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Refashioning the Sociopolitical in Spanish Modernist Literature (1902-1914)


In this dissertation I argue that the modernist breakthroughs achieved by José Martínez Ruiz’s La voluntad (1902), Ramón del Valle-Inclán’s Sonata de otoño (1902), and Miguel de Unamuno’s Niebla (1914) emerged as a response to the shortsightedness of the revolutionary politics that had taken root in Restoration Spain. I examine how these writers take the historical materials of their sociopolitical world—its tropes and uses of language—and reconstellate them as artworks in which the familiar becomes estranged and reveals truths that have been obscured by the ideological myopia of Spain’s radicalized intellectuals. Accordingly, I demonstrate that the tropes, language, and images that constitute La voluntad, Niebla, and Sonata de otoño have within them a historical sediment that turns these seemingly apolitical works into an “afterimage” of Spain’s sociopolitical reality. Thus I show how sociopolitical critiques materialize out of the dialectic between historical materials and their artistic handling.

Although La voluntad, Sonata de otoño, and Niebla seem to eschew political themes, I contend that they are the product of their authors’ keen understanding of the politics of their moment. As such, these novels bear a critical relation to the sociohistorical that is based not on protest or denunciation but on the careful judgment and observation of the hidden patterns of Spanish society and turn-of-the-century revolutionary culture. Consequently, the stylistic affectations and rarefied conceits of these works are not so much rejections of the sociohistorical as aesthetic refashionings of it.

Chapter 1 discusses the intellectual and socipolitical dynamics that led Martínez Ruiz, Valle-Inclán, and Unamuno to reconsider their understanding of literature’s place in society. In particular, the chapter examines how the positivist ideology that came to dominate liberal thought resulted in a leftist rhetoric that replicated the capitalist ethos it claimed to denounce and protest. This ideological incongruence came to the fore in the critical reception and public commotion of two plays, Juan José (1895) by Joaquín Dicenta, and Electra (1901) by Benito Pérez Galdós, which prompted the three modernist writers to reconfigure their understanding of art and artistic autonomy.

Chapter 2 argues that Martínez Ruiz’s La voluntad is a product of the lessons learned from the liberal euphoria that was unleashed by Galdós’s Electra. It traces how La voluntad, through its formal innovations and the texture of its language, steers away from the habit that many left-wing radicals had of reducing literature to a pseudo-sociology that conformed to their sociological principles and liberal platitudes. In doing so, the novel makes possible forms of thinking that had been increasingly obscured by the abstract rationalism of Spain’s liberal culture. Prior to this reading the chapter examines critically a reception history that has erroneously considered La voluntad as a sign of Martínez Ruiz’s turn away from the sociohistorical.

Chapter 3 argues that Valle-Inclán’s Sonata de otoño is not a withdrawal from or rejection of the sociohistorical but is rather an artwork that grounds itself deeply in the political dynamics of its historical moment. By examining the Sonata’s patterning of motifs and language, the chapter demonstrates how Valle-Inclán refashions the narcissistic and terroristic tendencies of revolutionary politics. Moreover, by refashioning these historical materials into a highly stylized and polished literary work, the Sonata vindicates moral virtues that had been discredited by the impatience and zeal of Spain’s radicalized liberals.

Chapter 4 contends that Unamuno’s Niebla, despite its rarefied and humorous content, bears a critical potency with deep historical and political implications. By examining how Niebla plays with language and a series of motifs, the chapter reveals the novel’s critique of the sorry state of Spain’s revolutionary culture. More specifically, what Niebla throws into relief is the obsession that Spanish socialists have with modeling their politics after the revolutionary history and culture of France. The chapter then argues that Niebla vindicates the Spanish tradition of aristocratic idleness and offers it as a counterargument to the socialist acquiescence to all things French. By insisting on idleness as a space for critical agency, Niebla suggests that a tradition rejected offhand by socialists turns out to be a salutary exercise for a liberal polity.

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