The Culture of Cursilería: Bad Taste, Kitsch, and Class in Modern Spain


Not easily translated, the Spanish terms cursi and cursiler?a refer to a cultural phenomenon widely prevalent in Spanish society since the nineteenth century. Like "kitsch," cursi evokes the idea of bad taste, but it also suggests one who has pretensions of refinement and elegance without possessing them. In The Culture of Cursiler?a, No?l Valis examines the social meanings of cursi, viewing it as a window into modern Spanish history and particularly into the development of ...
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The Culture of Cursilería: Bad Taste, Kitsch, and Class in Modern Spain

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Not easily translated, the Spanish terms cursi and cursilería refer to a cultural phenomenon widely prevalent in Spanish society since the nineteenth century. Like "kitsch," cursi evokes the idea of bad taste, but it also suggests one who has pretensions of refinement and elegance without possessing them. In The Culture of Cursilería, Noël Valis examines the social meanings of cursi, viewing it as a window into modern Spanish history and particularly into the development of middle-class culture.

Valis finds evidence in literature, cultural objects, and popular customs to
argue that cursilería has its roots in a sense of cultural inadequacy felt by the lower middle classes in nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century Spain. The Spain of this era, popularly viewed as the European power most resistant to economic and social modernization, is characterized by Valis as suffering from nostalgia for a bygone, romanticized society that structured itself on strict class delineations. With the development of an economic middle class during the latter half of the nineteenth century, these designations began to break down, and individuals across all levels of the middle class exaggerated their own social status in an attempt to protect their cultural capital. While the resulting manifestations of cursilería were often provincial, indeed backward, the concept was—and still is—closely associated with a sense of home. Ultimately, Valis shows how cursilería embodied the disparity between old ways and new, and how in its awkward manners, airs of pretension, and graceless anxieties it represents Spain's uneasy surrender to the forces of modernity.

The Culture of Cursiler
ía will interest students and scholars of Latin America, cultural studies, Spanish literature, and modernity.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“Noël Valis offers brilliant, innovative insights into a cultural phenomenon that illuminates many aspects of nineteenth- and twentieth-century Spain. As perhaps one of the most distinguished cultural critics of Hispanic studies today, Valis takes an interdisciplinary approach to expose the links between text, economics, politics, and historical events.”—Harriet S. Turner, University of Nebraska

“Noël Valis's writing is powerful and insightful. Her arguments are brilliant, subtle, and carefully textured; they cleverly elucidate the duality of cursi. This is an important, imaginative, fully accomplished book that will be essential reading for anyone interested in understanding more fully the cultural and literary realities of Spain a century ago.”—David T. Gies, University of Virginia

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780822329978
  • Publisher: Duke University Press Books
  • Publication date: 1/28/2003
  • Pages: 424
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Noël Valis is Professor of Spanish at Yale University. Her previous books include The Decadent Vision in Leopoldo Alas and The Novels of Jacinto Octavio Picón.

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Read an Excerpt

The Culture of Cursileria-CL

By Noel Valis

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2003 Noel Valis
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780822330004

Chapter One

On Origins

An english observer of Spanish middle-class life in 1910 remarked,

Now is the time for a little diplomatic deception of the kind that is so often associated with poverty and long descent in Spain. The cursis, as these harmless pretenders are called in Spain, announce that they are going to some fashionable seaside place and invite their friends to attend their departure at the railway station. After affectionate leave-taking the train moves off, and the cursi, alighting at the first village at which the train stops ... lies perdu until the close of the summer season brings rank and fashion back to the capital.... A strange snobbery indeed, but not without a certain element of pathos as a device which is one of the last laps in the desperate race to keep up appearances, and to hide poverty from curious eyes and cruel tongues. These are to be found in Spain as elsewhere. (Bensusan 147-48)

This commentary, coming from an outsider to Spanish society, is of interest on comparative grounds alone. Bensusan, who was an English Jew, understood marginalization particularly well, and the cursi was a peripheral figure if he wasanything. Rightly or wrongly, Bensusan also sees these cursis as emblematic of the Spanish nation and history, that is, as synonymous with decadence ("poverty and long descent"). Finally, he notes that such persons are part of the landscape of modern life everywhere.

Lo cursi is one of the most pervasive cultural phenomena of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Spain. An untranslatable term, cursi comes closest in meaning to kitsch, but encompasses much more than trash, cheap sentimentality, or tackiness, traits commonly associated with kitsch. In dictionaries, one who pretends to refinement and elegance without possessing them is cursi. Popular imagination explains it more tersely as "querer y no poder" (wanting and not being able to). Lo cursi is a form of disempowered desire, frustrated in its aspiration to a higher order of things in life.

The pervasiveness of lo cursi provides a significant key to an understanding of modern Spanish culture and literature. From mid-nineteenth century on, the Spanish middle classes were nervously obsessed with their appearance, their representation publicly and privately as the newest (and most unstable) symbol of success and power. These same middle classes, with interests and values tied to a burgeoning national identity, had also to contend with the realities of cultural, social, and economic dyssynchronicity, a sharply felt sense of inferiority (in relation to powers like France and England), and insufficiency. As a metaphor for the times, lo cursi symbolically captures the sense of inadequacy that a marginalized society in transition experiences when moving from a traditional economy to an industrialized, consumer-oriented economic organization. In literature, and especially in the realist novel, the fear of being called cursi surfaces repeatedly as one of the underlying obsessions of the period. In focusing on the multiple manifestations of lo cursi, I approach Spanish literature and culture from below, metaphorically speaking, aiming at the underbelly of repressed anxieties, desires, and fears that propelled nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Spanish society both forward and backward between the apparently anachronistic remains of romantic ideology and the uncertainties of problematic modernity.

Spain in the early nineteenth century was about to lose its old Catholic, kingly face and acquire a split personality. The Napoleonic invasion of 1808 simultaneously reinforced traditionalism with a defense of monarchy and stimulated liberal reform with the creation of the Cadiz Cortes. Fernando VII's return to the throne in 1814 initiated a period of misrule, followed by the liberal parenthesis of 1820 to 1823, and a new wave of antiliberal repression under Fernando afterward. Following his death in 1833, civil war erupted. His daughter Isabel II's reign (1833-68) saw significant administrative, economic, and constitutional reforms, which included the reorganization of the provinces into a more centralized state, the abolition of entail, the disentailment of lands held in mortmain, and the weakening of privilege. But royal scandal, incompetence in governance, an economic crisis, and other forms of disorder eventually made Isabel very unpopular, leading to her dethronement in 1868 and attempts at a constitutional monarchy and then a republic. Civil war and political and military upheaval finally brought about the return of the Bourbon dynasty under Isabel's son, Alfonso XII, in 1875. This period, known as the Restoration, inaugurated an era of relative tranquility and order, accomplished in part through manipulation and corruption of the parliamentary system and an entrenched caciquismo (local bossism), and in part through growth of industry, trade, and commerce (Catalonian textiles especially and Basque mining and banking, for example). By the early twentieth century (and after the disastrous war of 1898 in Cuba), however, it had become evident that the surface calm of Restoration life concealed deep ideological, economic, and religious divisions, which the increasing use of strikes, anarchist acts of terrorism, anticlericalism, liberal and radical opposition, and new political parties disclosed. Regional demands also grew.

Thus the country seemed to sway alarmingly between the poles of retrograde smugness and progressive confusion-pressured by the gradual breakup of traditional institutions and ways of being-and the arrival of ill-defined social classes and new political and economic demands for greater democratization and commercial expansion. Political and socioeconomic histories of Spain explain this crisis as a function of institutions and ideologies, on the one hand, and social classes and economic forces, on the other. Important as these organizing principles of written histories are, they need to be situated as well within the context of the culture's own self-representations. How did Spanish culture of this period perceive itself? What language did people find to represent change and difference, to express their anxieties, desires, and fears over such changes? More specifically, how did the Spanish middle classes, whose development is crucial to the making of modern Spain and of national identity in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, see themselves?

For a long time historians claimed that there was no significant middle class in Spain, that Spain was an exception in Western development. Ortega y Gasset, for example, associated cursileria with the absence of a strong middle-class base. But much of our understanding of this period of Spanish history and culture needs to be revised, as Adrian Shubert, David Ringrose, Jesus Cruz, and others have amply demonstrated. As in the rest of Europe, Spain's middle classes, especially the upper middle class and haute bourgeoisie, functioned symbiotically in alliance with a centuries-old aristocratic oligarchy based on land and close political and familial ties with the governing structures at hand. Politically, the Spanish middle classes generally fell far short of revolutionary reforms, but socially this hard-to-define and amorphous class exercised considerable cultural influence on Spanish society. The perception of cursileria, which one would expect to see mostly in the lower echelons of the middle classes or petite bourgeoisie, is also increasingly projected onto all levels of middle-class Spanish society by the end of the nineteenth century. While Ortega y Gasset's thesis that the presence of cursileria disclosed a weak middle class is valid in some respects, it could also be argued that cursileria, especially in its perceived pervasiveness, pointed to an underlying anxiety and fear in both middle-class and non-middle-class persons. For the first group, which still looked to the aristocracy as its social role model, cursileria indicated cultural inferiority and pretentiousness. For the second, to be accused of cursileria meant a loss of distinction, the distinction of class itself. In either case, the omnipresent feeling that cursileria was difficult to escape suggests, first, that middle-class society, as a cultural entity, counted much more than Ortega's comment would indicate. Second, it implies that the fuzzy borders of lo cursi both represented and promoted the breakdown of differences in social classes.

* * *

I am dealing here, then, with perceptions, and not necessarily with empirical realities. What interests me particularly is the role that feeling plays in contributing to an understanding of social-historic changes and identities. If, as cultural anthropologists have maintained, there is a structure of feeling that reveals itself through the very transformations moving emotions into the sphere of the felt and the visible, how does that structure feel historically and culturally? How does one talk about dead emotions? An emotion cannot be known except as it is expressed, and once expressed, it becomes something else; it becomes a representation of feeling. "Emotion," writes Jean Starobinski, "is not a word, but it can only be spread abroad through words" (81).

Most significantly, "the verbalization of emotion is intertwined with the structure of that which is experienced" (Starobinski 82). Even when feeling is communicated nonverbally, there is a language that must already exist or be created to make that feeling known. In any event, it is difficult to separate emotion from language because language-understood in its broadest context as communicative, culturally inflected discourse-profoundly shapes the contours, direction, and purpose of all human feelings. This is, of course, the as yet unreached revelation toward which psychoanalysis as a discipline moves. Unreached because the gap between emotion and language ultimately remains an open conundrum. It is the basis of much current linguistic, anthropological, and even historical inquiry. It also permeates, often unconsciously or implicitly, literary studies, in both the rhetorical use and analysis of tropes and ideology.

A structure of feeling, then, must possess a language, and that language in turn must, in some way, expressively fix feeling. In cultural and historical terms, it must situate feeling, positioning and locating the qualities and transformations of the affective life. To read this language of the affective life is to look for the signs, the series of cultural markings that effect the joining of text and referent. While it is accurate to say that the exact emotions, the precise understandings people had in the past cannot be read back, the traces, the resonances left behind, can be approached, with all due respect for historical distance and caution for subjective interpretation.

As intriguing and suggestive a notion as the structure of feeling is, it proves extremely difficult to pin down. Raymond Williams in Marxism and Literature defines structures of feeling "as social experiences in solution" (133-34), that is, not yet fixed or precipitated. Because Williams is especially interested in the forming and formative processes of societies, he concentrates on the role of structures of feeling as a kind of practical consciousness, "what is actually being lived" in contemporary life (131). He does not address the question of how structures of feeling may have functioned in the past or how one might recognize and approach them from the presumed point of view of completed history.

Similarly in this respect, cultural anthropologists, in studying the "anthropology of affect," have focused on contemporary cultures and on the relationship between individual and group in rituals, celebrations, and other expressive events, as human emotions are being transformed, creating in the process a structure of feeling that moves back and forth between and through group and individual. Such movement is, as James Fernandez observes, necessarily figurative, though grounded in the body, both socially and individually. These structures of feeling constitute a kind of narrative, which, as metaphorical truths, provide explanations for a particular culture. Clifford Geertz's classic study of the Balinese cockfight as "deep play" suggests that participating in such events is "a kind of sentimental education," enabling Balinese to see their own subjectivity and place within society (The Interpretation of Cultures 449-50).

In the one case, the Balinese story, it seems to me, is always the same, based as it is on ritual. Raymond Williams, on the other hand, in favoring as his object of study industrializing, modern societies, emphasizes the unstable, transitional nature of a culture in formation, and thus the changing character of its stories. He believes that by examining changes in structures of feeling, insight may be gained into the process and contradictions of historical change before it becomes petrified or institutionalized, before it is homogenized and molded into a consistent, rationalized form. In his attempt to overcome the theoretical opposition between base and superstructure, the Marxist critic also seems to draw closer to the material aims of those cultural anthropologists who examine the emotions of everyday practices (rather than the ritualistic alone), although it is not clear to me whether "structure " in Williams's case refers to a kind of abstraction made material, to a metacommentary, or to the actual structuring of feeling through social practices (my inclination is to accept all three possibilities).

Keeping in mind the differences, one can better appreciate what these approaches also have in common: the understanding and use of feeling as, simultaneously, a mode of cognition and as social practice. Williams insists that it is not a question of "feeling against thought, but thought as felt and feeling as thought" (132). Similarly, Geertz's "sentimental education" stresses the "use of emotion for cognitive ends" (The Interpretation of Cultures 449). Anthropologist Michelle Rosaldo writes with eloquent conviction, "that feeling is forever given shape through thought and that thought is laden with emotional meanings.... Emotions are thoughts somehow 'felt' in flushes, pulses, 'movements' of our livers, minds, hearts, stomachs, skin. They are embodied thoughts seeped with the apprehension that 'I am involved'" (143). While not rejecting the psychobiological basis of human emotions, Rosaldo also implies that emotions are "involving," that is, they are social phenomena. As social practices, then, they have real consequences, producing effects as "simple " as marriage or as complex as the creation or destruction of nation-states. "Emotions," anthropologists Abu-Lughod and Lutz claim, "are sociocultural facts" (11).

How, though, can feeling be understood when it is expressed not in a living society or organism but in cultural artifacts that in some sense have died? If culture is to be taken "as an assemblage of texts" (Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures 448), this does not mean that all texts are of the same kind and can therefore be approached in the same way. The subject matter and aims of the disciplines dealing with these texts diverge. Such texts say and do different things. Artifacts like realist novels and period plays, salon reportage and albums, or the language of flowers and fans, all of which appear in my analysis, always come with a built-in metacommentary on the cultural construction of reality and the uses of emotion for cognitive, social ends. Arguably even contemporary societies do the same, thus providing the means to interpret or read the results. While it is certain (and useful) that art and literature "are often among the very first indications that ... a new structure [of feeling] is forming" (Williams, Marxism and Literature 133), what critics deal with subsequently are the remains of cultural change and formation, the dissipated traces of social practices that have in this sense been displaced, become metaphorized as part and parcel of their narrative tropicity.


Excerpted from The Culture of Cursileria-CL by Noel Valis Copyright © 2003 by Noel Valis. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
Introduction 1
1 On Origins 31
2 Adorning the Feminine, or the Language of Fans 77
3 Salon Poets, the Becquer Craze, and Romanticism 118
4 Textual Economies: The Embellishment of Credit 139
5 Fabricating History 179
6 The Dream of Negation 202
7 The Margins of Home: Modernist Cursileria 224
8 The Culture of Nostalgia, or the Language of Flowers 244
9 Coda: The Metaphor of Culture in Post-Franco Spain 277
Appendix 303
Notes 305
Bibliography 353
Index 393
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