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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...

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

I am Mayhew again

Lorca's Modernist Self-Unfashioning

The premise behind the book on Lorca I am now beginning to write (which will be the third in my Lorquian trilogy!) is strikingly simple: what would happen if we decided to read Lorca from the perspective of the “postmodern death of the subject”? This is a provocative proposal, since Lorca criticism has long been unapologetically biographical. At the end of my talk today, after listening to my arguments, you can, of course, return to more conventional ways of looking at Lorca (if you really want to). I only ask that you entertain my modest proposal as a thought-experiment with some potentially interesting implications, not only for Lorca, but for a larger consideration of poetic modernism and postmodernism.

My title, “Lorca’s Modernist Self-Unfashioning,” with its obvious homage to Greenblatt’s Renaissance Self-Fashioning, poses the question of how Lorca became Lorca. In other words, what enabled a young writer to make the jump from the writer of juvenilia to the mature artist. I situate this jump in his first major work: Poema del cante jondo, which he completed in 1921. His literary self-fashioning entails its opposite: a dismantling of the self, or a self-unfashioning. From my perpective, furthermore, this dissolution of subjectivity runs parallel to that of other modernist writers, like Kafka, Pound, Borges, and Pessoa. My book will sketch out comparisons with numerous other writers as well. My larger argument is that the death of the subject that we attribute to postmodernism has its origins in modernist poetics, and that Lorca is best understood in this way—rather than as an example of subjective plenitude whose biographical vicissitudes completely and unproblematically account for his work.

My approach is grounded (I hope) in the best and most traditional Lorca studies. My respect for the textual and biographical spade-work of scholars and editors like Andrew Anderson and Christopher Maurer remains undiminished. The question, rather, is how to understand Lorquian poetics in light of both philology and poetic theory. I don’t believe these approaches to be incompatible, but certain hermeneutical assumptions persist in Lorca studies and almost nowhere else. Few other authors are read with such biographical servility and hermeneutical naïveté. The first step in my thought experiment, then, is to break Lorca free from the biographical imperative.

Borges advised us to distinguish between Walt Whitman, the semi-divine protagonist of Leaves of Grass, and Walter Whitman, “el pobre literato que lo inventó.” I propose that we introduce a similar distinction for Lorca, separating the Lorca myth from its self-conscious fashioner. Borges is a highly relevant figure here since he is one among many modernist writers who began to question the centrality of the self, in essays like “La nadería de la personalidad.” Fernando Pessoa’s creation of heterónimos is another angle of approach to the modernist dissolution of personality. Still another is Vallejo’s dramatization of the dissolution of the autobiographical self in poems like “Piedra negra sobre piedra blanca” and “El momento más grave de mi vida.” Theories of dramatic poetry and poetic objectivity in Pound and Eliot might lead in still another direction. I am not claiming that all these modernists flee from unitary notions of subjectivity in identical ways. In fact, what is suprising here is the multiplicity of approaches to a central problem.

Before I present my possibly controversial argument that Lorca, too, belongs in this conversation, I need to contrast my understanding of modernist poetics with a simpler (and only partially correct) notion of modernism as a unitary movement with a certain heroic view of the literary genius as privileged subjectivity. This may be somewhat of as strawman view. (Does anyone really believe this anymore in its simplest form?) But it tends to lurk in the background, especially when what is at issue is the contrast between modernism and postmodernism. I am not denying the existence of a prophetic mode of larger-than-life heroic subjectivity in modernist poetics—in Rilke or Juan Ramón Jiménez, for example. To some extent this view results from a subsequent lionization and canonization of the “great moderns” that occurred after the heyday of historical modernism itself. What I am saying is that this orphic or prophetic mode, with its very familiar grandiosity and ambition, is only one facet of modernism, and that even when it occurs it entails a certain separation of the poetic self into more than one self.

But what about Lorca? The publication of his extensive juvenilia has provided us with a goldmine of material—lyric poems, prose effusions, and dramas—from which to interpret his mature work. This is unfortunate. For many writers, maybe most of them, we lack this extensive archive…

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