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part of the preface

When students only have read a few poems, in exclusively academic contexts, they often approach poetry with what the li...

Monday, February 4, 2013

Excerpts from my essay on Valente and Beckett

To emphasize Valente's lateness with respect to his European colleagues, furthermore, is to inscribe him in a problematic narrative of Spanish cultural inferiority. What we might call the “Subirats hypothesis”—that the insufficiency or outright absence of the Spanish enlightenment is repeated—yet another time—in the cultural and intellectual failure of the transition to democracy—is the latest version of the master-narrative of failed Spanish modernity (Subirats, ed. Intransiciones). Needless to say, narratives of failed or insufficient modernity have been relevant to the field of Hispanism itself at least since the invention of the concept of the "Generation of '98." It would be only a slight exaggeration to call this the central problematic of Hispanism itself. Practitioners of Cultural Studies, intellectual historians, philosphers, and literary critics have all contributed to discussions of this problem in recent years. Helen Graham and Jo Labanyi, for example, employ the phrase "The struggle for modernity" as a subtitle for their influential anthology Spanish Cultural Studies: An Introduction, implying that this struggle is in fact the major theme of this emergent field. Similar examples are not hard to find: a conference held at the University of Illinois in 2003, attended by many prominent hispanists, bore the symptomatic title “Recalcitrant Modernities: Spain, Difference and the Construction of European Modernism.”

Inherent to the narrative of insufficient modernity is the archetype of the heroic intellectual, the perpetual outsider who attempts to bring modernity to Spain in the manner of José Blanco White, Mariano José Larra, Américo Castro, and Juan Goytisolo. Goytisolo himself was influential in creating this pantheon and forging this myth, and in turn influenced younger intellectuals such as Subirats. There is evidence to suggest that José Angel Valente himself, a friend and intellectual collaborator of Goytisolo, subscribed a similar account of Spanish intellectual history, seeing himself as a "progressive outsider" in relation to Spanish culture. The positions that he took in the 1980s and 1990s, in both politics and "literary politics," were close to those of Goytisolo. Both men took a disdainful view of the official literary culture of this period. Despite the central role each has played in defining Spanish literature in the second half of the Twenieth Century, neither was elected to the Real Academia or awarded the Premio Cervantes.

The figure of the intellectual outsider has some problematic implications that need to be considered. Such a figure will often seem prototypically "European" within the national context, the bearer of new ideas from abroad. Yet, within this larger European context, the same writer might appear less significant—too preoccupied, perhaps, with the purely national question of Spain's insufficient Europeanness. In a larger "European view," Valente might appear somewhat derivative of better known writers like Celan and Beckett, at best a secondary figure. The insistence on his role as a European intellectual, then, has the paradoxical effect of diminishing rather than enhancing his stature, by forcing a comparison with writers who have been far more influential on the world stage. The European role, in other words, is best played on the national stage, where Valente was unquestionably a dominant figure.

Even in Spain, the view of Valente as a somewhat imitative writer is not uncommon, even among some of his admirers. This problem is aggravated, probably, by Valente's numerous imitators, who present a late modernism at several removes from its original sources. Younger Spanish poets who practice a "minimalist" or "essentialist" style heavily indebted to Valente might easily be seen as derivative twice over, even as they write accomplished poetry within the narrow confines of this style. A poetry so stripped down to its "essential" elements will tend to lack the range and historical import of the original founders of this style. Since Beckett and Celan are already literary minimalists, they leave little room for even more extreme stylistic reductions—and such a reduction has already been performed by Valente himself. A related problem is that literary critics who write about Valente often lose critical distance by identifying themselves closely with the author's own positions. Even the most adept explicators of his work, like Jacques Ancet and José Manuel Cuesta Abad, see their role as one of championing and re-articulating his poetics rather than of taking a balanced view of his place in literary history.

Spanish literary intellectuals like Valente, then, often seem to suffer from a certain lack of synchronicity: they are in the position of being "advanced" (in the national context) yet simultaneously "belated" with respect to European culture, or at least to the idealized "European culture" to which Spain aspires. Not surprisingly, narratives of Spanish cultural deficiency sometimes produce problematically anachronistic readings, in which a key figure will seem, for better or worse, to be re-enacting a cultural problem of a previous epoch rather than participating in the culture of his or her own epoch. If Luis Cernuda was the high Romantic poet that Spain never had in the Nineteenth Century (Silver), then it is difficult to see him as a modern poet, a contemporary of Luis Buñuel, Pablo Picasso, and María Zambrano. Is Pedro Almodóvar simply the reincarnation of the conservative spirit of the nineteenth-century zarzuela, as one recent interpretation has it? (Lamas). Or does Almodóvar in fact make a distinctive contribution to contemporary Spanish culture, a contribution not reducible to the leyenda negra of failed modernity?


Professor Zero said...


Is "modernity" a Procrustean bed?

Is the concept of "idéias fora de lugar" (Schwarz 1973) useful or applicable (it is a bit old)?

How could one convince Spain to take a bit of ironic distance on this inferiority complex -- I am not asking them to get over it, that would be a lot of work, but take a vacation from it sometimes?

Professor Zero said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Professor Zero said...

My comments keep double posting and I think it is Blogger's fault.

Spain: *ambivalent* modernity.