Latin American literary history and criticism now commonly accept the fact and agree that the generation known as the modernistas -as their name suggests- was comprised of writers actively rejecting the old and searching out the new, especially in regard to innovation and reform in language. In those same critical circles, however, it is yet to be determined exactly where that generation stood in regard to the science and progress that characterized the nineteenth century, a time Mercedes Cabello de Carbonera has named as the century of «progresos sociales» (151). The polemic centers around the modernista attitude to those reforms, technology, industrialization, and modernization: on the one hand, there are those who argue that the entire modernista sensibility was a vehement protest and rebellion against the mechanization and materialism of their world; hence their idyllic return to classical times where such machines did not exist. On the other hand, there are those who, of the Federico de Onís persuasion, maintain that Modernismo, like the Renaissance, was «una época y no una escuela» (17).
In this essay, through the novel, La gloria de don Ramiro, I shall argue that the men who called themselves modernistas -and they were men- were as deeply embedded (in every sense of the word) in their century as their European and North American counterparts. They were Latin American intellectuals who, without forgetting their national or continental identity, also prided themselves on keeping pace with the latest intellectual reforms and knowledge available to men of their race, class and education. Although their works were often set in remote centuries and places, as far from the denizens of nineteenth century Latin America as possible,27 those literary productions by no means precluded the fact that they still alluded to their countries, even if their treatment was only paradigmatic. Such is the case with Enrique Rodríguez Larreta’s novel La gloria de don Ramiro. Though set in sixteenth century Spain, the text evolves around paradigms, attitudes, social norms and stereotypes that were generally available and recognizable to the turn-of-the-century writer, artist and scholar.
When it was first published in 1908,
La gloria de don Ramiro was an instant
success on both sides of the Atlantic, Although for different reasons in each
case.28 It received the favorable critical
attention of such eminent literary figures of the time as Miguel de Unamuno,
Rubén Darío, and Remy de Goncourt.29 In the vast criticism
devoted to this work,30 there have been polemics about its intention, its
geographical preference, its language, its use of sensation, and its historical
distance: in short, its
modernismo. Yet, with the exception of one
article written on the occasion of the twenty-fifth anniversary of publication
(Melián Lafinur 261-87), the criticism of Larreta’ s most widely-read
novel, and the one sometimes considered to be
modernista novel par excellence, has
never concerned itself with the relationship of women to the text. Equally
absent is the subject of irony, with the exception of one small mention of it
by Goncourt in 1910, and another by David Foster in 1972 (the latter being one
of the most recent studies of the novel). In it, Foster asserts that the
«only interpretation possible... that would be consistent with the bulk
of the work is that it is cynically ironic». Though Foster is referring
only to the Epilogue, the episode which gives the text its name, he recognizes
the irony of «the absurdity and pathetic ridiculousness of the ideals of
glory held by most men at most times in history» (34). I would argue that
the «pathetic ridiculousness» of the ideals about women «held
by most men at most times in history» is equally related to the question
Typical of the latter -the conflictive Mannerist Spain of Philip II31- and the former -the modernista sensibility of Spanish America- La gloria de don Ramiro plays so heavily on the themes of reality vs. appearance (ser vs. aparecer) that failure to recognize this fact would also reduce the readers awareness of its almost malicious sarcasm. While, on the one hand, Don Ramiro appears to be glorifying military imperialism and religious fanaticism (parecer) -and certainly there are critics who read it as a straightforward account of those times (Berenguer Carisomo)- the reality (ser) is that the narrator ultimately condemns all those ideals, showing his contempt for the Catholic Church, the «Holy» Inquisition, and the imperialism responsible for the explor-/exploitation of America. Intent on portraying an historically accurate account, Larreta claims to Nave spent five years researching the period before he attempted to write the novel.
Although The Malleus Maleficarum is not Spanish, there is no doubt that in his wanderings, Larreta encountered this classic document on witchcraft and misogyny, published by the Dominican inquisitors, Kramer and Sprenger almost a century before the ostensible opening of the novel in 1582. Furthermore, many intellectuals of the turn of the century returned to the Middle Ages and the classical period in their readings (Dijkstra 5) and as source material for their literature. Although many of the diatribes against women contained within the pages of The Malleus Maleficarum did not originate with the authors, but rather are the inheritance of clerical writings throughout the centuries, the many editions of it before 1550 ensured the diffusion of its contents throughout Europe. The classic dichotomy of the Angelic/Demonic woman is stamped here for an eternity:
|(Kramer and Sprenger 42)|
In this document, then, as was typical in most clerical writings, women were to take the blame for all evils of the world as they were possessed with «slippery tongues», «feeble mind and body», «impressionability» and general «inferior nature»; furthermore, «without the wickedness of women», claim the inquisitors, «the world would still remain proof against innumerable dangers» (42-45). The solution to women’s wicked ways appeared to be twofold: impose directives on their behavior, and condemn as witches those who did not obey them. Witches were so reviled in European culture, that authorities had no moral qualms about terminating their lives in blazing conflagrations known, in Spain, as autos-de-fé. Such were the well-documented cultural norms operating in Europe at the time the novel opens.
The Spanish philosopher, Juan Luis Vives, who was living in
Belgium in 1523 when he published his
Instrucción de la mujer cristiana,
echoes some of the same attitudes as
The Malleus Maleficarum, which emanated
from Germany. Like Kramer and Sprenger, he believes that good women do exist
although «all the good and evil in the world can be said without error to
be caused by women» (19). While Vives’s blatant misogyny is worthy of
note (after all, he was a humanist) so, too, is the certainly with which he
expounds it. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he believed that the good
Christian woman should be educated, even if an education would be like
«throwing oil onto the fire» in some cases, adding knowledge to her
«natural slyness». But, good books, «composed by saintly
males» would teach her how to behave. On the other hand, he disapproves
of the «astute and knowing woman reading books that open ways to lead
Later in the century, Fray Luis de León published his La perfecta casada, whose publication date coincides almost exactly with the date Larreta chooses to open the novel. In La perfecta casada, all the same saintly attributes of women are recommended, their «natural inferiority» is emphasized (22-34) and, as in the previous works, fear of women’s knowledge is so tremendous, that here not a syllable is dedicated to the education of women. Whereas The Malleus Maleficarum fears what we now call «woman bonding» («with their slippery tongues, they are unable to conceal from their fellow women those things which by evil arts they know» ), Vives believes that too much knowledge would lead women to sin, a path towards which they were naturally inclined, and Fray Luis, in the more repressive atmosphere of Philip II, does not acknowledge that women need to learn any skill other than increasing their husbands’ fortune (34). Significantly, the time period in Western European history is the Renaissance. Yet, as Germaine Greer writes, «[t]he lives of most women were unchanged by the atmosphere of freedom and innovation» (181). What is emerging, then, is the reality vs. appearance motif noted earlier: what appears to be for women’s good in fact stems from a deep fear of them. For, as nineteenth-century scholars such as John Stuart Mill pointed out, there was no need to outlaw knowledge for «inferior» beings, or those incapable of learning.
Added to these historical circumstances, the particular situation for women in Spain is linked to the complications of a nation trying to maintain religious integrity in the face of threats from the Reformation, costly wars with its enemies, and its reliance on its imperial wealth arriving from the colonies in America in order to finance them. The mood of the times, then, would not only determine and color the lives of those defending their wealth and reputation -men portrayed by such characters as don Íñigo, Ramiro’s grandfather- but most especially, the women who were living in their households -such as doña Guiomar, the protagonist’s mother.
When Ramiro was born in 1570, his mother, still a girl, had received an education consonant with the precepts of Instrucción de la mujer cristiana. The «evil books» about which its author cautions are the chivalresque novels so popular during this period. One critic of Don Ramiro calls them the «delicious diversion of Spanish men and women of the sixteenth century... which greatly delighted their sexual fantasy» (Berenguer Carisomo 85). It is well-known that even the most pious of figures, such as Santa Teresa de Ávila, read them in their youth. Ramiro’s mother, Guiomar, also enjoyed them as an adolescent:
This prohibition is the first of a series of concealments and revelations which, along with the motif of interiors and exteriors, help to articulate the reality/appearance dynamic that operates throughout the novel.
In the Renaissance world, where «man is the measure of
all things» to be a woman is to be marginal, objectified or non-existent.
Each of these categories can be applied to Guiomar, who is repeatedly used as a
token in male transactions. They begin with her dreams of being
«liberated» and taken «lejos, muy
lejos» (78) from her betrothed, a friend of her father, a
man three times her age. She is therefore receptive to the attentions of the
gallant young man who secretly courts and «seduces» her. On the
surface (parecer), her reading material of
(78) seems to have «seduced» her, a further reinforcement of the
severe prohibitions about such novels. But, in reality (ser), the reader knows her future looms unendurable before
her. The «seductor», nevertheless, has
entirely different motives: he is a Moor who seduces (rapes?) Guiomar in order
to exact vengeance for his own father’s death, an event for which
Íñigo, her father, is responsible. The narrator ambiguously
describes the couple’s encounter by saying that she «se hubo rendido por entero al pecado» (78).
What is clear from the Moor’s testimony, «yo
quise herirle en su honor», (78) is that he fully intended
to gain access to Guiomar, with or without her consent, notwithstanding her
will, his object being to injure Íñigo’s honor by damaging his
daughter. For a second time, Guiomar’s body becomes the currency in a male
transaction: what she interpreted as an act of
Nor is this any «ordinary» matter of honor, as it might have been had the nameless Moor been Christian. In addition to the loss of reputation, Íñigo must confront the fact that his daughter has been violated by his religious, political and racial enemy, an infidel and heretic. In post-Inquisition Spain where the Moors, in an additional concealment, must also hide their religion, Christians are their oppressors and conquerors: the dominant culture. Being able to take revenge on one’s conqueror through the rape of his women confers masculinity on the perpetrator, as Susan Brownmiller has written: «Rape by a conqueror is compelling evidence of the conquered’s status of masculine impotence. Defense of women has long been a hallmark of masculine pride, as possession of women has long been a hallmark of masculine success» (31). Unable to «conquer» Íñigo, either politically, economically or religiously, the Moor nevertheless demonstrates Íñigo’s «impotence» (and, of course, his own masculinity) by domination of Guiomar; Although she is «only a woman», the honor of the entire household rests on her purity.
The next revelation involves informing Guiomar’s betrothed of her impending motherhood. «Loco de amor o de lealtad» (79) to Íñigo, that is -he insists upon an immediate wedding. Although the idea of the marriage is thoroughly detestable to Guiomar, she is incapable of defying paternal rule-in spite of the fact that the Moor «offers» to marry her. Thus, «se resignó a ser ofrecida como tributo de aquella amistad» (78). Her father contained himself by only cursing «el fruto que llevaba en aquel vientre» (79), instead of killing her, which, according to the Fuero Juzgo of 1241, still invoked in the sixteenth century, was his legal right:
|(qtd. in Bromli 85)|
Although she cannot be more than twenty years old, her life is finished. Her new husband rushes off to one of Spain’s wars and dies in his first battle, leaving Guiomar again shrouded by paternal rule. Similar to many women throughout history and throughout the history of literature whose oppression in their worlds is overwhelming, she survives by cultivating an inner life, viewed by critics as religious fanaticism: «Doña Guiomar, enclosed in the remorse of her sin, personifies Spanish piety and tries to become acquainted with the mystical happiness of religion» (Jansen 99).
The narrator comments, «a pesar de su preñez, sometió su cuerpo a las más arduas penitencias» (79). This doubly ambivalent behavior suggests that Guiomar was either repenting or attempting to abort the child by mistreating her body. As a woman in literature, she is not alone in developing a life apart from the world which ostracizes her. In Guiomar’s case, the development of a female inner life appears to take on some of the intellectual freedom as described by women under monasticism but, in reality, is quite the opposite. Though in our own century, when Virginia Woolf states she feels a desire to enter a nunnery (139),32 and when scholars of the Middle Ages affirm that monastic women were probably intellectually inclined (Bell; Eckstein; Power), enjoying a freedom from male subjection (Daly 209), Guiomar’s choice of an inner life takes on the very same oppressive form of piety and devotion which is responsible for her seeking one in the first place.
Nor is her outer life any compensation. Her father, in order
to salvage his shattered honor, moves them to the walled city of Ávila.
Often referred to by Spaniards as a
ciudad cárcel, it serves as
a perfect symbolic expression not only of Guiomar’s incarceration within its
walls, but also of her son, Ramiro’s, as we shall see. For the rest of her
life, Guiomar will be reminded of her sin. Her father stops speaking to her:
«Cada uno se informaba del otro por medio de la
servidumbre» (77). She lives in a small room with
«austeridades de celda» (77)
located next to the prayer room. Always dressed in nun’s clothing, she spends
the rest of her shared life with her father trying to regain his affection,
playing the dutiful, yet culpable, daughter well into her adulthood. Even at
Íñigo’s deathbed, «no se apartaba
un instante de su cabecera, como si quisiese ofrecer al Señor la doble
tortura física y moral que prolongaba para ella aquel cerrado
aposento» (182). She has been marked, a stain that will
When Ramiro is old enough, she does, in fact, enter a convent and the reader never hears of her again. Barred even from the minimal space allotted to women in her society, while longing for liberation, her entrance to the convent could be read as a subversive act, an escape. Yet Ramiro remembers her as «llorosa... enlutada... taciturna» (257). All the while, the narrator reminds the reader of her circumstances, recognizing that she spoke «muy quedo y con lentitud cautelosa, como quien teme denunciar su verdadera cavilación» (143). In the novel, she is only important as the protagonist’s mother, the recipient of the alien seed that is to sire Ramiro, a mere vessel. As soon as he -or the narrator- ceases to need her, she is dispatched. Her place in the text, however, underscores the novelist’s dramatized view of life, especially for women, under Philip II. Whatever kind of figure Philip may have been historically, in the novel his regime is portrayed as a racist reign of terror, especially for the marginalized: women, non-Christians, and those of darker skin. We sea in the text that sanctions are great for those who disobey or attempt to do so, paying for their transgressions with their lives.
As its name suggests, modernismo consciously rejects the traditional in favor of the modern and new. This preference is often vivified by a conflict which is created by placing the male protagonist between two women. According to Cedomil Goic,
Nor should we be surprised to discover such a structure here within the modernista generation since, as we have seen, the nineteenth century borrowed heavily from clerical writings which also extolled the virgin while condemning the where. In La gloria de don Ramiro, these two types are embodied by the high-born Beatriz and the Moorish Aixa, each characterized by all the stereotypes of her particular category, in addition to the European/Oriental exoticism added to their condition in the text. Though the novel declaredly takes place in the sixteenth century, it is also clear that these two types of women were not only very prevalent during the nineteenth century, but also characterized much of the literature (and graphic art) that was produced then (Dijkstra). Religious differences and prejudices make Christian Beatriz «acceptable», while Aixa, the exotic, Oriental temptress, is «prohibited» to Ramiro. The irony in such a reversal is that Aixa and Ramiro share the same Moorish blood, while «domestic», pure-blooded Beatriz is unacceptable once Ramiro’s true origins (read «race») are disclosed. The fact that these demarcations were operative during the time depicted in the novel is now well known; what may be less known is that at the turn of the century in Europe, they were also very widespread. Though on the surface (parecer), Beatriz is the virgin, the «pure, young girl» (Goic 132), she is purposely depicted in several scenes where she openly defies the rules and norms of her society, as when she lies openly on the grass with a suitor. In a society where a young girl could not take a step without her dueña, such behavior constitutes a defiance of the social order. In the text, Beatriz’s behavior serves as an example of the hypocrisy of her social class and the duplicity it encourages. In contrast, Aixa, though supposedly evil, hides only her religion. Her sexual behavior is no secret from any member of her group.
Beatriz, whose literary predecessor is Dante’s Beatrice, embodies many of the same characteristics of that ideal woman. Like her Italian namesake, she meets the hero -who is profoundly moved by the experience- when still a child. On the surface, she appears to have accepted both her role and position. In reality, she exhibits the characteristics of one who knows how to manipulate the situation to her own advantage. In her society, the highest accolade a woman can receive involves her honor. Like the times Beatriz lives in, honor, too, is a matter of reality and appearance, as Cervantes reminds us in the Quijote: «The good woman does not achieve fame only by being good, but also by seeming good. Much more harm is done to a woman’s honor by public liberties and lewdness than by secret wickedness» (qtd. in Bromli 85).
As we can see, a woman’s honor depends on her chastity, or
the appearance of it. As with
While a man’s honor depends on his word, in the patriarchal world inhabited by Beatriz, and more recently commented on by Juana Manso33 and Adrienne Rich respectively, either nobody believes in a woman’s word (Manso 58), or women «have been rewarded for lying» (Rich 186). In La gloria de don Ramiro, Beatriz is -or would have been, had she lived- rewarded for lying. In the hierarchy of her society, a woman gains her status solely from the males who consider her their property. Within that configuration, she may well see it in her best interest to transfer herself as property at the highest possible rung of the ladder, a stratification whose status is determined by primogeniture and purity of blood. Beatriz’ s conflict in determining her future is that her choice must be one based on mercenary motives rather than emotional ones; hence, she must decide between the dark and «mysterious» Ramiro, the blond, handsome Gonzalo, or the latter’s younger brother. In many ways, Ramiro represents to Beatriz exactly what Aixa represents to him: the forbidden and, therefore, exotic and desirable. Such prohibitions enable the narrator to play upon the sexual, social, racial, and ultimately racist, stereotypes in sixteenth-century society while, at the same time, enabling the implied author to insinuate those of the nineteenth. In order to exemplify the decadence he wishes to portray in sixteenth-century Spanish society, the narrator paints Beatriz as silly, frivolous, useless, lazy and coquettish -a perfect and predictable product of womanhood of her culture. We learn that she «saboreaba desde luego la femenina fruición de esperanzarlos a la par» (93; my emphasis). The critics tell us much the same: «Beatriz is a young noble girl, scatterbrained and thoughtless, who gives herself over to the dangerous scheming of coquetry» (Jansen 113).
Or, we might read that «events slip past her consciousness without interesting her... a splendid doll» (Ghiano 31). Yet, she cannot be as unconscious as the critic claims, because unlike other modernista heroines, Larreta has endowed her with the knowledge that her beauty is her asset and her power: there is little else which accords her that power. Hence, she plays her role and deploys her power with all the passion of a serious drama; it is, after all, her life. In Ávila, she is adored as if she were the Virgin, with whom she is often compared. Such epithets as «Milagrosa» and «Star of Bethlehem», when coupled with her less-than-virginal behavior, provide further proof of the hypocrisy of her society. Publicly, «dejábase vestir por sus esclavas» (167), and «tiesa y vistosa como una imagen, la boca pía, los ojos recoletos» (170), she is carried in her hand-chair to be adored and idolized by the crowd. Privately, as the honor code requests, she does as she pleases, including inviting men into her bedroom at night.
The Naturalist narrator, of whose pen she is a creation, searches for the «error» in her upbringing: he blames her father for his leniency and Beatriz for her shrewdness in getting her way, implying the old man’s powerless state before such formidable beauty:
Instead of recognizing both father and daughter as products of a hypocritical and patriarchal system that will, by the novel’s end, ultimately be repudiated as false, the narrator, here, prefers to show how Beatriz has learned to exploit the system responsible for the deficiencies of her education. It is clear that the narrator extols education for women; nevertheless, in Beatriz’s case, he appears doubtful about her capacity for learning: she is subjected to «todas las cosas que se aprenden sin dolor» (201), such as dance, song and cithern. Shocked, the narrator reports: «A los quince años la niña sabía apenas deletrear. El arte de la labor le era desconocida» (201). While never specifying which is more important, sewing or spelling, Beatriz’s education conforms to the norms set forth in La perfecta casada, in contrast to the adolescent Guiomar, for whom reading was an important component of her life. But, Beatriz opts for image of the «joya delicadísima, como un ser exquisito y precioso» (202). And though the narrator disapproves, he also sees her within a larger context:
She is the object of Ramiros’s love; her repudiation of him for another man upon discovering the impurity of his blood constitutes a loss of honor for Ramiro. And the code of honor, for one scholar of Spanish culture, determines all moral and social life; it is defined as «a synonym, not of virtue or moral dignity, but reputation» (Bromli 38). Vives confirms that «there is nothing in the world as tender or as delicate as the honor and reputation of a woman... to such a large degree, that it seems to be hanging from a single strand of hair» (63). In the Quijote, honor is compared to glass, while in the next century, all major Golden Age dramatists allude to it. Lope and Calderón both agree that a man cannot live without honor, though his honor depends entirely on a woman.34 The essence of these early critiques is that as long as woman stay at home, guarding the family honor, men are fairly free to do as they like. The most extreme of these positions states that «a woman should leave her house on there occasions only: baptism, marriage and burial» (Escrivà y Fonseca, qtd. in Fitzmaurice-Kelly 12).
A man’s honor, theoretically based on his word, is a more complex issue. Beatriz’s father, for example, never doubts the honor of someone with «sangre tan calificada y limpia» as Ramiro’ s (131). But, because one’s honor can be so easily soiled by «cualquier lengua malvada» (152), it had to be defended, by blood, for the death of a parent or friend, or in explosions of jealousy, because «no Spaniard can tolerate the idea that another is preferred over him» (Bromli 60). And when honor is the question, the sword is the answer.
The sword as a symbol of the erect phallus is not original with Larreta, or even his generation, but rather is archetypal. The successful deployment of a sword, as when Ramiro kills a rabid dog at age fourteen, confers upon the user an initiation into adult malehood (Allen 12), just as if it were an act of coitus. Yet, long before Ramiro ever used the sword, he had occasion to admire it. Should the reader be doubtful of the phallic symbolism, the narrator is not: «Este acero... es doncel, no sabe lo que es hundirse en la carne» (87).
Honor and the sword are intricately tied. A man cannot defend his honor without his sturdy sword, that «insigne herramienta de la honra y la dominación» (237). We are reminded how Guiomar was threatened by her father’s «daga desnuda» during her own crisis (79), and how Ramiro’s father used his own tool of honor and domination to defend his family honor. Brownmiller writes: «Man’s discovery that his genitalia could serve as a weapon to generate fear must rank as one of the most important discoveries of prehistoric times» (45). Ramiro considers that his sword is «parte viva de su persona» (211); when he finally uses it to kill Gonzalo, who is «rubio como un extranjero, blanco y sonrosado como una hembra» (167), the act is described with all the imagery of coitus; its completion has all the satisfaction of orgasm: «La fuente del orgullo derramaba ahora por todo su cuerpo un goce inmenso y bravío. Sintió erguirse en la brisa, como una cresta, la pluma de su sombrero, y experimentó en los talones una extraña sensación de fuerza invencible».
On another occasion, Ramiro is pretended with the «family jewels», that is, his father’s own gem-studded dagger is offered to him on the condition that he not betray Aixa. Yet Ramiro is anxious for glory, either religious or military, which «volvía a sonreírle cual una esclava impaciente y desnuda, ofreciéndole sus brazos, su fascinación y sus cantares» (142). Yet, fascinus is the spirit or demon of the phallus (Pliny, qtd. in Allen 11). Thus, if fascinación is gender-specific, so is the glory which generates it. Such a position is further confirmed by the narrator who describes «hombres de guerra, que traían en sus botas lodo reseco de los más diversos países... [que] curábanse mayormente del color de una pluma o del rumor de las propias espuelas» (151).
Ramiro’s interest, however, is to remake himself in the
image of that precise culture so mocked by the narrator. After slaughtering
Gonzalo, believing that he is avenged and that glory now belongs to him, he
makes his way to Beatriz’s home, gaining access by donning his dead rival’s
clothing and mask, in yet another concealment. In their final scene together,
Beatriz’s passion and «boca
insaciada» (226) remind Ramiro that he is dressed as
Gonzalo; that «aquel beso era el beso de otro, el
triunfo de otro, la caricia suprema destinada a otro labio, a otro
hombre» (225). Surely it can be no coincidence that the
protagonist removes his mask, thereby revealing his true identity as Ramiro, at
the same moment that he calls Beatriz «ramera». Although one source identifies this
term as signifying «a woman who looks for her victims in the
streets» (Bromli 34), Corominas traces it to days when prostitutes
pretended to own a tavern and put a branch,
ramo, at their door to identity
Beatriz’s preference for Gonzalo is an affront to Ramiro’s honor, and the only solution, according to the honor code, is death:
La esposa o la desposada que nos burla se trueca, al pronto, en nuestro peor enemigo; una vez descubierta, no quedaba sino darle la muerte sin piedad, y después olvidarla, olvidarla del todo, barrer del corazón hasta su nombre.
Whether the narrator is speaking in his own voice, or in Ramiro’s, or in a mockery of the honor code, matters less than the fact that such statements reveal that the code is male, and that the male, dramatized narrator recognizes it as such with the use of the first person plural pronoun, «nos». As readers, we are now in a position to agree with Foster’s initial statement about the «pathetic and ridiculous ideals of glory held by most men». Ramiro’s next act, the strangling of Beatriz, can only be construed as a tragic parody of those ideals. It is here that the narrator identifies himself with the male group in order to make his point. Had Ramiro allowed Beatriz to live, a more sympathetic and less patriarchally-infested male character would have emerged: one that defies and challenges an antiquated system based on white male privilege. But, Because Ramiro is given this ruthless behavior by a nineteenth century author, as readers we must make the leap between the sixteenth century and the nineteenth ourselves. Of course, Ramiro’s race (impurity of blood) excludes and marginalizes him from the privileges he believes to be his by virtue of his class and gender. Ironically, everyone knows Ramiro’s lineage, except, of course, Ramiro himself until the Moor reveals it to him late in the text. Furthermore, if, at this point, «purity of blood» arguments are beginning to sound like the theories propounded by the twentieth century «master race», the narrator undercuts them with his ironic title of «glory». For Ramiro, glory really meant vainglory, though the only glory he achieves at the novel's end is a religious one when he is watched over in death by Santa Rosa de Lima, in the last line of the novel: «Y esto fue la gloria de don Ramiro» (266).
Fleeing the restrictive walls of Ávila with two murders
on his hands, Ramiro arrives in Toledo, a city described as «más católica que Roma» (251),
in time to see his former lover, Aixa, burned at the stake in the name of the
Holy Inquisition. Part of the Latin American
modernista aesthetic -inherited,
no doubt, from European cousins- is the development of the exotic, sexual and
passionate woman who fatally attracts the hero, often against his better
judgment or will, a capitulation one critic names a «vil entrega» (Sánchez 2). At the same
time, this part of the text underscores another prevailing notion of
nineteenth-century sexuality: a man cannot contain himself when confronted with
the lust of dark strangers such as Aixa, even when he is at the risk of
plummeting into their level of bestiality. As with other femme fatale figures
in literature, Aixa’s function in the text is precisely to provide a
mysterious and enigmatic tone, and for this reason, perhaps, the first
descriptions of her are not the so-called careful, impartial, scientific
observations that the reader has come to expect from the Naturalist novel.
Instead, the voyeuristic nineteenth-century, presumably male, reader is
tantalized, as is Ramiro, by her bewitching fascination. In this passage,
Larreta abandons all «impartiality» and exposes, so to speak, all
prevailing notions of his contemporaries’ fears of women. The narrator begins
with Ramiro’s first view of Aixa, submerged in her bath, hair floating around
her, reminiscent of the serpents associated with sorcery.
The Malleus Maleficarum -to return to the
Inquisition- reminds us that «the power of witches is more apparent in
serpents than in other animals, Because through the serpent, the devil tempted
women» (Kramer and Sprenger 55). Dijkstra underscores the
nineteenth-century obsession with the sixteenth when he writes that terms such
as «serpentine», and «snakelike» had become quite
commonplace in describing women’s appearance (305). Here, it is especially
apt, for it symbolically aligns a woman’s «snares» and a man’s
helplessness. Furthermore, it demonstrates, by way of the sixteenth-century
mentality, Ramiro’s continuing fascination with and helplessness concerning
sorcery. It is as if he is simply a victim
Beginning with her toilette, Aixa is groomed to appear as an Oriental temptress of men, a recurring modernista motif, just as Beatriz’s preparation for a religious parade echoes the Christian fashion; yet, both women function as objects of male pleasure, bedecked and bejeweled to fit the current fantasy. In one, we observe the temptress incarnate and in the other, the virgin incarnate, precisely the two roles assigned to women in Christianity in the two centuries under scrutiny. The narrator continues with Ramiro’s first view of Aixa:
[R]eía como una mujer semibárbara, con cierta animalidad, incomprensible y deliciosa; mientras sus pestañas, larguísimas e inquietas, parecían desprender ilusorio polvillo de lujuria y nigromancia.
As their affair -or «amores», as the narrator ironically denominates this relationship progresses, Ramiro finds Aixa more «apasionada... deseosa» (132) each time they meet, in yet another resonance of both centuries’ obsession with exotic, Oriental women. For the sixteenth, we may recall one of The Malleus Maleficarum’s most quoted phrases: «all witchcraft comes from carnal lust which in women is insatiable» (47). In the minds of nineteenth century intellectuals, woman’s uncontrolled sensuality, could be linked, as Darwin had warned them concerning the Greeks, with a sign of «reversion», a natural occurrence «in which a long-lost structure is called back into existence». The fall of Greece took place, he concluded, only when that culture was completely «corrupt to the core» (The Descent of Man 696; qtd. in Dijkstra 212).
Ramiro finds himself helpless in the power of such a woman; he loses control (of his celibacy) and she dominates (his state of tumescence). Though Aixa is central to the text and to Ramiro, most importantly, she exemplifies the turn-of-the-century notion that women loved to be beaten and raped, as explained by nineteenth-century «scientists» such as Richard von Krafft-Ebing, and Lombroso and Ferrero. Krafft-Ebing’s Psychopathia Sexualis (1886) explained to intellectuals that nature had given women
an instinctive inclination to voluntary subordination to man... [M]asterful behavior, though loudly reprehended, is often accepted with secret satisfaction. Under the veneer of polite society the instinct of feminine servitude is everywhere discernible.
|(130, qtd. in Dijkstra 101)|
How much truer this would seem if, to begin with, the woman did not belong to the classes of «polite society». In The Female Offender, Lombroso and Ferrero assured readers that the «normal woman is naturally less sensitive to pain than man» (150, qtd. in Dijkstra 101). In the racist minds of late nineteenth-century writers, a woman like Aixa might not be considered «normal». Even while the implied author insinuates his criticism of those prevailing notions of womanhood, he also suggests that Aixa’s continued relationship with Ramiro conflates her well-founded fear of the Inquisition and her debt to Ramiro’s father. Though her story may appear to lack cohesion to the reader, it fits perfectly into Ramiro’s and the narrator’s purposes. As with the other women in the text I have discussed, Beatriz and Guiomar, she is repeatedly used as currency in male transactions.
But, for Ramiro, Aixa has cast a spell on him and has therefore rendered him helpless. Partially responsible for this belief is his spiritual and religious guide, Vargas Orozco, a man satirized by the narrator for his superstitious belief in witches: «[A]quel hombre de Iglesia... comenzó a discurrir sobre las brujas o jorguinas, sobre la magia, los hechizos y otras supersticiones semejantes, que eran como la teleraña del Diablo» (245). His advice to Ramiro takes the following form: «Dicha hembra ha de ser alguna famosa jorguina, de las que usan filtros diabólicos, cuyo poder sólo puede resistirlo uno que otro cuerpo endurecido en la penitencia» (144).
Likewise, Ramiro’s mother also contributes to the idea that
he must be bewitched when she asks «¿Qué hechizo te han echado en el
corazón?» (144). His visits to Aixa become imbued
with the idea that she is possessed by the Devil,
In one brief paragraph, their relationship is converted into The Romantic Agony: romantic for him and agony for her. The echoes of the most important chapters outlined by Mario Praz can be seen here: the evolution of «La Belle Dame Sans Merci», to the cruelty and torture of «The Shadow of the Divine Marquis» until, finally, the idea of «The Beauty of the Medusa», the beautiful, dead woman, embeds itself into Ramiro’s consciousness. He had learned that «algunas mujeres cobraban al morir inolvidable belleza» (132). Yet, it is very likely that Larreta himself read Poe’s remarks concerning the death of beautiful women as ideal topics for poetry (Poe 369) published some fifty years earlier. Even if he had not, the idea of woman, beauty and death had become so popular by the turn-of-the-century that it was almost a cultural cliché. Though Ramiro wishes Aixa dead, he also fears that her fascination (i. e. his loss of phallic control) could re-emerge at any point in his life. Therefore, only the total obliteration and disintegration for once and for all of the «beautiful, dead face» would do; only death by fire could rid his mind’s eye of «aquella hembra demasiada bella» (132).
The torture and burning at the stake of what has now been calculated to be several million women at a period in history known as the Renaissance is a subject which feminist scholars and activists alike have approached with anger, indignation, sorrow, metaphor and spirituality. The omission or trivialization of this atrocity from standard history texts has made it a topic rife for feminist scholarship and theory; and its occurrence in fiction also merits new attention. Does the author condone the gynecide? Or, is he of the same school of thought as Montague Summers who, in 1928, wrote the introduction to a modern edition of The Malleus Maleficarum? In it, Summers suggests that witches were part of a «vast political movement, an organized society which was anti-social and anarchical, a world wide plot against civilization» (xviii). More recently, philosopher Mary Daly has claimed that the greatest vehemence toward witches was practiced against women who had not «assimilated into the patriarchal family» (Gyn/Ecology, 184), that is, single women and spinsters, as, for example, Aixa. For a witchburning to appear in a nineteenth-century text, in all its grim horror is unusual enough; for the author to take the side of the so-called witch, as does Larreta, we begin to see how this incident elucidates his view of the racism, misogyny and genocide in his own and sixteenth-century cultures.
In 1486, the official connection between heresy and witchcraft was established, a nexus which, in the text, provides an excuse to take Aixa’s life. However, witchcraft was not associated only with heresy, but also with sexuality. The Malleus Maleficarum makes the connection between the insatiable woman and witchcraft, for «the mouth of the womb is never satisfied» (Kramer and Sprenger 47). Of the seven ways of witchcraft described by its authors, five are sexually related. The most important of them appears to be the fear of castration, when witches are accredited with «removing the member accommodated to their [male] generative force» (47). We have already seen the phallus used and described as an «instrument of domination and power»; its loss, meaning that a man might find himself with «a smooth body, unprovided with the virile member», (59) would, in effect, reduce him to the undesired status of female.
The attack on women which culminated in the European witchburnings, then, expressed two basic fears about women: their knowledge and their sexuality. According to Dijkstra, the same virulent misogyny also prevailed in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. He writes:
Men everywhere, of every possible political persuasion, declared their emancipation from the viraginous, decapitating sword of woman’s regressive, degenerative concern for the real. By the first decade of the twentieth century, antifeminine attitudes, often accompanied by a wholesale espousal of misogyny, had become the rule rather than the exception...
Even more dramatically, Dijkstra concludes that attitudes so
prevalent in turn-of-the-century literature and art, like those we have seen
here, which he calls «psychological ‘gynecide’, were an initial
indication of why the policies of the Nazis were «not only culturally
acceptable», but also «a logical historical outcome of the
extravagant false science of general turn-of-the century culture»
consisting of «the legitimate theory of the evolution of the species, the
specious theory of potential devolution, [and] the ‘degeneration’ of
society» (209). Though historians have been reluctant to condemn
witchburnings with the same vigor reserved for the Nazi holocaust, Larreta,
with chilling foresight into the events that would shape the twentieth
[V]einte o treinta energúmenos, hombres y mujeres, rompiendo la fila de los soldados, se precipitaron sobre el brasero para despedazar a la infiel... los que querían verla morir en las llamas prorrumpieron a un tiempo en el mismo grito de protesta.
Such an extreme level of individual and collective legitimized hysteria, violence and sadism cannot but remind the reader of the elements of contemporary pornography as outlined by contemporary feminist theory (Griffin; Dworkin; Lederer) which draws striking parallels between the pornographic and the authoritarian (military, religious, Nazi) imaginations. Witchburnings incur and promote the same level of violence as the sadism in pornography, and are composed of the same ingredients: degradation, torture, humiliation, and finally, extermination of the female body. In the case of Aixa, the skeptic might wish to show that she is brutalized just as cruelly, if not more so, by women as men. The old woman who drives the blade into Aixa’s back shortly before she is burned (254), must acknowledge, perhaps unconsciously, that the attack is against women. What is clear, though, is that Larreta, by having her literally stab another woman in the back, reveals his understanding of the functionings of such a system.
This terrible scene, perhaps the most dramatic and certainly the most horrific of the novel, is practically unmentioned by the critics who prefer to focus on the stylistics, honor, valor and glory of Spain (Homenaje; Alonso; Berenguer Carisomo). Berenguer Carisomo, however, makes a very revealing remark when he states:
The French critics [whom he does not cite], who saw Ramiro’s attitude with such extreme horror... perhaps did not understand the double Hispanic residue, inevitable in this relationship... in Aixa, the memory of a few burning hours of passion; in Ramiro, the idea of cardinal sin.
In my reading of La gloria de don Ramiro, those French critics are far more likely to have understood Larreta’s irony than the Hispanic ones; after all, it was not their culture being so mordantly satirized. As readers, I would conclude, we are meant to feel horror at Ramiro’s indifference, his total loss of any vestige of humanity, a totally inhuman product of his culture, just as the Nazi and the pornographer are of theirs. Likewise, the narrator intends for us to admire Aixa: on the one hand, she is the «infidel» who is most faithful; on the other, she fulfills nineteenth-century expectations by being willing to sacrifice her life for the man she loves. Here, too, we are obliged to make the connection between the full explosion of fanaticism at its height and the suffering it incurred among those not of the ruling classes: especially when at the very same moment that impulse was also using its full imperial force to colonize America. Such a reading is confluent with the irony motif we have noticed throughout the text. Ramiro, though seemingly ridiculous in his «pathetic ideals» of glory does not stray from the model of his society. Rather, he personifies and exposes it. In choosing the sixteenth century to exemplify the pathetic and ridiculous ideals of woman held by most men, Larreta also neatly provides a caustic attack on the nineteenth.
The lives of the three women I have discussed revolve around the protagonist, Ramiro. Although all three women conform to their assigned and respective roles of Mother, Virgin and Temptress, none survives. In each case, they a re crushed by the very system that created them. In spite of the fact that each creatively attempts to subvert that system by devising her own rules, in each case, she pays for that transgression with her life. These women are not, as one critic claims, the «victims of the love they feel or inspire» (Melián Lafïnur 261). Rather, they are victims of the system so eloquently satirized by Larreta. Yet, according to Ramiro, whose judgment we are now not as willing to trust, they are all responsible for this demise: his mother for coupling with a non-Christian to produce him; Beatriz, for betraying him; and especially Aixa, whom he considers to be «la causa de toda su mala ventura, de todos sus yerros y desengaños» (226).
Though all the women in the text die, as occurred regularly in novels and canvases of the turn-of-the-century, so, too, does Ramiro. The fact that the «hero» does not survive to create poetry from the death of a beautiful woman reveals a departure from the norm since female death was almost an institution of misogyny, as Dijkstra, writes: «It was part of the late nineteenth century convention that the woman who truly loved a man must die. It was her wish to expire so she might prove her love... a sign of her total abandonment to the will, the identity of the male...» (133); but the death of the man indicates that Larreta does not participate in, although he clearly understands, the conventions of his own time. Transposing them to the sixteenth century, is, in fact, one of his most brilliant strokes in the novel. It was not unusual for the modernista generation (or the generations preceding it in Latin America) to portray a distant time from the present in order to depict one’s own. But, what we have here is every nineteenth-century stereotype of female evil as seen by scientists and intellectuals, portrayed in sixteenth-century characters. It is Larreta’s irony, his willingness to show us that in spite of recognizing those stereotypes and false notions of science, his disagreement with the misogyny and gynecide so prevalent in his own times that transforms this text from just another modernista novel to a critique of both centuries.
Nevertheless, the criticism of La gloria de don Ramiro does not see it this way, preferring to associate the point of view of the narrator with that of the protagonist. A careful reading of the text, in fact, provides us with the caustic and elegantly satirical examination of life in the times of Philip II and cultural beliefs of life in the times of Larreta, as I have tried to show. By calling the holocaust «tragic» in the face of Ramiro’s indifference, by exhorting Philip to be content with what he has, and in his compassionate address to the Moors («Oh, los de Islam») whom he considers to be the marginalized and oppressed of the text, the narrator evinces a point of view in direct contradiction with both eras in question.
And, we have also seen that he accomplishes this task by what must be considered his sympathetic portrait of the women: recognizing Beatriz to be a product of the hypocritical culture which produced her; eloquently portraying Guiomar’s entrapment; depicting Aixa as the only one «true» to her faith; and adding the presence of the faithful servant Casilda to all Ramiro’s departures. Furthermore, the satire is exacerbated by his mockery and unsympathetic portrait of the men, who are all depicted as either superstitious, stupid or parasitic, especially when the subject is money. Several minor male characters inherit their fortunes when their wives die in childbirth; Ramiro’s «patrimony» -in spite of the etymology of the word- comes exclusively (save his trusty sword) from his mother’s line. For all of the importance of the purity of blood and its concomitant uninterrupted genealogy of the male line, none of the men in the text inherits anything from their paternal line. So much for patriarchy, the reader begins to say. Ultimately, then, by showing how the ideals of glory are ridiculous, the narrator essentially views the entire imperial enterprise in its full American context. Similarly, his sympathetic portrayal of the women as victims of that system shows him to be conscious of the relationship between women and colonization.
Finally, then, it is up to the reader to make the positive connections that Larreta suggests throughout his text: imperialism with patriarchy, Church fathers with holocausts, the Inquisition with pornography, the sixteenth century with the nineteenth. Though he may have been a modernista, it was not beneath Larreta to turn back to see just where he and his generation came from. In so doing, he tells us just where he, and the culture he lived in, was going.
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