So twentieth century

What Danny said about Doris’ book:

In terms of its announced project, Doris Sommer’s Foundational Fictions turns to the canonical novels of the nineteenth century and the early decades of the twentieth. Through a synthesis of writings about sexuality, nationalism, family history, and allegory, Sommer develops a theory of a nineteenth-century “erotic code” in order to explain “the inextricability of politics from fiction in the history of nation-building” and also “to show how a variety of novel national ideals are all ostensibly grounded in ‘natural’ heterosexual love and in the marriages that provided a figure for apparently nonviolent consolidation…” (6-7). In more than a dozen novels Sommer traces the travails of separated lovers who represent different regions, races, parties, economic interests, and social classes. In spite of the immense differences in historical situations and ideologies, these novels share this erotic code, suggesting the common attempt “to build through reconciliations and amalgamations of national constituencies cast as lovers destined to desire each other” (24).

When I gather the comments on reading sprinkled throughout Sommer’s text, I believe that Foundational Fictions suggests three important issues for a history of postcolonial reading. First, the erotic code returns us to the idea of the power of literature to affect the world, “the capacity to intervene in history, to help construct it” (Sommer 10). Reading these national romances is reading a program for productive national unification. Second, just as the national romances themselves actively respond to and rewrite European and United States models, they also inwardly figure the interventionary power of literature through characters who read and actively respond to their reading. For example, in Bartolomé Mitre’s Soledad (1847, Argentina) the main character Soledad reads Rousseau’s Julie, ou la Nouvelle Héloïse; in Jorge Isaacs’s María (1867, Colombia) the narrator Efraín and his beloved María read Chateaubriand’s Atalá; and in Alberto Blest Gana’s Martín Rivas (1862, Chile) a secondary character Edelmira gets her ideas from reading novels. These examples not only contribute to the social history of what has been read in America, as Thomas Brenner advocates, but they also represent a specific imagining of the power of reading from within the community of writers and readers. Finally, the foundational fictions originally written by an elite for a small audience of zealous readers (13-14) were eventually institutionalized as national novels “frequently required in the nations’ secondary schools as a source of local history and literary pride” (4). Repeating the desire of the authors for “good novels” that would “promote Latin American development” (9), the educational systems have attempted to exploit the power of literature to train young minds in the “domestic passions” appropriate for “patriotic  imaginings” (16).

Beyond my personal concern with postcolonial reading, I must point out that one of Sommer’s most original insights weaves throughout the chapters as a more implicit but nevertheless constant meditation on the figurations of gender, what she calls at one point “a particular kind of sexuality that crosses over” (99). She suggests that the nineteenth-century erotic code contained its own potentially subversive gender confusion. Through the exchange and slippage of stereotyped gender traits, the heroes are often feminized and the heroines masculinized. In the nineteenth-century texts the ideal resolution of sexual and conjugal union inadvertently contained this gender slippage, which early twentieth-century populist novels attempted to eliminate altogether. In the last chapter Sommer is at her most creative. She comments on Teresa de la Parra’s Las memorias de Mamá Blanca (1929, Venezuela), a text and author long excluded from the Latin American canon, in order “to shift the discursive ground from criticism to intervention” (294). Sommer meditates at length upon the daily, ritualistic scene in which the narrator as a little girl sits before a mirror while her mother curls her hair, and listens to the stories told by her mother so that she will remain still. Both the curls and the storytelling reach excesses, and the little girl Blanca “insisted that the stories be repeated with unprecedented borrowings from other stories, with tragic endings required by some caprice and comic endings by another” (295-296). Following a “path of associative reading” (308), Sommer reads Blanca’s “creative will” to change the stories and the mirror that holds her reflection as an allegory of “Hispano-American creativity” (296), feminist resistance, and the aesthetic tradition of both previous and later Latin American women writers.

That is to say, he buys it whereas I only find it interesting. Provisionally, as the unpublishable draft of an idea, I think all these literary whitemen do not read enough history and news and do not spend enough time in Latin America, so they are able to project their contemporary liberal fictions into the nineteenth century. And Francine and Mary Louise were reading people like Carol Gilligan while they wrote the books Danny is talking about, and I do not think Teresa de la Parra’s novel is feminist.

Clearly I need to become more “balanced” on all of this but I want to hold onto my disagreement because I really think it is the next step for that body of work. And if Nancy could see problems in the book, then Karen and I cannot be too far off track.




Filed under Bibliography, News, What Is A Scholar?

2 responses to “So twentieth century

  1. Jonathan Mayhew

    Could you say that Sommer is right in seeing these novels as nation-building allegories, but too optimistic in her reading of the outcomes of the novels? In other words, they could still be erotic narratives of nation-building, but we don’t need to have so sunny attitude toward their liberal ideology. Maybe we need a book by Winter to balance out the book by Summer.

    I am reading Sommer now because I need a paragraph on her for my “13 Ways of Looking that the Poetics of Cultural Exceptionalism.” Her first chapter on the boom is very unconvincing, because she shift the debate in a kind of sleight of hand. Is Teresa de la Parra worth reading? I have a reproduction of Lorca’s drawing of her framed in my office. He drew her in Cuba.

  2. Z

    About those 19th centuy novels I say:

    Read through the lens of the national projects based on cultural mixture embraced in the 1930s, the literature of this earlier period can be seen to form a corpus in which newly independent nations trace a common origin and project future cohesion. The writings examined here, however, chronicle rupture and and loss, not union or suture; they might more accurately be considered novels of originary violence than of national conciliation.

    I have to reread her chapter on the boom.

    I have seen that Lorca drawing. I am sure T de la P was interesting as a person but I did not like the book, partly because of the way Sommer idealizes it and partly because its own idealization of girliness irritates me as much as does the exaggerrated machismo of the Mambo Kings and Oscar Wao.

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