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Roberto Arlt or the Subversion of Order: Confession, Madness and Modernity in Argentina in the 1920's and 1930's.

  • Author(s): Saslow, Paula Sozzi
  • Advisor(s): Brizuela, Natalia
  • et al.

This dissertation explores the ouevre of Argentine writer Roberto Arlt (1900-1942) in relationship with the bursting modernity of Buenos Aires during the 1920's and 1930's. In the three genres analyzed - novel, drama, and "aguafuertes" or journalistic chronicles of daily life -, I argue that he narrates modernity by moving away from mimetic realism and its illusion of objective representation of the outside world. Subverting pre-established orthodox genres like autobiography, realism or the sketch of manners and exposing the internal workings of the literary text, Arlt inaugurates a new discursive space - self-reflexive and autonomous - that challenges notions of truth and originality. A fragmented first person - often bordering on madness in his novelistic prose and theatrical works, or anguished at the new reality of the professionalized writer in his "aguafuertes" - is another artifice that the author uses to break the logical order of verisimilitude.

Chapter one examines Roberto Arlt's second novel Los siete locos (1929) and its sequel Los lanzallamas (1931). Using the genre of confession as its "architext" (in Genette's words), both novels are structured as "memoirs" that the dejected protagonist Erdosain recounts for the peculiar narrator, the Comentador. The use of the first person narration allows Arlt to inscribe himself in the self-reflexive Renaissance tradition that founds modernity. From that vantage point, he subverts the autobiographical claim to truth and undermines the referential illusion by unmasking the techniques of composition at the heart of the literary process.

In chapter two, a close reading of Arlt's often neglected plays reveals that the ubiquitous topic of madness he had already displayed so frequently in his novels in the second half of the 1920's finds an optimum form of expression on the stage in the 1930's. Unreason, and its inherent quality of "theatricality" both thematically and formally, allow Arlt to disrupt the mimetic Aristotelian representation so in vogue until his day. At the same time, this trope of insanity serves as a springboard to critique positivist scientific theories of madness that renowned criminologists like José Ingenieros had established just a generation before him. Metatheater, the juxtaposition of different planes of reality, imaginary characters, oneiric spaces and modern tools such as psychoanalysis come together to formulate a new alternative reality on the stage which casts aside the transparent association between sign and referent.

Chapter three analyzes the ways in which Arlt's "aguafuertes porteñas", the "etchings" of Buenos Aires he wrote daily for El Mundo newspaper from 1928 to 1933, subvert the genre of sketch on manners on which they originate. By using fictionalization techniches and metajournalistic commentary, Arlt overthrows the genre's claim to originality and uniqueness showing it to be a fictional construct characterized by repetition, reproduction and plagiarism. Rooted in modern visual culture and mirroring it with their fleeting and subjective language, the "aguafuertes" should be viewed as stemming from the Latin American modernist chronicles, hybrid genre halfway between literature and journalism and thus the perfect medium to relate the contradictions of modernity.

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