Bodies and Biases: Sexualities in Hispanic Cultures and Literature. Hispanic Issues 13
Bodies and Biases: Sexualities in Hispanic Cultures and Literature. Hispanic Issues 13. Ed. David William Foster and Roberto Reis. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1996. xxii+440 pages.
These seventeen essays plus an introduction and afterword respond to the recent “body boom,” or recognition of the significance of representations of the human body for tracing both attitudes towards sexuality and the interplay between individuals and their communities in general. In addition to three pieces that focus upon cultural studies outside of the literary canon, eleven deal with the novel, and the remainder concern themselves with drama, poetry, and short fiction. The absence of film studies is surprising, given the pivotal role that the cinema has played in shaping body images in this century. Many essays make provocative observations on the influence of popular music, print media, and television on the evolution of gender roles and sexuality in Hispanic cultures. Seven essays deal primarily with questions of homoerotic desire or homosexuality; several apply a feminist viewpoint to texts written by women; two examine pornography from a perspective enhanced by cultural theorists.
There is much here to interest the specialist in twentieth-century LatinAmerican literature. A few studies address Golden-Age and contemporary Spanish literature, and there are two each pertaining to Brazilian culture and nineteenth-century Latin-American literature. Missing are treatments of Medieval and Colonial, and eighteenth-century through nineteen-seventies Peninsular literature.
Outstanding for its ambitious scope and persuasive, almost lyrical, argumentation is J. Eduardo Jaramillo Zuluaga’s “Desire and Decorum in the Twentieth-Century Colombian Novel.” Going back to Maria (1867), in which the heroine’s body is masked by landscape, he then follows the classical allusions, postponement, and ellipsis that constituted decorum in physical matters for the early twentieth-century novel. The silencing of the body gradually becomes less conventional in the nineteen-twenties, thirties, and forties, when cities double in size and the upper class loses some of its urban cultural hegemony. Meanwhile, the bohemian writer, whose precursor is Jose Asuncion Silva, explores sexuality for its own sake, often with Symbolist trappings. Eduardo Zalamea Borda typifies this sort of writer. He did not champion pornography, but rather, “high obscenity” (51). Jaramillo traces the first truly explicit representations of the body in the Colombian canon to la Violencia in the nineteen-fifties and sixties, when Daniel Caicedo and others graphically depicted torture in the interest of testimonial realism. Afterwards came a heightened awareness of the “impossibility of fusing body and words into one mass” (58) in the work of Arturo Echeverri Mejia, a turning point on the way to contemporary literary embodiment. Jaramillo finds that Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ novels portray bodies that cannot be encompassed with language, but are illuminated at moments of pleasure and through the inclusion of innocent details. This distant body, or body as blurred reflection in language, persists in recently published Colombian fiction. Parody or the staking of a claim in the culture of sexuality often motivates body language in this “random novel composed of countless, confused voices” (64). Jaramillo’s concentrated but thorough treatment is an invaluable resource that sounds like the outline of a book waiting to be written.
Another essay that is bound to have an impact on subsequent scholarship is Herbert J. Brant’s “Camilo’s Closet: Sexual Camouflage in Denevi’s Rosaura a las diez.” Brant develops an intriguing case for a subtext of homosexuality in this story of a confirmed bachelor who hires a prostitute to pose as his lady love. Remaining sensitive to the nuances and intertextuality of the novel while going easy on the theoretical underpinnings, he convincingly establishes the degradation of Camilo Canegato’s life in the closet as an important theme in the work.
Claudia Schaefer-Rodriguez brilliantly analyzes the cultural forces at work in the nuevo porfiriato in the process of examining “Monobodies, Antibodies, and the Body Politic: Sara Levi Calderon’s Dos mujeres.” Asserting that “Mexico’s incomplete but institutionalized modernity (via the vehicle of the Partido Revolucionario Institucional) is a modernity of excess or, if you will, an excess of modernity that masks misery behind the splendors” (219), she defines the roles played in the marketing of modern Mexico by Carlos Salinas de Gortari, Octavio Paz, and Televisa media mogul Emilio Azcarraga, Jr. In each case, she shows how a discourse touting a therapeutic social model that will make for a healthy body politic is in reality designed to produce a society of “monobodies” (using Robert O’Neill’s terminology), which are regulated bodies locked into a system of production, consumption, and accumulation that benefits only the upper echelons. In this context, the protagonists of Levi Calder*n’s 1990 novel declare themselves antibodies who splinter and break off from the unitary body politic, rejecting heterosexuality as they do other forms of homogeneity. Schaefer-Rodriguez captures the irony of how a superficial cultural pluralism allows such challenges to circulate in print (alongside less radical texts by Laura Esquivel and Angeles Mastretta) in a way that neutralizes political resistance to a modernity that continues to push the social classes farther apart.
Among the Golden-Age topics, Robert ter Horst’s “The Sexual Economy of Miguel de Cervantes” stands out for its solid rhetorical analysis of jealousy, domination, abduction, and intersubjectivity in the Quijote, Novelas ejemplares, and Los trabajos de Persiles y Sigismunda. He concludes that Cervantes, of all male Golden-Age authors, is the greatest seeker of equality and balance between the genders. James A. Parr argues from a meticulously Freudian standpoint to suggest an underlying similarity between Don Quijote and Don Juan: both act upon anal-sadistic impulses that lead the body along the way toward death and disintegration. Javier Aparicio Maydeu gives a lively account of the enjoyment seventeenth-century actors and audiences must have derived from transgressing the strict decorum of the baroque stage. Controls upon high dramaturgy were certainly tight, but the opprobrium of the clergy proves that deviation was possible in nonverbal forms of theatrical communication (as well as in the genero chico): sensuous dancing, suggestive gestures, and revealing costumes for actresses playing male roles.
In nineteenth-century offerings, Lou Charnon-Deutsch discusses the series of watercolors Los borbones en pelota attributed to Valeriano and Gustavo Becquer for their allegorical associations with the Spanish socio-political scene. Gustavo Geirola asserts that homoerotic matrices motivate the feminization of certain characters in Martin Fierro.
In the essays concerning Latin American modernity, Roberto Reis gathers evidence from history, literature, and mass culture to support his conclusion that the myth of “hot” Brazilian sexuality camouflages a society that is “unequal, hierarchical, violent, paternalist, and reactionary” (110). Marina Perez de Mendiola defends the 1964 Mexican novel El diario de Jose Toledo by Miguel Barbachano Ponce from both homophobic marginalization and charges of its stereotyping gay characters with effeminate representations. Ana Garcia Chichester underscores fantastic and grotesque images associated with repressed homosexuality in the work (particularly the chilling Cuentos frios) of Cuban mid-century writer Virgilio Pinera.
The remaining essays address Peninsular and Latin-American postmodernity. Silvia Bermudez sees the emphasis on the pleasure principle in Almudena Grandes’s Las edades de Lulu as a means of achieving sexual agency for women and of reevaluating a priori categories of “good” and “bad” sexual behavior. Brad Epps illuminates the relationship between AIDS and mysticism in Juan Goytisolo’s Las virtudes del pajaro solitario. Mary S. Gossy advocates a reading of Cristina Peri-Rossi’s Solitario de amor as a lesbian novel despite its male narrator. Salvador A. Oropesa discusses popular culture and the unabashed commodification of the novel regarding Angeles Mastretta’s Mexican Bolero. Dario Borim, Jr. builds a bridge between indigenous customs of gender-bending and sexual ambiguity and the contemporary battle for gay rights in Brazil. David William Foster analyzes the sexual politics of recent novels by Hilda Hilst, Mayra Montero, Diana Raznovich, and Alicia Steimberg.
Many of the studies included in this collection will pave the way for future commentators, since they touch upon essential issues that have often been disregarded in criticism up to this point. While neither a cohesive perspective nor a measured coverage of the entire field can be expected to emerge from such an anthology, the editors of Bodies and Biases have assembled a provocative melange that is of interest to a broad spectrum of Hispanists and illustrative of a distinct esprit de corps among many cutting-edge literary and cultural critics.
State University of New York, Buffalo
Copyright University of Pennsylvania, Romance Languages Department Spring 1998
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