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ArribaAbajo«Los sauces llorando a moco y baba»: Ekphrasis in Galdós' La de Bringas

Emilie Bergmann

Because it is presented cryptically and functions as guide to the interwoven ironies and meaning of the narrative as whole, the opening passage of La de Bringas might be regarded as an emblematic description, unfolding to reveal the banality of its object: the hair-picture created by Francisco Bringas as a gift to thank the Peces for placing his son in a comfortable sinecure in the state bureaucracy. This commemorative composition in locks of hair of a deceased Pez daughter and members of her family is described as belonging to a kind of «arte que tuvo cierta boga»110, popular in the 1860s. A demonstration of the use of sentimentalism for crassly self-interested political purposes, it has been shown by several galdosistas to be a symbolic microcosm of the situation in Spain preceding the 1868 Revolution111. It is a labyrinthine visual composition, paralleling the structure of the novel, the narrator's experience of the Piranesi-like maze of the palace, Rosalía Bringas' intricately deceptive enredos to acquire more indumentary finery, and the moral disorientation of the families involved, the court and the country. Francisco Bringas' blindness, a direct result of the meticulous work on the composition, is likewise symbolic of the nation's obliviousness to impending catastrophe, and its dedication to worthless but subtly destructive pursuits. The descriptive passage has also been praised as an example of Galdós' fine comic art112, and it is the stylistic manipulation of language and, through language, narrative point of view that I wish to examine. The description of the hair-picture, ridiculous as its object is, has a place in the Classical rhetorical tradition of ekphrasis, beginning with the Homeric description of the shield of Achilles, a verbal representation of an imaginary configuration of cosmic elements, praising the illusionistic art of Hephaistos. Galdós' description praises Bringas' ingenuity in creating the illusion of three-dimensional space: «El fondo o perspectiva consistía en el progresivo alejamiento de otros sauces de menos talla, que se iban a llorar a moco y baba camino del horizonte» (Galdós, IV, 1573). The narrator's account of the illusionistic effect of perspective echoes Garcilaso's Third Eclogue, lines 269-272 («Mostraban a los ojos relevadas / las cosas y figuras que eran llanas, / tanto que al parecer el cuerpo vano / pudiera ser tomado con la mano».) with a comic undermining of the serious treatment of mourning found in the Renaissance poem. Although it ridicules Francisco Bringas' pretentious use of stylistic motifs borrowed from Classical, Egyptian and Medieval architecture, the passage shares a generic niche with Virgil's descriptions of the shield of Aeneas, and the bas-reliefs on the walls of the temple at Carthage. My analysis of the passage is based on the perspective of it as ekphrasis: it displays the descriptive skills of the writer, it implies an observer (who   —76→   lacks the epic authority of an Aeneas contemplating the bas-reliefs at Carthage), and it reflects Galdós' aesthetic attitudes, as well as his moral judgments.

In the opening chapters of La de Bringas, the semiotic problem of crossing the boundaries between verbal and visual art is inscribed in the play of perspectives in the social phenomenon of cursilería, an ironic disparity between intended appearance and underlying substance. In the novel, the hair-picture exists only as it is described: the reader's imagination is the medium in which it is projected, and it is simultaneously interpreted both as grandiose in intended appearance and as ridiculous because it is conceived in hypocritical stinginess and ignoble sycophancy. As it is read and re-read in relation to the work as a whole, the description has no autonomous relationship to a work conceived in the system of visual signs, but is inextricably woven into the narrative structure. The multiple thematic connections, and the status of the observer as narrator and character, establish the ironic tone of the description in its narrative context. The narrator, in the closing paragraph of the novel, refers to an affair he has had with Rosalía Bringas. Unlike Pez, who refused to pay up, the narrator decides to break off the relationship before it becomes too expensive:

Quiso repetir las pruebas de su ruinosa amistad, mas yo me apresuré a ponerles punto, pues si parecía natural que ella fuese el sostén de la cesante familia, no me creía yo en el caso de serlo, contra todos los fueros de la moral y de la economía doméstica.

(Galdós, IV, 1671)                

Although the narrator is an elusive figure, he supplies more information to call into doubt his moral authority. He has come to the palace initially to ask a political favor of Bringas, and after the fall of the monarchy to which Bringas is attached, the narrator reveals that he has been appointed Administrator of the Palace by the Revolutionary Junta, a demonstration of the flexibility of his political allegiances as well as his ethical code concerning friendship and amorous relations113.

The apparent exposé of cursilería in a work of art is enunciated by a persona who plays the same political game of favors and flattery as the bureaucrats whose aesthetic taste and moral values he ridicules. But as the reader first encounters the labyrinthine world of palace parasites, the irony seems detached and manipulated wholly for the amusement of the reader, by a narrator equally amused and uninvolved in the system of values he appears to deplore. The reader is taught a serious lesson about moral judgments as a result of the final revelation of the narrator's identity: if the shoe fit before, the reader has to keep wearing it and recognize his own moral fallibility.

During a first reading of the passage of the hair-composition, the reader is not yet aware of the narrator's ethical or aesthetic unreliability. It is the comic rhythm alone that undermines the serious subject matter of the «cenotafio» and lures the unsuspecting reader into identifying with the elusive narrator. He will remain elusive throughout most of the book, leading the reader through the twisting passages of the palace, announcing his disappearance «para quitar de esta relación el estorbo de mi personalidad», at the   —77→   beginning of Chapter 6, only to return briefly in Chapter 27 and at the end of the novel. He ironically exposes Rosalía's addiction to fashion, and finally reveals his identity as one of those who deceived Rosalía into thinking he would help subsidize her expensive habit. He is no more morally admirable than the characters whose lives he has laid open for our smug examination, and this calls into question the point of view that has allowed the reader to feel confidently superior.

A rhytmic assuming and discarding of masks is the dominant stylistic technique in the description. In his opening phrases, the narrator appears to be overwhelmed by the expressiveness, ambitious invention and skill demonstrated in the composition made entirely of tiny bits of hair. The medium in which the work was executed is not revealed immediately:

Era aquello... ¿cómo lo diré yo?... un gallardo artificio sepulcral de atrevidísima arquitectura, grandioso de traza, en ornamentos rico, por una parte severo y rectilíneo a la manera viñolesca, por otra movido, ondulante y quebradizo, a la usanza gótica, con ciertos atisbos platerescos donde menos se pensaba...

(Galdós, IV, 1573)                

The work is a hideous agglomeration of styles considered by Bringas to be worthy of a monument: «pirámides», «zócalos grecorromanos», and of symbols of mourning, angels and weeping willows, «que desde la llegada de la Retórica al mundo viene teniendo una participación más o menos criminal en toda elegía que se comete». The dignity of the descriptive passage is regularly undermined with such suggestions: creating such a mourning picture is not a noble endeavor nor a social duty, but a crime. The obligatory emblems are described in terms incongruous with their intention: the angel is a «caballerito» whose wings «le caían por la trasera con desmayada gentileza...» (the eroticism of feathers, in Donatello's David for example, is suggested in the particular fall of the angel's plumage) and he seems at first to be weeping over the burden of symbolic objects he is required to carry: flowers, ribbons, wings, «amén de un relojito de arena», his tears are described as sliding down the marble of the tomb «al modo de babas escurridizas». An ironic rhythm is established in this passage, undermining the solemnity of each familiar detail of the memorial. More suggestive of drunken relatives at a wake than of elements of perspective, the weeping willows in the distance «se iban a llorar a moco y baba camino al horizonte» and the mountains «ondulaban cayéndose como si estuvieran bebidas». The narrator personifies the objects depicted in the composition, to the extreme of imagining that one of the willows made the observer feel «ganas de hacerle oler algún fuerte alcaloide para que se despabilase y volviera en sí de su poético síncope». «Sympathetic nature» has been so carried away by emotion that it appears to require resuscitation by the observer: the roles between observer and observed are playfully reversed.

Galdós' descriptive technique in La de Bringas is comparable to that of a work published within a year of its appearance, by a writer whose mastery of colloquial diction and humor equals that of Galdós. Mark Twain, in Huckleberry Finn, uses a similar rhythmic vacillation enunciated by an observer to expose the cursilería of a popular artistic genre, also a kind of   —78→   mourning picture, in Huck's adventures among the Grangerfords. While it is merely coincidental that La de Bringas was completed in 1884 and Huckleberry Finn, in 1883, it is not mere coincidence that the two comic novels employ strikingly similar stylistic techniques to ridicule the same phenomenon: the nineteenth-century cult of ostentatiously lugubrious mourning, as it is evidenced in works of art found in middle-class urban homes or in those emulating such places. In these novels, it is not only the poor taste but the manipulation of symbols of sentiment to pay off a political debt, in one case, and to fan the flames of a bloody feud, in the other, that is the object of satire. The captioned pictures ridiculed by Mark Twain are equally cursi as home décor, but not because of the raw materials. Both genres are silly because of their mawkish treatment of a serious subject, and both authors approach their silliness through similar comic techniques: the duality of point of view in a single observer, and vacillation from a grandiose or serious lexical level to a comic one. These techniques constitute the irony of both passages.

Two major aspects of these descriptive passages distinguish them from each other: their function in the narrative and the authority of the observer. In Huckleberry Finn, the exaggerated mourning pictures are part of the description of the Grangerford home. They are emblematic configurations promoting and symbolizing the respectability to which the family aspires, and which the reader already knows is rejected by Huck in his actions, although he feels compassion for the death of a young Grangerford, and says that he genuinely liked the family, «dead ones and all». No matter how respectfully he attempts to speak of the furnishings, Enimeline's attempts at art, and in particular of the pictures commemorating dead Grangerfords, his words are contradicted by his choice of companion. He seeks the warmth of the hearths and homes he encounters in his travels, but flees the ties that bind too tightly. His life is precarious but free of the hypocrisy of those who ostentatiously mourn the loss of loved ones in a feud they proudly aggravate. Huck is unwilling to condemn others, but his response to the family's admirable courage and kindness to him is canceled in part by his puzzlement over the application of that courage, and over the bathetic poetry of Emmeline. She is a caricature of the amateur versifier much as Francisco Bringas is a caricature of the artist, and the description of her «crayons», exaggerated in their blackness, caricatures the iconography of mid-nineteenth century mourning: one figure has «two arms folded across her breast, and two arms stretched out in front, and two more reaching up toward the moon... The young woman in the picture had a kind of a sweet face, but there was so many arms it made her look too, spidery, seemed to me»114. In another picture a young woman wears a dress «with bulges like a cabbage in the middle of the sleeves, and a large black scoop-shovel bonnet with a black veil... and very wee black slippers, like a chisel, and was leaning pensive on a tombstone on her right elbow, under a weeping willow... and underneath the picture it said 'Shall I Never See Thee More Alas'». (Twain, 104-5.) Another figure's hair is knotted in front of a «comb like a chair back» -the canonized gestures and iconography of mourning are mixed with incongruous imagery: vegetables, spiders, furniture, scoop-shovels and   —79→   chisels. Twain's disparity in imagery, shares a technique of grotesque composition typical of Quevedo's Licenciado Cabra with his cavelike eye-sockets and shoes like «tumbas de Filisteos». Neither Twain nor Galdós shares Quevedo's purpose of fragmenting the corporeal manifestation of a character; the objects of satire are products of artistic endeavor and the values they reflect. The manner of pictorial composition described in Galdós' ekphrasis of the «cenotafio» is by definition reprehensible from Classical, Horatian standards. While Francisco Bringas' dedication to what he sees as art causes his blindness, Emmeline Grangerford's causes her death, and Huck speculates that «with her disposition she was having a better time in the graveyard». While Bringas' disability is narrated in a manner that inspires pity, an emotion more genuine than the mourning intended by his hair-composition, Enimeline Grangerford's death is presented through the youthful Huck as thoroughly beneficial. The «innocent» observer enunciates what, from a more experienced narrator, would seem cruelly cynical. His aesthetic judgment of the pictures is based on his emotional response: «These was all nice pictures, I reckon, but I didn't somehow seem to take to them, because if ever I was down little they always give me the fan-tods» (Twain, 105). Huck's restraint and honesty about the subjectivity of his judgement contrasts with Galdós' narrator's hyperbolic swings from grandeur to ignominy in lexical choice for his description. Huck stands in the position of the boy Lazarillo, trying to make sense of an absurd and violent world, while the narrator in La de Bringas seems to be the grown man Lázaro, exposing the hypocrisy of others and failing to see his own participation in moral corruption. The question of aesthetic attitudes in both passages is linked dynamically with ethical questions in the narrative.

The description of the hair-picture reflects Galdós' attitudes toward the visual arts. His music criticism is better-known and more abundant than his criticism of the visual arts, but he did study drawing and wrote some detailed evaluations of contemporary architecture and painting. In an article from La Nación, February 10, 1868, he expresses a nostalgic preference for Romantic painters like Délacroix and Géricault, and for painting that appropriately expresses emotion. He prefers the affective capacity of genre painting to the cold academicism of most contemporary historical painting, although he admits that the «género menudo» with its «tendencia hacia la estampa», cannot be compared with the works of Velázquez115. He criticizes the misplaced sentimentalism of Rosa Bonheur's expressive paintings of animals, and the empty theatricality of the historical paintings of Gérome. Even the painting of Meissonier, whom he designates «rey de la sección», is described as «microscópica, analítica, de detalles y ejecución más que de conjunto y de inspiración», a characterization that would also fit Bringas' hair-picture (Nación, 418). Inappropriateness of design in a painting of «El pecado original» evokes his satirical commentary: «Aquel Padre Eterno que apostrofó a nuestros primeros padres es enteramente olímpico y pagano. Parece un Júpiter que baja acompañado de su Ganímedes a decir a Prometeo algún ditirambo». A painting of Venus is «bien dibujado pero extremadamente frío y falto de expresión y vida. Parece una figura de cera pintada a la aguada, y sale no de la espuma de la mar, sino de una espuma de jabón   —80→   finísima y perfumada, pero más digna de una palangana que de una diosa» (Nación, 418). Concept, composition and execution must be in harmony; monumental subjects do not guarantee greatness in art.

Ignoble materials can undermine the artist's intention as surely as inappropriate style. In architecture Galdós laments the failure of materials to meet the nobility of design in a new church in Madrid, the Templo del Buen Suceso near Moncloa on the Calle de la Princesa. He praises its Classical simplicity, a counterbalance to the «vuelos febriles de la imaginación Churrigueresca con el sistema primitivo y más puro», a possible way to «destruir las endiabladas formas y tortuosas líneas con la conjunción pura de la horizontal y la vertical» (Nación, 479). In architecture, as in painting, the nineteenth century must scale down its ambitions from the grandeur of Medieval and Golden Age edifices, and strive in the direction of the humbler aesthetic of unity, geometrical grace and the beauty of sobriety and «discreción». While Galdós concedes that «el ladrillo y el estuco son materias muy socorridas para el caso; y además muy baratas», the poor architect, who «soñaba con la cooperación inspirada del escultor que se llama picapedrero», must give up his dreams of «venas sutiles, follajes ricos, rosetas airosas, bajos relieves, listones, cenefas, dentículas y grecas». Instead, his designs are executed in stucco:

Los moldes convierten en lechugas los acantos; se gastan los perfiles de la voluta; de los haces de columnas hacen manojos, de los rosetones hacen medalias informes; las agujas de crestería se convierten en pirámides de mazapán; las venas se truecan en maromas, y todo se trastorna y embota y desfigura. Después viene el pulimiento de todo esto: una jabonadura persistente da gran brillo a la construcción; y después se le pintan unas rayas horizontales que remedan (¡quién lo va a creer!) las uniones de la piedra.

(Nación, 480-81)                

The building materials are emblematic of hypocrisy and of transience: new stucco ornaments can transmute the architect's original íntent and make the building Gothic, Plateresque or Greco-Roman, according to whim. Like Bringas' picture, a bizarre imitation of etching or taille-douce in its attempted production of the illusory effects of light and shade on three-dimensional surfaces in those artistic processes116, the plaster surface of the building produces a poor substitute for the «mágicos efectos de claro-oscuro que vemos en los edificios de piedra». The statuary has an impermanence, «parece más bien que son efigies colocadas allí para una fiesta, y que se las van a llevar a su destino en cuanto esta acabe... El ladrillo jalbegado es a la piedra como la acuarela es a la pintura al óleo. Mientras no tengamos otra cosa, adoremos esta acuarela de catedral...» (Nación, 481). The brick-and-stucco churches of Madrid, with their cheap stage-set pretense of the permanence and elegance of stone, are implicitly presented as prime examples of cursilería, although Galdós as architectural critic is reluctant to denigrate the architect of Buen Suceso, and prefers to condemn the meanness of spirit of the times.

Francisco Bringas' hair-picture is an outrageous transgression of Galdós' aesthetic of materials matching composition and sentiment, and of Classical simplicity rather than an accretion of styles, any one of them beautiful but cursi in their amontonamiento. The work in its conception is a clear violation of Horatian decorum and a trivialization of grief in its use of mourning for   —81→   self-aggrandizement. Thus, on a level of analysis limited to aesthetic judgments, the composition in human hair is an offense to good taste. In addition, the passage functions in the context of a novel in which it becomes both symbol and motivation for other symbols (Bringas' blindness). There are other passages evocative of the visual arts: the distorted, Goyaesque view of the palace festivities viewed through a window by the Bringas children is a nauseating prefiguration of the coming revolution, and the imagery of dreams is symbolic of the larger political nightmare. Stylistically, the ekphrasis of Bringas' hair-picture is a finely-crafted artifact in itself, integrated into its novelistic setting.

In La de Bringas and Huckleberry Finn there is a duality in the consciousness of the subject: in the former it seems inexplicable and derives from the vagueness of the narrator's identity at this point: he allows the comic exaggerations to break through the grandiose solemnity and answer the question «¿Cómo lo diré yo?» with ironic laughter. Galdós' narrator in La de Bringas offers an example of the split between the self who speaks and the self who acts in his enunciations; the two are bound together paradoxically by the moral terms of hypocrisy and the rhetorical terms of irony. The conflict of opinion in Huck as narrator is fully exposed and explained: he is young, he is an outsider and he knows what he likes in art but knows it's not the canonized judgment of respectable folks. Galdós' narrator is an insider in a world we are invited first to look at through his eyes as if we could be outside it, then are obliged to realize we are part of that morally corrupt universe and could be part of the palace bureaucracy with its pragmatic and hypocritical ethical codes, simply by virtue of having identified with his perspective on it. While Galdós' and Twain's purposes in using the comic technique of conflictive subjectivity may be different, and the reader's identification with Huck's point of view does not implicate him in hypocrisy, the ridicule of an aspect of mid-nineteenth century mores is executed similarly in the two ekphrastic passages. Galdós' comic art, in this passage, is a carefully constructed linguistic labyrinth whose sudden twists amuse the reader. The manipulation of point of view in the passage sets up the reader for a serious moral reevaluation of his perspective on the narrative strategy of the novel as a whole.

University of California, Berkeley

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