Idaho State University
Through the years many critics have caught glimpses of early nineteenth-century Spanish society through the comments and opinions expressed by contemporary observers such as Mesonero Romanos, Larra, Estébanez Calderón and others. These authors have contributed substantially to our understanding of the concerns and fears of the Spanish inteligentsia who confronted an everevolving system; especially significant was their view of the post-Fernandine period when Spanish politics and society were reassessing their values. While come conservative, nineteenth-century writers generally limited their comments to «costumbrist» depictions of the world, others, like Larra, took advantage of events, both social and political, to expound a radically different point of view. For Larra the theater provided frequent opportunities to discuss his feelings concerning the development or desintegration of Spanish society. Robert Scari observes, «El propósito idealista y muy romántico de todo ello es instruir al público, hacer del teatro lo que no era en su época, según el ensayista: un manantial de valores morales convertidos en verdades accesibles, concretas y convincentes, mediante el arte del dramaturgo y la inagotable fuerza persuasiva de la representación» (160). Not always were the works lauded by Larra for their moral message. On occasion Fígaro condemned works for blatantly encouraging immoral behavior. An excellent case in point is the representation of Antony and the two articles written by Larra on June 23 and 25, 1836 in response to the plays debut. However, more interesting than Larra’s articles are two pieces published in the Jorobado, a short-lived satirical newspaper43, that provide an alternative view of Antony and an enlightening perspective of Larra and his work.—130→
Let us begin by briefly considering the content or Antony. The Spanish translation of Dumas’ play, by Eugenio de Ochoa, first appeared in Madrid at the Principe Theater on June 19, 1836. The plot focuses on Anthony, the starcrossed lover or Adela de Hervey, who feels that the world has dealt wrongly with him despite all of his efforts. After an absence of three years, Anthony returns to find Adela married and the mother of a small child. Both his sudden departure and return cause Adela to comment to her sister Clara:
Antony no es indiferente ni ligero; me amaba con toda la energía de un corazón ardiente y apasionado. Si se fue, es, no lo dudes, porque se oponían a que se quedara obstáculos que no podía vencer una voluntad humana.
Upon his return he does everything within his power to stir her latent feelings of love for him. The result is an illicit affair, malicious rumors and finally her death at her lover’s hands.
An important element of the play, an a difficult view for Larra to accept, is Anthony’s claim that the world has prejudiced him from his birth. This situation, which is similar to that faced by Rivas’s Don Álvaro, contributed to Antony’s lack of name or lineage. Anthony explains:
|(Antony, pág. 17)|
Anthony’s desperate situation is summed up in a comment he makes when asked if he will continue his travels.
|(Antony, pág. 19)|
In this we see that Antony’s perception of life is carefully placed at the borders or the sublime and the fantastic. The allusion to the quest in the form of travel gains greater significance when the reader is aware that the prize he seeks is Adela. In this journey he breaks all the rules. John A. Thompson observes:—131→
It appears that it was precisely this negative vision of human existence, and the lack of individual iniciative, that inspired Larra to commit his feelings to paper. Susan Kirkpatrick confirms this belief stating: «De la reseña de Anthony se deduce con claridad la aguda inquietud de Larra con respecto a la desintegración de la cohesión en una sociedad donde la autonomía individual ilimitada se estaba convirtiendo en el modelo para las relaciones entre los seres humanos, y su incapacidad para criticar ese modelo plenamente. Aspiraba al mismo tiempo a la libertad individual y a la armonía social» (pág. 184). With these fundamental ideas in mind, let us consider the social complaints that arose from Larra’s review of Antony.
Larra opens his first critique of Antony by announcing that «España no es una nación compacta, impulsada de un mismo movimiento; hay en ella tres pueblos distintos» (1960, pág. 246).
This view suggests that in his opinion Spain had lost its national character, or ethnic homogeneity. This lack of cohesion he conceptualizes in the creation of three radically different social classes. Larra proceeds to enumerate the composition or these groups. First, the commoners who are «embrutecida y muerta por mucho tiempo para la patria» who have suffered from necessity and the influence of the powerful. Next, the middle class that «se ilustra lentamente» and which slowly «comienza a conocer que ha estado y que está mal, y que quiere reformas». Finally, the privileged class, which according to Larra, is «poco numerosa, criada o deslumbrada en el extranjero, víctima o hija de las emigraciones» (1960, pág. 246). In all three cases the description lacks in compassion toward any particular group. It is in the mesh of ignorance and amoral foreign influences that Fígaro begins his first critique of Antony. Larra’s characterization of the privileged class criticizes its dependance on foreign models (i.e., French society). This is particularly important when we consider that Larra himself was the son of an afrancesado and was greatly influenced by men like Boileau, Jouy, and La Rochefoucauld, as well as an admirer of Dumas, Balzac and other contemporaries44. This fact makes his critique of Antony even more significant because it presents an important turning point in his own perception of nationalism. He begins to view the outside world as a threat to his nascent country and to its social development. Azorín observes:
Larra’s view of social progress, which was in direct opposition to what he saw portrayed in Antony, contains one serious flaw; there is no final goal for which society could strive; existente is merely a series of disconnected experiences with no cumulative value, no final prize. This stark and pessimistic perspective reveals itself when he compares society’s development to life’s adventures.
|(1960, pág. 247)|
. Larra clearly states that the traveler does not know where he is going, only that he relies on a belief that it will lead him to happiness. Clearly, he depicts a meandering soul who without vision moves along life’s path, content only to experience life as it comes. For Larra, the means not the ends were of greater importance. To the returning traveler who has found «nothing» at the end of the trip the other asks, «Pues si no hay nada, no vale la pena de seguir andando». However, Larra interjects, «Y sin embargo es fuerza andar, porque si la felicidad no está en ninguna parte, si al fin no hay nada, también es indudable que el mayor bienestar que para la humanidad se da está todo lo más allá posible» (Ibíd.). This bleak, innert world depicted in his writings show a growing pessimism in Larra. Despite his attempts to exalt the importance of experience, while simultaneously chastising those who would introduce «la literatura caduca de la Francia, la última literatura posible, la horrible realidad», there constantly looms in the foreground the «nothingness» at the end of the journey. He expresses disgust that Spanish society is not allowed to follow its course without being disheartened by the knowledge of a fruitless journey -«Rara lógica: ¡Enseñarle a un hombre un cadáver para animarle a vivir» (Ibíd.)-. He also chastises those who would cheat him of the happiness, hope and diversion associated with the trip itself.
...porque ellos al menos, para llegar allá, disfrutaron del camino y gozaron de la esperanza; déjennos al menos la diversión del viaje y no nos desengañen antes: si al fin no hay nada, hay que buscarlo todo en el tránsito.
Larra’s pessimism regarding the intentions of the French is summed up in his definition or Antony as «el grito que lanza la humanidad que nos lleva delantera, grito de desesperación, al encontrar el caos y la nada al fin del viaje» —133→ (Ibíd.). One of the contributing factors to this chaos is Anthony’s antisocial and individualistic attitude. Larra saw the success of social progress in the collective efforts of all persons -«si hay algún obstáculo en el tránsito, unidos lo venceremos, al paso que en fracciones el obstáculo irá concluyendo con los que fueren llegando desbandados» (Ibíd.). Susan Kirkpatrick recapitulates Larra’s point of view stating:
This firm opposition to individualism becomes the framework of his two articles. He vehemently opposes self-centered, antisocial behavior and condemns any implication that Spain would fall victim in the same way that France had46.
However, the questions might be asked: Was what Larra portrayed in his articles the general consensus? Did the presentation of Antony really pose a threat to society? or, was he overreacting to an imaginary menace?
Donald Allen Randolph indicates that there were several reviews written about Antony around the same time that Larra published his in El Español. The most prominent of these critiques appeared in El Mundo (22 June), El Eco de Comercio (24 June) and Revista Española (24 June). Randolph comments that El Mundo «no economiza su desdén» for the work; El Eco de Comercio «elogia a Antony, aunque todavía siente una comezón de duda: no quiere que el público entienda mal el romanticismo a través de las exageraciones de algunos de sus sectarios»; and, finally, the Revista Española admits that «Antony tiene el efecto de ser inmoral, pero si el cuadro es a veces asqueroso, y si repugna, culpa es del modelo y no del pintor. Es decir, que Antony simboliza la sociedad en masa» (pág. 51). In general these comments tend to concur with the uneasiness Larra felt regarding the influence the work could have on the populace. However, these were not the only opinions expressed at the time. Missing from this collection of critiques are two articles published in El Jorobado on June 23 and 24, 1836. It is precisely in these articles that an opposing point of view regarding the work and the sharp, personal criticism of Larra and his perceptions of society are expressed.
In the first article dated June 23, the unknown commentator presents a summary of the work with occasional political or stylistic observations. The critique presents only a few comments on technique. The following is an example of the critic’s remarks regarding structure and style:—134→
|(Jorobado, 23 June 1836)|
On the rare occasions that the Jorobado comments on society it is in the context of Spain’s promise as a developing democracy. The Spaniard is viewed in light of others who have risen above the circumstances of their birth to achieve great things. It is noteworthy that the focus of the Jorobado article is on Spain’s innate potential, rather than its weakness in the face of negative external forces.
|(Jorobado, 23 June 1836)|
While Larra views society as submissive and weak, and easily influenced by outside forces, the Jorobado expounds the independence and sovereignity of the individual and society to choose correctly the path they will take. There is imbedded in the Jorobado’s commentary a warning not to judge the period by the depictions of the world found in its art, literature, or politics. Instead, it promotes the belief that society is a composite, a rich blending of many perspectives and elements. Consider his statement regarding literature, and in particular contemporary drama.
Si las generaciones futuras no juzgan de la presente sino por los escritos de la escuela dramática moderna, sentirán ciertamente no descender, más bien que de nosotros, de los tigres, de las hienas y aun de reptiles más venenosos e inmundos.
|(Jorobado, 23 June 1836)|
On the other hand Larra considered modern drama to be a reflection of society and of what the future held for the country if current trends persisted -«... hemos probado que no siendo la literatura sino la expresión de la sociedad, no puede ser toda literatura igualmente admisible en todo país indistintamente» (1960, pág. 249). More concisely, Larra attacks French literature that «no es intérprete de nuestras creencias ni de nuestras costumbres, sólo nos puede ser perjudicial, dado caso que con violencia incomprensible no haya de ser impuesta por una fracción poco nacional y menos pensadora» (Ibíd.). Again we see that the «threat» Larra perceives is prejudicial to the national character and capable of destroying the homogeneity that he considered essential to Spain’s well-being.—135→
Clearly Larra and El Jorobado differ regarding the possible repercussions resulting from the viewing of Antony. For the Jorobado the work is a collection of overused cliches. Though it depicts some isolated circumstances that resemble reality, they pose little or no threat to the nation’s self-perception or psyche. On the other hand, Larra is more defensive. Instead of taking the work at face value, Fígaro feels menaced by its content and uses his position as a journalist to advocate his belief that society is doomed if French influences are allowed to continue unchecked.
The next article about Antony appeared in the Jorobado on June 24. This review differs substantially from the first in that the focus shifts from a critique of the play to a critique of Fígaro and his perception of the work. In an important way this second article provides an interesting perspective as to the function of early nineteenth-century newspapers; a forum for evaluating ideas and opinions, and a foundation for reinterpreting society’s reactions to trends. The piece begins with a direct attack on the editors of the Liberal who accused the critics of the Jorobado of rewriting Larra’s ideas published the day before in the Español as their own.
|(Jorobado, 24 June 1836)|
The final line is indicative of the article’s general tone; one of contempt towards those who would exalt Larra’s evaluation of the work and refuse to question his opinion or authority. It is essential to remember that Larra was one of the most popular and highest paid journalist of the period and the first to earn his living in this field; his authority was nearly absolute47. More importantly, this phrase provides an engaging insight into the manner in which Larra may have viewed himself; as one endowed with special powers of observation an discernment. This final appraisal is even more striking if the sentence is intended to be a direct assault on Larra. Evidence indicates that Larra and Juan López Peñalver, one of the contributing editors to the Jorobado, had been at odds with one another over several years48. These factors may account for the vehemency of the Jorobado’s reprimand of Fígaro.—136→
This «editorial» confrontation is followed by the Jorobado’s view regarding libertad and desenfreno.
|(Jorobado, 24 June 1836)|
It is apparent that this brief rebuke came in response to Larra’s judgment of human freedom. In his first Antony article he states:
|(1960, pág. 248)|
The Jorobado draws a fine line between freedom and licentiousness. The Jorobado suggests that humanity’s laws (i.e., those designed by men like Boileau, Aristóteles, etc.) allow the individual unbridled satisfaction of personal wants and promotes selfishness, while the laws of nature, or true freedom, encourage human interaction and the fulfillment of basic needs. Again, the commentary, which appears to be another personal affront, questions Larra’s values and his ability to distinguish between wantonness and genuine human needs. This point becomes even more appatant as the article develops.
The Jorobado suggests that Larra’s definition of personal freedom lacks the direction needed to make life meaningful. In Larra’s opinion, man is destined to encounter the inevitable emptiness held for him at the end of life, yet at the same time that same man is oblivious of this fact because he is distracted along the way by the pleasures associated with the journey. Larra’s pessimistic perspective of human progress -«al fin no hay nada»- provides important evidence as to his perception of basic human relationships. The Jorobado points out that his claim is «¡Vergonzoso error!» and proceeds to explain.
|(Jorobado, 24 June 1836)49|
With this point in mind, the Jorobado expresses the crucial point of disagreement between the two factions:
|(Jorobado, 24 June 1836)|
. In direct opposition to Larra’s negativism, the Jorobado conceives of a more optimistic world where daily human interaction provides the sustanance necessary for happiness; love, friendship, etc. However, the modern reader must be sensitive to the circumstances surrounding Larra’s life at this time in order to comprehend the source of his pessimism; he has suffered a failed marriage, the loss of his political position, and rejection from his lover, Dolores Armijo. His world cannot be perceived as anything less than a deception; this fact being poignantly manifest in Antony. Even Larra confesses, «... la disposición de nuestro ánimo, que no sabemos dominar, nos ha sugerido estas tristes reflexiones» (1960, pág. 248).
One necessary detail that links the Larra’s critique and that found in the Jorobado is whether literature is a reflection of reality or not. Despite what Larra would have his readers believe, the Jorobado reasserts its belief that events in literature may bear some resemblance to society at large, but is by no means an accurate portrayal. More precisely, the Jorobado questions «¿Quién no conoce que la pintura que allí se hace del hombre moral, del hombre social es infiel, es imaginaria?». By discrediting the verosimilitude that Larra saw reflected in Antony, the Jorobado reduces Fígaro’s serious treatise on social desintegration to rubble. Like a two-edged sword it cuts both ways. It challenges the readers to reevaluate their perception of society reflected in the newspapers, as well as their attitude toward those who portray it. It must have seemed apparent to the critic that Larra was losing confidence is Spanish society and its ability to change for the better. Certainly the concrete observations of Larra the journalist did not correspond to what Larra the man conceived in his mind. It is here, in Larra’s critique of Antony, that early signs of his self-destructive behavior —138→ begin to surface. It is from this point until the end of 1836 and the beginning of the following year that his existential angst will manifest itself in some of his most negative and contemplative articles50.
The Jorobado concludes that man is free to choose for himself, to make his own decisions. It expresses the belief that man is self-reliant and capable of overcoming difficulties through self-mastery. However, it also recognizes that negativism and self-defeating behavior can only lead to unhappiness and misery:
|(Jorobado, 24 June 1836)|
The Jorobado article concludes with a resounding affirmation:
|(Jorobado, 24 June 1836)|
Though Larra’s observations of society represent an important resource regarding general trends, as well as valuable information regarding influential persons, actors, writers, etc., he was not the only voice speaking to the masses. In proper measure his writings must be laid against the background of society as a whole, which includes other newspapers and opinions. The two articles in the Jorobado form part of that background. They show that there existed a moderate, optimistic voice that did not always see Spain in the throws of depression and demoralization, but rather possessing innate capabilities that would save it from itself. These articles also shed important light on Larra. We learn that not everybody agreed with him and his perspective, in fact, newspapers like the Jorobado used their position to oppose what were destructive attitudes.
In conclusion, this study provides three important pieces of information pertinent to understanding Larra and the period in which he lived. First, visual media (i.e., the theater and newspapers) played a key role in the development of attitudes and perceptions about society. As we have seen, Larra’s reaction to Antony and the resulting articles reflect in Fígaro a deepseated fear regarding Spain’s ability to resist negative, external influences. His pessimism appears to —139→ have been a contributing factor in what later in his writings will manifest itself in self-destructive behavior. This emotional abyss obviously affected his ability to distinguish between the reality of experience and the fiction of the stage, resulting in a confusion of the two. Second, we have seen from the articles which appeared in the Jorobado that Larra’s perspective was not necessarily accepted, but rather, opposed vehemently, albeit by a minority. The direct attack in the second Jorobado article against Larra and his negative view of society provides a unique perspective of what others thought of Larra and his opinion. This is a fact often ignored in modern criticism. Finally, the Larra critique and the Jorobado critique paint the picture of a society attempting to define itself. This is most clearly seen in the diverse opinions and viewpoints expressed in both sets of articles. In all it is apparent that both authors had in mind the same idea; warn the masses and provide them a model or base upon which to form an opinion. They both encourage autonomy and self-rule, though approaching these ideas from different angles; one being the optimist, the other the pessimist. However, the end result was a consciousness of Spain’s potential and the pitfalls it must avoid.
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———. Núm. 97 (24 junio 1836), pág. 2.
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