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The Sickly Ornament: Illness and Temporality from Modernismo to the Neobaroque

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Abstract

This dissertation asks how aesthetic objects—novels, poems, literary nonfiction, and sculptures—register the temporal effects produced by the experience of illness. I stage a series of encounters between writers and artists from the Caribbean basin and Argentina, along with their European interlocutors, in order to glean what we might broadly call a tempo of illness. What these figures have in common, I contend, is a tendency to deploy ornamentation as a textual strategy whose aim is twofold: first, ornamentation effectuates temporal shifts by appearing to freeze the mobile flow of time; and second, it functions as a cipher through which the ill body is simultaneously obscured and revealed. Indeed, for each of the writers I study, the language of embellishment—associated with jewels, gems, and stylistic “frivolity” writ large—intersects so extensively with the language of sickness that the two become nearly indistinguishable. In this regard, they at first appear to vindicate a longstanding critical tradition that pathologizes all things decorative—a lineage that reached its apogee in fin-de-siècle medical and criminological treatises by Max Nordau and Cesare Lombroso. Against the forward-leaning drive towards a given telos so forcefully expounded by positivist rationality, however, these writers privilege dissipation and stasis, and the immediacy of affect over the distance of action. The thick descriptions of ornate scenes that abound in texts by Colombian José Asunción Silva—like those that become emblematic of the neobaroque decades later—delay, but do not completely halt, our steady movement through the narrative, and it is precisely this technique that allows these writers to inscribe illness formally and thematically into their works. Just as the ill body slows down, or oscillates between bouts of paralysis and intense hyperactivity, so too do these texts stall their reader’s progress. This dynamic, I argue, yields an altered sense of time and thus offers a new point of entry into debates about queer temporalities, which have tended to emphasize either the past or the future, without attending to conditions that might disorient us to the present.

My first chapter, “Diving for Pearls: José Asunción Silva’s Etiophilia,” examines Silva’s vexed relationship to the problem of etiology. On the one hand, I show, Silva was immensely drawn to the virulently anti-Decadent writing of Nordau and Lombroso, who sought to locate the origins—the causes—of pathology and criminality in literary works they deemed “deviant.” On the other hand, his own aesthetic style is marked by excess and an abundance of ornamentation, features that one typically associates with the work of Wilde and Huysmans. Tracing how this ambivalence constrains the poet’s writing, I take as my case study his only novel, De sobremesa, and demonstrate how he experiments with narrative time by re-organizing the temporal order of cause and effect. Chapter Two, “Too Tired to Write: Severo Sarduy’s Fatigue,” shifts our attention to the latter half of the twentieth century in order to trace how illness circulates in and shapes the form of neobaroque writing. My focus here is on the trope of fatigue in Cuban novelist and playwright Severo Sarduy’s final novel Pájaros de la playa. Set in a clinic that brings to mind Cuba’s AIDS sanatoriums of the late 1980s and early 90s (the so-called “sidatorios”), the novel, as critics have tended to agree, can be read obliquely as a meditation on HIV/AIDS; while the ward’s patients suffer from an illness referred to only as “el mal,” they exhibit symptoms that include skin lesions (a clear allusion to Kaposi sarcoma) and, most frequently, an almost paralyzing lack of energy. My argument is that the fatigued body, needing to exert maximal force in order to perform the most minimal gesture, becomes the guiding trope through which Sarduy attempts to counter the linear passage of time. I claim, moreover, that this reversal mimics the mechanism by which Retrovir—one of the earliest AIDS medications (the most common side effect of which was a debilitating muscle fatigue)—neutralizes the virus’ replication in the host’s body. This unresolved tension between retrograde and forward-leaning motion ultimately leaves us in a temporal mode that, toward the end of his life, Sarduy called the “prepóstumo,” a time that marks the ambiguous threshold between life and death. Chapter Three, “Nomadismo en la fijeza: Suspended Flow in Perlongher and González-Torres,” reads essays and poems by Argentine poet and anthropologist Néstor Perlongher in tandem with sculptures by Cuban-American visual artist Félix González-Torres, both of whom turned to art to register their experiences with HIV/AIDS. I identify in their work what I call a poetics of suspended temporal flow. This, I show, is a warped form of temporality that emerges through movement in stasis; it bears the markers of what Perlongher, reading Deleuze and Guattari, identified as a kind of “nomadismo en la fijeza,” a nomadism in fixity. In a Coda, finally, I explore the interplay between chronic and terminal temporalities by focusing on the shifting terrain of HIV/AIDS discourse in the era of Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis (PrEP) and “undetectability.”

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This item is under embargo until October 12, 2023.