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Anxious gatekeeping

Analogous to nervous cluelessness is something we might call “anxious gatekeeping.”   This is desire to police the borders of poetry, or of...

Monday, October 13, 2014

3rd part of the talk

The title of my lecture, “An Elegy for Lorca Studies,” implies that this sub-field is defunct. From one perspective, though, Lorca studies is not only alive but thriving, both in quantitative and qualitative terms. Few Spanish writers have attracted as much explanatory prose, and many Lorquistas are informed and capable scholars. Although I am now at work on my second book on Lorca, there are scholars whose knowledge of Lorca is decidedly superior to mine, and thus I have to frame my critique of the field with some caution. Bad criticism and scholarship on Lorca is often far worse than bad work on almost any other writer (for reasons I will get into in a few minutes), but there is now a greater amount of truly excellent scholarship to compensate for this.

Nevertheless, Lorca studies has retained a few unfortunate features. Some are the inevitable result of the sheer size of the field, which leads to a kind of centrifugal hyper-specialization. No aspect of Lorca’s life and work, apparently, is too small or insignificant to receive its share of scholarly attention. I’ve read otherwise excellent books that focus only three or four of Lorca’s works. One, for example, is a highly competent study of only two poems from Poeta en Nueva York. This method would be difficult to justify with any other poet or playwright I can think of. The proliferation of scholarship, along with this increasing specialization, also means that scholars become less likely to cite one another’s work: even the relevant biblography can be overwhelming, so it is understandable that scholars will largely ignore work that not directly relevant to whatever narrowly-conceived topic. Consequently, many extremely significant perspectives have not come to form part of the scholarly conversation on Lorca, simply because they do not happen to line up neatly with the avenues of research. Carlos Piera and Roberta Quance’s brilliant essay on Lorca’s duende, for example, ought to have received much more attention than it has. The general dialogue on Lorca is impoverished, in my opinion, by the lack of genuine dialogue about Lorca that transcends individual narrowly defined topics of investigation. I also wonder whether some of the best minds in our field might have something to say about Lorca, but might not want to wade into such an over-specialized field. I myself was hesitant to specialize in Lorca early in my career for this reason.

What is more, this centrifugal microanalysis of Lorca’s life and work does not necessarily act as a counter-force to the centripetal drive of the Lorca myth. The paradigm of Lorca as tragic homosexual, Andalusian genius, and champion of the oppressed continues to underlie the sub-field as a whole, even when the particular topic being addressed is a narrow one. In fact, it is hard to see how the proliferation of over-specialized scholarship could bring about a new consensus or synthesis.
The romantic ideology that invests every aspect of Lorca’s life and work with exaggerated significance is, in fact, completely compatible with the sacralized view of the authorial subject as a unique creator and heroic individual, so perhaps the centripetal and centrifugal impulses in the field are not actually opposing forces. In the same way, the impulse to condescend to Lorca as a childlike innocent and the admiring exaltation of his artistic genius are not two separate phenomena, but two ways of naming the same thing.

The centripetal celebration of Lorca’s genius often takes the form of two displacements or alibis. The first replaces Lorca’s work with his life, seeking answers to the enigmas of his writing in an inner subjectivity not available to the reader without specialized knowledge. The Latin world alibi means elsewhere: the claim is that we must look somewhere else, outside the work itself, for the true meaning of the work. If the poet is great because of his unique subjectivity, then it makes sense to investigate his inner life, focusing on the origins. These origins turn out to be more transparent in his juvenile writings.
Eutimio Martín, in his much debated 1986 book Federico García Lorca: heterodoxo y mártir, argues that the juvenilia, with its religious and sexual preoccupations, is the central source from which all of the poet’s mature work flows: “cuanto más remontamos la corriente de sus escritos, más límpidas se tornan las aguas porque todas ellas manan de un único hontanar: el de sus escritos inéditos de la juventud.” [The further back we can trace the current of his writing, the more clear the waters become because they all flow from a single wellspring: his unpublished juvenilia.] This watery metaphor is revealing: the idea is that the closer we can get to the central source, the less hermeneutic doubt is required. Lorca’s later work is opaque, according to this logic, while his earlier work offers no resistance to interpretation.

Martín concludes that the young Lorca, obsessed with Christ and tormented by his own desires, constructed a personal mythology modeled on the story of the passion. It is the author’s homosexuality, in conflict with the precepts of Catholicism, that is the explanatory key. In a second book published recently, Martín attempts to demonstrate that Lorca intended his work to be a “quinto evangelio,” a fifth gospel based on humanist, messianic, and quixotic principles. Although based on a plausible reading of Lorca’s juvenilia, Martín’s logic goes off track, in my view, in his assumption that Lorca’s mature work simply retains a set of adolescent fantasies as its unvarying governing principle. Surely the best of way interpreting any author is by looking at the work itself, its own ostensible conerns, not by focusing on obessions that he or she has left behind, or that at most persist, at best, in residual form. I would argue that Lorca became Lorca precisely by leaving a good proportion of his adolescent preoccupations behind him, not by hiding them in a kind of secret code, to be discovered years later only through the interpretation of texts that he made no attempt to publish. He does continue to use Christian (and Christological) motifs in his later work, but there is not particular reason to see them as an all-purpose explanation.

It is strange to think that a poet like Lorca would have written with the expectation that future scholars would uncover the authentic meaning of his life’s work in the sometimes embarrassingly puerile effusions of his adolescent self. I prefer to think of him as a restless literary experimenter who learned to be quite rigorous with himself, creating structures of meaning that can stand independent from the vagaries of his own psychology. It is precisely in the early 1920s, directly following the publication of his first book Libro de poemas, when Lorca finds a less confessional poetic subject, working furiously on the Suites and producing his first masterpiece, Poema del cante jondo. Lorca’s juvenilia is significant in the same way that Picasso’s is: here we see him practicing his craft and imitating prevalent models. The meaning of Picasso’s mature work, however, is not contained in his teenaged academic studies.

Of course, if the chief object of inquiry for literary criticism is the inner psychology of the biographical author, then a hermeneutic model like that of Martín’s makes more sense, although his particular interpretations remain questionable: the idea of a “Messianic-quixotic” fifth gospel of Christian humanism, in particular, has a ridiculous sound to it. Carlos Jerez Farrán follows Martín in arguing that “la dimensión autobiográfica es de valor incalculable cuando se pretende llegar a un mejor ententimiento y una mayor percepción de lo que parece imperceptible a primera vista.” [the autobiographical dimension is of incalculable value in trying to arrive at a better understanding and a great perception of what is imperceptible at first glance.] What is at issue, once again, is the divergence between two models of understanding literature, one emphasizing the recovery of the real author’s pschychological depth, and the other seeing signification as an on-going process for successive generations of readers.

If the goal is to recover the biographical Lorca, then the literary quality of the juvenilia is less relevant. In this regard hyper-canonical authors like Lorca present a paradox. These authors have achieved this status because of the enduring value of their work—however this value is assessed. At the same time, though, their canonical status also attracts scrutiny to minutiae: trivial biographical details and works of lesser aesthetic quality become invested with a spurious value. We only care about Lorca’s juvenilia in the first place because he was able to transcend the puerile and derivative sensibility of his youth to create the work that gave him canonical status. It seems a mistake, then, to shackle our understanding of his mature work to a decidedly immature sensibility, especially since his authorial persona has so been the object of so much condescension.

The second alibi is in Lorca’s death and the continued search for his mortal remains. Here it not the the poet’s subjectivity that comes to stand in for the work itself. Instead, the physical location of his body comes to stand in for his literary and historical importance. Ian Gibson’s book, La fosa de Lorca: crónica de un despropósito, published in 2010, chronicles the ill-fated attempts in 2009 to disinter Lorca’s body, and his own consternation at the failure and confusion surrounding this effort. According to Gibson, the search for his body took place in the wrong location. This search, of course, has a tremendous significance for the movement for “historical memory,” since Lorca was the most notorious and significant victim of the Spanish Civil War. We must also have compassion for Gibson, whose anguish is genuine. Yet finding Lorca body will not lead to a better understanding of Lorca’s work. An over-emphasis on his death and the circumstances of his burial sacralizes Lorca and freezes responses to his work in an elegiac mode. Paul Julian Smith explains that this mode of Lorca criticism “treats the text as an unfinished monument to a life cut short.” Instead of simply dismissing this kind of interpretation, Smith astutely notes that it “draws our attention (as Foucault would also) to the continuing potency of the author-function: elegiac criticism is not (or not merely) evidence for the role of affective displacement in reading. It is also a frank acknowledgment of the insistence of the humanist order, an insistence that the modern theorist cannot simply erase.” At the same time, however, this mode of criticism does not lend itself to a genuine encounter with Lorca’s work. The search for his body, in particular, seems ill-suited to provide the clues needed to understand his artistic genius.

I believe we should be distrustful of the alibis that take us even further away from what makes Lorca’s work meaningful to us in the first place. The best alternative to these biographical, elegiac, and necrological approaches to Lorca is to see his subjectivity as fractured and contradictory rather than unitary. I would rather see centrifugal and pluralistic approaches than ones that reduce his life and work to a single myth.

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