Delmira Agustini, Sexual Seduction, and Vampiric Conquest

Delmira Agustini, Sexual Seduction, and Vampiric Conquest

by Cathy L. Jrade


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780300167740
Publisher: Yale University Press
Publication date: 07/10/2012
Series: Major Figures in Spanish and Latin American Literature and the Arts
Pages: 288
Product dimensions: 6.30(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Cathy L. Jrade is Chancellor's Professor of Spanish and chair of the Department of Spanish and Portuguese at Vanderbilt University. She lives in Nashville, TN.

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By Cathy L. Jrade


Copyright © 2012 Cathy L. Jrade
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-18341-2

Chapter One


In an outburst of enthusiasm Luisa Luisi called Delmira Agustini (1886–1914) "the first woman poet of America" (169). Taken with Agustini's imaginative power and groundbreaking alterations to modernista discourse, Luisi, like many of her contemporaries, was ready to overlook earlier women writers of world-class stature like Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz and Gertrudis de Avellaneda and to declare the Uruguayan poet the first of her kind in Spanish America. This type of sweeping response to Agustini's poetry was not untypical, for Agustini combined a creative rewriting of modernista tropes with an aggressively sexualized perspective never before found in texts written by Spanish American women. The eroticism of her verse enhanced and fed into the speculation that swirled around her tragically premature demise at the hands of her ex-husband, whom she had taken as a secret lover. Yet all the while she maintained the incongruous representation of herself as "la Nena" (the little girl).

On the public level Agustini played the part of the dutiful, infantilized young woman who abided by the staunchly paternalistic, conservative expectations of her class and gender. She acted out the role common among her contemporaries, who, according to José Pedro Barrán, understood their femininity to be "a mixture of equal doses of childishness, virtue, and romanticism" (Historia de la sensibilidad 153). On the private level and in her writing, however, she decided to take full advantage of the liberties that were being heralded by diverse advocates of a more open and liberal society. She attempted to operate on an equal footing with the men around her who were freeing themselves and their writings from traditional sexual limitations and, even more daringly, to respond to their language with her own, feminized discourse. By boldly assuming she could claim the same rights and freedoms as a man in her behavior and in her writing, she broke expectations, pushed aside barriers, and, whether she intended to or not, staked out a linguistic and imaginative space for women and women poets. The internal contradictions that appear throughout her poetry as well as the paradoxical way in which she chose to live reflect the multifaceted dynamics that were at work in the Uruguay of the end of the nineteenth century. For those with a more traditional point of view unwilling or unable to recognize the complexity of her endeavor, she became "the most problematic figure of Uruguayan literature ... and probably of Spanish American poetry" (Silva, Pasión 7).

The divergent forces that came to play a central role in the shocking originality of Agustini's verse, her deliberate proliferation of masks, and her scandalous life and death (all of which have fascinated casual readers, serious scholars, and creative writers alike) were part and parcel of her immediate milieu. Though often contradictory, if not restrictive and punishing, in nature, these forces had a direct impact on the way she came to formulate the language of desire from a woman's point of view. Understanding the often subtle but far-reaching implications of the dominant patriarchal and modernista rhetoric of the day, Agustini developed an original way of expressing her own conflicted attitudes toward sexual and artistic equality—an elusive option which appeared to be promised by contemporary debates. To this end she reconfigured from a woman's standpoint the male language of literary paternity through which she was able to assert her personal and poetic passions.

In broad terms the focus of my book is this hitherto unobserved rebellious and imaginative contribution to Spanish American poetry. I will show that poems that have often been read as presenting an intrepidly erotic stance are laced with innovative declarations of poetic goals. More specifically, I will map out how Agustini at first reenvisions the linguistic models she finds in the poetry of modernismo's principal figure, namely, Rubén Darío, converting him in the process into her poetic foil and the male other of her verse. Darío becomes, in this manner, both person and poetry; he becomes the one to seduce, to conquer, and the one with whom she will "breed" the new race of poets to which she refers in her later collections.

In truth, the entire Uruguayan Generation of 1900, of which Agustini was a younger member, was influenced by Darío's writings and the vision he presented for Spanish American literature. In his early study of this group of writers, Emir Rodríguez Monegal clarifies the numerous social and literary factors that gave it its cohesion. Above all else, however, he emphasizes the impact of Darío's work. He links the consistency of concerns, language, and style among this community of writers to Darío's writings and iconic presence. Under "Experiences of the Generation," he states, "For this group the fundamental experience was Modernismo. The change in sensibility to life ... was explicitly indicated by the content of [Darío's] Prosas profanas and Los raros (both from 1896). The young writers of the Generation of 1900 captured this change and noted in their first works their desire for new formulas, for new routes, for new teachers" (48–49). Under "Leadership," he writes, "In the strictest sense there is no leader in the group, which on the flip side is perfectly in accord with the cult of personality, with the anarchic individualism, of Modernismo. There is, on the other hand, a model or paradigm for which the writers of the group oscillated between complete acceptance and conscious distancing: Rubén Darío" (52).

Agustini's poetry includes both acceptance and rejection. She patterns much of her early work on key texts that had already become canonical by the time she began to write. Yet even in El libro blanco (Frágil) (The white book [fragile]), her first collection, one senses a struggle with Darío's power, the patriarchal perspective implicit in all his work, and his narrowly defined view of woman. As a result, the other that I identify with Darío is an ensemble. He is this imposing figure, this erotically charged image of artistic supremacy and sexual discourse, and the human face given to the modernista movement. As Agustini's work matures (toward the end of the tragically short seven-year period in which she wrote her best work), Darío recedes and turns into a vague, ghostlike figure who haunts her poetic imagination. At times she relegates him to the past, to winter, and to a rigid iciness, converting her early, timid allusions to usurpation into dramatic and organic metaphors in which she becomes the new source of fruitful reproduction. At other times, her struggle with his imposing presence turns into a sadomasochistic vision of erotic entanglement in which she alternately injures or is injured.

These images startled her contemporaries, who for the most part maintained the strongly traditional and conservative perspective common to turn-of-the-century Spanish America. Quite surprisingly, however, Agustini's family and her immediate social circumstances provided the support that made her impressive breakthroughs possible.

Delmira was born on October 24, 1886, to Santiago Agustini and María Murtfeldt in Montevideo, Uruguay. Agustini's father, a young, prosperous merchant, had inherited a sizeable fortune from his parents, who were French immigrants. Agustini's mother was an Argentinian of German descent known for her strong will and domineering personality. This financially comfortable family provided a propitious setting for the precocious, beautiful young poet. Their affluence is displayed in the two photographs of Agustini as well as the one of her wedding included here (see figs. 1–3). The family lived in the heart of the newly planned and constructed downtown section of town, still called La Ciudad Nueva (The new city). They were surrounded by daily reminders of Uruguay's considerable wealth and sense of well-being as buildings and plazas in the grand style of European capitals appeared around them. This optimism about the future was translated into a heady willingness to break with the past and to chart new social and cultural territory.

Agustini reaped the benefits of these exciting times. In an unpublished letter, she claims to have learned to read, write, and even compose verses by the age of three and to have published her first poems at twelve (qtd. in Larre Borges 19). These endeavors were encouraged by her parents, who supplied her with a private room as well as the uninterrupted time she needed for her literary pursuits. Her father is known to have recopied her poetry, which she often set down at night and with considerable disorder and abandon (see figs. 7–10). Though they indulged Agustini's independent stance with regard to goals and undertakings, they maintained a conventional lifestyle and controlled, or thought they controlled, her interaction with the outside world. While a few young women of Montevideo had begun to study at the university after attending high school and receiving diplomas, all of Agustini's education was home based. As noted by Clara Silva, her primary teacher was her mother, from whom she received all basic instruction. She also took classes in piano, painting, and French.

Though one might assume that home schooling was unique to Agustini, it was actually common among the Generation of 1900. Both Rodríguez Monegal and Carlos Real de Azúa emphasize the degree to which this group of authors was self-taught. Rodríguez Monegal finds this point worthy of elaboration: "A strongly characteristic trait of this group is that (with the exception of Vaz Ferreira) its participants did not belong to the university community. On another occasion, I have underscored this divorce, indicating that the members' links with the University were weak and uncertain. In effect, the majority of them never earned a university degree.... At the end of the century there flourished a culture that was distinct from the university culture and that was acquired patiently and laboriously by reading, with enthusiasm and distractions at the table of a café, and in the exalted atmosphere of literary circles. The writers of the Generation of 1900 were in reality self-taught" (45).

By 1902 Agustini had begun to publish in La Alborada (Daybreak), a local magazine, and by 1903 she had been placed in charge of its society pages, a task she executed under the fashionable pseudonym Joujou. Because of her youth and her gender, she attracted a fair amount of attention and celebrity. In 1907, at the age of twenty-one, she published her first book of verse, El libro blanco (Frágil). Three years later Cantos de la mañana (Songs of the morning) appeared. From this point forward, she gained ever-greater prestige even as the tensions between her image as la Nena and her increasingly more sexual poetry drew commentary, if not notoriety.

During her late teens and early twenties Agustini developed deep friendships with a number of renowned artists of the day. Those who played a prominent role in her life were Manuel Medina Betancort, Alberto Zum Felde, André Giot de Badet, Ángel Falco, Roberto de las Carreras, and, perhaps most significantly, Manuel Ugarte, who, according to Rodríguez Monegal, was the real-life object of desire in much of her erotic poetry. Combining good looks, wealth, and literary talent, Ugarte was, according to Rodríguez Monegal, "the closest thing that Delmira had to a model of an authentic and exotic prince of poetry. Her imagination soon weaves around him a fabric of passions" (Sexo 60).

Some epistolary remnants of these friendships are extremely revealing. Larre Borges refers to a letter that de las Carreras wrote to Agustini as evidence of her need to communicate with those she believed shared her affinities and were in essence kindred spirits (24). Agustini's daring and her desire to find support and companionship among those who made up the predominantly male artistic circles of the day is further demonstrated by the letter she wrote to Darío shortly after meeting him in Montevideo in July of 1912. Because of the multiple implications of what she tells him, I quote the letter in its entirety:

Forgive me if I bother you one more time. Today I have achieved a moment of calm in my eternal and painful state of excitation. And these are my saddest times. During them I arrive at an awareness of my insensibility. I do not know if your neurasthenia has ever reached the level of mine. I do not know if you have ever looked insanity in the face and have fought with it within the anguished solitude of a hermetic soul. There is no, there cannot be any, more horrible sensation. And the yearning, the immense yearning to ask for help against all—against my very self above all else—from another martyred soul suffering the same martyrdom. Perhaps your will, of necessity stronger than mine, will not allow you ever to understand the distress caused by my weakness in struggle with so much horror. In such a case, if you were to live one hundred years, life would not give you enough time to laugh at me—if, that is, Darío can laugh at anyone. But if by some morbid affinity you are able to perceive my spirit, in the whirlwind of my insanity, you will have my most profound and affectionate compassion that you could ever feel.

Think that I no longer have the hope of death, because I imagine it full of horrible lives. And the right to dream has been denied me almost since birth. And the first time my insanity floods out of control it is before you. Why? No one could be more imposing upon my shyness. How can I make you believe in it, you who only know the valor of my thoughtlessness? Perhaps because I recognized in you more divine essence than in all the human beings I have dealt with until now. And therefore more tolerance. At times my daring scares me; at time (why deny it?) I reproach the disaster of my pride. It is like a beautiful statue broken into pieces at your feet. I know that such a tribute is worthless to you, but I cannot make it greater. In the middle of October I plan to get admitted into a sanatorium for my neurosis; from there, for good or ill, I will leave in November or December in order to marry. I am resolved to throw myself into the cowardly abyss of marriage. I do not know: perhaps happiness waits for me at the end. Life is so strange! Do you wish to let fall upon a soul that perhaps recedes forever a single fatherly word? Do you want to write me one more time, even though it may be last, only to tell me that you do not despise me? (Correspondencia íntima 43)

While this piece of correspondence has been offered as proof that Agustini's marriage was doomed even before it began, it also underscores the special bond she had created, at least in her own mind, with Darío. She sees them sharing the same attitudes, demons, and suffering. They are united in their struggle with the torment of poetic obligations, martyrs to a higher calling. She appeals to him in an ambivalent declaration of timidity and pride, insecurity and boldness, and she presents herself as an uncertain reflection of his "divine" spirit, a quality that she objectifies in her poetry. Equally important, however, is how the letter reveals the different levels on which Agustini operated. She was a proud, audacious poet writing to the most important poet of the day; she was a child asking for advice; she was also a disaffected woman profoundly unhappy with the script she had resigned herself to follow.

Assuming the role of a rebellious intellectual reluctant to limit her options to the conventional and bourgeois alternative of marriage, she presents the decision to marry Enrique Job Reyes more as a product of social expectations than as a response to personal desire, and she encourages Darío to save her from the "abyss of marriage." In short, one finds here the contradictory elements that were shaping the identity of women in Uruguay at the beginning of the twentieth century. Despite their newly won freedoms, one finds the ongoing and unrelenting pressure for young women to marry, pressure Agustini was likely to have felt, pressure that was captured by her friend and fellow modernista Julio Herrera y Reissig in his ribald El pudor. La cachondez (Modesty. Sexual arousal):

When some young woman because of fickleness rejects a boyfriend (which happens very infrequently) alleging that she does not love him, the mother with the help of the married women in the family, all come together to persuade her that she should accept. Speaking with the strongest of conviction she tells her: "You do not have experience; you do not know; love comes later...." Horniness at this point is not misdirected. The young women are grateful.... When they taste that candy, they idolize their husbands. "The same thing happened to us who advise you," they say. "Recently married we have learned what love is. Get married, get married as quickly as you can, my dear! (138)

One might further see in Agustini's inappropriate confession to Darío her willingness to circumvent the limitations imposed by traditional arrangements. Indeed, the relationship she establishes with Reyes after dissolving their marriage is testament to Agustini's disinclination to abide by the social constraints imposed on women of the period.

Agustini ends the letter with a flirtatious flourish, even though she calls Darío's possible advice paternal. Throughout the letter, but particularly in this fusion of father and lover, Agustini exposes the tortured tensions of creative women writing at the end of the nineteenth century. This apprehension does not simply reflect what Harold Bloom has identified as the "anxiety of influence" that poets feel when dealing with powerful predecessors. Neither is it simply related to the "anxiety of authorship" that Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar have traced in the works of many women writers. Her language reveals the complexity of her confrontation with the social and poetic realities that surrounded her.


Excerpted from DELMIRA AGUSTINI, SEXUAL SEDUCTION, AND VAMPIRIC CONQUEST by Cathy L. Jrade Copyright © 2012 by Cathy L. Jrade. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Preface ix

Chapter 1 Agustini and Her World 1

Chapter 2 The Dialogue Begins El libro bianco (Frágil) 36

Chapter 3 Drinking from the Fountain of the Other Cantos de la mañana 82

Chapter 4 Turning Loss into Empowerment Los cálices vacíos 119

Chapter 5 Aspirations and Abiding Disappointments Los astros del abismo 164

Notes 199

Works Cited 237

Index 247

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