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Modernismo, Modernity, & the Development of Spanish American Literature

Modernismo, Modernity, & the Development of Spanish American Literature

Cathy L . Jrade undertakes a full exploration of the modernista project and shows how it provided a foundation for trends and movements that have continued to shape literary production in Spanish America throughout the twentieth century.

Series: Texas Pan American Series

November 1998
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205 pages | 6 x 9 |

Modernismo arose in Spanish American literature as a confrontation with and a response to modernizing forces that were transforming Spanish American society in the later nineteenth century. In this book, Cathy L. Jrade undertakes a full exploration of the modernista project and shows how it provided a foundation for trends and movements that have continued to shape literary production in Spanish America throughout the twentieth century.

Jrade opens with a systematic consideration of the development of modernismo and then proceeds with detailed analyses of works-poetry, narrative, and essays-that typified and altered the movement's course. In this way, she situates the writing of key authors, such as Rubén Darío, José Martí, and Leopoldo Lugones, within the overall modernista project and traces modernismo's influence on subsequent generations of writers.

Jrade's analysis reclaims the power of the visionary stance taken by these creative intellectuals. She firmly abolishes any lingering tendency to associate modernismo with affectation and effete elegance, revealing instead how the modernistas' new literary language expressed their profound political and epistemological concerns.


A Choice Outstanding Academic Book

  • Preface
  • One: Spanish America's Ongoing Response to Modernity
  • Two: Modernismo: Knowledge as Power
  • Three: The Movement Takes Shape
  • Four: The Modernista Project Defined
  • Five: Continuity within an Evolving Movement
  • Six: The Erosion of Analogy
  • Seven: Modernismo's Lasting Impact
  • Notes
  • Works Cited
  • Index

Cathy L. Jrade is Professor of Spanish at Vanderbilt University.


In 1888 Rubén Dario chose the term modernismo to designate the shared orientations of Spanish American authors writing toward the end of the nineteenth century. In choosing this label, Dario, head and intellectual center of gravity of the movement, was acknowledging an essential factor that for the most part has been overlooked by critics. He affirmed that what he and his fellow writers were attempting to do was to establish a mode of discourse commensurate to the new era that Spanish America had entered. The term chosen underscores the conviction held by those who adopted it as a banner of distinction and pride that this movement was born of and within the context of modernity.

The repercussions of this simple statement are multiple, but of utmost significance is its ability to clarify what has become a point of overheated debate among critics. Many who set out to specify what the modern—and now the postmodern—means for Spanish America feel compelled to point out that this region of the world and its social structures have not yet experienced "modernity" in Max Weber's sense of the term, referring to the increasing "rationalization" of life. Others concede that contemporary Spanish American culture and conditions are a product of uneven inroads of modernization? Regardless of the extent to which Spanish American countries have diverged from the Anglo-European route to development or to which they continue to exhibit a "Garciamarquesian" fusion of premodern, modern, and postmodern influences, the Spanish American writers of the end of the nineteenth century—most of whom lived in the urban capitals of their countries and/or traveled extensively in Europe—believed that they were confronting, in a noble struggle, the most acute issues of modern life.

This basic point has failed to garner the attention it deserves. Consequently, critics of Spanish American literature have overlooked important features of the artistic and cultural trends that crisscross the Atlantic starting at the end of the last century. My book will, accordingly, explore the nature of the connection between modernismo and modernity, thereby modifying the way in which the movement is perceived. I will show that the cultural and political transformations brought about by modern life engendered literary responses which differed in crucial ways from those of previous movements. Moreover, I will demonstrate that modernismo, because it is the first Spanish American movement to take up the challenge of modernity—in all its ramifications—ushered in fundamental shifts in the roles assigned to the poet, language, and literature. These changes have continued to influence artistic production to this day, ushering in further developments that give recent Spanish American literature equal claim to the much contested rubric of postmodernism.

Today it is well acknowledged that the distant beginnings of modernity are located within the Renaissance. The underlying philosophic break that took place—the one that shapes all successive thinking—pertains to the issue of the grounding of knowledge. The key characteristic of modernity arose as intellectuals cut themselves off from divine guarantees of knowledge. As Wlad Godzich, in his discussion of the relationship between modernity and postmodernity, points out, "[T]he problem that haunts all modern thinkers from Descartes, Locke, and Kant onward, is that of ensuring the reliability of knowledge (i.e., its legitimacy) and all forms of individual and collective action that rest on it" (114).

As distant as its philosophic origins may be, modernity's more specific characteristics took shape during the second half of the eighteenth century. These features are generally identified with scientific and technological progress, the Industrial Revolution, and the sweeping economic and social changes brought about by industrial capitalism. Many contemporary theorists have focused on how this tangled interplay of philosophic and socioeconomic developments has defined the course of modernity and, now, postmodernity. In his study on critical trends within the latter movement, John McGowan describes the situation that serves as the point of departure for modern times. "By the end of this period [1500-1800], the West has recognized, in the face of diversity and change, that it is thrown back upon itself to ground, legitimate, and make significant its own practices" (4). With the loss of belief in divinely given premises for human action, most intellectuals in Western societies began to experience a struggle for dominance among different sectors of society, within which different narratives and principles of legitimacy were established. Though the sense of loss, fragmentation, and alienation was widespread, the predominant conflict that arose was between materialistic and spiritual aspirations. Torn between the reigning faith in technology, progress, and empirical science and an enduring fascination with intangible realities and nonmaterialistic goals, writers and philosophers began to express their sense of being out of touch with themselves and the world around them.

The first major movement to focus on the issues of fragmentation and alienation was European romanticism. Its principal exponents sought to re-create the lost ethical totality of society by reappropriating premodern visions of life and language. As Godzich makes clear, the attraction to premodern visions reflects the quest for a culturally stable, as well as a politically just, anchoring of everyday life.

Prior to modernity the relation [human beings] had to the world was taken to be one of knowledge, and this knowledge, on which individual and collective identities depended, was guaranteed by some divine instance or by some constitutive homology between humans and the world. Such a knowledge permitted humans to act, to build a world of human relations that increased the sum of knowledgethat is, their set of relations, their mode of being in the world. With the advent of modernity a change begins to take place in this economy: the old guarantees of knowledge cease to hold true and we are threatened with individual meaninglessness and collective tyranny, the latter understood as the arbitrary exercise of power. (127-128)

It is precisely the perception of the onset of this double threat—individual meaninglessness and possible political excess—that led Spanish American writers toward the end of the nineteenth century to follow in the literary footsteps of the European romantics. Just as romanticism challenged the hegemony of the scientific and economic in modern life, Spanish American modernismo protested the technological, materialistic, and ideological impact of positivism that swept Spanish America as it entered the world economy during the nineteenth century. Both the European and the Spanish American movements sought to provide an alternative view of existence that they claimed to be more inclusive. The modernistas, like the romantics before them, favored an alternative that was primarily "spiritualist," predicated on changes in consciousness and values. They proposed a worldview that imagined the universe as a system of correspondences, in which language is the universe's double capable of revealing profound truths regarding the order of the cosmos.

At the same time, however, modernista authors also manifested a "realist" tendency, seeking to establish more directly political and worldly images of change. They were acutely aware of their innovative position with regard to Spanish American literary history and literature's complex relationship with emerging national identities—the result of political consolidation following the wars of independence. They believed that they were creating for the first time a literary movement that would bring Spanish America out of its postcolonial isolation and its anachronistic backwardness into the modern present. modernismo would establish a new mode of discourse for Spanish America, one that would reveal hidden realities as well as address issues of social and political consequence. In short, they sought to create a literary language with which to respond to their modern predicament, a language that, by being both spiritual and political, would make them equal to their European contemporaries.

Thus there developed within modernista literature a concern for language that is dual in nature. One aspect is related to language as an instrument of vision and knowing, capable of revealing realities concealed by the inflexibility of scientific methods and the stultification of everyday concerns and values. The other is related to language as a tool of politics and power that plays an essential role in the formation of national cultures and identities. This second concern grows out of the first and derives its legitimacy from the movement's faith in the superior epistemological power of literature. In short, modernismo asserts its ability to comment on and even alter the positivistic, materialistic, and pragmatic course adopted by the Spanish American nations entering the modern age. Both aspects are derivative of the desire to use literature to influence the development of modernity. Both are grounded in the transformative capacity of art.

This phenomenon, which I will examine in the second chapter, had its antecedents at the onset of modernity in Spanish America. The end of the colonial era and the beginning of the period of independence brought changes that marked the transition to modern life. The debate that ensued between the old guard and the Young Turks anticipates some of the points made by the modernistas. But it is important to recognize the significant differences that begin with modernismo. The modernistas were the first writers to experience and appreciate the all-encompassing alteration in the fabric of life in Spanish America brought by modernity. The modernistas were the first to witness the tragic face of science as it robbed legitimacy from the religious, magical, and animistic worldviews that had ruled the daily lives of most Americans since before the arrival of Columbus. The modernistas were the first to define the poet as both visionary and outcast, at odds with the dominant social values while striving to reveal those aspects of reality hidden by habit and convention. No longer protected by a privileged and patronized position in society, the modernistas were the first to struggle with the newly commercialized social arrangements that were taking hold. The modernistas were the first to live the perhaps irreconcilable tension between the search for a spiritual community and a sense of national identity, on the one hand, and a longing to participate in the world arena, on the other. These are some of the factors that constitute the innovative modernista response to the modern world and that link modernismo to the movements that followed.

As late modernista tendencies turned into la vanguardia [the avant-garde], the artistic challenge to the emerging status quo remained strong, but the form it took changed. Insistence on art's autonomy became a dominant characteristic. Like Anglo-European modernists and avant-gardists writing at approximately the same time, the vanguardistas declared themselves answerable to nothing, pushed the limits of acceptable subjects and forms, and proclaimed a heady freedom from traditions, social environment, and reality itself. But if the Anglo-European modernists followed a strategy that asserted the independence of artistic creation and that made their confrontation with their social milieu less obvious, their Spanish American counterparts, prodded by a series of unique historical events, maintained, for the most part, a more directly political and self-critical stance. In this regard, they resemble more closely the writers of the European avant-garde. All three groups, however, manifest traits that reveal their grounding in and exaggeration of trends that started in the nineteenth century in defiance of the dominant attributes of modern life. They pursue experimentation; they demonstrate a desire to épater le bourgeois, that is, a desire to shock middle-class society; and they believe that variations in perception and consciousness can drastically alter prevailing social forms.

Jean-François Lyotard's version of this trajectory of modern art centers on what he calls "the shattering of belief" and the discovery of the "'lack of reality' of reality" (Postmodern Condition 77). He relates this "lack of reality" to the aesthetics of the sublime through which he believes modern art finds its impetus and the avant-gardes find their axioms. For Lyotard, the sublime is that which cannot be represented adequately, whether that be the totality of the world or that which is infinitely great. "I shall call modern the art which devotes its 'little technical expertise' . . . to present the fact that the unpresentable exists. To make visible that there is something which can be conceived and which can neither be seen nor made visible . . ." (78). He goes on to suggest that the role of the avant-gardes is to humble and disqualify "reality" by exposing those techniques that make the viewer or reader believe in it.

Within Spanish America this distrust of hegemonic discourse and its facile assumptions about reality appears in texts throughout the first half of the twentieth century, in challenges to traditional historical perspectives, conservative political positions, and simplistic positivistic epistemologies. Gradually, however, a shift occurs: the critique becomes all-encompassing, and the old belief that the distortive constraints of the dominant culture could be supplanted by a superior artistic perspective is replaced by the recognition that the critical distance previously desired cannot be achieved by artists who function within, and thereby acquiesce to, the ever more intrusive social constraints. Instead of anchoring the individual in the world, ensuring some form of stability, knowledge is seen as a coercive force. The artist in particular is aware of its structuring nature and, accordingly, its capacity to control and to dictate compliance. Accounts of the legitimation of knowledge are suspect and examined for inconsistencies and errors. The result is a progressive loss of faith in "master narratives," a loss of legitimation.

The earliest manifestations of these "postmodern" trends can be found in the writings of Jorge Luis Borges and develop—unevenly—throughout the rest of the twentieth century. While movements are never monolithic and older features tend to survive well into periods of innovation, part of the confusion surrounding postmodernism is the longevity of romantic and postromantic (modern) literary characteristics, which reappear constantly. This situation is further complicated by two additional factors. First, the artistic tendencies associated with postmodernism precede by at least two decades, and then accompany, the flurry of theoretical writings that have turned postmodern concerns into a cottage industry among critics, philosophers, intellectuals, and scholars. Second, "the postmodern" is a label that is now used to designate cultural trends that are linked to socioeconomic and political developments of late capitalism and postindustrial society with its virtual reality, electronic communications, and cyberspace. This latter use becomes particularly problematic for those concerned with Spanish America, for it raises questions about the degree to which Spanish America partakes of these developments or is victimized by them.

Upon careful scrutiny, it becomes evident that postmodern artistic responses to society are both a continuation and a departure. They persist in seeking to undermine the taken-for-granted underpinnings of power and privilege, while going much further. Postmodern works tend to reject foundational philosophies and related totalizing beliefs, such as those embodied in humanism, rationalism, imperialism, and patriarchy. All of these ideologies imply an ordering of dominant and subordinate hierarchical divisions, which permits the often exploitative privileging of one aspect at the expense of another. Instead, postmodern works seek to undermine hegemony by offering their particular response to modern or postmodern life in the spaces between positions, that is, in the interstices between political, epistemological, and discursive stands. The hope for disruption of the hegemonic structures is seen in empowering those elements within society that have traditionally been suppressed. As a result, postmodern artistic production seeks to overcome distinctions such as those made between high and low art, between artist and critic, between prose and poetry, between signified and signifier. The often disconcerting results are the constant explosion of assumptions, the constant collision of modes of speech, the constant shuffling of possibilities evident in the works of the late twentieth century.

Lyotard's aesthetics of the sublime adds yet another dimension to this discussion. He writes:

Here, then, lies the difference: modern aesthetics is an aesthetic of the sublime, though a nostalgic one. It allows the unpresentable to be put forward only as the missing contents; but the form, because of its recognizable consistency, continues to offer to the reader or viewer matter for solace and pleasure. Yet these sentiments do not constitute the real sublime sentiment, which is in an intrinsic combination of pleasure and pain: the pleasure that reason should exceed all presentation, the pain that imagination or sensibility should not be equal to the concept.

The postmodern would be that which, in the modern, puts forward the unpresentable in presentation itself, that which denies itself the solace of good forms, the consensus of a taste which would make it possible to share collectively the nostalgia for the unattainable; that which searches for new presentations, not in order to enjoy them but in order to impart a stronger sense of the unpresentable. A postmodern artist or writer is in the position of a philosopher: the text he writes, the work he produces are not in principle governed by preestablished rules, and they cannot be judged according to a determining judgment, by applying familiar categories to the text or to the work. Those rules and categories are what the work of art itself is looking for. (Postmodern Condition 81)

Both the modern and the postmodern strive to assert what lies beyond the realm of everyday reality, but the postmodern is aware that any recourse to established modes of presentation will forestall the possibility of achieving this goal.

The trajectory that has just been traced begins in Spanish America with modernismo. Looking at Spanish American literature as a continuing response to modernity enhances our understanding not only of modernismo but also of crucial aspects of succeeding trends and developments. Specifically, through a sustained examination of the entire movement, this study will show how modernismo represents a key, perhaps the key, episode in Spanish America's many and continuing literary responses to its incorporation into the world economy and its introduction to modern life. Through detailed analysis of major works by the most prominent modernistas, this study will explore the impact of the social and political dislocations that were brought about by the rapid modernization of Spanish America during the second half of the nineteenth century. These realignments not only radically altered the traditional, feudal-like social arrangements that had characterized Spanish America for centuries but also laid the foundation for life and thought in the twentieth century.

An examination of this common ground will highlight how and why modernismo's two central tendencies pertaining to epistemology and politics surface and submerge at different points and with different authors. While, for the most part, the search for a language capable of revealing realities unobserved by those caught up in the activities of modern life appears to take priority and lock modernismo within a perspective that is either aesthetic or spiritual, this very concern immediately extends itself into the realm of sociopolitical commentary. The ideal language reveals truths that have the power to alter the ignorant assumptions of the uninitiated. The resulting knowledge provides the basis for artistic, spiritual, moral, and political decisions.

Chapter 2 focuses on the modernista movement in general and attempts to place it in a broad context. It examines the interplay of the artistic, philosophic, social, and political trends that influenced the way modernista writers came to formulate their predicament, their mission, and their goals. It revisits modernismo's immediate literary antecedents and surveys early perceptions of the movement. Most importantly, however, it refocuses the analysis of these developments, redirecting attention to those aspects that have been previously overlooked or underappreciated. This overview shows how, in modernismo's response to modernity, epistemology and politics become interwoven as a foundational concern of the movement, one that informs succeeding literary endeavors.

Chapter 3 examines the early years of the movement and deals with the four most important modernistas of this period: Manuel Gutiérrez Nájera (Mexico, 1859-1895), José Martí (Cuba, 1853-1895), Julián del Casal (Cuba, 1863-1893), and José Asunción Silva (Colombia, 1865-1896). The chapter highlights specific texts by these early modernistas and shows how the tendencies outlined in chapter a take shape during this period. By including both prose and poetry, it underscores the generalizability of the conclusions reached.

Just two years younger than the youngest of this first group, Rubén Darío (Nicaragua, 1867-1916 was both their contemporary and their successor, for, by 1896, all four writers studied in chapter 3 were dead. Because of this unique turn of events as well as his extraordinary talents and vision, Darío became the leading modernista and his work came to represent the epitome of modernista art, embodying the entire breadth of the movement. Chapter 4, therefore, looks at his entire production, examining the personal and generational issues he brought to bear on the course of the movement with which he became identified. It shows that Darío's confrontation with modernity—with its undermining of aesthetic values, of spiritual concerns, and of the privileged place in society for the poet—is evident throughout his career and in nearly everything that he wrote.

Chapter 5 deals with the diverse group of poets who, in tandem with Darío, contributed to the development of the movement. They are Enrique González Martínez (Mexico, 1871-1952), Amado Nervo (Mexico, 1870-1919), Ricardo Jaimes Freyre (Bolivia, 1868-1933), Guillermo Valencia (Colombia, 1873-1943), José María Eguren (Peru, 1874-1942), and José Santos Chocano (Peru, 1875-1934). With careful consideration of specific texts, the chapter focuses on the authors' continued commitment to the epistemological and political concerns that shape modernismo. At the same time, the chapter endeavors to reveal how these writers sought to adjust the nature of their discourse in accord with their constantly evolving artistic and social contexts.

While chapter 5 examines those authors whose works demonstrate modernismo's evolution within a framework of continuity, chapter 6 centers on three poets whose works brought modernismo to the threshold of the avant-garde. The poetry of Leopoldo Lugones (Argentina, 1874-1938), Julio Herrera y Reissig (Uruguay, 1875-1910), and Delmira Agustini (Uruguay, 1886-1914) reveals how modernista tendencies were altered by changing philosophic perspectives, sociopolitical pressures, and an astutely critical view of poetic language. These three authors, all of whom are from the southern cone of Spanish America, reinvigorated and radicalized the modernista project while remaining true to the movement's primary concerns.

These concerns with offering an informed and enlightened alternative to the dominant and coercive vision of life imposed by the forces of modernity run throughout modernista works. However, as modernista images, style, and tone became associated with affectation and effete elegance, it became progressively more difficult for readers to perceive this critical response to modernity. By combining broad overviews and detailed analyses, I have aspired to reclaim the power of the visionary stance taken by these creative intellectuals. I have also tried to indicate, now with the gift of hindsight, the many ways modernismo anticipates features, themes, and beliefs that continue and develop in later literary movements. Contemporary Spanish American writers have acknowledged their ties to modernismo. The final chapter therefore briefly comments on modernismo's reflection in more recent literary production.

As already indicated, Lyotard's opinions on the centrality of the sublime offers a way of envisioning the type of developmental relationship between modernity and postmodernity that I am proposing. Even before him, however, Carlos Fuentes refers to this significant epistemological phenomenon as the return to the poetic roots of literature by novelists of the twentieth century. Though modernista works are not mentioned in this context in La nueva novela hispanoamericana, my study seeks to facilitate the recognition of such connections. Fuentes writes:

In order to imagine the path that the novel will take in a world that we still cannot name, it will be necessary to think first about writers like William Faulkner, Malcolm Lowry, Hermann Broch, and William Golding. All of them returned to the poetic roots of literature, and through language and structure, and no longer thanks to complex plots and sociology, they created a representative convention of reality that aspires to be totalizing. It invents a second reality, a parallel reality, ultimately a space for the real, through a myth in which the hidden half of life as well as meaning and unity of diffuse time can be recognized, but is no less true because of its mythic nature. (19)

This shift to "the poetic," to "the sublime," underscores a fundamental dissatisfaction with the dominant Western perspective that has emphasized materialism, rationalism, and pragmatism since the beginning of modern times. This disillusionment with modern values and ways of knowing first appeared in Europe with romanticism and with modernismo in Spanish America. Starting at the beginning of the nineteenth century, the struggle between appearance and reality, between words and things, followed a distinctive course under the influence of factors that have come to define modern life. These, in turn, generated literary responses throughout the West. In Spanish America the story begins with modernismo.



“Jrade is among the two or three most distinguished scholars of modernismo in the world today, and one of the most important in the entire history of criticism of the movement.... Her knowledge of Spanish poetics and prosody is unequaled by her peers.”
Roberto González Echevarría, Sterling Professor of Hispanic and Comparative Literature, Yale University


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