstrating throughout his three-volume work that Spanish literature fails adequately to conform to the paradigms of French and Italian literatures (mainly due to its oriental influence) confirms both a fascination with the exotic and, ultimately, a need to dismiss it as inferior other. Of course, this is in no way an exceptional occurrence. A very similar design shaped that popular nineteenth-century French exotic concoction known as the espagnolade, a favorite genre among Parisian readers and theater goers alike, which had as its goal the exploitative and derisive celebration of Spanish exoticism and which was also at the root of the construction of Carmen, as we will see. Indeed, a constitutive element of the orientalization of Spanishness throughout the romantic period and beyond is precisely the reflexive mechanism of citation and endless repetition of inherited images. Thus, in 1826 Alfred Vigny writes in Cinq-Mars: “Un Espagnol est un homme de l’Orient, c’est un Turc catholique” ‘A Spaniard is a man from the East; he is a Catholic Turk’ (289; 225). Two years later Victor Hugo states in his preface to Les Orientales: “l’Espagne c’est encore l’Orient; l’Espagne est a demi africaine, l’Afrique est a demi asiatique” Spain is still the Orient. Spain is half African, Africa is half Asiatic’ (11).4 And Stendhal reiterates the same idea the following year, conflating race, language and ethnicity: “Sang, moeurs, langage, mani&re de vivre et de combattre, en Espagne tout est africain. Si l’Espagnol etait mahometan il serait un Africain complet” `Blood, manners, language, way of living and fighting, everything in Spain is African. If the Spaniard were a Muslim he would be a complete African’ (152). Chateaubriand goes even further in 1838, reaffirming that Spaniards are `Arabe chretiens” Arab Christians’ (9). In fact, one of the trademarks of orientalist discourses is the interconnectedness of texts supporting each other, the network of overt citations (and often camouflaged plagiarism) as a strategy to verify the object of study and legitimize the locus of authority residing in the orientalist. Some writers, like the travel writer Pecchio, are quite explicit about acknowledging their sources, while reinforcing the idea of southern Spain as a feminized internal other for the pleasurable consumption of northern European travelers: “Byron n’a rien exagere lorsque qu’il a dit que 1 Andalousie etait un harem” `Byron did not exaggerate at all when he said that Andalusia was a Harem’ (138-39). Orientalist discourses of Spanishness can thus be seen as true “mosaics of citations,” to echo Julia Kristeva’s dictum. The same mechanism of reflexive citation is at work in the nineteenth-century European artistic depictions of Spanish Gypsies (see Brown). Knowledge was largely acquired from other books and rarely by first-hand experience.
Two parallel trends intimately related to the orientalist outlook in search of exotic others took place at this time: the vogue of traveling to Spain to follow the oriental trail, and the transformation of Gypsies into bohemians. As Dennis Porter has observed, the basic purpose of romantic travel writing was to “fantasize the satisfaction of drives denied at home” (9), thus evading the conflicts between guilt and duty, inner desires and social responsibilities. The craving for oriental fantasies resulted in an avalanche of travel literature-again profusely reproducing inherited images-that aimed to fulfill the desires repressed in bourgeois societies: promising adventure, exploring forbidden territories, and offering vicarious escapades outside of bourgeois conventionality. The parallel idealization of Gypsies as travelers roaming free in a perpetual state of flux was particularly appealing to the romantic artist at odds with bourgeois society. As Marilyn Brown has indicated, the key element in the nineteenth-century construction of the Boheme in French culture was the imaginary identification of bohemians with Gypsies (known as “bohemiens” in French, from the region of Bohemia) by those declasse artists and intellectuals dissatisfied with bourgeois culture and urban industrialism. Indeed, the myths of the bohemian Gypsy and of exotic oriental Spain were fused as early as Victor Hugo’s Notre Dame de Paris (1830). The Cervantine echo of Preciosa is ever present in the exotic Esmeralda, a “Spanish Gypsy” who in fact ultimately turns out to be neither Spanish nor a Gypsy– providing yet another case of mistaken ethnic identity. The immense popularity of this work awakened a long-lived fascination with the idealized Spanish Gypsy that would be sustained and developed by bohemian artists like Jollivet, Steuben, Diaz de la Pena, and Adolphe Leleux in the following years. By fantasizing and symbolically transposing their desires onto an exotic outside, bohemian artists found in the Spanish Gypsy the instrument needed to safely reconcile their differences with bourgeois ideology, while in fact never leaving home.
Particularly influential in the dissemination of these myths were George Borrows accounts of his travels in Spain with the Gypsies: The Zincali; The Gypsies in Spain (1841) and The Bible in Spain (1843). Borrow combined familiar images of the Spanish Gypsies with accounts of first-hand experiences in a new example of the “family tree of ideas” and “inherited thinking” at work in the social construction of Gypsy identities (Willems 301-05). Mixing picturesque adventures with ethnographic observations, Borrows work reiterates well-known negative perceptions of the Gypsies (as primitive, uneducated, sensual, degenerate, living on the fringes of society, and devoted to thieving and fortune telling), while simultaneously revealing other traits dear to the romantic fantasist (Gypsies as rebel outcasts and outsiders, travelers, musicians and dancers, whose free-spirited women possess both the power of seduction and the occult). As Spain and Gypsies became inseparable in the romantic imagination-for cultural and ethnic differences tended to be subsumed in the category of exotic otherness-many of these same images were easily attached to Spanish culture as a whole (primitive, backward, superstitious, ignorant, quaint, a land of passion, music and dance). Thus, for instance, Gautier’s Voyage en Espagne (1843) offers a ready-made composite of a romantic Spain “de cachucha, de castagnettes, de major, de manolas, de moines, de contrabandiers et de combat de toureaux” `of cachucha, of castanets, of major, of manolas, of nuns, of smugglers and bullfights’ (269). In the image repertoire constructed by the orientalist codification of Spain the fan and the shawl (“manton de Manila”), products of the Spanish colonization of the Philippines, became privileged signs of exotic oriental Spanishness. Moreover, this codification of a system of signs of Spanishness as ready-made exotic images for North European consumption coincided with the commodification of Spanishness in everyday culture, fashion, travel, painting, dance, theater, and writing-a vogue for all things “Spanish” that has been well documented by Leon-Francois Hoffmann (51-65). As these examples make clear, the processes of codification, cultural appropriation, and commodification of oriental Spanishness are phenomena that went hand in hand.
At the high point of the romantic era, when these orientalist cliches had already been assimilated, the ultimate romantic myth of Spanish gypsyness was born: Prosper Merimee’s Carmen. Originally published as a three-chapter novella in 1845, the year the word “exotisme” appears for the first time in the French Academie-“orientalisme” had appeared in 1840 (Moura 193-94)-Merimee’s narrative provides further proof that these concepts were already well codified in French culture. Through his travels and research in Spain, Merimee had firsthand familiarity with Spanish culture, but he was even better acquainted with the Parisian Bohemian subculture, where the romanticized mythical idea of Gypsies as free, rebellious, and unbound by society’s rules was fused with the identity that bohemians had constructed for themselves as outsiders to bourgeois culture. The idea of the free-loving Gypsy woman-with very little resemblance to actual reality-was mostly an artistic projection of the grisette type, the lower class muse and lover of bohemiens. Merimee’s ambivalent approach to his subject matter was the consequence of his double life as, on the one hand, a respectable member of bourgeois society-attested by his many official appointments and honors, his association with the elite circles, and his close friendship with the Empress Eugenie-and, on the other, a life-long fraternizer with bohemian life (including his own liaisons with grisettes)5 Not surprisingly, then, the novella encapsulates Merimee’s ambivalence toward the figure of the other represented by the Gypsy and a mixture of attraction and fear toward “la vie bohemienne” or “gypsy life.” But ultimately the novella illustrates the disavowal of those bohemian ideals by Merimee, an imperialist at heart who was appointed senator by Napoleon III during the Second Empire.
Merimee’s story of Carmen (basically confined to the third chapter of the novel) is framed by the self-legitimizing discourse of a male French narrator, an archeology scholar traveling throughout southern Spain (a semi-autobiographical veiled reference to Merimee’s own official position as traveling cataloguer of national monuments). In the first two chapters the narrator speaks from the position of authority conferred upon him by his gender, class, intellectual background, and national status. In the fourth and last chapter, a later addendum on cultural anthropology and language usage of the Spanish Gypsies explicitly indebted to the works of George Borrow, he again legitimizes his position of intellectual superiority through his orientalist scholarly discourse.6 The explanatory footnotes inserted throughout the story (such as the Gypsy proverbs from Romani translated into French) and the interpolated stories (such as the legend of King don Pedro, who is compared to the Caliph Haroun-al-Raschid from Thousand and One Nights), both exhibit a romantic taste for the exotic and the orientalization of Spanish culture, and offer yet another strategy of authentication that reinforces the narrator’s authority and the story’s verisimilitude. The unnamed narrator in control of Carmen’s story epitomizes the new orientalist discourses (such as archeology, anthropology, and cultural linguistics) that grant the speaker a position of intellectual and moral authority over the natives. The narrator’s scholarly fascination with past splendors even leads him to look for the lost Roman ruins of Munda, where Caesar fought his last battle-a search that implicitly associates his outlook with European civilization and imperialism. Nevertheless, following the well-trodden path towards the barbaric primitivism of the exotic, he finds instead the foreign orientalist story of Spanish Gypsies, bandits, smugglers, and toreadors-the compulsory components of every nineteenth-century travel book on Spain. In fact, the plot of the novel constantly moves around, traveling from place to place like tourists and travel books. (Cordova, Granada, Seville, Ronda, and the Sierra mountains were all obligatory stops in every traveler’s companion guide to the Iberian Peninsula.)
From the start of the novel, set in the exotically colorful Andalusia of 1830, the first-person narrator frames the story with a familiar setting into which he then introduces elements of the unfamiliar, the bizarre, and “oriental,” thus constructing a domesticated exotic other. This framing reveals an underlying anxiety about defining ethnic identities and marking boundaries. Identities are confused into a bipolar order that constructs the great divide of male European self/female Oriental other. Cultural differences across the divide are highlighted as irreconcilable (civilized/barbarian, white/dark, male/female, us/them), while correspondences within each side of the divide are stressed and presented as interchangeable (Gypsy, Arab,Jew, Middle Eastern, Andalusian, and Spanish versus English, French, and European). Tellingly, the narrator’s first observation about Spanish culture is that the ritual exchange of cigars among men establishes relations of hospitality, “comme en Orient le partage du pain et du sel” `as does the sharing of bread and salt in the East'(6,4), but he later decides that those “devoirs de I’hospitalitee” ‘obligations of hospitalitee” `obligations of hospitality’ are indeed just “Prejuge de sauvage” `primitive notions’ (7; 17) by which he does not need to abide. His encounter with Carmen is marked by a reciprocal case of mistaken ethnic identity. At first he takes Carmen to be an Andalusian, then he cannot tell whether she is Moorish or Jewish, until finally she reveals to him her true identity as a Gypsy. For the narrator these different ethnicities (Andalusian, Jewish, Moorish, or Gypsy) are obviously con-fused and almost interchangeable versions of the “Oriental! Conversely, Carmen takes the French narrator for an Englishman, a mistake that provides the narrator with yet another opportunity to develop the orientalist West/East, white/non-white dichotomy (this time in a footnote): “En Espagne, tout voyageur qui ne porte pas avec lui des echantillons de calicot ou de soieries passe pour un Anglais, Inglesito. Il en est de meme en Orient” `In Spain, any traveller not carrying samples of calico or silk is taken for a Englishman (Inglesito). The same is true in the Levant’ (272-73; 13). For Spaniards and Orientals alike, northern European travelers, whether French or English, are all categorized within the same paradigm.7
The clear geographical and ethnic divide of the narrative framing is replayed internally in the love story between the northern brigadier from Navarre, don Jose Lizarrabengoa, an “old Christian” Basque hidalgo, and Carmen, the southern Gypsy girl whose oriental origins are in question. In sharp contrast to don Jose, Carmen is exoticised as a dark Gypsy woman, highlighting the strangeness and wildness of her oriental substrate and of her picturesque acquaintances (Gypsies, bullfighters, smugglers, bandits), who bring additional “local color” to the story. The double framing mirror structure of the story creates an additional sense of ambiguity and confusion. The internal story of the Gypsy and the Basque soldier, which constitutes the third chapter and main part of the novella, is narrated also in the first person, but this time by don Jose. This mirror structure blurs the male narrators’ identities to the extent that the French narrator (in charge of chapters one, two and four) and don Jose appear almost interchangeable.’ Don Jose clearly acts as a mediator for the master narrator-he is his mirror reflection-as they both represent male authority figures displaced in an exotic territory. For the narrator he is another fellow traveler, “a voyageur comme moi, moins archeologue seulement” ‘a traveller like myself, though one less interested in archaeology’ (7; 3). Don Jose is a northern hidalgo (literally, “son of something”) who feels displaced in Andalusia, a white European with fair hair and blue eyes, traditionalist, educated and civilized, representative of social order and propriety-as is the narrator. Don Jose clearly symbolizes bourgeois honor, duty, and possessiveness, yet he also embodies the fatal attraction (dear to the romantic imagination) to the life of freedom outside of bourgeois conventionality offered by Carmen. Through this narrative confusion, the French traveler can safely project his desires and anxieties onto the figure of don Jose without the fear and danger of personal involvement with the other. Both the prudish soldier and the prudent narrator are captives of Carmen’s charm. Significantly, in each case their first meeting with Carmen takes place in a setting that arouses a male fantasy of an erotic utopia. From their respective male subject positions, Andalusia is constructed as an ideal earthly paradise offering unlimited numbers of local women to fulfill male desires. The French narrator is visually stimulated watching the women of Cordova bathing nude in the river at night:
.. routes ces femmes se deshabillent et entrent dans l’eau. Alors ce sont des cris, des fires, un tapage infernal … les hommes contemplent les baigneuses, ecarquillent les yeux, et ne voint pas grand’chose. Dependant, ces formes blanches et incertaines qui se dessinent sur le sombre azur du fleuve, font travailler les esprits poetiques … (19-20)
… women remove their clothes and leap into the water. A pandemonium of shouts and laughter ensues… the men gaze at the bathers in a vain attempt to see what is going on. Yet those white and indistinct forms visible against the dark azure of the river set poetic minds at work … (12)
The French narrator’s voyeurism is mirrored in the visual pleasure of don Jose, who guards the secluded women working half-dressed in Seville’s tobacco factory and shares with the narrator the illicit experience of entering a forbidden room: “Figurez vous, monsieur, qu’entre dans la salle je trouve d’abord trois cent femmes en chemise, ou peut s’en faut, toutes criants, hurlant, gesticulant, faisant un vacarme a ne pas entendre Dieu tonner” Just imagine, senor: the first thing I found when I went into the room was three hundred women in their undergarments and precious little else, all shouting, screaming, gesticulating, kicking up the most unholy row’ (34; 21). Both scenes suggest the fantasies of the oriental harem or the brothel, with women sexually available for a token compensation, whether a mantilla or a cigarette. Here, Merimee appears to agree with Byron and Pecchio: Andalusia, and Spain by extension, appears as a paradise of sexual freedom and opportunity for the foreign male traveler, a fantasy of both a colonial and sexual conquest.
Yet another, perhaps more perverse, form of identity confusion is at play in the story. The subject position of don Jose is an ambiguous one, and his ethnic mark as Basque functions as a shifting signifier. While he is a narrative stand-in for the French narrator, sharing the same gender, race, religion, and class position, as a white male Christian hidalgo, he is also tainted as an ethnic other. Both Basques and Gypsies are historically loaded cultural formations in Merimee’s story. The notion of “Old Christian:’ a racialized construction of Spanish identity that excluded its internal others, originated with the spirit of the Catholic CounterReformation which tried to abolish all forms of religious, political, and cultural nonconformity. Race became a privileged marker of national identity, and “limpieza de sangre” (“purity of blood”) the litmus test of authentic Spanish blood, particularly for those with Jewish or Moorish ancestry. The contaminated body of the other was literally expelled or exorcised. Race and class were clearly intertwined, as Basques claimed “limpieza de sangre” and “hidalgo” status by birth. An old Christian Basque hidalgo like don Jose and an oriental, mixed blood Gypsy like Carmen represent two diametric worlds. The unlikely union of the Gypsy and the Basque in Merimee’s story fulfills the orientalist’s idea of the Spaniard as `Arab-Christian” or “Catholic Turc” and the mythical construction of Spanish identity as essentially split: half-European and half-Oriental, like us but unlike us, partly civilized yet exotic and dangerous. This confusion of identities is reinforced by the fictional characters’ own impersonations of each other. Carmen tries to pass herself off as Basque to don Jose, replaying the old myth of the child stolen by the Gypsies and speaking to don Jose in Basque. Don Jose, in turn, trades his military uniform for a gypsy costume and becomes an aculturated Gypsy, to the extent that he is mistaken for one by the Gypsies in Gibraltar; this transformation is reflected in his name change from don Jose Lizarrabengoa to Jose Navarro. For all their ethnic differences, Basques and Gypsies have a lot in common in Carmen. The Basque is another form of the incomprehensible other, whose secret language needs to be translated by the narrator (like the Gypsies’ own CalM), and whose cultural roots (like those of the Gypsies) need to be decoded and footnoted. Both are attractive and exotic to the romantic imagination: they have a mythical past, and legendary origins; they are at odds with society and largely misunderstood; and yet they are also identifiably close to the French Basques and bohemiens found at “home” Both are travelers who live outside of their mythical paradise: don Jose in exile from his homeland in the northern Basque provinces, Carmen forever roaming, like all Gypsies, since the “exodus” from their original homeland (Egypt according to myth; India, according to historical discourse). Characterized as typical extremes of Spanish split identity, Basque and Gypsy eventually reconcile their cultural differences with their union in the Sierra Mountains of Andalusia, a symbolic space in the violent formation of national identity. The Sierra Mountains have throughout Spanish history represented a locus of struggle and resistance against domination and assimilation, most recently for Spanish guerillas fighting French invaders, and earlier for minorities escaping religious and political persecution (especially non-Old Christian Moriscos, Conversos and Gypsies). It is fitting that the orientalist composite image of modern Spanish identity would blend and con-fuse these different ethnicities as stand-in synecdoches of Spanishness.
Spontaneous, full of life, and unbound by the conventional mores and laws of society, Carmen embodies the heroic defiance of free spirit, desire, and natural instinct over the social rules governing modernity. She is the idealized image of the bohemian. But for those same reasons she also represents a symbolic threat. Her natural freedom warrants her autonomy, as she will not be tied to any man, and this constitutes a permanent threat to the confused identities of don Jose, the French narrator, and ultimately Merimee. In this double bind lies the ambiguous undecidability of the story, for while Carmen incarnates the principles of freedom espoused by bohemians, her independence threatens the maledominated social and narrative order.
From the beginning, fears of inadequacy and emasculation are stirred in don Jose by the sexually charged gestures, lurid language, and provocative clothing worn by Carmen, whose job at the tobacco factory is, quite symbolically, rolling cigars by hand and chopping off their heads. An upright and uptight don Jose, recognizing the temptation of the exotic forbidden fruit, remarks: “Dans mon pays, une femme en ce costume aurait oblige le monde A se signer” In my part of the world everyone would have crossed themselves at the sight of a woman dressed like that’ (33; 21). Reinforcing the biblical imagery, it is at the “rue du Serpent” where Carmen again uses her charm to seduce don Jose. The implicit comparison of the tempting, subversive Gypsy with the biblical serpent is part of a process of degradation signaled by the repeated use of animal imagery (comparing her to a cat, a wolf, and a chameleon), which represents the free-spirited Gypsy as primitive, instinctual, wild, and dangerous. Furthermore, Carmen is systematically demonized and characterized by the Frenchman as a fortune teller, a witch, and “une servante du diable” ‘a servant of the devil’ (22; 14). Again, the same mirroring effect reoccurs as she is repeatedly described by don Jose as a witch and a devilish creature, although he nevertheless completely succumbs to the Gypsy girl’s charm.
The ambiguity of the story owes a great deal to both the narrator’s and don Jose’s mixture of attraction and aversion toward Carmen. Clearly, don Jose fulfills the romantic fantasy of identifying with the other, living a “gypsy life” on the fringes of society. By joining Carmen in the mountains, he becomes a Gypsy fellow traveler, but also a bandit, a smuggler, and eventually a prisoner, identities at odds with the social norms and moral code of his upbringing. As an object of fascination and repulsion to the two men who represent the center of authority in their respective narratives, Carmen spells a threatening other, a dark figure that resists assimilation and endangers masculine power. Her story thus requires a final exorcism of the exotic so that social and patriarchal order may be restored.
Don Jose, a proud man of honor and reason, has lost both to Carmen’s magic spell. His symbolic bewitchment is suggested repeatedly throughout the novel and parallels the micro-story of the medieval King don Pedro I introduced as a mise en abime. The analogy between the romantic don Jose and the romanticized don Pedro is introduced at his first rendezvous with Carmen at the rue du Candilejo, where (the narrator reminds us in another lengthy footnote) don Pedro had killed a man in a quarrel, and also where don Jose will kill Carmen’s suitor in a sword fight, inaugurating his long career as an outlaw with the Gypsies. Before the final climax of the story, while Carmen performs the ritual of her “magic:’ she sings “quelqu’une de ces chansons magiques ou elles invoquent Marie Padilla” `one of those magic songs invoking Maria Padilla’ (75; 51). This new reference (amplified in yet another extended historical footnote) to the traditional legend of the bewitched King Pedro I, who had presumably fallen under the magic spell of his mistress Maria Padilla, popularly known as “la grande refine des Bohemiens” `the Great Queen of the Gypsies” (75; 51), thus casts a menacing shadow over don Jose: Carmen’s song is a bad omen that spells trouble?
The pressure to stop Carmen’s devilish magic and menacing charm and, ultimately, to make her conform is clearly felt from the beginning of the narration: “Toujours la meme! Ca finira” `The same old story. This has got to stop’ (26; 16), shouts a furious don Jose when he discovers Carmen has returned to the “occult practice” of fortune-telling and the not-so-occult practice of flirting with other men. Because he is unable to tame Carmen’s independent spirit, the only way for don Jose to put an end to these practices is to put an end to her life. In order to break free of her spell, don Jose resorts to a symbolic exorcism that will destroy her “demonic” powers and eliminate his own sense of powerlessness: “La fureur me possedait.Je tirai mon couteau.J’aurais voulu qu’elle eat peur et me demandat grace, mais cette femme etait un demon” `Fury gripped me. I drew my knife. I would have liked her to show fear and beg for mercy, but that woman was a demon’ (76; 52). Carmen must die, for she is unwilling to submit to a master/ slave relationship. Thus, Don Jose’s final embrace of Carmen, like the orientalist embrace of the exotic other, is the kiss of death.
The close connection between desire for the other and its eradication is encapsulated in the novel’s misogynist Greek epigraph, which Merimee borrowed from the classical poet Palladas:… …`Every woman is as bitter as gall, but she has two good moments: one in bed, the other at her death’ (341). The quotation’s playful use of the Greek words talamos and thanatos-equating orgasm and the moment of death-acquires very different proportions at the end of the novella, as Carmen becomes the tragic object of male desire. Curiously, this time the scholar-narrator does not explain the foreign citation in a footnote, since this cryptic message was probably intended only for readers (male, white European, and educated-like the narrator and author) who had the means to decode it. The narrator thus veils his tacit complicity with the patriarchal order and his espousal of the misogynist values at the core of European civilization, here symbolically represented by classical Greek poetry. The fundamental ambiguity of the love/hate, attraction/repulsion toward the other ultimately reveals the barbaric and primitive side hidden behind the cultured and civilized mask. Death is predicated as a projection of the anxiety caused by male desire for the other. Through Carmen’s sacrificial death, don Jose aims to exorcise his own demons and, indirectly, the French narrator’s.
The narrative accumulation of reasons for Carmen’s death is thus based on a single premise: Carmen embodies a quality of excess that makes her a threat to the patriarchal political order, an excess impossible to neutralize except through her sacrificial death. Her body is a constant reminder of her resistance to domination. Carmen’s continued blurring of the territorial demarcations imposed by cultural and political norms is made manifest on multiple grounds: gender (she resists male domination); sexuality (her desires are free and uninhibited, and create fears of emasculation); race (as a Gypsy, she illicits fears of miscegenation); religion (she practices occult magic and is repeatedly seen as a devil and a threat to Christian faith); and politics (Carmen not only continually resists both civil and military authority; she also obliterates geo-political borders, defying territorial borders and mocking both Spanish and British law in the process as she takes advantage of the status of Gibraltar as a British colony on peninsular soil). Ultimately, Carmen’s smuggling is also an economic threat that subverts governmental regulations and the monopoly of the oligarchy (a threat already suggested by the commotion she causes in the state-run cigarette factory).
Clearly Carmen defies and threatens the social order and finally has to pay with her life. Don Jose will be the private executioner, but her symbolic death for breaking cultural codes and political norms also displaces blame for don Jose’s criminal action onto the Gypsy community, their way of life, and the principles of freedom they bestowed upon Carmen. Don Jose’s last words are a blanket accusation of the Gypsy race as a whole: “Pauvre enfant! Ce sont les Cafe qui sont coupables pour l’avoir elevee ainsi” `Poor child! The Calm are to blame, for bringing her up as they did’ (77; 53). On that note, social and narrative order are both finally restored. The exotic body of the Gypsy is demonized and safely exorcised. The narrator can go back to the pleasures of his scholarly activities, as Carmen, don Jose, and presumably the readers can now all rest in peace.
As we know only too well, however, this was just the first act of a never-ending story. Merimee’s Carmen contributed to the renewed fascination with Spanish Gypsies, mixing dancers, smugglers, bullfighters, and gitanas as interchangeable signifiers of oriental Spain. The bohemian imagination of later artists such as Dehodencq, Giraud, Dore, Corot, Manet, Courbet, Achille Zo, Regnault, Esbens, and Renoir filled the walls of bourgeois Parisian salons with their exotic genre paintings, proving that the appetite for exotic Spanish Gypsies was far from dead. Indeed, Carmen was first resurrected by Georges Bizet and his librettists Meilhac and Halevy in 1875, initiating a long series of deaths and resuscitations that would continue uninterrupted to our day. Bizet, who had earlier turned to oriental inspiration for his operas Les pecheurs de perles and Djamileh, composed Carmen following another old European tradition of setting operas in Spain, more than 20 in Seville alone: Rosini’s II Barbieri di Seviglia, Mozart’s Don Giovanni, Verdi’s Il Trovatore, Beethoven’s Fidelio, Wagner’s Parsifal, among them. It seems as if every major nineteenth- and early twentieth-century European composer fell captive to Seville’s exotic magic.
Although the narrative framing disappears in Bizet’s Carmen, and with it the overbearing French narrator (only the third chapter of the novella is retained), the historical framing remains. The setting is moved back to 1820, however, a period of political confusion, social unrest, and popular uprisings during the short interval between two major French military incursions into Spanish territory: the Napoleonic War and the French intervention of 1823. The othering mechanism of Merimee’s narrative framing, which stressed French dominance, is transposed in the opera through the deployment of French cultural codes operating -superimposed-over themes codified as Spanish. Merimee’s story had to be adapted to conform to the Opera-Comique conventions and the expectations of an audience accustomed to bourgeois melodrama. The story-line is more complicated than in Merimee’s novel: characters were added, and Manichaean stereotypes were exaggerated. Thus, in keeping with bourgeois operatic conventions, a pale, virginal, and angelic Micaela (also a Basque) appeared on stage to balance devilish Carmen’s racial and sexual excess. In spite of these changes, the opera proved to be too shocking for the family theater. The violent conflation of gender, race, and class in the portrayal of Gypsies, cigarette girls, transgressive sexuality, smoking women, outlaws, and the killing of a woman on stage clearly defied the limits of propriety and acceptability in opera. Carmen was a public enemy, a constant menace to bourgeois morality and order, and inevitably had to die in the end-something formerly unseen at the Opera-Comique.
While the opera retained Merimee’s confusing ambiguity regarding the other, entangling bohemianism, Gypsies, and oriental Spain with the idea of love as a gypsy child, it was also too diluted and denaturalized for the purists, who considered it essentially a French opera imbued with pseudo-Spanish gypsy-like patterns by a French composer who had never set foot in Spain. One of its early reviewers recognized the orientalist construction of modern Spain emerging from uses origines judaiques, arabs, egyptiennes” `her Judaic, Arab, Egyptian origins’ (qtd. in Hutcheon 188). Indeed, Bizet’s Carmen represents a prime example of the continued European fascination with oriental Spain. Bizet clearly contributed to the orientalist fashion of appropriating Spanish motifs among turn-ofthe-century European composers, from Strauss’s Don Quixote, Lalo’s Symphonie espagnole, Debussy’s Iberia, Rimsky-Korsakov’s Capriccio espagnol, and Liszt’s Rhapsodie espagnole to Ravel’s Bolero. All of these scores resorted to an ample range of musical motifs vaguely codified as Spanish and recognizable by French audiences accustomed to dance halls, cafes and brothels. By mixing exotic popular rhythms and dances such as the Spanish seguidilla and the Cuban habanera (appropriated from the popular song “El arreglito” by Basque-Cuban composer Iradier), both associated with nineteenth-century Parisian night life, with disparate gypsy folk motifs (Spanish as well as Eastern European), and then embuing these exotic elements with a brilliant, exuberant orchestration accentuated by oriental arabesques and the use of chromaticism, conventionally codified as the oriental “dissonant other” (McClary 42), Bizet created a composite musical language that defined oriental Spain as mysterious, exotic, and sensual, but also dangerous and fatalistic. Thus, Bizet accomplished musically what romantic writers and artists had done through literary discourse, travel writing, and painting: the confusion of different, even opposing, identities in a conglomerate recycled image of oriental Spain embodied in the Gypsy.10
Yet in spite of all the elements conventionally coded as Spanish on its surface, Bizet’s Carmen seems really to be speaking about contemporary French anxieties that are displaced in the opera to the relative safety of the exotic. It is easy to see Carmen’s tragic desire for freedom as a Spanish reflection of the revolutionary desires that ended in the massacres of the revolution of 1848 or the failed uprising of the Paris Commune in 1871.11 Indeed, the overarching militarism of the opera recalls the militarist atmosphere of the post-Commune political situation in France. The military institution functions in the opera as the referent of patriarchal order, hierarchy, and established morality, qualities which are musically celebrated in the military marches of the garrison at the beginning of the opera as well as in the pseudo-military march of the toreador at the end.
The final scene of Carmen’s death outside the bullring is also musically linked with Escamillo’s killing of the bull inside, as both are ritualistically sacrificed. The toreador’s victorious march overlaps don Jose’s killing of Carmen with the clamors of “Victoire!” and “Bravo” framing the crime scene and so clearly suggesting the completion of a collective exorcism. The climatic sacrificial death of female protagonists who had “crossed the line” and represented a threat to patriarchal order was of course a recurring element of closure in nineteenth-century European fiction, and Pels and Crebas have interpreted the frequent need to resort to this strategy in nineteenth-century opera as “a symbolic masculine revenge on the world of femininity as well as an exorcism of the morally alien and illicit by a bourgeoisie which is at once both fascinated and horrified” (579). Clearly, Carmen could be inscribed within this operatic tradition of patriarchal exorcism against nonconformity, but this symbolic act of exorcism, conflating in Carmen different gender, class, ethnic, and racial identities (female, working class, Gypsy, Oriental, and Spanish), represents also the triumph of the bourgeois white male northern European subject over the defeated exotic other. Once again, the multiple threats posed by the other, always desirable but always dangerous, need finally to be ritualistically exorcised and expelled from the social body.
With Bizet’s Carmen the orientalization of Spain reached a new zenith. Although not a success initially, it soon became one of the most popular operas ever composed, canonizing the cliche espagnolade on a global scale and with a previously unknown level of respectability and international recognition. In effect, Bizet’s Carmen reinscribed the orientalist vision of Spain as a spectacle for travelers’ consumption, symbolized in the figure of the performing Gypsy. The multi-layered operatic spectacle-music, dance, costumes, raise en scene-definitely established in the popular imagination the overdetermined iconization of the Spanish Gypsy-inseparable from the exoticised romantic construction of Spain -as the seductive, colorful, exotic female body endlessly performing for male pleasure, an obscure, and ultimately disposable, object of desire and disdain.
The persistent and widespread notion of Spain as an oriental nation and the Gypsy as one of its most recognizable commodities is the legacy of the romantic image of Spain as a land of passion, exotic travel, and erotic pleasure, but also essentially different, eccentric, primitive, and inferior. A hundred years ago American writer H.C. Chaterfield-Taylord wrote another travel book on Spain entitled The Land of the Castanet. Written in the preliminary stages of the Spanish-American War, the book suggests Spain had already been reduced to little more than castanets in the American imagination. The popular success in our day of exploitative pseudo-flamenco acts such as the Gypsy Kings or Michael Flatley’s Riverdance, as well as the staging of Carmen at the 1992 Barcelona Olympic Games, which aimed to project an image of modern Spain to the world, have only reinforced this idea. Spain remains, more than a hundred years after Bizet composed his opera, quintessentially the land of castanets. The apparent difficulties of dismantling this inherited image are proof that the pervasive discourse of exoticism is still in need of its own exorcism.
1 An early version of this essay was originally presented at a special session of the 1997 MLA Convention, `”The Gypsy in the European Imagination.”
2 Gypsies, of course, were not the only ethnic internal others in Europe, but they were the ones closest to home and most easily exoticised; Jews, Basques, Greeks, Cossacks, Ukrainians, and other ethnic minorities would fall in the same category,just as women, homosexuals or the insane would also be internal others.
3 Spaniards themselves had helped create this confusion of identities as a nationalist act of resistance against foreign influences. The Spanish aristocracy reacted against the French and Italian models imported by the Bourbon monarchy during the Enlightenment because of the perceived threat to national identity. Thus the Spanish elite started identifying with and imitating the customs in music, clothing, speech, and entertainment of Madrid’s lower classes, considered more Spanish and authentic (the “majos” and “majas” portrayed by Goya). The aristocracy also embraced forms of popular entertainment that were seen as typically Spanish, flamenco and bullfights, where Andalusians and Gypsies prevailed as performers. As a result, Gypsies, Andalusians and Majos became cliches identified with Spanishness in Spanish music and theater. The diffusion of these images both inside and outside of the Spanish territory prepared the way for the Romantic discovery of “oriental Spain:’
4 The English translations are mine unless otherwise noted.
5 This duality was constitutive of the engendering of the Boheme itself, as male bohemians were usually of petit bourgeois origin, but their female companions were generally grisettes, or working class girls (See Pels and Crebas).
6 The direct influence of Borrow on Merimee is acknowledged in the last chapter of Carmen. Borrow and Merimee also shared an interest in Pushkin’s writings on the Russian Gypsies. One of these works, Zigani, was translated by both Borrow and Merimee, and was yet another source for the exotic construction of Gypsies and perhaps the inspiration for Carmen (see Northup).
7 Interestingly, even the name of Carmen has been a source of great confusion. The etymology of the name does not derive from the Latin word carmen for “song” or “charm,” or carmin for “red,” as most readers and critics believe and Merimee probably intended, given the strong symbolic associations of both. In actuality the name Carmen comes from the Arabic word karm, “vineyard,” from which derives the modern Spanish word carmen-with the final -n added because of confusion with the Latin word-still used in Granada to refer to a moorish-style villa with an inside garden (Serrano 36-37).
8 The mirror structure is befitting in a work where the dynamics of self/other become central problems of representation. The double frame narration implies a series of mirror reflections between don Jose and the French narrator, the narrator and the author, as well as the distorting mirror relationship between history and fiction, text body and footnote, reality and legend, model and copy-a reflection of Merimee’s own ambivalent doubling as historian and novelist. The mirroring device also suggests the endless repetition of borrowed images of orientalism (the hall of mirrors of inherited romantic cliches), as well as the compulsive repetitions of the main characters (to love, lie, steal, and kill), governed by internal dynamics as much as by codes of representation.
9 George Borrow, in The Zincali, had already noted the anachronism of the popular Gypsy legend of Maria Padilla, since medieval king Don Pedro lived long before the arrival of Gypsies to the Iberian Peninsula. Merimee was well aware of the factitiousness of the legend since not only had he read Borrows account of the legend but he had also started writing his own History of Don Pedro I. Even though his narrator credits the story to the popular tradition and acknowledges that there exists a different version of the legend, he still retains it in his story to create the illusion of historical depth and to foreshadow the story of Carmen and don Jose. This is perhaps another sign of the never resolved conflict between history and fiction that seems to have plagued Merimee’s career– thus the recurrent invasion of historical footnotes even in the narration of don Jose. The same conflict reappears in the fourth part of the Carmen story added in 1847, where Merimee basically recycles second-hand historical and anthropological materials on the Gypsies from authors like Borrow that seem to contradict their characterization in the novel.
10 Spanish fin-de-siecle artists and composers were not immune to this orientalist trend. It was in the fine arts where the nationalist sentiment found its most clear expression through internalized orientalism. The modern Spanish school that helped create a national musical idiom of international renown was born in large part as its result. Pedrell, Falla, Granados, and Albeniz all resorted to the use of Gypsies and Andalusians as tropes of Spanishness in their works, and, not coincidentally, they all studied or became successful as composers in Paris. The Moorish revival in architecture and the decorative arts and the overbearing presence of Gypsies and other related Spanish-coded motifs such as flamenco performers and bullfights in painting (Picasso to Nonell) and sculpture (Benlliure) seems a reflection of internalized exoticism. Again, it is not a coincidence that all these artists lived for long periods of time in Paris, befriending French artists who already had a fascination with oriental Spain.
11 See Queffelec 20-21 and McClary 51-58.
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