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The Limits of «Modernismo»: Delmira Agustini and Julio Herrera y Reissig

Gwen Kirkpatrick

University of California, Berkeley

Delmira Agustini and Julio Herrera y Reissig were latecomers to the spectacle of modernista extravagance. Despite their affinities with the esthetic tenets of this movement, their classification as modernistas, especially in the case of Agustini, is somewhat awkward. Less often noted is their role as initiators of a «new» style, as boundary breakers, as antecedents of vanguardist experimentation, the generation with which they are almost contemporaneous. If we reevaluate the important continuities, not breaks, between them and later poets such as Ramón López Velarde, César Vallejo, and Alfonsina Storni, we have another vantage point to rethink their poetic production. As Plato reminds us, we must look at style, «because a new music in poetry always signals a new meaning. When the music changes, the walls of the city tremble»1.

These two poets reflect in their poetry the uneasy sensation that the music and sculpture of modernismo are falling apart, and with them, the esthetic and ideological constructs which declared the inviolability of individual esthetic value and its centrality in poetic construction. They allow us to look more deeply into their literary epoch, its naturalist prose and modernista poetry, as well as forward toward more obviously experimental verse. Their dislocations of an inherited poetic language and their attention to the powerful visual nature of physical and erotic description show their ties to the naturalist writers' emphasis on the physical environment and the role of madness, sickness, and the Nietzschean vision of «Otra estirpe», in the words of Agustini.

These two Uruguayans were striking innovators. Herrera achieves a parodic subversion of modernismo's norms with his stylistic innovation, explicit and parodic eroticism, and the startling nature of many of his metaphors. Agustini, even more than Herrera, concentrates on eroticism and love. Their defiance and exaggeration of the poetic (as well as social) conventions they inherited have made them objects of a great deal of biographical assessment, and the bizarre fact's of their lives make the appeal of such studies understandable. Their lives were brief: Herrera y Reissig died in 1910 at the age of 35, and Agustini died four years later (1914) at 28 years of age. They are noted for their brilliance and eccentricity. Agustini, as the first major female poet in twentieth-century Latin America, has troubled her critics by the powerful explicit eroticism of her poetry and its resistance to easy classification. Herrera's extravagance and powerful inventiveness of metaphor have earned him a place in the pantheon of modernistas. But as Rubén Darío noted: «En Herrera lo artificial, el virtualismo se penetra de su vibración si queréis enfermiza de la verdad de su tensión cordial, de su verídico sufrimiento interno»2.

My purpose is to suggest new readings of these poets in their relationship to their heritage of naturalism as well as modernismo. We might remember that they arose from the same environment, an Uruguay in the wake of major social and political realignments. Early twentieth-century Uruguay certainly presents one of the oddest and most brilliant casts of characters anywhere. The famous «Generación del '900» was an extraordinary grouping of writers and thinkers that included, among others, Javier de Viana, Carlos Reyles, José Enrique Rodó, Carlos Vaz Ferreira, Maria Eugenia Vaz Ferreira, Florencio Sánchez, Horacio Quiroga, as well as Herrera y Reissig and Delmira Agustini3. During this period José Enrique Rodó sparks the youthful renewal of «arielismo» throughout Latin America, Horacio Quiroga is the continent's master of the fantastic short story, gaucho literature is flourishing, Roberto de las Carreras engages in scandalous literary and personal polemics with Herrera y Reissig, María Eugenia Vaz Ferreira recites her verses, and Delmira Agustini, la «Nena»4, emerges as the poet who most transforms and refracts the waning sunlight of modernista decadence.

Like its more populous neighbor Argentina, during this time Uruguay witnessed high tides of immigration, sharply vocal articulation of social reform programs, and last but not least (and directly related to the former) a pressing emergence of a new social and political role for women. With the social reforms undertaken during the presidency of Batlle y Ordóñez, there was new labor legislation, popular education, secularization of state institutions, a divorce law in 1908, and the formation of a university for women5. We should not, however, look for evidence of clear correlation of these trends in the poetry of Agustini and Herrera y Reissig; poetry for them is not the vehicle for social or political commentary. It is the notable absence of these specific issues, and of a specific receptor, that defines their relation to the external world. We may, however, look to their environment for some cues to the fund of images from which they drew, and for a new understanding of the dynamics expressed in their poetry, and in the prose of their contemporaries.

Herrera concentrates on organic images to describe the appearance of a new spirit: «Los siglos le han visto morir para luego renacer glorioso bajo distintas formas; es como un gusano sublime que se enferma mientras le brotan las alas»6. Herrera y Reissig and Agustini do not so much declare a frontal assault on the «reino interior» constructed and transmitted by Rodó with his Ariel, as they populate its interior with larval forms: the «gusanos» and female vampires favored by Agustini, the frenzied erotic rites and the incongruous presence of scientific terms in the work of Herrera y Reissig. As Jorge Ruffinelli has noted in Herrera's works: «[E]stá presente esa suerte de regodeo vesánico en ciertas actitudes del amor -el tema de la sustitución del objeto amado, la degradación de la persona o el sufrimiento cultivado que... revela insoslayables poses de lúdica y artificiosa maldad»7.

Herrera y Reissig proposes a counter-image to Rodó's construction of an interior world, signifying light, voice, and spirit. I use Rodó's figure here for two reasons: first, he was a contemporary of both these poets and was an important force (or counterforce) in the establishment of the Generación del '900 in Uruguay, a status Herrera heatedly opposed from his «Torre de las panoramas»; second, Rodó's metaphor of «the spirit of Ariel» was adopted almost immediately as a cultural and artistic creed in Latin America, at the same time that poetic practice began to diverge sharply from such a philosophy. In his reading of Rodó's Ariel, Roberto González Echevarría has explored the strange construction of Rodó's new house for the spirit, where «voice, spirit and air» are opposed to «body, stone, utilitarianism»8. Rodó's metaphor suggests metallic enclosure, and defensive stance, rather than the free exchange of light and air. González's description of this «reino interior» is uncannily similar to our reading of much modernista verse: «The self, this monstrous self in which authority is invested, is shielded from nature, isolated from the world, by the most luxurious artifice»9.

Agustini and Herrera almost feverishly set about populating the «house of the spirit» with body and materiality, in both a referential and linguistic sense. Language is not to be a transparent medium. Crystalline transparencies, whether lakes, clouds, or skies, invite clouding or staining. Nowhere is this more explicit than in Agustini's «Nocturno» (Los cálices vacíos):

Engarzado en la noche el lago de tu alma,
diríase una tela de cristal y de calma
tramada por las grandes arañas del desvelo.

Nata de agua lustral en vaso de alabastros;
espejo de pureza que abrillantas los astros,
y reflejas la sima de la Vida en un cielo...

Yo soy el cisne errante de los sangrientos rastros
voy manchando los lagos y remontando el vuelo.10

Many of Agustini's critics have chosen to view her as a mystic, rather than to read her erotic verse at face value11. She does establish, in a more concrete and apparently spontaneous way, the possibility of a dialogue between the biological world and a transcendent one. One of her best-known poems, «Visión» (Los cálices vacíos), can represent her rearrangement of the crowded rooms of modernista decor, and the manner in which she populates these verbal spaces with corporal images of spiritual states are images familiar to her epoch, but given odd twists:

¿Acaso fue en un marco de ilusión,
en el profundo espejo del deseo,
o fue divina y simplemente en vida
que yo te vi velar mi sueño la otra noche?
En mi alcoba agrandada de soledad y miedo,
taciturno a mi lado apareciste
como un hongo gigante, muerto y vivo,
brotado en los rincones de la noche,
húmedos de silencio,
y engrasados de sombra y soledad.

(p. 34)                

For Agustini, the winged spirit is essentially female, most often without the light airiness proposed by Rodó. Her winged creatures include, as well as the famous bleeding swan she creates in «Nocturno», winged vampires, Iris, and bats, as well as butterflies and doves.

Critics and biographers of Agustini have warned her readers of the likely dangers of misjudging her poetry. Over and over again they warn us to separate the «eternal» from the «worldly reflections» of her overly heated, decorated, and decadent epoch. And more, we are to be taught to avoid the dangers of naively trusting in her overtly erotic expressiveness, «redeemed», in the eyes of Zum Felde, by her «dramatismo»12. Sylvia Molloy, however, has outlined very clearly the materialization and explicit erotic force of Agustini's swan in Agustini's writing. She points out her rewriting of Darío's work, where her unmistakable subject position of female enunciator leaves no doubt as to the sexual suggestiveness of the classical encounter13.

My focus here is another: Agustini's apparent «unfinished» technique. Did she choose a freer style, as many critics have said, because of her childish lack of discipline or training in poetic form? Or, as others have said, is it her innate femininity, her spontaneity of desire that impedes her chiseling perfect Parnassian forms? All we know for sure is that she is no representative of formal perfection. She leaves her sonnets unfinished at times (reminding us of Darío's haunting «Nocturno»), and rhymes repetitively and often trivially, even «moka», «loca», «boca». Augmentative techniques contrast with the foreshortened ones. Anaphora can produce an incantatory effect, as in «Las alas», but its combination with exclamation sometimes thunders on too heavily. She uses a kind of shorthand to set a scene: «Diríase» or «Se diría crisálida de piedra», prefiguring its use in more recent verse (e. g., Vallejo). Her use of the ellipse perhaps best characterizes her technique. In Agustini, this has been seen as lack, although it is recognized in later poets as the fine cutting of the ironic edge, the intrusion of doubt and silence that unanchors a logocentric universe.

Both Agustini and Herrera are preoccupied with subverting received structures in another way. For both, the sonnet is the favored form. Its rigor, enclosure, and poetic closure issue to them an invitation to shake its structure from within by exaggeration, fragmentation, or elliptical breaks in meaning. Implicitly, both Agustini and Herrera y Reissig reject the weight of tradition through their somewhat anarchic individualism. With Herrera, this takes a turn toward the overloading of formal structures until they collapse incongruously, and self-consciously, by their piling on of discordant additions and ever more frenzied rhythms. In Agustini, we see quite another turn to the exaggeration of tradition's boundaries. While ostensibly embracing the esthetic tenets of modernismo, she exaggerates its discontinuities, its silences, and accentuates its refusal to mediate between individualistic conscience and an external world. The unboundedness to external referents that we find in modernismo is heightened, and yet undermined, in the works of both these poets. The absence of such referential boundaries, the resulting expansion of an anarchic individualism, leads ultimately to a silence, a continual fragmentation, and an obsessive (and sometimes oppressive) dialogue with a silent interlocutor, the . Yet the unresponsiveness of her interlocutor, the trailing off into silence, and the recurring presence of the ellipse and the fragment give the sense of exclamations being shouted into a total void.

The question of individualism here is central. Although there is an apparent full-blown Romantic ego on one side of the dialogue, the void into which she speaks casts uneasy reflections back onto the emitter. The mobility of the desiring imagination makes the identity of the desiring self problematic14. The unanchoring of desire becomes the dynamic which pushes along Agustini's poetry. Even the titles of the three volumes published within her lifetime -El libro blanco, Los cálices vacíos, El canto de la mañana- are somewhat ephemeral. In «¡Oh tú!» the problematic is explicit, where the «reino interior» is full of cobwebs, silence, and sterility:

Yo vivía en la torre inclinada de la Melancolía...
... y el Silencio en la torre
      es dos veces;
tan triste, que sin verlo nos da frío la inmensa
sombra de su tristeza!
Eternamente incuba un gran huevo infecundo,
incrustadas las raras pupilas más allá;
o caza las arañas del tedio, o traga amargos
hongos de soledad.

(p. 51)                

Of course, one quite logical explanation for the diffusion of the poetic construct is gender-specific. How does a female creator work within the literary dynamics of sexuality she inherits from her age? Unless she plans to identify herself with the voyeur spying on the female, as in much modernista poetry (and prose), she must take another route. She might speak back, gazing out from the scene constructed, as did Alfonsina Storni in «Tú me quieres blanca». Agustini takes neither of these routes exclusively. She suggests both of them, although only obliquely. The exaggerated physicality found in so much late modernista poetry turns back onto the speaker. The speaker here is the monster, the winged figure that may be Iris, the vampire, or the swan. Transformational fantasies, the slippage from one form to another, are striking in her poetry. In a parallel move, there is a formal slippage: sonnets are unfinished, lines break off, the subject gets lost, and consonantal rhyme accentuates its poverty by repetition.

Agustini, with her constancy of transformation and sideways slippage, forecasts the type of abstraction of the physical image that arises from the verbal incrustations so typical of decadentism. Her reflexivity, the vision of self that doubles back on itself, accounts for the particular illegibility of the outlined body in her poetry, and the polarization of inferiority and exteriority, subject and object, in the representation of the body15, as in «El cisne»:

¡Y en la cristalina página,
en el sensitivo espejo
del lago que algunas veces
refleja mi pensamiento,
el cisne asusta de rojo,
y yo de blanca doy miedo!

(p. 47)                

Neither Agustini nor Herrera proposes a truly outside position for the enunciator in their poetry. They remain within the constraints of a place not unlike Rodó's «reino interior». If it is true, according to Georges Bataille, that eroticism's movement is always dislocating and dissolving, creating discontinuities and a fundamental fascination with death, then the play of eroticism in the works of these two poets can make clearer their articulation between two poetic epochs, and between the poetry and prose of their times. To the surface of their poetry they bring images and exchanges usually reserved for the prose of the period. In their elliptical hesitancy and their discontinuities, they suggest the more radical experiments of the poets who will follow.

The treasured public images of these two poets are those of the Romantic «genius», oppressed by a workaday world uninterested in the soaring of the spirit. Notions of delirium, automatic writing, and autobiographical outpourings are associated with their fame, due in part to the intensely personal and anguished tone of much of their writings. In the case of Agustini, another twist is added: she is exemplary as the victim of a repressive Victorian environment, and of a monster mother16. The photographic iconography most often used to represent them adds a deterministic intent to such abstractions. The photographs also tell us something about the ways they chose to represent themselves, as well as of the photographic conventions of their day. Photographs which illustrate their biographies and critical studies invariably include scenes of Herrera y Reissig injecting himself with morphine. Agustini adopts Isadora Duncan-like costumes, with soulful eyes uplifted toward the heavens. In her case, favored juxtapositions include portraits of her gazing skyward, her doll collection (lovingly cared for by her mother), and the image of her bloodstained corpse minutes after her death at the hands of her ex-husband. Such images are of undeniable dramatic attention. They are fitting symbols of decadence, the label we attach to a poetic epoch too rich for modern tastes, the sensory overload so often lamented in those who prefer the harmonies of Darío. It is clear that their own self-representation helped to stimulate such expectations. Yet it was Darío himself who gave us so many clues to the tastes of the epoch of these two «raros», such as his evocation of Salomé in «Poema XXIII» of Cantos de vida y esperanza. Even though union, harmony, and death itself are to be resolved within the scheme of Eros, Darío reveals the dangerous physicality of eroticism.

As we also see in Darío's prose, beneath the shining side of modernismo lies its sister, naturalism. Its presence reminds us over and over again of the overlapping presence in both naturalist prose and modernista poetry of madness, sickness, poverty and crime, and of other roles for the princess. For these oddities, one does not even have to leave Uruguay to see the insistence of the theme. In Javier de Viana and in Horacio Quiroga, malign little princesses come to a bad end. Quiroga mercifully leaves us at the door of suspense in «La gallina degollada», so we are spared the neck-wringing of little Bertita at the hands of her four idiot brothers. The «pobre princesita» of Viana's «La tísica», another classic of the period, is a poisonous little waif, rejected by her clear-thinking gaucho companions, who see, better than the humanitarian eyes of the educated doctor, her deadly feigned fragility. This, however, is only a preview of the real monster-women who will emerge shortly after, the Doña Bárbaras, Josie Blisses, and other vamps who seem to have gotten the knife in the upper hand a few years later.

Both Agustini and Herrera y Reissig reveal their links with the more explicit and harsher strains of naturalist prose and vanguardist poetry. As they subvert modernismo's treasured images and forms, they make problematic the boundaries established by its tenets. The disjointed voices, slippage between subject and object, enunciator and addressee, dissolve the contours of an estheticized, interior world. Their dramatic personal confrontations with their environment, now incorporated into our readings of their poetry, are revealed on the poetic level of form and subject position. Factors external to the esthetic ideals of their poetic epoch enter their poetry as disturbing signs of elements that could not be contained in the ideal enclosures of modernismo.