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Monday, October 13, 2014

The talk continues...

The charisma of the great moderns and the great romantics persists, then, but it is a bit frayed around the edges. Our culture continues to celebrate them, but in ways that are deeply problematic. Within the modernist pantheon, Lorca is perhaps the writer who has been subject to the most grotesque degree of sacralization. “Federico García Lorca has been victimized by his enthusiasts,” remarked Edwin Honig, many years ago in one of the first English-language books on Lorca. Honig was referring, in this case, to only two aspects of Lorca’s legacy in the English-speaking world: the political exploitation of his violent death at the onset of the Spanish Civil War, and his reputation as a surrealist poet. His point, though, is generalizable to his reception elsewhere in the world, including Spain itself, and to multiple dimensions of his legacy, not merely to the few aspects that Honig singles out. José Antonio Gabriel y Galán, writing in 1988, complained that Lorca had become a “marca registrada” or trademark:
Nunca perderemos en este país la extraña habilidad para convertir en esperpento a determinados personajes selectos, a través de un proceso de mitificación pasional que se adoba con sublimación, desde donde se pasa finalmente al universo de la idolatría. Tantas fueron las alabanzas, las casi prédicas y preces sobre Lorca que acabaron haciendo de él un tótem de la tribu, inalcanzable, traslúcido, mágico.
In this country we will never lose the strange ability to convert certain select characters into grotesque caricatures, through a process of passional mythification dressed up with sublimation, passing ultimately into the realm of idolatry. The exaltations, homilies, and glorifications of Lorca have been so abundant that they ended up making him a totem of the tribe: unattainable, translucent, magic.
Gabriel y Galán’s language is hype
rbolic, to be sure, but the conversion of Lorca into san Lorca is a real phenomenon, one that has resulted in books with titles like San Lorca y el placer de morir and Federico García Lorca, heterodoxo y mártir. Lorca’s charismatic personality, the tragic sensibility of his poems and plays, his youthful admiration for Jesus Christ, and his execution at the age of 38 have combined to form a potent cocktail of exaggerated and self-parodic sacralization.

One of my scholarly projects over the last eight years or so has been to explore Lorca’s reception with the aim of protecting his genuine legacy as an innovative modernist poet and dramatist from the enormous onslaught of Lorquian kitsch—the result of the excessive and often misguided devotion of his admirers. I have set myself in opposition to lorcalatry, the counterpart to the bardolatry that has plagued the reception of Shakespeare. There are multiple reasons for admiring Lorca, to be sure: the problem is an admiration rooted in all the wrong reasons, one that not only perpetuates the tritest stereotypes but also distracts from what makes Lorca truly admirable: the work itself. To borrow a phrase from an essay by an organizer of this conference, Julián Jiménez Heffernan, we have “Lorca por razones equivocadas.”

While a lot of these problems stem directly from an excessive admiration of Lorca himself, I would like to separate out the genuine reasons for admiring Lorca from the sacralization of his subjectivity. In other words, his admirers are not wrong to admire him, but (often) wrong in the way they do so. In a literary career stretching from the early twenties to his death in 1936, Lorca was able to create an extraordinary body of work in three genres: drama, lyric poetry, and poetics, which I define, following Robert Duncan, as a discourse “concerned with the inner nature and process of poetry itself.” He is the most performed foreign-language playwright in the English-speaking world, and a major influence on American drama and poetry. Neither his poetry nor his drama fits neatly into a single category. His quasi-surrealist experiments like El paseo de Buster Keaton anticipate the theater of the absurd. In short, he is the most significant Spanish poet and the most significant dramatist after the so-called Golden Age.

These are reasons enough to admire Lorca. Those who knew him personally also thought of him as a remarkable human being. Although I distrust hero worship, I believe that his personal conduct, his work ethic, and his political allegiances were exemplary in many respects. (Of course, the attitude that Lorca could do no wrong, that he was a kind of secular saint of literature, is not particularly helpful either; I would prefer to see him as a human being rather than an otherwordly creature.) What I’d like to suggest, though, is that all these good reasons for our devotion to Lorca are difficult to separate from the “bad” reasons. To treat him as just another writer along side his illustrious contemporaries, for example, rings false to me, in part because his legacy is inextricably bound up with seemingly extraneous factors.

What I have been calling Lorquian kitsch or parody manifests itself in various modes: in reverence for the duende (understood, usually, in simplistic terms), in the insistence on his Andalusian neopopularism, in an obsession with biographical explanations, and in the fetichization of his death and of the location of his mortal remains. His avant-garde experiments, his friendship with Dalí and Buñuel, and his New York sojourn also lend themselves to the formation of Lorquian myths.
Sacralization and kitschification seem to be opposite processes: one exalts and the other degrades. The first leads to reverence and awe, the second to the facile reproduction of contemptible mass-produced objects. Actually, however, these two processes are closely intertwined: it is only the object of sacralized devotion that is susceptible to the kitsch treatment. Only a fossilized, recognizable myth can be commodified as kitsch. To take the example of the Lorquian duende again, the widespread success of the concept is due to its brilliant and original way of reframing the idea of the romantic genius through the language of Spanish cultural nationalism. The success and popularity of the concept almost guarantees an endless process of repetition in which it loses virtually all its context and meaning. There are poetic movements, books of poetry, perfumes, theater troupes, and restaurants, among other things, named for Lorca’s duende.

Lorca’s posthumous legacy, then, is a decidedly mixed bag. In the remainder of my time today I would like to look first at the critical industry devoted to Lorca and secondly at theatrical tributes to Lorca on the American stage. This material comes from two or three chapters of a book I am presently completing: What Lorca Knew: Fragments of a Late Modernity, a sequel to my 2009 monograph Apocryphal Lorca. In each of these manifestations of Lorca’s afterlife I have identified two opposing forces. The first is centripetal: the construction of a unitary image of Lorca based on a few central tropes. The second is centrifugal: the fragmentation of Lorca into ever smaller and more differentiated segments. Although these two impulses stand in opposition to each other, in reality the seeming fragmentation of his legacy leaves the sacralization of his authorial presence virtually untouched.

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